Carissa Lee breathes in Exhale, at Arts House for the Next Wave Festival
I feel you mob should know what the word Talanoa means.
The tradition of Talanoa is “engaging in dialogue with, or telling stories to each other, [without concealing] the inner feelings and experiences that resonate in our hearts and minds”. Like Australian Aboriginal yarning traditions, Talanoa explores the ways in which knowledge and emotions are shared and new knowledge is generated.
Empathy is a key aspect of Talanoa: it establishes a vital connection and is, in fact, a decolonising aspect of all performances. And it certainly made Exhale a joy to experience.
It’s also the name of Talanoa, a digital space where Pacific mob share their stories. Emele Ugavule, newly appointed the acting creative director of Talanoa, is one half of the team that created Exhale, now playing at Arts House as part of the Next Wave Festival. Emele Ugavule (Fiji) is a Tokelauan (Te Kaiga Ona Lomatutua, Nukunonu) Fijian (Kaideuba, Navua) woman, born in Aotearoa (Takapuna, New Zealand). Her co-creator, Ayeesha Ash, was born in St. George’s, Grenada to parents of Caribbean and Maori heritage.
The element of traditional storytelling was particularly present in Exhale. Ash and Ugavule played recordings of their respective old people telling stories of their families and traditions, as these women struggle to reclaim and learn their respective languages, find out more about their family histories and come to terms with their cultural responsibilities in a modern world.
The performance space is small, with a grassy floor and plants back stage, and large projections on the back wall. The performance feels true to the format of sharing stories. We get a sense of that from the start, when we see two women standing in the centre of the stage waiting for the audience to finish filing in, smiling and making us feel welcome as we take our seats.
We are shown a projection of Facebook conversations between the two girls, chatting about their families and the struggle of Asj’s journey repatriating her language and trying to find out her family history through the fragmented memories of her grandfather. We see footage of the women googling their respective cultural traditions.
The women each present a solo performance which explores what their respective lives look like. Ash recites the language she’s so keen to learn, to be interrupted by a phone call from her grandfather in which she tries to coax him into remembering details about their family from before colonisation. Ugavule speaks of her family traditions, and the pressure of being an only child, knowing that the responsibility to carry on her family’s cultural traditions rests solely on her. Her piece was particularly relatable, because she openly admitted that she’s a modern woman who can’t hunt and can’t cook. How does she fit into this whole cultural picture in spite of that?
Ugavule and Ash show the difficult act of being Indigenous women in a world of immediacy and change, attempting to balance social needs and cultural responsibilities. They reveal the importance of having a friend who faces the same struggles, someone to talk to about this weird juggle, someone who also faces these senses of displacement. I certainly came away appreciating the friends I have who take the time to not only acknowledge my cultural identity, but accompany me on this journey, trying to figure it all out.
Exhale, created and performed by Ayeesha Ash and Emele Ugavule. Black Birds. Arts House Melbourne for Next Wave Festival. Bookings
Cancelled show: Due to unforeseen personal circumstances the artists are no longer able to perform Exhale at 6.30pm Friday 11 May, and as such this performance has been cancelled. Please call Arts House on (03) 9322 3720 if you had tickets to this performance so we can exchange or refund the tickets. Please note that an additional performance of Exhale has been scheduled on Saturday 12 May at 2.30pm.