Soraya Lutangu aka BONAVENTURE was the first artist chosen for our Nightlife Residency with I: project space & the Neighborhood. Soraya, a brilliant multi-hyphenate Swiss-Congolese book maker / graphic designer / DJ / producer / music-maker, spent February & March in Beijing, working on music. China Residencies’ co-founder & director Kira caught up with Soraya over video chat:

KSK: My first question for you is about logistics. Would you like to be on the jury this year for the Nightlife residency open call?

SL: Yes!!! I’m so ready and excited to be on the jury. Symbolically, it’s amazing to have been the first resident and now get to be on the jury. It would be my pleasure! 

KSK: And from what you remember, do you think we should change anything about the application? 

SL: No, I don’t think so. The questions were totally genuine and authentic. No bullshit: Why do you want to come? What’s your story? What do you want to do? I love the tone you use, it’s super real and straight to the point.

KSK: What made you want to apply?

SL: I first saw the call on Instagram on Lhahga’s account — we were already following each other. I’ve always been obsessed with China, since I was 11 or 12. When I was a kid, I had a friend who was half Swiss and half Chinese (maybe I had a bit of a crush on him?) and I’ve always had the continent of Asia in mind. Growing up, the Western media always distorts what’s happening there, and politically, it’s captivating. There are so many misconceptions. We are so Euro-centric, I always want to critique that but I know that my views are also very Euro-centric since that’s where I come from. I need to get out to work on this, and China was one of the regions that was fascinating. And I’m still not over it a year later! I’m still learning Chinese on the side.

KSK: What was the biggest misconception you realized wasn’t true when you arrived?

SL: So many people told me that Chinese people aren’t warm, polite, or welcoming. But in fact, it’s the exact opposite! Everyone I met was the opposite of rude: so kind and generous. People were so warm, I felt celebrated there even though I am so different than everyone there. 

KSK: What were your first impressions?

SL: The order of magnitude, the scale, the density. That’s what shocked me. The ride from the airport to the residency really put things in perspective. Another thing that happened early on was while talking to a guy at Dada, I asked him if he had ever had pizza. And he was like: “Nah, I’m not interested, there are so many dishes here in China I haven’t even tried.” That was another big cliché that I found out wasn’t true -- before thought Chinese food was junk food. Fried noodles. But being there revealed a new dimension of culinary excellence. My favourite vegan restaurant is in Beijing! It’s even kind of easy to be vegan in China — there are so many new kinds of vegetables and spices. We know nothing about being vegan in Europe, compared to buddhist traditions in China. 

KSK: It’s always more complex that what people imagine. Once you were there, how did you get settled?

SL: The first week, it was amazing being in the residency with Anna and Nini, they really explained so much to me in a really short time. I love meeting new people, and quickly made good friends with Eric who was a resident DJ at DADA and Carmen & Zhiqi from Zhaodai. We immediately started having meaningful conversations. There’s none of this “and who are you…” scenester postering. It’s not like being in NYC, where everyone assumes you love being there. People were curious about how I was living the experience in China. Carmen and Zhiqi relate to clubbing like I do — as something that saves lives. It’s a culture that has an immense role in shaping our generation. Their struggle and fight to open their club in Beijing, and countering ideas of what a club is and what a DJ is — that touched me at my core and inspired me so much. I’ve never had to fight to create this kind of space. It was the first time I met people who put so much energy into fight the authorities -- I don’t know any club owner in Europe has who faced that, and it really made me realize my privilege coming from Europe. I’m still in that mindset, it really stayed with me. I knew about my relative privilege in theory, and through my other lived experiences, especially around colorism and being a light-skinned Black person. But I could open a club, if I wanted to.

KSK: It’s hard to understand how censorship works in China -- it’s not that everything is banned, it’s more that many things that are easy in the West are made extremely difficult in China. It’s difficult to sense the void, to notice what’s not being said or what spaces aren’t allowed to exist.

SL: We need to be so careful with what we bring back and share with our communities back home. I don’t even try to talk about censorship with people who have never experienced it. For starts, I don’t have time to educate people, and even then, my two months of experience doesn’t even scratch the surface. We are so spoiled here in the West — freedom of expression is precious.

KSK: Would you want to go back to China? And how was Valeria’s experience there?

SL: Yes! I’m watching all the Chinese shows I can find, I’m still so deep in. I can’t wait to go back. Valeria {Soraya’s wife, who went with her to Beijing} quit her job right before we left. It was her first time taking such long break from work, and she was starting to learning Portuguese and apply for grad school for her anthropology degree, so she felt guilty about not studying hard enough and just feeling in-between things. But I’m trying to convince her to do her master in Beijing in 2020 for a year so we can go back together!

KSK: Wow, it’s amazing that this time in China really left such a strong impact.

SL: It really changed me to go to Uganda recently, and I had a thought about living there, but China is really calling to me. A good friend and the roommate of Ebba {Fransén Waldhör} (my duo partner in Anxietina) was a previous resident at i:project space had given me a head’s up that it would take me a month to get settled, but it really took me one week to get into. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but I really felt at home. Uganda felt like Congo to me, since there are so many Congolese there. Even though that’s half of my culture, I don’t know why and can’t explain what is drawing me so strongly to China. I know more Chinese than Portuguese, and I’ve been living here for two years! I really want to go back, I’m keeping up and reading the news from China every day. I’m obsessed with the Three Body Problem. I read Folding Beijing {by Hao Jinfang} before I got there, it’s so well written and should be required reading for everyone going to Beijing. 

KSK: How are you learning Chinese?

SL: I’m using a few different apps, Chineasy and Duolingo. As a graphic designer, the impact of seeing Chinese characters everywhere was huge. We’re so lame with our 26 characters!

KSK: Following how the media covers China from abroad, how to feel that coverage contrasts with your experience?

SL: People are addicted to fear. People live too virtually -- maybe to make a bad analogy, it’s like when you don’t post on Instagram for a second and people think you’ve disappeared. I hear people pity the kids in China because they can’t access Instagram without VPNs, but they don’t necessarily even want to be there! They have WeChat, after all. And the way media is talking about and reacting to the social credit system, you can tell no one is thinking about it from a local perspective. Going there has really taught me to not jump to conclusions.

KSK: Systems and tools for control and trust like the credit system exist in many forms all over the world, and are part of the many tactics that anyone with wide reaching power can use. The problem and real dystopia is that corporations and governments can abuse and do abuse these tools and systems to different degrees.  

SL: There’s a different level of transparency and directness in China. I have no time for people criticising China without realising that a lot of those dystopian structures are in play in the West — look what’s happening with voter disenfranchising in Georgia with the upcoming midterm elections in the US! 

KSK: It’s really terrible. And it’s heartbreaking to hear people in China doubt whether democracy is the best system, but given that we have such flawed and manipulatable voting systems in the US, it’s sometimes hard to disagree. Bringing it back to Beijing, how did you spend your days during the Nightlife residency?

SL: I produced a lot of music! Four of the six tracks on my next EP Mentor, coming out very soon, are ones I started in China. And lots of other tracks are in draft stage. There was so much input that it took me a while to calm down from my initial excitement and start composing. The title of the EP is deeply inspired by the residency, it’s about learning with people — finding a mentor and learning and teaching other. It’s about the kinds of cultural exchange that happens in the club scene. I felt it there. More so than in Europe, where we have huge egos and we all want to me the most booked artist, always on tour…. In Beijing, we were so honest with each other about what else we wanted to learn and get better at, and what skill sets we want to develop as artists. Eric and I worked a lot on our production skills together. We were really vulnerable with each other. We would get food and open up Ableton on our computers in the studio and really work. It’s that human thing of mentorship. “Each one teach one” is at the centre of hip hop culture. In my earlier work, I was so focused on systemic problems of oppression that I had gotten away from the simple solution of sharing. That was one of the biggest effects of the residency. 

KSK: That’s amazing. That’s also one of the things we’re working towards through our fiscal sponsorship program, we want to pass on what we’ve learned so that others who haven’t had the same access to resources can make the impact they want to have on the world.

SL: It's always interesting to see how people introduce me and my work at institutions, but recently, at this talk I was giving in Dresden, the introduction was it was so dark. The curator introduced me a a highly political artists who deals in struggle, which is true, but there’s so much more to me. Exchange is what interests me. That’s what I want to do more of in my future projects and with Mentor. It’s all inspired by experiences I had in China. 

KSK: That’s our main goal of China Residencies: get great people who otherwise wouldn’t have met to get together and do cool stuff!

SL: That’s my shit, I’m all about that. I want my whole life to be like that, to bring people up with me. And in an ideal world, we get governments and institutions involved in fixing and building. I want to share this, the only challenge in all this is always budgeting. 

KSK: That’s so true, we’re constantly looking for more support to make all of this happen. What did you get up to after you left China?

SL: I was almost in mourning. I was so sad! Thankfully, I was super busy and went right into major projects that took my mind of my China melancholy. It also gave me an amazing aura, everything really fell in line. I was also on the verge of getting sick, so I had to take care of myself. We were working full time and it’s always so exhausting to work on Anxietina {a joint project with Hannah Black and Ebba Fransén Waldhör, “ANXIETINA is an attempt to build a mythic infrastructure around the pervasive anxiety of the everyday: her superpower is an anxiety that is both her own and an undifferentiated collective energy.”} We had a big exhibition in Geneva and then performed at the Pompidou in Paris. And then I was playing shows all around, in Helsinki. And then we had some nice visitors! 

KSK: Right! {Kira was in Lisbon for the On The Move general assembly}. How’s Pilar? {Soraya & Valeria’s adorable siamese cat}

SL: Right after you left, she had her kittens. We kept one called Trust, and now she’s about to have more next week! It’s kinda stressful to deal with so many kittens.

KSK: While I was there, you got the great news that you were going to be signed to Discwoman. How did that come about, and how has it been for you?

SL: We first ran into each other at MOOG fest where DJ Haram was playing. I played two sets in one day, and saw them in the crowd and starting freaking out. Later that night, I played a live set and Haram was right after me, and Christine {McCharen-Tran, label co-founder} was there too. And when I went off stage, Christine came up to me and asked me right away about what kind of visa I had! She said she wanted to work with me and loved my live set. I said I was a mega fan, and it all went super fast from there! I was back in Europe, playing in Leipzig with Emma {Olson, aka Umfang} and Stud1nt, and we all really clicked. We were supposed take a train together to go to Berlin from there, but we cancelled the train and rented a car instead. We went on a little road trip, stopping by a lake to swim, and we all became really good friends. I’m signed with Annex in Europe, but there’s nothing like Discwoman, it’s really a family. The roster is small and they want to take care of everyone. They have the best energy. 

KSK: And what are you up to next?

SL: Metahaven invited me to do a live set at the Stedelijk Museum for their book launch  & opening and I really got along with Kate Cooper — I want to make a visual album with her, Lemonade style :) And I’m coming for a US tour in December and January!

This interview was conducted on October 30th over video chat and translated from French by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies. The open call for the 夜生活 Nightlife Residency II is open until December 5th 2018! Apply & spread the word :)