Oscen Goes To… AN OPEN APOLOGY


Artwork from An Open Apology

This strange and experimental art performance will stick with me forever. Four hours of sorrys from people you don’t know, surrounded by strangers you have probably never met. Most performance art is covered in a thick film of pretentiousness, but An Open Apology was so genuine and real. When I walked in, I had no clue what to expect. I had walked in on an apology to a grandparent. After 10 minutes, I felt like I was in a conversation with someone I had known my entire life. The performance was so intimate and truly showcased the two-toned reality of happy and sad. Our lives are cringe-y, sad, hilarious, distressing all at once and An Open Apology never shied away from the messiness of reality. We need more genuine experimental performances that confront reality rather than construct reality.

I loved the silence. The moments of nothingness while we were waiting for a performer to grapple with their apology, cars speeding down the motorway in the background. It was so intimate and awkward and real. The hilarity was the hilariousness of real life. This performance is pieced together from reality. Instead of finding reality in an imagined metaphor, we were finding metaphors in reality. This was a bold performance and boldness paid off. I miss these strangers and their apologies even after being with them for only an hour.

Furthermore, the “do you want to try again?” concept was such a perfect way to confront the messiness of apologies. Often we wish we could apologise to someone with less anger, with less yelling, with less coldness. But we do not get that chance.

An Open Apology was not an art performance; it was a reality performance. It was aware of the smallness of language to encompass such large, abstract feelings. It was aware of the coexisting sadness and happiness within a single “sorry”. An Open Apology is a new wave of reality performances that are not just real, but are aware of their realness.


An Open Apology was a part of the Basement Theatre’s Season of Durational works.  

About the author
Jennifer Cheuk is a Linguistics and Literature student at Auckland University. She published her first anthology of writing at 15. Jennifer is also a cartoonist and illustrator - you can find her work on Instagram: @selcouthbird
Oscen Goes To… DEEP


Trailer by Proudly Asian Theatre

When you watch a movie, there is a particular desire to feel unaware of the film’s construction. However, with theatre, you are always aware of its construction: there is a strange recognition of the fact these are people on a stage, reciting words, pretending to be something else. Proudly Asian Theatre’s Deep pushed this constructivism further, forcing us to confront the social constructions around us. With puppets so explicitly made of pool noodles and plastic bags, I felt confronted with the fact everything is constructed: our language, the way we perceive sex and sexuality, the idea of ‘feminine and ‘masculine’ — it is all a construction.

Deep follows Rebekah Poleman, a marine archaeologist trapped over 4000ft below the ocean’s surface. Talking with the marine creatures around her, Rebekah undergoes an introspective experience, contemplating ideas of sex, sexuality and humanness. With a tight ensemble performance of singing and puppetry, Deep was a wonderful mix of both the energetic and contemplative.

Before I go on, I must give my commendations to the puppet designer and builders: each puppet moved with the fluidity of really being under water. The puppet mechanics, especially of the viper fish, were absolutely captivating.

Furthermore, the puppets were built from clearly reused materials. I felt this was a clever touch, as it forced the audience to confront how foreign and strange our norms are. The sea-monster with pool noodle tentacles, the plastic bag viper fish — these puppets were normative items made foreign. Whether intended or not, I felt this connected so smoothly to the play’s critique on social constructions. Also, the use of different creatures to embody different responses to sex and female sexuality was fantastic. It was such a clever way to integrate a social commentary into the deep sea setting. I also loved Deep‘s use of the ocean to confront our tiny, insignificant human perspectives and social orders. The way the puppets created a zoom in and zoom out was amazing!

My huge love to the character Sike who made me realise how hard we are on ourselves. How we feel we aren’t doing enough, or aren’t normal. This character was a perfect light in the depths of a sharp social commentary.

At times though, the performance did feel somewhat like a final draft, as though it needed one more rewrite to be complete. Some of the humour and comments on sexuality felt a bit overdone. I actually preferred the moments that were left unsaid, and would have particularly enjoyed Rebekah’s experience with the bioluminescent cloud to not have been labelled as an “orgasm”. I felt it defeated the purpose of the performance a little. I really saw Deep as trying to move away from constructed response to female sexuality, and move towards a more fluid, open response (as symbolised by the water setting). Using our male-dominated language to label Rebekah’s final transcendent experience felt somewhat regressive. However, I do agree with reversing the taboo-ness of the female orgasm, and perhaps this is what Deep intended with labelling her experience.

More contemporary performances are connecting humanness to non-human scenarios. Deep achieved this by refracting the human through the non-human, by using the marine setting to invert our norms. I would definitely recommend Deep as a fun and introspective performance with some really fantastic puppet design.

 

Deep is playing at Q Theatre from 25 – 29 February 2020 as part of Summer at Q and Auckland Fringe Festival.

About the author
Jennifer Cheuk is a Linguistics and Literature student at Auckland University. She published her first anthology of writing at 15. Jennifer is also a cartoonist and illustrator - you can find her work on Instagram: @selcouthbird
Oscen Goes To… MR RED LIGHT

or THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CASE OF HUMANITY

Photos by Andi Crown

There are two types of theatre. The first type, you get to pause your life for a second and live within the reality of the performance. The second, far more uncanny, does not pause your life, but rather forces you to see your life from the outside. This type of performance moves you from active to passive position; you become a voyeur of your own reality.

Walking into the theatre space, I was immediately aware of something being off-kilter: the set was a fully-functioning pie shop separated from the audience with a false window. Someone was reading a John Grisham novel behind the counter of the pie shop. The scene in front of me was so normal, so real, that I started to feel incredibly uncomfortable. It was as though I could not participating in my own reality — I was to sit there and watch it happen before me. All I could think of was how strange this was. It suddenly felt completely absurd to buy a pie from a pie store. It suddenly felt completely absurd to watch performances or movies. Even before Mr Red Light had started, I became painfully aware of how odd it was to sit next to someone I had never met before, would never meet again, and watch this performance. We would laugh at the same sections, fall quiet at the same sections. All this simply from the set of Mr Red Light. I must commend the set designer of Mr Red Light, because the performance started long before the performance started.

The performance itself was an hour and a half of farcical philosophising. Three unlikely characters find themselves held hostage in a pie shop by a man who seems to know much more about these characters than he should. Stories and experiences are shared, people fight, people cry, people fall in love. Mr Red Light sheds an absurdist light on the full spectrum of human emotion.

Acute and perceptive writing, brought to life with an ensemble of fantastic actors. This is a rare performance where the marriage between humour and humanity is never out of balance. Each joke has been finely constructed to never cross the line of cringe-y. The actors worked in perfect synchronisation, bouncing energy and jokes off of each other. There was a swell of energy in the theatre; Both the audience and actors felt on edge, as though we were all waiting for something to happen. And isn’t this true? We are all just going through life waiting for something to happen? This performance captured even the tiny nuances of humanness. Mr Red Light prompted you to think introspectively about the things you feel every day, and you were unaware of the effect this performance was having on you until afterwards. You left the theatre feeling as though life had slowed around you: Mr Red Light had created something akin to an out-of-body experience.

Our lives are funny and sad all at once and Mr Red Light portrays this tension perfectly. Physical farce met with metaphysical dialogues. Everyday acts of normality met with exaggerated satire. The performance is a pendulum swing of contrasts. But I never felt motion sick. Mr Red Light presents a chaos that is graceful and constrained, necessary and deliberate for the narrative. Everything connected to something and the tiniest detail had been considered. The dialogue concluded right on the cusp between funny and monotonous — a bold decision, but one that paid off (as seen by the man next to me dabbing his eyes with laughter).

Mr Red Light was something new, something different, something necessary in today’s theatre. The arts scene has been desperately stuck in the same landscape — there hasn’t been another movement or another shift. But Mr Red Light felt as though it existed in its own climate. A mixture of postmodernism without the nihilism. A sort of post-post-modernism that values sincerity and humanness at the heart of its satire. It is rare to watch a performance and feel as though you are outside yourself. This was something so special about Mr Red Light: you were outside and inside all at once. Mr Red Light makes you step outside of yourself and revel in the unique absurdity of humanness.

Mr Red Light is a delirious embrace of all things human; the anger, upset, love and dying. Universal and yet uncomfortably close to home, this is a performance everyone must watch.

Mr Red Light is playing at Aotea Centre from 30 August – 22 September 2019.

About the author
Jennifer Cheuk is a Linguistics and Literature student at Auckland University. She published her first anthology of writing at 15. Jennifer is also a cartoonist and illustrator - you can find her work on instagram: @selcouthbird
Oscen Goes to… PINAY

Writing New Zealand’s first Filipino-Kiwi play, Marianne Infante creates history with her story. Proudly Asian Theatre’s PINAY is a semi-autobiographical tale centred around Alex, a young pinay who challenges notions of tradition, identity and culture as her family moves from Pampanga to Christchurch. Before heading along to the show, I sat down with writer and actress Marianne Infante and director James Roque to talk about our struggles as third-culture kids, what it’s like to be Filipino in a Western society, and how those experiences inspired the making of PINAY.

 “They called me a ‘White Filipino’ because I sounded different.” Marianne

Discussing what it was like growing up in New Zealand, Marianne described how quickly she adapted to her new cultural environment, despite passionately holding onto her roots. She recounted how she began to speak, think, and act more like a Kiwi, and I remembered how I also went through a process of negotiating both my Filipino and Kiwi sides. I was old enough to remember the former, but young enough to adapt to the latter. Trying to retain both resulted in maintaining neither in their ‘full’ form.

Watching PINAY felt like watching my life story unfold before my eyes. As a 1.5-generation migrant (born in Davao, but raised in Avondale), the nostalgia that came upon me throughout the play was incomparable to any other sensation I have ever felt. Within those 90 minutes, I walked with Alex. I sounded like her, thought like her, felt like her. I had been shocked with the news that we were moving to New Zealand, leaving our old home behind. I wondered what kind of drink ‘morning tea’ was, or who my friends at school were going to be. I watched Alex grow as an independent woman, building a quilt-like identity that was similar to my own: isang diwang pilipino, patched with elements of Kiwiana and te ao Maori. The once-foreign land became her tahanan. But all throughout her journey, I couldn’t help but struggle with the same conundrum Alex — and Marianne — faced head-on: was she still a pinay? What did it mean to ‘be a pinay’? What even is a ‘pinay’?

 “They’re not the antagonist.” —Marianne

Whatever ‘being a pinay’ meant for Alex was certainly very different for Mariella, Alex’s ina. This clash of values is found within typical Filipino migrant households — including mine and the play’s creators. What was notable, however, was their response to these differences. “There’s a reason why they moved you all the way here from home,” said James, commenting on the seemingly over-protective attitudes of Filipino parents towards their independent-minded children. “What’s unfair is that they uprooted their lives to give you a better future.”

The play vividly captured the tensions between first-generation migrants and their third-culture sons and daughters (who are shaped by modern ideologies, multicultural worldviews and a foreign, first-world environment). But however much Alex’s views were highlighted, her parents’ views were conveyed with honour, respect and integrity. PINAY’s sensitive portrayal of the older generation’s perspective — not with judgement, but with empathy and integrity — is highly admirable. The parallelism and symbolism employed by the play captured the shared essence between these generations: that despite the gap, they are not that different after all. Rather than expressing bitterness, the play emphasises the importance of compromise when you no longer share the same language, literal and metaphorical, with your family. Rather than exacerbating these differences, the play unifies these gaps. It reminds the Alexes of the audience that their parents are not the antagonist. PINAY reiterates a true Filipino principle: at the end of the day, family is family.

Photos by John Rata, courtesy of Proudly Asian Theatre

“We are the invisible minority.” James

Still, some scenes were too difficult to watch. The rift between Alex and Mariella was at times too heavy to bear. But as I watched, heart-stricken, my silent gasps (that I thought were too quiet to be heard) were echoed by the gasps of my fellow pinays in the audience. Suddenly I realised that this was not merely my story, and these were not simply my experiences — they were all of ours. In that moment, we shared a second when we could all take a deep sigh of relief: “Finally someone knew, finally someone noticed.” At that point I realised that I was not alone. We were not alone.

From the moment I stepped into the theatre, I was greeted by a strangely familiar energy: the stage, laid out with banig, had a dining table topped with an all-too-familiar foil food tray. VST and Side A played on the karaoke machine while everyone laughed and belted out the lyrics. The subtle touches were incredible — snacking on SkyFlakes, cringe-worthy harana, early Christmases, family nicknames (“Leklek”), getting someone’s attention with “ssst!” — everyone I sat with couldn’t believe how relatable this all was. Instantly, I was home. As James had said, we are the invisible minority. Being Filipino, it’s hard to feel like you’re seen. For many of us who moved from the Philippines to Aotearoa, we had to adapt to survive. Assimilation meant that our Filipino-ness was drowned out by elements foreign to us. We forgot who we are as a people and it became hard to embrace who we are. This play allowed me to embrace my Filipino-ness. From the shadows, the Filipino experience emerged to the spotlight. In a society where we felt othered and alien, Basement Theatre became a space where we could be ourselves. Once silenced, now staged. Our struggles seen, acknowledged, validated, shared.

“I learned to takahia and sway my hips. I am proud of Aotearoa.” Marianne

PINAY is not an exclusively ‘Filipino’ show. It acknowledges the importance of Aotearoa in forming a third-culture pinay’s identity. Unlike assimilation where one blends in at the expense of one’s inner essence, PINAY pursues an ideal of being ‘100%’ Filipino and New Zealander, all at once. While respecting and upholding ancestral Filipino origins, it honours the land of Aotearoa, strengthening bonds and paying homage to its Maori roots. Alex found a home in Aotearoa, just as Marianne did when she moved to Christchurch. She found a space where she could belong, particularly in hip-hop and kapa haka groups at school, where she realised how similar Filipinos were to Maori and Pasifika peoples: “We eat with our hands, we go to church on Sundays, we’re family oriented too.” I couldn’t help but recall my own experiences in Rosebank Primary and Avondale Intermediate, and how all those years of after-school feeds, band practices, jam sessions with neighbours and listening to hip-hop and R&B were how Maori and Pasifika influences helped me integrate into a Pakeha-dominated society that seemed to treat me as an outcast.

These strong links are embodied in Alex’s best-friendship with Tane — a friendship that is not only strengthened by their complementary personalities, but their shared struggles, as Tane is also forced to reconcile similar questions about his own identity. Rounding off the play is a well-crafted trilingual epilogue, harmoniously tying together these distinct cultures. Though not foreigners, Maori also attempt to carve out their own space of belonging within Aotearoa amidst growing diversity and discussions about what it means to be a New Zealander.

. . . .

After watching PINAY with a group of Filipino friends on opening night, we are still discussing it. We are still thinking about it. Many of us are still emotional about it, and others mustered the courage to  begin difficult conversations with their families. PINAY is not just a play — it is the beginning of a conversation about culture, identity, and what it means to be Filipino. I can’t wait to watch this again with my parents on our 13th-year anniversary since moving to Avondale, and who knows: maybe our rifts will be healed.

PINAY runs at the Basement Theatre until 24th August: Buy your tickets HERE and keep up to date on social media.

About the author
Kyra Maquiso is a third-culture kid. When she’s not drowning in exam notes and casebooks, she’s rediscovering her inner Pinay through learning OPM songs on her ukulele or jamming on the cajon with “Diwa”. Her favourite hobbies are cafe-hopping, making Spotify playlists to add to her exisiting collection of 75, and taking photos. Find her on instagram at @fsa_diwa and Tumblr at kmaquiso-photography.
Oscen Goes to… I AM RACHEL CHU

or THE INDISTINGUISHABLE WHITE NOISE OF ASIAN REPRESENTATION

Jennifer Cheuk reviews the second season of I Am Rachel Chu in a follow-up to her previous review of the first season for Tearaway.

Photos courtesy of Nathan Joe

Watching I Am Rachel Chu again was a joy. It is rare to find a performance you enjoy just as much, if not more, twice. But, do not be fooled. The second season of I Am Rachel Chu is different. There is an energy that absolutely emanates from I Am Rachel Chu. A sort of furious realisation of being trapped. Trapped in word, in film, in dialogue, in advertisements, I Am Rachel Chu is concerned with the escapement of constraints. Words as constraints, as vessels of meaning unable to be freed from past usage — you must use the same set of phonemes as the boy in school who yelled racist slurs at you. How can we escape when our lives are governed by constraints? Especially as a person of colour, these constraints are stereotypes to which we are pitched against every day. Crazy Rich Asians was celebrated as a win, but is that all we are? Rachel Chu? Rachel Chu without even the distinction of chū chú chǔ chù, as the performers point out. So how do we escape, if not through subversion, through deconstruction? The constant representation of us as just Rachel Chu is white noise and now, we refuse to listen.

In my first review, I commented on the fact that “I Am Rachel Chu is messy, it is funny, it is poignant and it is real.” However, the second season felt it had a tighter grasp of the message and the thematic direction. The energy was balled up, rather than completely unconstrained and left to burn on stage. Things were more deliberate — the presence of improvisation was gone, but spontaneity was still maintained. This is a rare feature of a good performance: sitting on the very edge of your seat, leaning in and wanting to fall into the reality of the stage, and yet knowing the connecting strings of each scene, each character, each underlying concept.

The set had discarded the hanging black frames and I personally preferred this. It felt less like a clumsy nod to ideas of being ‘framed’ by stereotyped Asian representation. Rather, the stage construction was completely minimalist, save for three blocks, used as the only prop throughout. Meaning was not bound or preconceived, but fluid. The second season of I Am Rachel Chu felt more conscious of its layers and encouraged audience engagement with meaning. The black frames of the first season presented a bounded interpretation, one that was not to be tampered with. But the set construction and overall feel of the second season was unbounded; it was free from set meaning. Because of the multiplicity of layers in I Am Rachel Chu, I felt this suited the performance more. To explicitly constrain costumes, props, stage with pre-set meaning would be a shame for such a performance. I loved the second season, perhaps a little more than the first because meaning felt deliberate, but not constrained.

I Am Rachel Chu is a necessity in our current social landscape. A necessity when Asian representation has just become the same repetitive white noise, a hundred Rachel Chus resigning themselves to the plot of Asian-ness. But what is Asian-ness? Am I being subversive or simply unaware? Watching it again forced me to think more introspectively about my culture and race. How do I interact with myself, how do I escape from the stereotypes I play in to? Who is Rachel Chu to me? What an honour to attend a show twice and think even more deeply with each time I attend.

As usual, a fantastic performance. To walk out of a theatre and genuinely feel something is quite rare. I Am Rachel Chu is universal and specific, it is graceful and messy. It is a performance of disjunctions because this is what I Am Rachel Chu is concerned with: the disjunction between the real Rachel Chu and the Rachel Chu that has been force-fed to us.

About the author
Jennifer Cheuk is a Linguistics and Literature student at Auckland University. She published her first anthology of writing at 15. Jennifer is also a cartoonist and illustrator - you can find her work on instagram: @selcouthbird
Oscen Goes to… GUY NGAN: EITHER POSSIBLE OR NECESSARY

Photos courtesy of Artspace Aotearoa

In an essay titled Woodcarving, penned during his time at the Royal College of Art in London, Guy Ngan writes, “Through the creative impulse inherent in man, woodcarving has been a universal vehicle of expression.” Yet this hope he held in 1954, that woodwork and other forms of public art would take its place in society as a force of social cohesion, was never fully realised. In fact, the question of whether public art counts as “art” has been disputed throughout history and is a discourse that remains contentious. The multitude of sculptures and installations that we flit past like ghosts, decorating hotel lobbies and office buildings, seem to support the argument that public art should be relegated to the realm of decorative at best. But Ngan’s vision was a more democratic one: a world in which art permeates our everyday lives as naturally as the act of breathing.

Either Possible or Necessary, on display at Artspace Aotearoa until the 17th of August, aims to recover the histories of Ngan’s vast contribution to the public art space in New Zealand, connecting the many threads that spanned the artist’s career and highlighting his ideas about public spaces and identity. It runs concurrently with Habitation, an exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum in Wellington – two of the only retrospectives ever curated to focus on Guy Ngan. In fact, Ngan’s career flew under the radar and is rarely broached in discussions of contemporary New Zealand art history. After a series of solo exhibitions in the 1970’s, the artist was never exhibited again, with the exception of a show at City Gallery Wellington in 2006. Ngan, however, didn’t go without formal recognition: he was named Director of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in 1976, and received an OBE for his services to the arts in 1983 – though this perhaps makes his lack of institutional (galleries and museums) accolade all the more surprising.

Newton Post Office Mural (Guy Ngan, 1973)

Entering the exhibition space, I’m immediately greeted by the largest work in the show, Newton Post Office Mural (1973). An attention-grabbing colossus standing at almost 3 metres tall and over 7 metres wide, the mural is comprised of forty separate panels of carved and engraved aluminium pieced together. Its façade is Kandinsky-esque in its abstract geometry, a plethora of lines and curves crisscrossing to evoke the dynamism of transport. The mural was created specifically for the Newton Post Office Building, and the contextual influence of the location on Ngan’s process is clear, as Karangahape Road and the surrounding area became a bustling commercial hub. The sheer scale and grandeur of the artwork means one would be forgiven for considering this the centrepiece of the show. Actually, the guiding force of the exhibition is Star, a large bronze sculpture that hangs outside the gallery building.

And yet, I walked right past Star as I entered the building, as anyone would unless they either knew it was there or stroll with their head tilted towards the sky. The placement of Star, at least two metres above eye level on the façade of the building, means that it attracts almost no attention – I only realised it was there after the exhibition map pointed me back outside. This brings us back to the question of public art, and its tendency to be ignored or disregarded as space-filler rather than art in and of its own merit. Ngan’s belief in its importance was unrelenting. He wrote and spoke frequently about the capacity for public art to not only naturally occupy a space in people’s lives, but to build a cohesive national identity.

This commitment to the perception of public art comes through most abundantly in a panel wall spanning an entire room of the exhibition. Ngan had mounted a similar wall in his own home while planning for a retrospective, with panels of wood that captured his entire body of work. He rearranged these panels along different configurations to find the best way to show how works of art fit together, a reflection of his dedication to design and his architectural background. Either Possible or Necessary has recreated this wall, with the addition of panels featuring images that inspired Ngan’s work, such as gulls and Tiki hands. This vivid imagery is in dialogue with Ngan’s printed works and the effect is striking; I find myself marvelling at just how vast Ngan’s output was throughout his career.

Either Possible or Necessary is also, of course, a migration story. Ngan’s cultural heritage is paid credence to throughout the exhibition, while an oral history of Ngan’s life is printed in excruciating detail along one wall. We are made privy to the artist’s own account of his immigration first from New Zealand to China, and then back again, through a series of handwritten journal-style entries accompanied by sketches. Understanding Ngan’s identity as “Pacific Chinese”, as he called himself, is central to his work as an artist. It informs his conception of the New Zealand national identity that he hoped to contribute to building through public art, and prominent Maori imagery runs through his entire body of work. What this identity may also reveal is the reason why Ngan never received the critical claim that many would expect. Ngan lived through extreme anti-Chinese sentiment and outright legislative discrimination, and there are notable instances of his art being rejected by New Zealand communities. In 2005, the residents of Parnell protested Millenium Tree (2005), a sculpture Ngan crafted as a gift from the Chinese-New Zealand community, stating that the artwork clashed aesthetically with the surrounding Victorian gardens. (The sculpture now stands in the Auckland Domain.)

Either Possible or Necessary asks us to ponder these questions surrounding public art and national identity, and perhaps whether New Zealand is even ready to accept a national identity that embodied the values embraced by Ngan. The exhibition shines light on a scant discussed artist with a substantial influence on the trajectory of art in New Zealand, aiming to leave the viewer with more questions than it answers – what do our national attitudes towards artists of colour tell us about the way that New Zealand art history has been recorded? Will public art be written in the annals of art history as its own canon thanks to the efforts of artists such as Guy Ngan, who devoted their careers to its popularisation? Ngan finished Woodcarving with the following: “Surely it is up to us whether or not we make or mar these future possibilities”.


Star (Guy Ngan, 1973)

Find out more about Guy Ngan: Either Possible or Necessary here. Guy Ngan, a publication from The Dowse Art Museum celebrating Ngan’s life and work, launches August 10th.

 

About the author
Penny Peng studied Political Science and Art History at New York University in Abu Dhabi. She is an aspiring champagne socialist and an uninspired law student. Currently, she spends her time playing iPhone games and figuring out how not to be broke in London.
Oscen Goes to… GO HOME CURRY MUNCHA

In GO HOME CURRY MUNCHA, Aiwa Pooamorn and Gemishka Chetty confront the ethnic slur and the exoticism of food, race, gender, and body. Gayatri Adi and Janna Tay sat by a blue tarpaulin under a gazebo in the Basement Theatre carpark as the performers scattered spices, smashed pumpkins, and threw rice at whoever had the courage to come close…

Photos by Janna Tay

 

It began with an offering of prawn crackers. Pooamorn drew in the gathering crowd with a small bowl while Chetty lit agarbatti on an oval stand beneath garlands of marigold flowers. For us, these were markers of familiarity — an invitation, a sense of home. For Gayatri, seeing a part of her childhood, her culture that she’d hidden from white scrutiny displayed so boldly and unapologetically made her scared that the crowd would take offence. She had hidden away so much of her “Indian-ness” that she had taken on the eyes of the scrutiniser, self-policing something that should not need to be policed. And in this way — this bold and unapologetic way — it became, at the same time, a dare.

The two took turns performing poems on their own and together. They flung food at the audience and at one another as they wove in and out of the crowd, holding eye contact and coming close, face-to-face. Rice, cooked vermicelli, and turmeric flew around in the air, and a pumpkin cracking near our feet. The poetry was fearless, the product of pent-up rage and frustration handled with wit, humour, and searing imagery. As two women of colour, it was thrilling to see them bring to light what we personally experience, what we’d always struggled to find the words and courage to say. Hearing Chetty perform “My Vagina” was particularly powerful. Seeing a woman of colour speaking about her “vagina [that] bleeds” sent shivers down our spines, and made us feel proud to be in the presence of bold women of colour.

Halfway through, they transformed into rivals in a mock-Masterchef competition. They took on personas and called on volunteers to act as judges, ultimately disregarding the results as they argued between themselves. At times, the thread became difficult to follow — it felt a bit disjointed as they jumped from poem to skit to food fight, moving between a wide number of interrelated themes that ranged far beyond food. That might’ve been part of the goal to make the audience uncomfortable. However, a more focused structure would have honed the power of the poetry and the insanity of the skit to better deliver the intended message.

Like a dream gone sour, the two drew the audience in and turned on them, driving the message home that all it’d ever been was a dream. The exoticism, the hatred — these are all things that the white gaze imposes. Pooamorn and Chetty tore these constructs down, subverting them and casting them off, as Pooamorn discarded the purple silk robe of her Masterchef persona. At one point, the two instruct a white man to get to his hands and knees. The shock value of some of these moments brought back the awareness of scrutiny, of wondering what the white members in the audience would think.

But perhaps the question this poses is: why care? When have we ever been allowed to simply be without constantly watching our backs? There’s scope for this to be bigger and better, and hopefully that’ll be soon, on a bigger stage, with a bigger audience and stronger structure. Reclamation is a dish best served spiced and to the yells of, “Go home, fish and chip muncha!” For to see them elbows-deep in flour and turmeric, like the aftermath of an intensive cooking session, like being in the kitchen of a twenty-first-century aunty, was freeing. Go home, curry muncha? Sitting on the concrete in that carpark, it felt like maybe we already were.

About the author
Words by Gayatri Adi and Janna Tay. Photos by Janna Tay.