Viewing entries tagged
dance

making art while brown: when you’re expected to have essays to back up your rage

Before I begin pouring my thoughts onto this page, I wanted to say that I’ve been tempted to start a semi-regular column (presumably called “making art while brown”) just to highlight my experiences and conversations I’ve had regarding the experience as an artist of color trying to make art (specifically dance) in white-ass Seattle. Not gonna promise anything though, cause schedules and things tend to pile up and I tend to overwork myself (which I’m trying to get better at). But I’ve always appreciated writing about my experiences as a way to analyze it and how it fits into larger societal privileged/marginalized dynamics. Hopefully by pushing myself to write more about it, it can make me a better activist/artist/writer/person. If you are reading this and would love to have further conversations about it, trust that that feeling is mutual, and there’s always an open invitation for such productive discussions. That aside, here goes:

I’ve been really angry lately, and for lots of different reasons. Chances are if you’re someone with a marginalized identity, and you’re not part of the white-cis-het crew, you’ve been angry a lot at the way these power structures treat you.

image

image from “What Happened, Miss Simone?”

In my last post, I wrote about the frustrations that come with being an artist of color in the predominantly white Seattle dance scene. I wrote about the frustration regarding and fear of being tokenized as a person of color, of being put in a box because I made the choice to deal with my identity as an American-Indonesian in a performative work, of being dismissed because I consciously decided to address my distinctly non-White upbringing. I talked about it again recently with one of my bffs/my emergency contact/honorary sibling for The Murmur Journal. The bottom line of this frustration is not that I’m scared of being criticized for my art, but that it sucks that I’m the one worrying about being tokenized and essentialized as a person of color as opposed to people (mostly white people) just realizing that tokenizing/essentializing POCs is not OK.

After that performance, of which you can watch below, I got a lot of really supportive and insightful feedback, none of which tokenized my experiences. If anything, a lot of the conversations I’ve had with viewers had to do with how other folks managed to layer their own experiences on the work, and that led to a lot of beautiful revelations on humanity, on relationships, on imaginations.

But then came the review. To be clear here, Sandi Kurtz is a respectable dance journalist/historian in this city, and this post is not a form to attack her in any way, but I do want to add my two cents to her review on SeattleDances (for which I also write reviews/previews). She wrote:

“The work could be seen as an affectionate nod to Ruth St. Denis, who used elaborate costumes to help create her faux-ethnic solos, or just a happy coincidence—either way, the two seem to share an appreciation for the effect a truly stunning costume can have.”

Ruth St. Denis is a renowned choreographer, but she’s also got a record of being problematic, mostly because she created art in an era where it is “trendy” to create Orientalist, appropriative works that fetishize non-Western cultures (other examples of this: Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, and many other choreographers of the early 20th century—or even later, Doug Elkins for example—that do make “faux-ethnic” dances). The idea that someone would compare me to a choreographer who gets accolades for appropriating and fetishizing cultures that aren’t theirs offends me greatly. My work is and has always been an earnest way of dealing with my identity, and yet the only record of that effort is a person (of considerable privilege) comparing me to a choreographer who tokenize cultures like mine because it’s “exotic” and “ethnic.” It’s as though the assumption of my only goal was to “combine Eastern and Western cultures” in order to be “edgy.” It’s not. I am brown. I am ethnic. That informs not just how I make art, but also how I live my life. I do balance Eastern and Western cultures on the daily not because I want to be “fresh” and “unique” and “cutting-edge,” but because it is something I have to do in order to survive. It’s something I think about daily because if I don’t, the overwhelming guilt of finding yourself complicit in white hegemony as a person of color is unproductive. If I don’t think about it daily, I risk of losing the (non-Western) cultures, nuances, values that I grew up with that is so crucial to my current existence. Obviously I don’t expect viewers who don’t know me to get that (because duh how would you know right?), but I think that statement just needs to be put out there in the world.

video: wali panca at Velocity’s Next Fest NW: Utopia

But I’m not writing this post to talk about that. I’m not in a place where I feel like I need to respond to the review. What Sandi wrote is her opinion and it’s valid (maybe problematic, but still valid), and what I wrote above is my opinion and it’s also valid. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people be right about things and still not agree.”

Instead, I wanted to analyze my anger. After I read this review, I was considerably angry because months earlier, I had written about this very subject. To quote from my previous post:

“The thing is, white-cis-straight people make stuff based on their past life experiences all the time, and they don’t have to worry about having that experience fetishized the crap out of itself. Because their experiences are considered the default, therefore relatable. Mine’s foreign. It’s exotic. …

The thing is, I don’t need people to think a certain thing when they’re viewing my work, I’ve never thought that ever. That’s the beauty of art right? Viewers get to layer their own experiences on it. But it sucks knowing that some people are going to put you in a box because they just grew up differently than you. And somehow you’re the one that gets stripped of your complexity, because the white hegemonic system makes it real convenient to do so.”

In my interview for the Murmur Journal, I elaborated even further:

“I was worried that people would think, ‘Oh of course it would be this ethnic thing because this is what she knows.’ … there’s always that nervousness. You just think about what people’s intentions are. When they ignore you and don’t ignore the white person next to you, you wonder about their intentions. There’s a lot of self-analysis that happen. What’s frustrating is that you worry about their intentions but they don’t think about your intentions. They often just rely on stereotypes. … That’s problematic.”

And I felt that that very concern of being put in a box was manifesting right in front of me. And I was upset that even though I saw it coming, I’m still upset about it. So then I had conversations with people I love about it. At one point, my significant other asked me:

“Do you think you’re gonna write a response to it like Au Collective did with the review of you guys’ show?” (For reference, read here, here, and here)

Maybe some people would consider this post to be that response, but I don’t consider it as so. Honestly, I didn’t want to respond (and I still don’t). It takes so much time and effort and courage to express your frustrations and anger as a person of color to a white audience, and I constantly wonder who benefits from that time and effort and courage.

And that’s exactly where the problem lies. We as marginalized peoples (whether POCs, femmes, queer folks, trans* people, differently-abled folks, religious minorities, and many other intersections thereof) constantly have to summon up courage just to be angry. It is as though the white-cis-het-masculine hegemony expects us to summon time and effort and bravery and guts to face our trauma in order to craft eloquent essays to explain to them why we are angry with this system. And for whose benefit is that? We know why we’re angry, so surely we won’t be the ones primarily benefiting from such an ordeal. Most of the time, if we don’t calm ourselves down enough to explain our rage, we risk being seen as the “angry black and brown people,” or the “angry queers” or “angry activists” or whatever the stereotype is. And lemme tell you, that’s not a fun stereotype to be put on you.

image

image from “What Happened, Miss Simone?”

Here’s where the conundrum lies though: being angry is sometimes necessary, because things should make you angry because we should, in general, hold ourselves to higher standards as to how we’re treating other human beings. South Asian trans* artist/poet/human being extraordinaire Alok Vaid-Menon says so eloquently in an interview:

Q: Oftentimes there is a narrative of negativity imposed upon activists and anyone who is outraged by the reality of the world. We are encouraged to “think positively” and operate with Hallmark-ready sentiments on our hearts. People also don’t like being told they’re wrong or that their behaviors contribute to violence—that word alone really scares people. You use the word “rage” a lot in a way that suggests it’s positive or productive. What does that word mean to you? Why is rage important?

A: Oh gosh, I think rage is so beautiful and awe-inspiring. Rage means intensity, honesty, confrontation. It’s gotten a negative connotation, but I think it’s actually necessary because so much of this world is about desensitizing us to everything, making us numb to our own pain and the pain of others, and sometimes people need to be awoken to the fact that there’s something worth fighting for.”

It is so important, but wouldn’t it be lovely if marginalized peoples are also given a space to be angry in their own ways, to not have to validate their anger for the benefit of privileged people. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we don’t have to be tired of being angry, much less sick of being tired of being angry? I’m honestly so sick of being tired of being angry. At one point, I wished I didn’t exist as a woman of color in a country ruled by white men, and that’s a hella scary thought, honestly. On the one hand, I know that if I’m just apathetic to these injustices, I won’t win because then I’m just being complacent, and that’s no good. But you need energy to be anything but apathetic, and if you do choose to resist (by being angry or critical or whatever), there’s still the risk that you won’t win, because the hegemonic system is not made for marginalized peoples to win. So here we are, back at where we’re started: between a rock and a hard place.

If you are an artist of color, or even just a person of color who don’t consider yourself an art-maker, I would love to know how you navigate this conundrum, how you hold space for other people, while simultaneously holding space for yourself to resist and be angry yet still take care of yourself. I’m all for using art as part of that effort, cause I think art is a necessary part of navigating this conundrum. But what if your art becomes entangled in that conundrum? Then how do you escape that and look at it critically while still making sure you don’t burn out? I would genuinely like to know, what’s your relationship to rage?

xo -i

?

making art while brown: to POCs whose art is de-facto radical

I’ve always known that my existence will always be political. I don’t think I understood it in those exact words growing up, and I don’t think I understand it in the more concrete ways in which I do now. I just know that there is a specific mold that society prefers people to be, and I don’t fit in to that mold. As the years go by, that becomes clearer.

What mold am I talking about? Well, one that’s forced by patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacist, ableist ideas. As a brown woman, I for sure don’t fit into that mold. When structural systems of power depend entirely on this mold, existing as yourself outside of that mold is in and of itself a struggle for power. It’s political.

image

Many people who know me also know that I was born in Texas, but grew up in Bogor and Jakarta, Indonesia. I moved to Washington state when I was 15. First to Vashon, then Auburn, then Seattle. That wasn’t a very typical coming-of-age experience, for an American nor an Indonesian.

As a kid I was really active. I still am as a dancer, but when I was younger I loved playing sports. I did Karate and Tae Kwon Do, was on the basketball team and later the soccer team, and had a brief stint with the swim team. Being outside in a tropical region means the sun shines really bright and for the most part I was always tan (I was already dark-skinned to begin with). When I was younger, before I was even 10, I think, my aunts would say to me: “It’s okay that you’re dark-skinned now, your skin will get lighter when you grow up and you’ll be pretty.”

Growing up, I didn’t really have dolls that looked like me. I had Barbie dolls, and Barbie dolls weren’t brown and small and queer back then. They’re still not.

When I was in elementary school, I had a few guy friends, and each one of us had nicknames. Mine was “ant,” because to quote them, I was “small, black, and stupid.” They were joking about the stupid part, because they knew I was smarter than all of them, but I was still the small, black girl. (It’s funny looking back at this now because now, Black to me is a very distinct identity that I very much don’t posses, but in Indonesia if you weren’t light skinned then you were considered “black”)

Throughout most of my primary school years, I understood that I would not be called “pretty.” For some reason, the Indonesian words for “pretty” or “beautiful” were often reserved for people who are light-skinned. If you were dark-skinned, the go-to words were “exotic” or an Indonesian phrase that directly translates to “black and sweet” (”hitam manis”).

When I moved to the US, a lot of people in Vashon didn’t know where Indonesia was. One girl asked me: “Is that like near India?” Or they would ask the all-time favorite: “I know Bali, do you know Bali?” because that’s the only thing they’ve heard of Indonesia, and they heard about it from Eat, Pray, Love. Yawn. Yes, white girl, of course I know where Bali is. Good for you for being so cultured.

During this past Thanksgiving weekend, my Indonesian friends and I went to Poulsbo. On the ferry to Bainbridge Island, we sat at a booth on one side of the ferry. Everyone on every other booth on our side in the cabin was white. This white lady was going booth to booth to register voters. She took a look at our booth and skipped it. We were all brown. I am an American citizen who has voted in every election since I turned 18. The lady didn’t even bother to ask.

Once, after a discussion in my dance history class on cultural appropriation within dance, a white girl friend of mine asked “Why can’t dance just be dance?” She proceeded to look at me and said “I know why you think it can’t, but I feel like dance should just be dance,” as though it’s my fault and my problem that I can’t get over the politics within things (even dance! gasp!)

image

One time I was reporting on an event on climate justice, and I was shadowing some canvassers who went around Columbia City to get the perspectives of marginalized, low-income, racial minorities on how climate change issues impacted them. I was shadowing canvassers who were interviewing a Black, homeless veteran. He didn’t answer the questions they asked right away but instead proceeded to wonder out loud about my ethnicity. He said “You can’t be Indian because you’re not dark enough, but you can’t be Vietnamese because your skin is not light enough, but the Vietnamese women are the most beautiful, so what are you?” Upon knowing that I’m Indonesian, he said “Ah, a Polynesian princess. Your ancestors must be beautiful.” I went home after and cried.

Every time I go back to Jakarta now, it’s always hard to switch languages at first, and from time to time the tiniest hint of an American accent would slip. My friends would call me a term that translates to “foreigner,” but it’s only used when referring to white foreigners. I was never a fan of that. When I go back to Seattle, I’m still the foreigner because I’m brown and Indonesian and have an “exotic” name.

Why am I writing about all these stories? Well, I recently made a dance piece that wasn’t explicitly about these stories but is very much influenced by these experiences (and more) and how they affected my worldview. It’s going to be premiered next week. It’s scary as fuck. Not because I don’t think people are going to like it or that it’s not going to be good (because I don’t really care about the first one and I am confident that it’s a good piece), but because I know there will be people watching who will put me in a box.

Seattle is a very white city. I’m not a white person. I’m reflecting on my experiences as a person of color who juggles these identities and these ideas of home as an American and an Indonesian. I’m using non-Western music, the title’s going to be in Old Javanese language, and I’m brown.

The thing is, I’ve never done this before. I’ve never explicitly put these ideas about my identity on stage before, despite always juggling these ideas in my brain, writings, and everyday conversations. It usually just filters through in my stage works. Everything I’ve made as a choreographer up to this point has always been a work of research: I explore universal concepts, I investigate the experiences of others, I analyze discourse on certain things. I still do all of that with this work because that’s always been my process, but there’s a very personal and very sentimental element at play here, because in a way, I’m blurting all the things I’ve written about above—and more—in the piece, but not explicitly and the viewers won’t really know it (and that’s okay). It’s time I put these ideas on stage.

The thing is, because Seattle’s a white city and the tastemakers in the dance scene are mostly white and grew up influenced by a North-American perspective on what home means and what growing up was like, they won’t get how hearing the sound of traditional Indonesian gamelan makes me feel like I’m in 4th grade, learning how to play the instruments. How that reminds me of childhood and innocence. They won’t get how the highs and lows of sindhen vocalists make me feel like I’m being sung a prayer that keeps bad things at bay. How that makes me feel safe. A lot of people will think it’s just “ethnic” music. People may think, “Of course she would make something like this she’s Indonesian,” and proceed to think that I’ll be the go-to for Indonesian knowledge and only that. People may not know about how frustrating it is to feel foreign in the places you call home, how guilty you feel when you find yourself complicit in white hegemony as a person of color. Some people may think that I’m just trying to be edgy in trying to “blend Eastern and Western cultures.”

The thing is, white-cis-straight people make stuff based on their past life experiences all the time, and they don’t have to worry about having that experience fetishized the crap out of itself. Because their experiences are considered the default, therefore relatable. Mine’s foreign. It’s exotic.

The thing is, I don’t really know why I’m writing all this. I’m writing this at 2 a.m. after an 8-hour stint of covering the news at work. I’m anxious and nervous and excited and drinking so much wine, just like any choreographer would be a week before a premiere. I’m not writing this to be preachy or offer a solution. I’m writing this because some people in white Seattle are going to watch my piece and exoticize the hell out of it and I’m the one worrying about it, as opposed to them realizing that that’s not okay. And that frustrates me.

The thing is, I don’t need people to think a certain thing when they’re viewing my work, I’ve never thought that ever. That’s the beauty of art right? Viewers get to layer their own experiences on it. But it sucks knowing that some people are going to put you in a box because they just grew up differently than you. And somehow you’re the one that gets stripped of your complexity, because the white hegemonic system makes it real convenient to do so.

Any artist presenting work has a million different things in mind, and there are a lot of inherent risks within that existence. For many artists, those risks are why they became artists in the first place. But if you’re an artist of color, and you’re putting your experiences into a work and acknowledging your brownness or blackness, there’s a seemingly inherent risk: That people are going to watch and some of them will think “Of course they would make this, this is what they know,” as though it’s your fault for not “getting over” your existence as a person of color and not instead joining the white artists that are out there “objectively” researching elusive ideas. That’s real frustrating, and that’s not a sustainable art-making environment.

But I don’t know, I guess at the end of the day, we as people of color are going to just deal with shitty systems, whether in art or politics or economics or whatever. And we’re gonna stick with each other and support the hell out of each other in the process. In the words of the late, great Mark Aguhar:

“It’s that thing where the only way to cope with the reality of your situation is to pretend it doesn’t exist; because flippancy is a privilege you don’t own but you’re going to pretend you do anyway.

And yet despite how dreary it may feel, it’s also kind of empowering in a way. These words from musician Meredith Graves really speak to me:

“For most of us, [combining art and activism is] unavoidable. As long as art, like music, remains predominantly a cis-straight-male scene, any art made by a person who doesn’t fit those parameters is a form of activism. It’s not that you have to be overtly political or run around on stage screaming like I do—you can make quiet, dreamy music or weave or do silent performance art or just insist on existing in volatile spaces, and it’s still an insanely radical act. Giving yourself permission to exist is both activism and a form of art.”

I guess now that I think about it, I’m writing this for the black and brown folks out there making art and I just want to say: you’re not alone, and you got this.

-i

Vision of a dancer.

A profile of myself by Annisa Rizky Amalia

Music: “Penthouse Serenade” by Errol Garner

Check out her vimeo

Let me back in.


First collaboration with Annisa.

Choreographed and danced by Imana Gunawan

Concept and direction by Annisa Rizky Amalia and Imana Gunawan

Shot and edited by Annisa Rizky Amalia

Music: “Let Me Back In” by Explosions in the Sky

**DISCLAIMER: Please respect the hard, creative work of persons involved in the project by not reusing any elements of it especially without permission. I reserve the rights to the choreography, I do not own the rights to the music.

A photo illustration for an article I wrote on site-specific dance, photographed by Joshua Bessex. (And yes, that’s me.)  
  Read the story here : http://dailyuw.com/archive/2013/06/05/arts-leisure/close-site-specific-dance#.UcKFpGruV29

A photo illustration for an article I wrote on site-specific dance, photographed by Joshua Bessex. (And yes, that’s me.)

Read the story here: http://dailyuw.com/archive/2013/06/05/arts-leisure/close-site-specific-dance#.UcKFpGruV29

danceTryptch - a dance video by Imana Gunawan, Chris Wright, and Beau Sterling.



Filmed by Chris Wright and Beau Sterling

Danced and Choreographed by Imana Gunawan

Edited by Chris Wright

Filmed at Founders Studio, Velocity Dance Center

Music: “Zero Degrees [3]” by Ryoji Ikeda



**Disclaimer: 

For inspirational purposes only. Please respect the hard, creative work of persons involved in the making of the video by not reusing any of the elements, especially without permission. I reserve the rights to the choreography, I do not own the rights to the music.

This is perfection. I am indeed a new fan of Mats Ek.

choreographed by Mats Ek

performed by Sylvie Guillem and Niklas Ek

music by Arvo Part

Morning stretch. (via Instagram, @imythecat)

Morning stretch. (via Instagram, @imythecat)

Impromptu video on one Sunday night.

Music: “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” by Sufjan Stevens

just messing around with Zee Avi’s music on a gloomy Sunday afternoon. Apologies for the blurriness in the beginning.

disclaimer: please respect the creative work of the choreographer by not reusing the choreography, especially without permission.

music: Is This the End by Zee Avi

an improv phrase + a short combo from a piece that I’ve been working on, With No Witnesses.

ps: please excuse the video quality. and yes, I know that jump was really sucky, I swear it could’ve been better.

music: Zero Degrees (3) by Ryoji Ikeda

Smoke and Mirros, a dance video.

Choreographed, danced, directed, and shot by Kanya Iwana and Imana Gunawan

Edited by Kanya Iwana

Music: Smoke and Mirrors by Gotye

Location: Velocity Dance Center.

“Rejection” by Mia Michaels.

Choreographed for So You Think You Can Dance Canada Season 3 Finale

song: “Will I” from the Broadway musical Rent

Song: “I Walked” - Sufjan Stevens

Location: Steward Studio, Velocity Dance Center

well hello darlings, I made a video yesterday! This is a one minute improvisation that mostly focuses on the movement of the pelvis and the upper body. I thought I looked like a jellyfish during 00:08-00:11, so I decided to put it as the title! Anyway, this was just something I randomly decided to do, so yeah, don’t expect too much hehe. Oh and ps, please excuse the hair covering half of my face.

Dedicated to my beloved dance mates: Miss Andara, Alma, Billy, Citra, Elgha, Nadia, Ursa, Keisha, Icha, Aldhy. Miss you guys :)

xx
-i

 -> video posted on the next post, or click here.


song: “I Walked” - Sufjan Stevens

location: Steward Studio, Velocity Dance Center

Song: Lotus Flower - Radiohead

Location: Steward studio, Velocity Dance Center

v00t

So I just made a video! Hint: it involves Radiohead, choreography, and videography. This video is basically something I randomly decided to do today. I rented Velocity Dance Center’s Steward studio for about an hour and a half today, just cause I want to dance. Then, I came upon Radiohead’s song ‘Lotus Flower’ and it reminded me of the song that I danced to during my United We Boogie Singapore audition. After repeating the song a few times, I decided to do an improv routine to this song (I have to admit, it’s not my best work, so I didn’t feature most of them in the video haha), then I thought “why not make a video?” so I did!

To be honest, I didn’t really have a concept or storyline for this video cause I was just making it up as I go along, feel free to interpret it however you want. Enjoy :-)

See video on the next post

xx

-i