Cork-based dancer, choreographer and visual artist opens new exhibition inspired by her heritage

Ahead of her exhibition opening this week, Andrea Williams chats to JENNIFER HORGAN
Cork-based dancer, choreographer and visual artist opens new exhibition inspired by her heritage

Andrea Williams, whose exhibition opens at St Peter's this week.

ANDREA Williams is clearly excited about her upcoming exhibition at St Peters on North Main Street, opening tomorrow night at 7pm.

The dancer, choreographer, model and visual artists has lived in Cork for years. But the inspiration for her exhibition, Undefined, which combines art, film and dance, centres around Williams’ home country, Cape Verde.

The exhibition combines her many talents with those of award-winning Killarney-based photographer Tim Bingham and Portuguese artist Joao Perdigao.

Williams tells me how much she loves her adopted city, and Ireland in general.

“Ireland just has this mystical energy. It feels very grounded. You come down to yourself here. I love anything mystical and the energy here, that raw energy, is captivating. Especially in West Cork, there’s a supernatural energy there. It takes you somewhere; it’s like you could be anywhere,” she says.

Williams exudes exactly this – a settling kind of energy, a spiritual calm. We meet at 11am outside the exhibition space. The sun is shining. She’s wearing a crisp white coat and a vibrant headscarf. Her skin and eyes shine. She is warm and natural as she apologises for her ramblings. I marvel at them, loving how her words tumble over each other. Her sentences arrive in a creative, colourful jumble. I am utterly transfixed, savouring every twist and turn.

Williams’ culture is an exceptional one. She was born in Cape Verde, an archipelago off the west tip of Africa and a consequent melting pot of French, Dutch and English colonial settlers who traded in black African slaves.

“We ended up being a blank canvas. We were a mix of European and African influences, so we kind of had to start from scratch, make it up as we went along.

“I was brought up bombarded with different cultures and we developed our identity through that mix,” she says.

Her eyes sadden.

“But a lot of what made up our unique culture was lost over the decades. Although we’ve an African heritage, it was erased. In schools we only learned about our European roots. We were told that colonialism was wonderful, that it brought us a great infrastructure, made us civilised. Our education system is still completely Western; it has allowed so much to be lost.”

Her eyes lighten again, the shine in them returning.

“But I was lucky to have my dad and my grandma. My grandma lived through the period when we were still a Portuguese colony. They shared their sadness with me, the pain people felt at losing their culture, feeling lost in the middle of the ocean. 

"They shared Morna with me, our music, which is all about our struggles through hardship and famine. When we gained our independence in 1975 people like my father became involved in reconnecting with our African roots. Through art, we found our identity.”

She goes on to describe the festival of Carnivale, a three-day celebration in Cape Verde celebrating these lost roots, keeping oral traditions and ancient characters alive in the cultural psyche.

Dancer, choreographer, model and visual artist, Andrea Williams.
Dancer, choreographer, model and visual artist, Andrea Williams.

“My father used to dress up as one of the characters, Mandinga. Mandinga is painted in pitch-black and behaves in a crazy, raw way, shaking and screaming. I remember being terrified as a child to see my father change so much, becoming so wild and primal.”

This childhood memory created a lasting impression.

“The three characters in my performance are Mandinga, Oxum and Oxumare. These are three very important characters in my culture.”

She goes on to explain their significance to her, and to her culture.

“It is so important that we trace our roots, that we know our own heritage and identity. By going back, deep back into our own rituals, we discover all the connections we have as people. 

"More than anything, we are the same. In a strange way our individual journeys into our own people, bring us back to a universal understanding of what it means to be human.”

I offer the point that a lot of what she’s describing reminds me of Ireland. I bring up the loss of our language and the old ‘hedge schools’ Irish children attended, to avoid religious and cultural indoctrination as a colonised people.

“Yes!” Her eyes spark.

“There are so many similarities in our cultures. These similarities are ancient and global. The deeper we dig, the more connections we make.”

She pauses as she considers the best example to illustrate her point.

“In Yoruba, Nigerian tradition, Xango is the god of lightning and thunder, and he holds an axe. In Norse mythology it’s Thor and he holds a hammer. Before any of the nonsense of colonialism we all focused on our relationship with nature. Our connection to it. We were so connected before. Through my work, through sharing my culture, I hope people see connections, not only differences.”

Williams already has plans for Undefined 2: “I want to explore what happened in other places, like here in Ireland, or in Brazil – cultures that suffered attacks on their way of life, their traditions.”

Williams does a lot of work with children in Direct Provision and identifies keenly with their struggles around identity.

“With young people, you must come at them from an angle, make it interesting. I love showing them interesting connections through dance. Like, recently, I shared a video of a dance performed by a tribe in the middle of the Amazon called Cavalo Marinho and it’s just like Irish dancing! When these young people, displaced in a different country see these connections, it centres them. Just like it centres all of us.’”

Williams clearly feels a huge connection to Ireland. She also feels immense gratitude.

“Where I come from, art isn’t seen as a valid profession. We’re a country of artists but there’s an expectation that you’ll also go and get a real job. I’m actually a qualified lawyer. 

"I studied Law in Portugal. But when I came to Ireland, I felt like I really got to become myself. My friends saw that I loved dance and they encouraged me to teach it, to express myself through my art. Nothing was planned. It just happened organically, like there was this domino effect.

“I’ve a theatre piece opening in Dublin on the same night as my Cork exhibition. I’ve a lot to be grateful for.”

Williams includes only one criticism during our conversation.

“I don’t get the elitism in the art scene. Some people act like they’re something special if they’re an artist. The truth is every single human on the planet is creative; it’s just that some people are happy to put themselves out there and others are not.”

But there’s no way Williams is about to leave things on a negative note.

“Oh, I forgot to say,” she beams. “I’m doing this exhibition to honour my aunt and my grandmother. They were such powerful women, so strong. My aunty brought up six children in really hard times and we all turned out pretty well.”

‘Pretty well’ seems an understatement.

Undefined runs at St Peter’s on North Main Street from tomorrow until October 19.

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