The Black Birds is a multidisciplinary collective that has created theatrical, sculptural, visual, performance, and film based work in response to the lack of, and misrepresentation of Women of Colour in the Australian arts.
The Black Birds is a multidisciplinary collective that has created theatrical, sculptural, visual, performance, and film based work in response to the lack of, and misrepresentation of Women of Colour in the Australian arts.
Hi Emele and Ayeesha, thank you so much for being here today! Firstly, could you tell me about yourselves, where you grew up? and your journey into becoming performance and theatre artists?
Emele I was born in New Zealand in Takapuna but then I moved to Australia with my mum and my dad, through my dads work… so we were in Western Australia until about six years ago I moved to Sydney to study at NIDA… and my entrance into the performing arts I guess was when I was a kid. I started doing piano lessons when I was seven. My mum is a really gifted oral musician, so she used to at the boarding school play piano a lot and she has like three guitars, a banjo, harmonica (laughs) all the random things that she kind of just tinkers on every now and then … she encourage me to start doing music lessons and I did that all the way until university. I started doing singing lessons when I was in school, cause I went to this massive Mass called the Archbishop of some deity or something, and everyone was singing Shine Jesus Shine! (laughs) the choir really got me, so yeah I was like I really want to do that and so I got into musical theatre and I was like, “Wow, they’re singing, dancing, acting … doing all the things that I want to do” and then I did musicals at school. I auditioned for WAAPA and did the musical theatre certificate, which is where I first met Ayeesha and then I auditioned again for the bachelor and got into NIDA and moved to Sydney.
Ayeesha So me (laughs) I was born in St George’s, Grenada in the Caribbean. My dad is Grenadian and my mum is Maori, but my mum was born and raised in Sydney … and then I grew up in Brisbane and I went to a semi-performing arts high school. I first got into performing through dancing when I was like seven maybe … it was just me and mum and I had to do some sort of activity on Saturdays so mum could go to work and I literary tried so many … and I just hated them all and then one day I went to dancing and I was like, ‘Yeah not too bad’ and I really loved it. From there I got into singing, then music theatre and in high school I majored in acting and then I did acting at WAAPA and started to focus on different aspects of representation within that … which is what we’re all about!
You both have an extensive grounding in theatre … Emele you graduated from NIDA and WAAPA and Ayeesha you also graduated from WAPPA and the Queensland Academy for Creative Industries. How has this background in musical theatre and acting informed your current practices and visual arts projects?
Ayeesha Everything is related. We’re both very visual people so I feel that’s one of the ways we can connect through our visual thinking. That was always going to be a way for us to express things because it just makes sense to both of us!
Emele And also it’s a good way to recognise that there’s a gap in terms of accessibility for our communities. We work and trained in theatre, film and television, but those spaces aren't necessarily curated safely or for our communities. So how can we reach out to our communities in a medium that we connect to, in a way that they will also connect to. I think Instagram has a lot to do wit that. Many of the people that we’ve connected with who are artists and non-artists is through Instagram, which is a visual platform. It was kind of an organic move towards that, but also as business move because we had to find a way to connect to our community in more than one kind of way and form.
What was the drive and ambition behind the collective Black Birds?
Ayeesha Well we knew each other at WAAPA but we weren't friends (laughs) .. so we only connected in 2014 in Sydney. We both thought that there wasn’t enough work that was produced that represents women of colour and people of colour… and if there is work with people of colour in it then it’s stereotypical or tokenised. Also the stories that are being told don’t represent our cultural backgrounds or the cultural backgrounds of people who don’t identify as white, so I think that’s another huge problem within the industry is that if a person of colour is in something then it’s kind of that colour blind casting which erases your identity.
Emele Or it’s your story through the eyes of a white person. Often the people writing the story or producing the story, directing the story are not from your community.
Ayeesha … and we just thought, that sucks so why don’t we do something to change it. More needs to be done to change the current situation. It’s something that we are so passionate about. But like 2017 and when we started it was 2014 … I mean hello … what else has to happen? Like civil rights movement after civil rights movement after blah blah blah … (sighs). Conversations about changing the diversity situation have been happening since movies were invented, yet still it’s so bad. It’s just actually ridiculous … especially in Australia there is a very false representation of the population… so we thought we can do something about it…
Emele Well we have to… if we didn’t say to ourselves “we need to do something and we need to actually act on that”, there would be no other opportunity for us. I think we’ve created more opportunities for ourselves in the past three years than if we had stuck to the whole acting thing of having an agent find work for us and working in theatrical spaces or on sets. We’ve actually not only been able to create our agency over our narratives but also very literally create more work opportunities for ourselves.
Ayeesha: So my mum’s side of the family are the Ngāi Tūhoe people and basically we have a place that has been in our family since the dawn of Maori time. That place has so much magical power and it’s a place of resistance, struggle and land rights. There’s a thing called, The Treaty of Waitangi, it is what the Maori chiefs signed to the British crown in 1840 to say that they’d have certain control over certain lands, but my tribe was the only one that didn’t sign it because they didn’t believe the British government and then it turned out that the British put a whole heap of lies in that treaty anyway … so basically they didn’t sign it and have had so many repercussions ever since. But the Ngāi Tūhoe have also been so paramount in leading the fight for land rights and first nation rights in New Zealand. I think my connection to my ancestors on that side is one that gives me power and strength because I know that they have consistently been warriors for their people since invasion.
And then my dad’s side of the family are Grenadian, but they’re originally from West Africa and were taken to Grenada as slaves through the Transatlantic slave trade. It’s very hard to find out more about them because so much is lost through the slave trade … you don’t know last names, you don’t even know which country they came from… but even then the strength of my people to persist and continue to survive resonates. My grandma on my dads side, she is a super accomplished woman. She has done so much for the community and for the country through performance, dance and education. I just feel a great commitment and strength to connection and resistance and through educating other people about the way that things happen. There has been a lot that’s happened on both sides of my family that support and remind me of why I am doing what I’m doing. I think it would be weird if I wasn’t doing something similar to be honest, because it just wouldn’t make sense .. they’ve worked so hard for everything. For where I am today, I wouldn’t be here without them.
Emele: Lineage is so important to us. We both come from oral cultures and without knowing where you come from your sense of identity is severed, and that is so key to understanding who you are in navigating this space. And I think at this point in time, I feel so much so, that it is so much more difficult to navigate because all of the work that my ancestors have done in order for me to get here in a lot of ways is relevant because it gives us the strength and the empowerment to keep us moving forward, like you said about connection to self and resistance. But they’ve also never lived in this time, and so there is so much that we have to navigate without guidance. Even from our parents, like my mum doesn’t know what it’s like to be Tokelauan and Fijian, she only knows what it's like to be Tokelauan in a New Zealand and Australian context. Whereas I was born in New Zealand, moved to Australia and now my parents live in America. So the thing that we have as “children of the world” to kind of anchor us back to who we are and where we’re moving to is where we’ve come from. I know personally without that I would feel so much more loss than I already do.
My ancestry is literally everything to me and everything in the work that we do is tied to me trying to preserve that in these spaces, because I know that if I don’t it stops with me and then what happens to my children and their children? It is really important to our cultures that we come from that you’re not just thinking about yourself but about those who come after you. And spiritually, in these spaces, it’s not quite dead, but you become quite desensitised to it because there’s so much that will fill up your time and fill up your awareness and you suddenly loose your connection to spirituality faster here then on your land or if you were even 30 minutes out of the city at the beach. That is really hard as well because not only are we trying to hold onto our lineage and ancestors, but we have to acknowledge that we are inhabiting spaces that are actively severing its own spirituality from the land … so constantly it’s us trying to connect to ourselves and also connect to the spirit of the land and make sure there’s harmony between the two because we have to acknowledge that we are here on someone else's land trying to tell our stories. In all the work we do we acknowledge the land that we’re on and try to keep the peace and the harmony conversation happening between our own ancestors and the ancestors of the land. It is such an important part of contemporary practice that not enough storytellers do in 2017. Spirituality is real and it manifests in different ways for everyone but it’s real and it’s there and it’s actively working whether or not you look into it.
Emele I think that separation of land and people is something I definitely feel. Because there is only so much you can learn about your own culture when you’re not on the land and when you’re not living it, harvesting it, fishing from it. Your own sense of self and lineage is severed in a very literal way because you haven't been brought up and you’re not speaking your own language everyday. And then on top of that how do you create a space for yourself. I think we always have a discussion about how do you create a space for yourself and your voice without undoing the work of the indigenous people here or taking their spaces. In New Zealand they’re so much more apt with this conversation. When you look at their government funding for the arts … like Ayeesha can apply for grants specifically for Maori practitioners and I can apply for grants specifically for Pacific Islander practitioners… there’s room for that that has been created! Whereas here indigenous is homogenised. Which is what we talk about with the Black Birds collective. So how do we say, ‘Hey we have a voice and we’re struggling and there are things that we go through that’s specific to our communities’, without rocking the boat and taking away the focus of what’s already being said by the Indigenous community here. Because so much of what I think happens would be resolved if the Australian government and the broader white majority actually addressed what's happening to the Indigenous population. That’s what happened in New Zealand. Obviously the Maori people are going through a lot and there is a lot of struggling, but there is recognition and acknowledgement that they are the First People of that land and then from that everything else kind of trickles down. But in Australia we don’t even have that. How do we even navigate that space I think is what the tension is.
Can you talk me through your work ‘Counterface’ 2016
Ayeesha So we were talking about black culture and the influence that it has on people of colour … like black when you think of it, the term for black culture, is really African American/ Black American culture. How that has had an impact on people of colour who may identify as black or brown but aren't American is really interesting. These things that you're told by pop culture or society like ‘Oh you have a similar skin tone so you must be interested in these things as well’, or ‘If you want to be accepted you should be interested in these things as well’... how that affects your identity and who you perceive as yourself. How does that contribute to stereotypes and trying to fit in.
Emele When you graduate from drama school everyone is like you have to go to Los Angeles … the Mecca … and they nurture this idea inside of you that you could make it in America and that’s the be all, end all. But for us, making it in America means playing an African American role. For white actors making it in America means you can play yourself, the Australian, the British etc. A lot of the language that we were taught in those institutions were about knowing the cultures that we could play specifically. Also people around just constantly associate black culture with you.
On top of that it’s even more complicated … when we were growing up there was very little representation of women who looked like us in Australian media and television so we had no choice but to look overseas to the USA and so there is a part of us that does identify with Black American culture and admire it but how do you convey that in a conversation. Like yeah I love Rhianna and I think that what she does is amazing or I love Beyoncé’s new song and I think she’s amazing because of XYZ but that’s not all of you. I am also a Tokelauan Fijian woman or Ayeesha is also a Maori Grenadian woman and there’s so much beauty in our individual cultures. But people just look at us or want to have conversations with us that only use language that involves talking about Black American culture. Those ideas were the beginning of our work Counterface. We wanted to make a short film and this issue was at the tip of our tongues all the time. Especially when we were talking with other women, because we had Angela Sullen who is African American, Italian and Cherokee and Meklit Kibret is Ethiopian but she moved to New Zealand as a refugee with her family and then to Australia. So what also connects us as women of colour, as sisters, is Black culture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean like Black African American culture ... it just means that at this point in time Black culture or the word Black is the word that connects us. I guess it’s the only identifier that we have at the moment.
Emele We looked at a different item of commodified black culture for each woman. For Ayeesha it was some fluffy Fenty slides, for me it was the beautiful Dutch/African Wax Print fabrics that you see in places like South Africa and Kenya, for Angela it was Weave and for Meklit it was gold jewellery. For each of us, in different ways, we’ve had an engagement with those four items or what those items represent. For us the items are a sense of connection community and celebration, but at the same time they are all items that don’t come from our culture or our communities. The exploration of diasporas was that we’re all from different parts of the world and yet we’re drawn to these representations of black culture.
Emele I’ve really struggled with that conversation because I simultaneously don't think that I know anything about America but then I feel like I know quite a lot at the same time because I grew up watching a lot of American film and television and reading a lot of Black literature … I’ve been there often recently and to see the difference between what happens on the land and what we receive here in Australia, the filtering of that culture, is what I struggle with. It’s hard because we see things in the media and we’re like "that’s cool I wanna do that" or "I haven't seen anything like that before I wanna be part of that", but what we receive through social media and mainstream media is a commodification of that culture, it’s packaged, repurposed and sold to us to buy as consumers. So that complicates the conversation about cultural appropriation. Even around the use of the n word. Many consumers, white and black alike, think “I just bought Kendrick Lamar's new album and he uses the n word so I can too". It really spotlights the necessity to specify rules of engagement when you commodify your culture but also that’s almost impossible.
The cultural appropriation conversation is difficult when it comes to Black Australia, because in America, Black means descendants of slaves and the transatlantic slave trade. There is a very slight but visible difference between African-Americans (descendants of slaves) and American-Africans (free migrants or asylum seekers) populations. But in Australia, Black refers to the African-Australian population and the Aboriginal Indigenous population. In America there’s the Black population and then the Indigenous population and those too communities very rarely intersect … they do intersect - but rarely! Whereas in Australia they're conflated. Then you have those who look Black but aren’t. I’m Melanesian. Ayeesha, on her Grenadian side is from the Caribbean and so she has Black in her lineage as well … I’m not saying it’s literally a black and white conversation but it's so much more complex in Australia about how we engage in the conversation than I think we hear about in the mainstream media. Like Black in Australia doesn’t just mean Black it also means Indigenous and how do we as Indigenous people from other places engage with that as well as engage with that version of Black culture, the African-Australian version of Black culture, the African-American Black culture, the British-Black culture … because like yeah I identify with the way that they joke and the way they dress, their art but also that’s not our culture … that’s my struggle.
Ayeesha It’s hard as well because cultural appropriation as consumerism goes so much further than the girl at the festival in the headdress. Even Rihanna and Beyoncé have appropriated culture in recent works. You can’t place blame on a particular ethnic group. Globalisation and consumerism make it so accessible and so people feel like they have the right to take what they want. But there is a difference between sharing and acknowledging something and exploiting it. You take one photo of someone in an outfit and then it ends up on the internet and then billions of people can see it and do what they want with it. Cultural appropriation is so easy to do. I feel like there’s not enough education about the significance of cultural practices and customs so people don’t actually understand how offensive it is. Even people who have Mexican parties, they don’t understand how wearing a sombrero from the $2 store is actually quite offensive…
Emele And they consider it appreciation like “oh we love Mexican culture” … but it’s like hang on what do you actually know about Mexican culture? I absolutely agree with you … especially when the people in those communities that we identify with appropriate themselves, like when Rihanna got this Polynesian artist to tattoo traditional Polynesian tattoos on her hands in New Zealand. And then she got them tattooed over because she got so much flack for it, which is almost more disrespectful because of the cultural significance of those patterns! There’s just not enough awareness or conversation or challenging conversation about how you approach this issue. I’ve had my hair braided before and Fijian people have traditionally braided their hair but it’s a different type of braids. So if I get my hair braided people are going to be like that’s black culture, do you have the right to do that, you’re not black…
Ayeesha If people even bother to ask you if you are black…
God’s choice - Certified Organic Blackness / "Mā kaumātua tēnei tūru/Dabedabe sa Maroroi me nodra na Qase/This seat reserved for elders only” .
Emele Coconuts, they are such a Island icon, not just the coconut but the Coconut Can I think. That is in itself a very direct representation of consumerism. Like when you live on the land, when I go home I can just go up to a coconut tree and cut down a coconut, drink and husk it fresh. At the same time I could go down to the store and buy some coconut milk. Which is such a bizarre concept in itself. But here we don’t have the luxury of either of those options. You just have to buy your home through a can or you buy from Coles this glad wrapped husk coconut that you drink from (laughs). It’s just a really bizarre idea and I think we wanted to have that little piece of home but in a very obvious consumerist and commodified way.
The title ‘God’s Choice” … is about the fact that all of our countries have been heavily affected by Christianity and a lot of our loss of culture has a lot to do with that introduction of colonisation through Christianity and so the title is a play on that history. Christianity told us that our languages, our dances, our songs and our sexualities were all wrong. But for our little label it’s like no God chose us! (Laughs) … We’re certified, we’re right and we’re supposed to be here! and there’s more than one God so …
Ayeesha Well we wanted to put it in a language other than English because we feel like they’re not exposed enough. Especially in theatrical situations the audience is not ever given the opportunity to experience something in another language, unless it is in Opera. Theatre’s don’t want to take any risks and also they don’t trust that the audience is smart enough to follow the story. So we thought we’d put it in another language, and also to experiment with how people would deduce meaning.
Emele … it was a bit of a social experiment (laughs)
Ayeesha And we were also wondering if any of our Elders would come (laughs).
Emele (laughs) … Because in the Islands everyone usually sits on a matt, but if you’re an Elder you sit in a chair. That’s why we had the matt for anyone who wanted to sit and watch the film but then we also had the chair. It was a test to see if anyone would come and actually read it and then decide to sit but also if people who don't understand the language decided to sit on the bench anyway … What that would show? Because one, it’s not in your language and two, it tells you not to sit in the chair but if you choose to sit in the chair anyway …
Ayeesha So our parents are born in different countries then we were and then we were also raised in another country, so we’re kind of a melting pot of culture and identity … especially when it comes to the idea of home. Where is home for us? Which comes back to that ancestral connection, I think that’s where we find the source of home. It’s not somewhere physical because we move around so much and we’re connected to so many different places. The work is with Angela Sullen as well who has had a similar experience of different places … and it was just about finding out where you fit when you belong to so many places. And also looking at what it means when you don’t look like the majority of the population in the place where you live the most. I guess it’s about connection and how you find that connection when it’s not so easy, how to search for it … how do you find something that isn’t tangible.
Emele That work was slightly interactive. In the middle of the show we asked everyone to write down what countries they thought Ayeesha and Angela were from and people anonymously put their choices in a little hat….
Ayeesha We got Ghana, Ethiopian, Pacific Islander, Fiji, someone wrote down Tuvalu (laughs).
Emele I think because in the work itself there was a section about people asking “Where are you from?” and the work talks about not only how you yourself find comfort and connection in the spaces but also how you navigate those kinds of conversations, because you’re like, Woah first of all I’m not really sure where I’m from because I’m from multiple places but also it’s not really your business to ask that
Ayeesha So one woman came up to us before we started the show and was asking us where we were from and we were politely talking to her, and pretty much we had a section about the politics of asking someone where they’re from and the problems with it and then at the end of the show she came up to us and was like, "oh my god I’m so sorry, I had no idea, I didn’t realise asking where you’re from was such a loaded question". It was interesting to see how one conversation could change her perspective.
With the ‘Where are you from?’ question, we have Australian accents so a white person who may be born in Fiji wont be asked where are you from because of their skin colour whereas because our skin is different we get asked where are you from even though our voices clearly say that we’re from Australia.
Emele Like in America when people ask you where you're from, well at least with our skin complexion when you say a place people just accept that… that’s mostly with the black community. People would be like, ‘Hey where are you from, cause you sound a bit funny’ and I’d be like, ‘I live in Australia’. And that’s the end of the conversation. Where as here people are like,
‘Where are you from?’
‘Oh I grew up in Australia’.
‘No where are you ‘really’ from?
‘Oh so you’re asking my ethnicity...’
‘Oh I grew up in Australia’.
‘No where are you ‘really’ from?
‘Oh so you’re asking my ethnicity...’
So it’s just about highlighting those kinds of conversations. Creating awareness because even though it feels incredibly taxing to educate people it’s still important because it’s still happening.
Ayeesha It’s a real problem that POC are almost always asked about their ethnicity whereas white people aren’t. Through colonisation and globalisation whiteness has become so homogeneous, such a blanket label that I think society has forgotten that whiteness still exists on a spectrum. There are different types of whiteness, white people have migrated to Australia from all over the world just in the same way that there are different types of POC who have also migrated from a vast amount of countries. Yet white people aren’t subjected to the ‘Where are you from - no, where are you ‘really’ from?’ line of questioning. We need to unpack and talk about the power of this question, because really it’s just another way that white people try to assert supremacy over POC; telling us that this is their land and we shouldn’t be here, which is ironic, right? It’s like there’s this fear of POC that can only be diminished when you can put us in a box and stereotype us accordingly. We also need to discuss the right language to use when asking about someone’s ethnicity and when we choose to ask those questions. If you’re meeting someone for the first time and immediately asking their ethnicity you need to check yourself, because whether you know it or not you’re playing a power game and you’ve got to acknowledge and deal with whatever prejudice and/or fear you have.
Emele To be honest, there are two questions I have no patience for from white people and they are “Can I touch your hair? And “Where are you from?”. I feel so desensitised by constantly being berated by white people with these two questions and I automatically switch off. But I honestly don’t care if people of colour ask me because they’re looking for a way to connect to another body that is also marginalised so I get it. And POC never ask to touch my hair because they respect me and my body. There’s a great moment in Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui where Miranda Tapsell’s character asks her sisters new boyfriend (who is white) where he’s from, in the same way we get asked, and she goes hard asking him “Yeaaaah, but where are your parents from?” until he eventually traces his lineage to convicts, and that made me laugh because that’s what it’s like for us! Intent seems key to me. You can work out straight away whether someone is asking where you are from because they want to connect to you or if they’re trying to work out whether or not you’re a threat.
Do you ever feel just over the emotional labour of like educating people?
Ayeesha + Emele YES !! (laughs) All the time. We’re always just like Ehhhhhhh can’t do it anymore, exhausted ahhhh.
Emele But also gotta keep going, because like Ayeesha said our ancestors worked very hard for us to be here so we have in that sense a lot more privilege to even have these conversations and work in these spaces.
Ayeesha Definitely, but it is exhausting.
The layering and intersection of movement, spoken word and music in this work is really interesting … can you talk a bit more about using all three mediums of expression and the process of performing them all in one work?
Emele Such an important part of our practice is integrating our formal training from drama school with our traditional performance practices. I guess acting is very movement orientated but where we come from our movement is the form of song and dance so I guess we were just looking for a way to integrate song, dance and spoken word. We just love poetry and also that’s another way of connecting to our community. Spoken word in Sydney is a very small and niche yet thriving community at the same time. Not enough people generally speaking hear poetry. So it was just us trying to create a form for ourselves of all the things that we love in one space.
My first introduction to storytelling was singing and dancing Tokelauan and Fijian stories, and both my grandmothers were master weavers so I’ve been raised surrounded by multiple forms of storytelling as a way to preserve culture.
Ayeesha We would love to play more with our own languages. But our knowledge of them is limited at the moment, so that’s something that we’re actively trying to work on. But also we feel that song is a great way to bridge that gap because a lot of the ways we know words in our languages is through song and music so that’s another way that we’re able to contribute to our performance. And at the beginning of everything that we do an acknowledgement and welcome in our languages, which is something that is really important to us. We want to keep experimenting with that and definitely experiment with writing languages as well and providing that to an audience, like what we were saying before, audiences have the capability to understand but it’s just that they’re not given the opportunity to. Everything is so tightly packaged these days and no one wants to take any risks. Everything is so commercialised and commodified and it’s all about capitalism and making money.
ORA/MATE - (first/last or life/death)
Ayeesha We started with the idea of how you can be the first and last of your culture to experience something and how that’s portrayed in the media as something romantic…
Emele As if it’s something we should aspire to as indigenous peoples or marginalised communities … like celebrating the fact that this is the first person to do something for their community in itself is a romanticism because white people love to push the, “Look at how they beat the odds” narrative. Although yes it is a great thing for someone from our community to achieve something it also is a great sadness. It means that we’ve lost something and had to work really hard to get that back or it means that people would rather keep us on the sidelines and celebrate this singular achievement than try to actively work to preserve our culture or community so that there is no first, it’s just a continuation. That’s where the work started when we initially pitched it, but when we started developing it, the concept of being “the last” evolved into this work about the two sides to every story, in this instance the Indigenous explanation for the eruption vs. the European (Scientific) explanation of the last sightings of the Terraces and the villagers.
Ayeesha And then from there we were thinking about how culture is packaged and how that is used by people outside the culture to profit but also how it is used by people within the culture to profit, so how exploitation occurs inside and outside. You see so many communities especially in the Islands rely on tourism as their income but at the same time they’re having to sell parts of their culture to do that. So how does that work? What’s the price they have to pay? How does it affect their communities?
The situation in New Zealand is a story that I’d heard a few years back when I was visiting. There were just so many accounts of how tourism and capitalism contributed to the eruption. How it was identified by the indigenous people and by the Europeans as the cause of the eruption, which was something really interesting because in most cases there is a European explanation of why a disaster happens and an indigenous explanation and they never intersect but with this one, both parties agreed on the problem.
Emele They both experienced the same things but their explanations for why it happened or what happened was both different because of their own knowledge systems. And it was so well documented in comparison to a lot of other events that it kind of jumped out as the story during our creative development. It’s like anything when someone says, ‘Oh there’s a lot of beetles in Sydney’, and you suddenly see beetles everywhere (laughs) … once you start working on something you see it everywhere and you become more aware of it. Like when I was in America I was staying in Louisiana, which is the Native American nation of Houma. It is much harder to connect with native American communities there because of how isolated they are so I had to drive three hours to go and meet with them, and I experienced this complete random encounter where I met a woman who is a weaver, who is going to an International summit that’s happening in New Zealand early next year, which is about Indigenous peoples finding a way to make tourism work for them. That was a complete chance encounter because I saw something on the internet and I was like, ‘Hey I’m going to find these people, and then to meet someone who was going to a summit that focuses on that issue! I was like, ‘Omg we’re doing a project about this!’ … and for me that’s our ancestors telling us, ‘You’re on the right path!’ There are so many little moments like that.
It really affects the way that you view yourself as an indigenous person buying into tourism in this globalised world. Tourism doesn’t necessarily mean travelling to those places or countries and experiencing the packaged tour but also cultural appropriation, like how do we ensure that we are appreciating a culture without damaging and destroying it at the same time. That also goes for environment. How are we being responsible active indigenous peoples who live in Sydney and pay our bills and have a roof over our head. We don’t grow our own food and all those things so it’s like a never-ending conversation about responsibility to land and to people and self that is rooted in the development of that idea.
Would you call Black Birds a feminist collective?
Emele I don’t like it personally …
Emele Because I think we are feminist... but that’s just because we’re women.
Ayeesha We say we’re feminist but the collective isn’t a feminist … the work that we focus on creating isn’t about feminism.
Emele It’s just about women! People who are women! So we obviously believe in the rights and equity of women and there’s not enough of that and that’s also why we do this work but we don’t want to be like, ‘We’re amazing women doing amazing things for women’ like we just go and do it … does that make sense? And for us the focus is about women because that’s our lived experience, so we just make work about women, with women, for women ... that’s it! And if other people want to engage with the work that’s amazing but yeah it’s not like we carry a flag around that says 'We’re Feminist'.
So if Black Birds “make work about women, with women, for women... that’s it!” … but it’s not a ‘feminist’ collective … what does a ‘feminist’ collective with your understanding of feminism look like?
Emele Hmmm, complex question, but not impossible to answer. To be honest, I think the only way you can be truly feminist is to know who you are, where you’re from, what you have to offer and what your limits are. To me feminism is about solidarity, opportunity and up-skilling. Showing solidarity, creating opportunity and up-skilling through shared knowledge. You have to listen to others right? If you know that you receive certain privileges because society favours the type of femininity you identify with, then you have a responsibility to make space for women who aren’t afforded those privileges. Not to tell their stories, but say “Hey sis, I see you, I’m here for you, I can offer you space to speak, and I can teach you what I know so we can both move forward from the start line together and not in competition.”
I think also what's really important for me, is checking my perception of what that word 'feminism' means in relation to my own colonised mindset. Because feminism where my mum comes from is completely different to its meaning where my dad comes from. Like I have to think about the idea of gender roles in both my parents households that they grew up in and how that affected me and what I consider to be a traditional gender role. And so for me it’s making sure that in relation to gender and sexuality my expectations aren't binary, black or white and that that doesn’t seep into our work.
Ayeesha Feminism is in a lot of ways, about gender equality and standing up for women, listening to women, telling women’s stories and making women's voices heard. But it's not always that simple. The feminist battle that Women of Colour (WOC) are engaged in is very different to the one that white women are fighting because historically, Women of Colour have always been placed far below white women on the social and political ladder. The intersection of race and gender mean that there are a whole lot of issues that WOC have to face that white women wouldn’t even necessarily think of … so while there’s a WOC run Black Lives Matter movement, and a group of 700,000 WOC farmworkers pushing the #MeToo movement forward there’s also the white female focused Free the Nipple situation. I’m not saying that Free The Nipple doesn’t have importance or that white women aren’t involved in Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, but the difference in the movements really shows the difference in historical and lived experiences - really, when you look at the state of the world for a WOC not just now, but for a long while, the freedom of nipples is low on the priority list.
Also, since colonisation there’s been this ‘white saviorism’ where white women and white men have been trying to ‘protect’ brown and black women from their own people, culture and traditions. The introduction of Christianity and Western practices to our communities took thousands of years of our culture and told us it was bad and therefore we were too. POC, and it’s not just WOC in these situations, it’s really everyone of colour who was colonised or Westernised. Either seen as exotic, hyper-sexual beings, or savage, primitive and simple minded. And because of this since colonisation POC haven’t had their own agency in these countries; including Australia, Grenada, Aotearoa, Fiji & Tokelau. You can really see this with Women of Colour, especially Indigenous women, with colonisers taking control of their reproductive rights, stealing children, denying wages, and with the high level of WOC who go missing every year without any attempt to find them. So it’s a really long struggle, because there is such an imbalance of power and a never ending story of white people thinking they know what’s best for brown and black people, especially women. We are both very aware of what it’s like to be women of colour in this country and the differences that we’ve had in our education and in our life compared to our white female friends. It’s a big thing.
Emele I think the only reason it’s in our work is because it is us. We are very literally intersecting walking beings. We have to navigate multiple communities and spaces. We have no choice but to be intersectional, but at the same time we also have to acknowledge that we are able bodied hetero cisgender women and although we are marginalised, we still experience privilege. I don’t know what it feels like to be a trans woman, or a woman living with a disability or a lesbian so all I can do is try to make space where possible for those women and not speak on their behalf. There’s shit that white women don’t get that we have to experience and therefore they shouldn’t speak on our behalf as feminists championing for our rights. It honestly really bugs me when white women sell their work as something all women can relate to because I’m made up of multiple homes, languages, customs, traditions and economic circumstances so unless your work acknowledges the complexity of what it means to navigate all of that, I can’t relate to it. I know some of the most intelligent, talented beautiful women in the world who I call my sisters but because society has taught them over and over again that they don’t hold the same worth as a white women they’ll second guess applying for a job, or asking to be paid what they’re worth because we have been taught to just “be grateful” for what we have. We come from cultures that teach us to be humble and grateful and respect your elders, but that doesn’t serve you in the western economy, it just allows people to take advantage of you. So we are fighting much more on so many more levels and until white feminists acknowledge that and make space for us to speak on our behalf than there will continue to be a rift.
There’s a great book called 'De Colores Means All of Us' by Elizabeth Martinez. It talks about working together as a multicultural/coloured society from a Latina perspective (specifically referencing America and Mexico). I think it’s phenomenal because it highlights moments in history where people working together from different ethnic communities achieved great things.
I don’t really think that race and feminism creating binaries is something to overcome. It’s something that needs to be embraced by those who resist it. My ethnicity will always inform my lived experience as a woman, I’m never going to be able to separate that and I’m not interested in doing so. My cultural lineage makes me a stronger, more complex and interesting woman and that’s something that women who are different to me need to learn to understand, not dismiss as “political correctness” or “overcomplicating”. It does not hinder me from being the best I can be. What hinders me are the infrastructures that are dominated and were created by the western patriarchy. Embracing one another’s differences, not erasing them, is in my opinion the best possible outcome for feminism.
Ayeesha There is the saying I guess that a black body is a political body, just by being born in this body I’m already a political being because there has been so many things attached to blackness to do with politics that have nothing to do with me when I’m born. But then I grow up and I become a part of a society that’s put all this politics on me so yeah it is a political body. Not by my choice, but by the way that the world has become since colonisation. So yeah I think the personal is political and also I feel like the universal is in the specific so like the stories that we tell. We’ve been so specific with our experiences and how we tell them but they’re the ones that women of colour are like, “Omg I can’t believe you said that! That thing happened to me”. We’re like blown away because we’ve lived in all these different places and have grown up in all these different situations and yet we’ve all had the same experience because we are women and of colour.
Emele I agree. I have nothing to add to that.
And finally what are the projects that you are working on at the moment or hope to create in the future?
Emele We want to be Oprah …
Ayeesha Basically take over the dam world (laughs)
Emele That’s the long term goal I think (laughs) Oprah over for dinner, Obama for breakfast (laughs). We started this as two women who just want to tell stories that we care about in our own way without having someone be like No, no, no … and now it’s grown, because it has to … to create opportunities for other women to tell their stories, so I think generally speaking the long term goal is to be in a position financially and creatively where we can give women that agency over their own stories. And if they don’t know how to but have a story they want to tell, we can give them and teach them the skills to do that. Also to curate spaces where they can do that safely without feeling judged … feeling challenged maybe but not feeling judged … that is really important.
We’re going to have an airline, a film company, a production company (laughs) … we just want to push for it because … Why not? And also that’s something that’s really lacking in Australia. Something to admire about the Black American community is that they have nailed capitalism and also nailed the commodification of their own culture on their own terms. That’s something that we in Australia are still trying to work out, like how do I be a good business and make money responsibly but also be able to tell my own stories. Telling our stories with other people’s money or supervision is just not how we work. So yeah that’s the long term goal. We’re still working on ORA/MATE, that is a long term project. There’s so much involved in terms of protocol of how to approach that issue that we have to be really meticulous about. How myself and five women from different parts of the world and more than five different types of performance disciplines will come together is really exciting. We haven’t really been in this world yet so just navigating that is really great but also challenging to co-ordinate.
image by Gianna Hayes