For so many people, homes are places to keep your stuff: clothes, books, furnishings, all the result of hundreds of tiny decisions that say more about you than thousands of words can. Part of the specialness of Yinka Kuitenbrouer’s performance lies in her decision to ignore material things. Her project One Hundred Homes is about mental furniture, not the kind that fills removal vans. It’s a hugely appropriate choice for the stories she’s collected: first-person narratives from people who are struggling to belong, to choose how they live.
She’s crafted the performance by visiting over one hundred people – refugees, people who’ve left their home countries to marry, students, travellers, and squatters . She recites, in one long babbling telephone book recitation, their names. Then she flicks through a card index to select a story to tell, clipping their image to her forehead.
Some people’s words have a poetry to them. A refugee from Iraq explains to Yinka that she won’t feel at home until she falls in love – when every place will be suffused with excitement and it’s own specialness. A woman who’s moved to Scotland from England is bothered by peoples’ constant remarks on her accent – but also takes eight years to get used to the sun, which rises outside her living room window, not her kitchen window. In all her other homes it’s been the other way round. A man who’s taken over from his Dad as proprietor of a nearby cornershop – just round the corner from Summerhall – explains that it feels like his home, far more than any house.
The piece’s politics only emerge gradually. By stripping each story of its cultural context, they become universal. The pangs of a refugee missing home are tied to the sense of loss of a woman who’s moved from Norway to Ghent after marriage, or the dislocation of Yinka herself, who’s made the relatively small relocation from Amsterdam to Ghent to study. These stories are bound more closely together by a virtuoso string of connections: she connects name to name across countries with idiosyncratic shared experiences, from paperlessness to the kind of coffee they drink. The story of an unnamed baby is particularly moving – born to a homeless mother, his only home is a temporary cot in hospital.
Big in Belgium’s programme this year is full of stories of home, relocation and dislocation – a kind of elliptical response to the refugee crisis that still feels intensely political, in a year when there’s been so little response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding just a few hundred miles away.
Feeling at home is a process. For one woman, it’s tidying up the farm she moves to, creating a garden metre by metre in uncultivated soil. But cultivating relationships and laying down your own roots is even more arduous – and the most moving final story is from a middle-aged couple who escaped Iraq to a safe city that doesn’t feel like home, any more than their war-torn homeland does. Making friends is hard when you feel out of place.
Yinka offers the audience tea, and house-shaped biscuits – just as she does to her interviewees. She roots us in the wooden house that’s her performance space. Putting us all together, transplanting us together, doesn’t make us friends. But her interlinked stories makes us part of something huge, specific – and universal, all at once.