Miss Landmine creator and director Morten Traavik explains about the project’s background and objectives to New Zealand’s sideroom.com
Being from Norway, with one of the best healthcare systems in the world, how did the concept for Miss Landmine Angola come about?
Norway's health care system doesn't stretch to Angola unfortunately...
My point of departure you could say is that of just another middle-class whiteboy from a privileged society with an itch to do something to save the world a little and feel better about myself. Being a director and actor to start with, I often grow bored with my rather self-serving work environment, I want to apply my skills not only in the self-imposed inner exile of the arts scene, but also to a more challenging and unpredictable reality outside of it.
The rest is chance meeting preparation:
My then-girlfriend had an Angolan father, who lives in the capital Luanda and whom we visited over Xmas and New Year in 2003. The civil war had ended just the year before and we still couldn't move around much because of all the landmines still littering the countryside. Some street kids were staging a homemade beauty pageant in the back alley behind his house, asking me to sit on the jury.
So at some point those two impressions gave birth to one idea. Since I figured I was probably the only one in the world with that particular idea at that time, that gave me a moral obligation to at least try to put it into action.
What were your first impressions of Africa and its people?
I would try to refrain from judging a whole huge continent on the basis of a couple of weeks' sheltered life in one single country - a mistake that keeps repeating itself in our Western imagination, from our media and right up to the politicians and aid agencies that you would expect to know better. Having made that important and rather politically correct distinction, I guess I expected Angola to be noisy and colourful and exhilarating - a bit like those West Africa features on Travel Channel. But it's not like that at all. At the moment, it's one big empty barren landscape full of ruins and landmines. Temperamentally, I guess Angolans are some of the closest you'll come to Europe in the whole of Africa. They were first colonized by Portugal for 500 years and then part of the Soviet bloc for the duration of the Cold war, which has left a rather sombre, reticent, reserved national character. With my Scandinavian background I often think of it as the Finland of Africa. On the other hand, things are changing incredibly fast in Angola just over the last couple of years since I started visiting, now that peace seems to have come to stay - Chinese constructing and rebuilding infrastructure everywhere, corporate office buildings mushrooming, oil money pouring in. It's got quite a Klondyke feeling to it these days, which is both exciting and challenging.
How do you think Cambodia will be different?
There are, of course, obvious cultural differences between countries thousands of miles apart and on different continents. For instance, you would never get a Khmer girl to pose in a bikini, something that most of the Angolan participants would do quite readily. In Cambodia, women swim fully dressed. But this is not what I regard as an essential difference. So far, within the context of the Miss Landmine work process there have been more similarities than differences. Which kind of supports my theory that the need for and joy of being seen, appreciated, taken seriously and - something so simple - not being patronized by neither bigoted neighbours nor well-meaning aid workers; those feelings are universal and deeply human.
What kind of social nuances do you have to consider when suggesting that women get up on stage for a beauty pageant? How does the attitude of the Angolans and Khmers differ from Western attitudes?
I try not to worry too much about social nuances. In my view, a main problem with us whities when dealing with perceived "exotic" cultures are that we are either totally disrespectful or far too respectful. Both stem from ignorance and a fear of dealing with people as just people, which has, for me, worked splendidly so far. And again I would say that from my own experience there are far more, and more important, similarities than differences.
However, the most obvious difference so far is that very few Angolans or Khmer understand why there are Western "feminists" being outraged and concerned on their behalf for taking part in Miss Landmine.
How are contestants chosen: is it open entry, are scouts sent out etc?
In both countries I am collaborating closely with local authorities. Initally a matter of nescessity as no foreign NGO would have anything to do with us, and still don't, but now I'm really happy it turned out that way because working within the local culture ith a minimum of outside assistance gives us a far more grounded moral legitimacy that if this would just have been another "here's your money/goat/new village well, good luck with it" aid project. In Cambodia, the identification of prospective participants is handled by the Cambodian Disabled People's Organisation (CDPO) and its dynamic director Ngin Saorath, himself disabled. CDPO has a countrywide network of offices in almost all Cambodian provinces, and the word about our project was put out to its local field officers who then approached the landmine survivors already taking part in their rehabilitation programmes. As in Angola, we had many more applicants than we could possibly take on board, so I made the final selection in close dialogue with Saorath.
What kind of criteria do the judges consider when picking finalists. Are they the same as Miss America - style pageants? Or is it more like everyone's a winner just for entering?
The final events are staged along the lines of your regular Miss America-style pageant. No reason to alter a winning formula...And there can, of course, be only one winner. Or two, to be precise - the jury's choice and the winner of the international web vote on our project website www.miss-landmine.org (vote opening on August 1). However, the ladies participating are fully aware that this is more than a mere beauty pageant, that they are employed as my fellow artists in a campaign where a main aim is to influence some attitudes, both outside and within themselves.
As an artist, is this first and foremost an art project? With raising awareness about landmines being a great added bonus?
I don't think the one has to exclude the other. Which is precisely the point of staging Miss Landmine in real life and not in an art gallery or on a theatre stage.
What do you think about humour in relation to this project; is it a neccessary aspect or should it be avoided?
I don't really see in general how humour can be avoided. If something's funny, then it's funny. As long as humour isn't the only response to Miss Landmine - in which case I'd regard it as a kneejerk defensive reaction to avoid dealing with the more complex dilemmas the project addresses - then I say yes please! There is far too much double-standards and uptightness in anything even remotely related to humanitarian assistance these days.
Would you accept that there seems to be some kind of subversive humour surrounding the whole thing (thinking about your website's opener with the lady stick figure with one-and-a-half legs trotting out to a funkified version of 2001).
Sure why not, although I'd find "playfulness" a more precise description than "humour".
What kind or resistance have you encountered?
(from the communities, the art world, media etc)
Ooooohhh...how much time have you got? Can I ask you to read up a bit on our Miss Landmine PRESS section and then get back to me if you need elaboration?
What are your plans for Cambodia 2009: when will the pageant be held? Are you doing anything differently from Angola? Is the government on board?
Yes, the Cambodian government is firmly behind us. Otherwise, I wouldn't be doing it. There will be certain differences from Angola that will give themselves naturally along the way, which I think is wonderful because from an artist's point of view it would be quite superficial to try and repeat a success. The next stages of Miss Landmine Cambodia is the photo exhibition and fashion magazine presenting the candidates, to be launched at the Meta House gallery in Phnom Penh on August 7, and at the Knai Nang Chatt resort in Kep on the south coast on August 15. Then the winner will be crowned at the pageant finals later in the year, also in Phnom Penh on December 7. Stay tuned!
Interviewed by Alexandra Dunn, April/May 2009