Though the Zimbabwe- born dancer and choreographer Nora Chipaumire has been working and living in America for years, her native land, its people, and its politics are often central in her art. Her 2012 dance “Miriam” is, in part, an investigation of assumptions and stereotypes about Africa, as well as those of the female body. The piece considers contradictory expectations of women in general. In particular, it contemplates the South African musician and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba — whose death, in 2008, planted the seed for “Miriam” — and the Virgin Mary, whose name, in Hebrew, is also Miriam. Makeba was ultimately exiled from South Africa for 30 years, whereas Chipaumire chooses to live in what she calls self-exile. While she feels that the geographical separation helps her to better understand herself, she is also seeking to, as she said, “politicize” her situation: “I think it is vital to keep Zimbabwe always in the consciousness of people who care.”
The two Miriams are main threads in Chipaumire’s provocative, sometimes cryptic work of ritual and searching. The lighting design is purposely dim to the point of murky, and the set of found or repurposed objects scattered about the stage creates a world that is part crime scene, part bacchanal. Excerpts from various texts — shouted out or whispered through a megaphone by the other performer in the piece, Okwui Okpokwasili — is punctuated by Chipaumire’s vocalizations, which range from childish coos to hair-raising shrieks. Last week from California, Chipaumire spoke about the work, which comes to the Institute of Contemporary Art Friday and Saturday.