Accepted paper:

The agent and the artist: innovating 'African' circus performers in China, Europe and Ethiopia


Jessica Kendall

Paper short abstract:

Recent years have seen both the growth of 'African' circus, and the rise of Ethiopian circus performers working as independent players in an international industry. This paper explores the roles of the agent and the artist in producing innovative African circus bodies that appeal to a global market.

Paper long abstract:

The creation of circus performances involves innovative collaborations between circus performers and the 'agents' they work with, including individuals, proprietors, agencies, companies and local and/or foreign governments. In a global world a circus performer is dependent upon these mediators as essential mobilizers in the act of building a successful international career. The stakes of the collaboration between artist and agent become particularly clear in the case of Ethiopian circus performers who are attempting to build better lives for themselves and their families through working hard with their bodies, thus increasing their own market value and mobility in the corporeal economy of circus. This paper is based on data collected during 12 months of multi-sited fieldwork through six different countries in which I tracked the movements of a troupe of six Ethiopian circus performers as they trained in China on an acrobatics cultural exchange and subsequently performed in an 'African' themed circus production in Europe. Utilizing a largely person-centred ethnographic approach, I examine how the troupe's various collaborations with agents innovated and developed their acts into a so-called 'African' style that was highly marketable in Europe. I further consider how one particular key agent - a former circus performer from Zimbabwe - was emblematic of what Nikolas Rose calls an expert of subjectivity; an authority on the micropolitics of 'African' circus who helped the troupe creatively channel their extreme embodied habituses into something that they could truly call "their own."

panel P30
Creative horizons: steps towards an ethnography of imagination