Snacks and Chats S03E03 - JAHRA WASASALA
Towards the end of last year, I spoke with Jahra 'Rager' Wasasala shortly after she'd performed her solo 'a world, with your wound in it' and the group show ORCHIDS at the Tempo Dance Festival. She spoke about the come-down after performing such works following years of prep, the conflicting tension that comes with the question 'where are you from'?, the problem with terms like Polynesian and Melanesian, not being afraid as an artist, the challenges of training institutions for young creatives, her mantra ‘The world as a woman’s body’, the creative influence of her mother and much, much more.
Listen to the episode below. For those who prefer to read, excerpts from the interview are also included below, along with beautiful images taken by Brendan Kitto around Avondale. But please listen anyway, if you'd like to hear the full conversation <3
On her response when people ask her where she's from:
I think it always depends on who is asking and how moody I feel that day. I think at the moment I identify with being mixed race. I always say that I am mixed, but in the Pacific I hail from the islands of Fiji. That’s what I usually say because I know that’s what they’re asking. They’re not asking, ‘How much palagi do you have?’ They’re asking, ‘Why are you brown? And why do you look that way?’ I think that’s my ethnic answer. I think if I’m being short with them, I’ll usually say, not from here. Or, not from where you think, or somewhere far away from here.
What is interesting is that question is one of the fundamental themes of my work and I feel like that is something I’m actively trying to figure out live. Figuring out that conflict that so much of humanity is born with. Or especially people who don’t feel like they have really strong connections to their homeland or they don’t know what home looks like or they have problems with feeling like their body is their home. That’s a real core part of my work, so sometimes when people ask me ‘where are you from’ I’m like, if you really want to see what that feels like for me, my whole career is based on that conflicting tension. But a beautiful tension. And a tension that has made me this, and made me what I am now. It’s such an eternal human question.
On 'success' not being real:
I think the work artists do is intangible and cannot be measured. I think accolades and titles and things like that, they’re great, but they’re for other people. If an artist is really listening to their calling, then those things don’t really matter. They help support you in a CV sense, or help support you in applications, and that’s really how I see it as well. Anything that I have achieved in the past few years, I don’t bind myself spiritually, and hopefully emotionally, to it or else it really can hurt me when I’m trying to create new work and that expectation can be too much. I think it’s also important for young artists who are still in training to not visualise success when they are training because I feel like it’s a real hindrance to their growth as human beings if they’re trying to measure themselves up to people who don’t even believe in that shit. Most people who are achieving those big things, you ask them what matters and they’re like, 'Not that'. None of that actually matters. I think connecting to other humans is the success, and that can’t be measured either. You might connect to someone and they’ll never tell you. So trying to be happy with what you’re doing, I think is the most important thing, which is also an impossible feat. Especially for me.
On the 'come-down' after performing a work you've spent years developing:
I think it’s always really hard with dance because there is such prep time. For ORCHIDS we have been developing that for four years, and that was our first premiere of it the other week. My solo, I’ve been working on it for two years. It’s the first time I’ve felt like I was ready to present something that was closer to what I’m happy with or closer to the world that I know is in my head and my body, but I wasn’t mature enough to present it yet. I had to spend a couple years earning the right to perform that kind of work I think.
With poetry, it’s so much simpler because I can just write a poem, run over it a bit, do it at an open mic or a poetry event and get that instant gratification. Whereas with dance we have to be researching and developing 9-5 and trying to find this world that will only appear for two nights and then try and be OK with it. I think with most artists there isn’t a lot spoken on post and how we deal with the process that happens after a show is done. And how we look after ourselves and how we keep our creative world running throughout our lives so we don’t feel like we’re building up and then cutting ourselves off all the time. It’s still something I’m learning. I’m the kind of artist that, most of my themes, I call them life works, so I feel like I’m always working on them so it’s not as devastating when a show is over. Or else I would be in foetal position on the couch crying after every show. The come down is real, but the highs are much higher.
I’m definitely an artist that needs to learn to not be so hard on myself. That’s also been a lesson this time around is how to enjoy what I’m doing and not punish myself for not achieving something that’s actually quite unachievable. A very Jahra feeling.
On the terms Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian being problematic:
It wasn’t until early last year I first heard about Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia being problematic. I was temporarily sitting in on the Pacific advisory board at the museum, and that’s when I first heard about those terms being problematic. I started to hear more and more about these terms and their roots and the black Pacific and how that is never talked about, and Polynesia being a blanket term to cover all of us, and all of these terms are inherently racist and inherently classist, and they have roots in slavery with blackbirding in the Pacific. Melanesia is literally like melanin, it’s not a nice term. They all are shade systems and how big your island is and things like that. Micronesia has been heavily bombed by the States, and still is being bombed yet we don’t learn about that at all here. Because we’re so in our ‘Polynesia’ vibe, we don’t even see them as being siblings - in the Solomon Islands, in Guåhan, in the Marshallese, all these islands that are undergoing all this trauma and we just have been taught to not see them.
In most publications about me, anything like that, it’s always 'Polynesian'. If you’re gonna use these racist terms, at least use the right one. Just because I’m light skinned doesn’t inherently mean that I fall into this category. You are erasing a whole other sector of us. I think it’s a real loss. It’s not any of our fault. We’re not taught this at all, it’s not in schools, we have to leave New Zealand.
On training institutions being built to break you:
I think that was really important for me to understand what that kind of resistance felt like at that young age, and also to understand that I’m not made for everyone. There are some people in the world who won’t get it and who won’t get me and who don’t know how to mentor or help me, or even hear me. I was told things during uni to stop doing poetry because it was a distraction and I was kicked out of class for what I was wearing and I was told that I would never get a job for how I look. I was the only brown girl in my class, and when I was in first year – in the school. It was very isolating to be in that environment with a whole year group who were already studio trained. I came from hip hop, I came from Avondale, I didn’t have ballet or contemporary technique so I was already the underdog in this year group who were all so talented and beautiful dancers. And I used to be like, why am I like this? Why does my body not do these things in ballet, why can’t I fit in these clothes the same way that they do? Why is it that every time I express myself visually, I get told off for it when it’s the only thing that makes me feel safe in this environment. So I think just as much as I was supported, I was also challenged and I think that was all really important for me. At the time I felt like it was massive and the end of the world but looking back they were all little examples of the bigger things I was going to face when I got out.
On ‘The world as a woman’s body’ being her mantra for the past two years:
I think it got really triggered by me learning about the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada when I was over there doing a residency. Thousands of women who are missing and murdered and they don’t get investigated at all – because they are indigenous. I think learning about that really made me look at other places in the world and realise that the assault on a woman’s body, or on women in general is very much connected to how we have disconnected from the planet. Everything I’m reading, everything I’m watching, everything I’m looking at all seems to come right back to that very real feeling and it’s also super interesting to see artists around me both close and overseas who all have the same concept. It’s not just me who magically came across this, this is just my contribution to a very ancient conversation.
It’s comforting to feel like we’re all working on the same thing in different ways. The two shows I did were speaking to the same thing, just very different versions, or takes or aesthetics on it. At the the end of the day it was about women and returning them to their place of honour and divinity and how they used to hold whole communities and trying to return to what that could have felt like. In the ORCHIDS work it was about trying to re-establish how women relate to each other and exploring the dark and light elements of what it means to be a woman in this day and age. For my solo it was about returning a demoted spirit back to being divine. Similar concepts but the same origin. It’s really comforting to not feel like I’m alone in this. When I was younger I was like, ‘I’m definitely bat-shit crazy.’ I’m stoked to be able to talk about it and not be in danger.