Breakdancing & graffiti leaving traces in the public space
After finishing a project with his mother, Tunis-born and Brussels-based Mohamed is now working on a new performance made for EUROPALIA. Diving into the history of hip-hop combined with his own history of dancing, Mohamed tells us all about his work and the traces he leaves.
The first work you created was solo, and then the second one was with your mother. Now you are working on a duet, The Moving Self-Portrait. Can you maybe tell me about this project?
Yes, since 2021 is the European Year of Rail, EUROPALIA told me about the new theme of the festival, TRAINS AND TRACKS, to see if this could inspire me to make something new. I immediately said yes because it brought me back to how I started as a dancer, which happened in a train station in Tunis called Barcelona. There I saw a circle of people, with a guy spinning on his head in the middle. At that moment I looked at the guy and I wasn’t necessarily impressed by the movement but I saw myself doing it. I felt like I was dancing in a parallel world - it was something so familiar to me. And this was a turning point in my life because it was then that I decided to start my career as a dancer.
How old were you?
I was twelve. And from then on I’ve spent a lot of time dancing in train stations and in the streets. For 18 years I practised breakdance, but I recently realised that I don't know that much about its history. So for the past two years, I’ve been reading a lot about the history of hip-hop. When EUROPALIA asked me about the festival, I told them I wanted to make a tribute to hip-hop culture, to public spaces and stations. I decided to use two foundational elements of hip-hop culture: B-boying and graffiti.
I got in touch with Eyes-B [The Brussels-based graffiti artist Adrien Lobet, red.]. We both started in streets, in train stations or empty spaces, but later on, we took our practice to another level. Eyes-B, for example, started in a classical way by writing letters but gradually the letters became more abstract lines. So now, he's not making very clear letters anymore. For me, it started with breaking but I combined it more and more with my contemporary education. This project will be a performance about the traces you leave behind as a dancer or graffiti artist. In graffiti, the traces are visible and at the same time ephemeral, since you don't know when this graffiti will be erased by other people in the station. With dance, it’s the same thing, but the traces are invisible.
Is there more overlap between the two practices?
Both graffiti artists and breakdancers actively reclaim public spaces. In graffiti, there are many different social and political messages, which denounce abuses of power and discrimination. It is a way to protest as well as to raise awareness. By writing on walls, the street becomes a place where people can express themselves or their ideas. The same goes for dancing in a public space: you take up a space that is not allowed or meant for you to dance in. By dancing in a public space you challenge the system and sometimes disobey the imposed rules.
By dancing in a public space you challenge the system and it is sometimes discriminating imposed rules
You can see street art as a parasite that participates in the awakening of our subconscious and challenges the way we have been conditioned to experience public spaces. In the end, it’s very simple: it’s about a question of traces, what we leave behind, and how we are conscious of our movements in general and in public spaces. It is important to ask ourselves as individuals if we are participating in shaping the public space.
How do you shape the public space in The Moving Self-Portrait?
For The Moving Self-Portrait, I had the idea to create an alternative for the photo booths, which are used to make ID pictures that you see in train stations. There is a set of rules to follow: you have to sit down, you need to be still, you have to take off all your accessories, like earrings and glasses, and you have to be emotionless in the picture. In our alternative to this, we keep the original concept of the photo booth, which is to take a picture of yourself. But here it is not so much based on your appearance, but on how you express yourself. This experience aims to free ourselves from our appearances, reconnect to our inner energy and let our whole body express itself. It’s a way to say that we are more than we look. Conceptually, the audience will enter through hip-hop music into the shoes of a breakdancer, while the paintings make you enter underneath the skin of a graffiti artist and the space becomes the canvas. In the end, they'll receive 'a Moving Self-Portrait'.