Isabella Whawai Waru’s Where We Stand raises urgent questions about the structures that inform Indigenous artmaking, says Jacob Boehme
Isabella Whawai Waru’s Where We Stand, presented by Dancehouse, is the full-length redevelopment of Wahu’s earlier work of the same title, which raises urgent interrogations around matters of colonialism, discrimination and privilege. The program notes describe it as performance ritual where the performers share their worlds, stories, rituals and lessons.
The work is presented in two parts: one for Indigenous, black and brown identifying audience members, who are invited to step into the theatre; and the other, for those of settler heritage, who are asked to remain in the foyer. It is explained to us that the theatre is a safe space for Indigenous, black and brown identifying peoples. Those of settler heritage will attend a separate performance in the foyer and will have the chance to enter the theatre after being taken through a process of checking and filtering their white privilege.
The original season, which was part of the 2018 VCA Dance student showcase, caused uproar, dividing audiences and receiving a barrage of critique from mainstream media and public figures who labelled the work as “reverse segregation” and “reverse racism”. The remounted work, however, surfaces frustrations that need to be addressed both publicly and also away from the public gaze.
Indigenous peoples in the audience are invited into the theatre first. There are only four of us. The safe space that has apparently been created for us feels more like a trauma circle with no escape. There is no professional health care in attendance – which given the outpouring of emotion during the opening night performance, should be a consideration for future iterations. The performance should also come with a warning for Indigenous and People of Colour (PoC). As one audience member, a person of colour, said to me: “I felt trapped. It felt dangerous in there.”
The performance is described as a performance ritual. But these are not rituals: they are stories, read to us from folded sheets of paper. They’re not new to us: we have heard them publicly before. We tell them to each other, to the oppressor. We perform them for the stage and the screen and we write them for entertainment and education. This performance privileges the politics of trauma, intergenerational trauma and the victimisation of black, brown and Indigenous folk (as we are paternalistically and repeatedly referred to).
The fundamental flaw of this show is that, while Waru and their collaborators have attempted to create a safe space for mob and people of colour, their vision is maimed and shackled by the systems that have oppressed our cultures and which now approve their acceptance. This contradiction will influence the way we make, and what and how we make, as long as the present system of power and control in the arts exists.
Where We Stand is a reminder that this is the paradigm. No funding criteria or priority area will, has or is changing the fact that there are currently no publicly funded or financially supported venues run by mob or people of colour. It is frustrating and infuriating that a new generation of creatives must again have their economic and creative freedoms determined by the whims of so-called allies.
What I think Waru and their collaborators have found here is a framework from which they can now further interrogate and create performance rituals, if this is the direction they wish to take. There’s a lineage of contemporary Indigenous and PoC performance ritual that this collective would be wise to learn more about. Ritual has the power to be transformative, to transcend the ordinary and the everyday. It’s why ritual exists, why we gather and participate in them as active participants or witnesses: to collectively experience their revelatory power. This is particularly true of ceremonial and ritual work that is about transforming trauma and grief.
The opportunity now for Waru and their collaborators is to take this material and mature it, to work with and be guided by experienced ritual performance artists to develop what they now know. They need to excel, to exceed expectations, rather than to settle for pandering to limitations that white presenters are comfortable with, and adhering to the forms they are willing to present.
Where We Stand now has the potential to open another conversation: about the lineage this performance belongs to (if it continues to be described as a “performance ritual”) and the ways in which we, as Indigenous and PoC peers, can help our emerging artists to navigate the current shark pool of presenters who need to present Indigenous and diverse work in order to fulfil funding criteria in line with new Federal and State strategic focus areas. After all the recent – and historic – calls for equity, surely we can all do better?
Where We Stand, facilitated by Isabella Whāwhai Waru. Collaborators: Aїsha Trambas, Pauline Vetuna, Ate Cheska (Te), Ebony Howald, Stacey Lake, Laniyuk. Dancehouse. Closed.