For a contemporary generation of young adults growing up in either diasporic or mixed race backgrounds, the notions of belonging, ancestry and identity can be challenging spaces to navigate. This is often particularly emphasised in the paradigms of Western culture, whereby ethnicity and ‘otherness’ is commonly perceived as a novel trait and approached with an objectivism that can confound those who are the subject of such trivialities.
PASSING is a performance work that explicitly addresses this existential quandary that is somewhat a coming of age for those with mixed heritage. Performed by Amrita Hepi (Bundjalung NSW/ Ngapuhi NZ) and Jahra Wasasala (NZ), PASSING uses a combination of spoken word, physical theatre, dance and symbolism to materialise a sense of internal conflict that is often missed in contemporary dialogues on racial identity.
In an intimate minimalist surrounding, Hepi and Wasasala gently enter the space, slowly washing their hair in metal pails as fractals grow and layer upon the screen behind them. Against this poignant and organic beginning of grounded ritual, the performance shifts to the jarring implications of patriotic anthems, introducing the strange relationship between nationalistic identity against the soft underbelly of birth, family and ancestral lineage.
Humorous comparisons of ‘purity percentages’ grow into poetic monologues articulating the paradox of belonging to two conflicting lineages. Words are tied into movements referencing the colonisation of culture and the political rhetoric of generations of ethnic cleansing and ‘purification’ through the ‘civilization’ of indigenous peoples into Western culture – a culture of a country in which, we are emphatically told, hold no landmarks for the mixed ancestry of Hepi or Wasasala. These scenes are often confronting, Wasasala wholly embodying the conflicted self who is torn between her organic nature and the sense of propriety somewhat forcefully imposed upon her. Hepi reflecting the power and force of identity augmentation brought upon by the imposition of Western culture on non-Western ways of being. Together, they reflect the subtle acts of violence that can be self-inflicted when one attempts to consolidate their identity into one socially acceptable form, ignoring the vast complexities of cross-generational and cross-cultural inheritances.
A unique theme that emerges through this work regards the strange contradiction of having two birth lineages in which one has enslaved and abused the other. For young adults in exploration of the roots of their identity, this no doubt poses serious challenges in reconciliation, and this idea is well communicated in several moments of the piece.
For both Hepi and Wasasala, such themes have been formative in the development of their impressive portfolio of performance works. Alongside presenting original works at the Museum of Contemporary Arts Australia, Hepi has represented Australia at the internationally acclaimed Indigenous Dance Residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada and was the Dance and Theatre Programmer for the Sydney Festival in 2015. Contemporary dancer and spoken word artist Wasasala is recognised in Australia and New Zealand for her provocative works combining poetry and performance, also completing the Indigenous Dance Residency at the Banff centre. This work sees them draw on these manifold mediums in a reflective and reactive physical conversation.
PASSING straddles the space between dance performance and performance work. It creates strong imagery and plays on metaphors and ideas in tangible ways that are deeply moving to witness. Many moments are bold and clear in intention, though at other times the work wanders into an ambiguous and uncertain tone. The style of movement, referencing the fluid and angular transitions and punctuations of hip-hop interspersed with contemporary and abstract choreography compliment the subject matter nicely and are a refreshing change from more predictable contemporary stylings. The soundscape by Lavern Lee and costume design by Honey Long also add to the surreal and yet accessible spaces created in this work.
Perhaps the most important aspect of works such as PASSING is their significance in rousing a contemporary generation of those from migrant, diasporic and mixed heritage backgrounds into entering and exploring dialogues around identity and belonging. A complex subject fraught with political sensitivity and sometimes significant personal trauma, both Hepi and Wasasala join the ranks of courageous young artists willing to enter into these difficult questions of belonging with their minds, their bodies and their creative talents.
An engaging and interesting performative conversation, PASSING will be on at the Northcote Town Hall until May 18th as part of the Next Wave Festival. For more details see the Next Wave website here.
Choreographers/performers: Amrita Hepi and Jahra Wasasala
Producer: Vanessa Varghese
Music Producer: Lavern Lee
Costumes: Honey Long
Headpiece and Flora Design: Jesse Carey
Lighting: Sophie Penkethman-Young
Image: Lucy Alcorn and Vanessa Varghese