“How do you mobilize people who fear change, who fear shifting the status quo, and how do you suggest to them that as a minority they can win?”
—Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies
Transformative art is rule-breaking art, all the more so when addressing the obsolete norms, values and laws hindering Indigenous rights and Decolonizing Gender. For the purposes herein, Decolonizing Gender is defined as the process of removing of all stigmas placed on gender roles by society, religion, and popular culture. For example, transforming the normative model of gender as a binary (i.e. male and female) is about transcending the concept that all outsider gender identities are freakish. A self-identified gendered person, here defined as a transgender-identified individual, is a person born of one gender, who eventually identifies with the opposite gender.
Decolonizing Gender is also a process that recognizes the ongoing history of colonization in relation to gender, whereby colonization is a defined, foremost, as a process of assimilation. Thereby, Decolonizing Gender recognizes the traumas of assimilation and offers an opportunity to self-educate and overcome through active participation in social justice. Decolonizing Gender affirms human identity as fluid, with regard to individual self-expression.
Indigenous cultures have a legacy recognizing two-spirit, or gendered identities. Settler (un)civilization is marred by an implacable lack of capacity to harmonize socio-economics with ecological sustainability. Nowhere is this dysfunctional relationship more revealing than in inter-social conflicts between dominant hetero-normative and settler cultures with Gendered and Indigenous ways of knowing, being and relating.
Multimedia and performance artist Shigeyuki Kihara essentially decolonizes the image, decolonizes art and the body in the same breath, or the same pose, as she decolonizes gender. The first living artist from Samoa, New Zealand and the Pacific region to hold a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Kihara’s work is now part of its permanent collection. Kihara’s signature series, “Fa’a Fafine: In a Manner of a Woman” is on loan from the Met for the National Gallery of Canada’s Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art exhibit showing until September 2, 2013. Sakahàn means “to light a fire” in Algonquin languages.
Expressly stating her identity as an artist first and foremost, before fa’afafine gender and ancestral heritage, part of Kihara’s work in decolonizing art itself has brought her to what in Samoan is called tanaloa. As she translated for ABC Sydney speaking of her 2010 work for the Sydney Festival, Tanaloa – Walk the Talk, “Tanaloa in the Samoan philosophy translates as a process of discussion between two parties coming together in order to find mutual ground based on love, harmony and peace.” In Tanaloa – Walk the Talk, Kihara gathered different cultural, religious and ethnic communities through musical collaborations to exhibit social harmony.
Kihara’s work speaks to decolonization in the context of the LGBT liberation movement, where for example, Kihara is quoted in Aesthetica Magazine speaking to the independence of the Fa’a Fafine “because most of the time the Western queer movement is driven by, catered for, and to benefit gay white men.” As in the wider area of international indigenous art, “Fa’aFafine: In a Manner of a Woman” confronts normative misrepresentations of transgender persons, “particularly with those who are documentary filmmakers, journalists and anthropologists who continue to misrepresent Fa’a Fafine purely through their fascination with the ‘primitive and exotic’ cultural sexual practice,” Kihara said for Aesthetica.
Themes related to how exoticism and primitivism play into authenticity and representation are a focal point of reflection for indigenous artists in the Sakahàn exhibit. Kihara’s art stands among over 150 works of art by over 80 artists from 16 countries, including the work, Blanket Stories by Seneca artist Marie Watt from Seattle, USA, which invites public participation. Kihara’s work, exhibited at Sakahàn, invites viewers to take a closer look at the human body as a medium in and of itself, in the creative project of modern history. Indigenous art, in the manner of Kihara, addresses colonial history through both austere criticisms as well as through satire, relating to Western history as a history of relation to the human body as subversive in its natural form. Historic representations of the gendered and feminine body are re-presented to the dominant psyche through transformative and self-expressed representations of the full spectrum and innate diversity of human identity.
With a background in fashion education, Kihara addresses not only the decolonization of the human body through gendered perspectives, but also the decolonization of body coverings, such as clothing and consumer accessories that so often define modern identity. “To me the global fashion industry is one of many imperial forces that is driven by, catered for and to benefit the First World through the exploitation of the Third World resources,” Kihara said in an interview with Peril Magazine. Other indigenous artist express similar distaste for the representative values and norms of fashion consumerism, such as Canadian First Nations artist Kent Monkman’s satirical pieces such as East vs. West, Sunday in the Park or Charged Particles in Motion which displaces the Western imagination of the stoic Indian with the homoerotic fantasies of Louis Vuitton-toting Aboriginal men dominating white settlers in the pristine landscapes of the pioneer days. Here, again, the artist challenges normative gender perspectives in light of a racially biased history, most illustratively emphasized through culturally dominant re-presentations of the human body.
Literally, Fa’a Fafine translates from the Samoan, “like a woman”, the complex gender identity has been defined by Kihara as “Samoan of Third Experience” and also as the central and foundational human gender identity, from which male and female originally derives. To many, including those at the Asia Pacific Triennial, Kihara is simply “Diva”, where in 2002 she exhibited a dance performance celebrating the role of women and simultaneously recognizing the impacts of colonization and Christianity with a subversive and entertaining twist.
Kihara’s art conveys a universal depiction of how colonization seeks to deface indigenous cultures and eventually makes a big spectacle of it, packaging it and making a profit off of it. To survive is to see through the power of control. After privately engaged in active cultural preservation, survivors become highly educated and rise above the oppressors, while passing on vital knowledge to future generations.
In its more immediate and poignant forms, art is not merely show, or exhibition. Art is the most accurate representation of life, and most able facilitation of cultural knowledge, especially where it voices the internal psyche, or the spirituality of an individual or community. Everything else – worldly experience, common perception, media information, and modern consumerism – is more characteristic of a show, as nothing more than appearance, spectacle or display.
“Swamped by the knowledge of external objects, the subject of all knowledge has been temporarily eclipsed to the point of seeming nonexistence,” wrote Carl Jung in 1946. Throughout his life, Jung alluded to the notion that reality occurs first and foremost in the psyche, and that the objective world “out there” is merely a reflection of a more true, internal experience. Similarly, Jung’s notion continues with the meaning of stories shared from Gendered worldviews and Indigenous art since time immemorial.
Contemporary Samoan novelist, painter and poet, Sia Figiel embraces her multifaceted intercultural spirituality, as she exemplifies Jungian existentialism, through creativity. “I definitely work towards a merging of the physical and the metaphysical to create a more spiritual space with my art,” said Figel in an interview for Issue #3 (September 2001-June 2002 ) of Frigatezine. “Beauty and peace and chaos. I am a painter of the twenty-first century — a walking contradiction.”
Art allows you to create spaces for yourself that otherwise do not exist. If that means a progression towards abstraction or toward or away from indigenous art, then perhaps it is both. But ultimately, people see my paintings, and their interpretation is really what it’s all about as well.
The artist fulfills a narrative role in society that refocuses normative cultural attitudes toward a deeper reality of internalized identity, psychic belonging, and a sacred union between human life and the life of all creation.
Still, immigrant narratives revitalize the relational knowledge of ecological tradition. Where storytelling arts give voice and agency to Gendered worldviews and Indigenous voices, the holism of human individuality becomes central and necessary to the enduring harmony of collectives. The story of Elephant Song, a multimedia theatre work by Green Fools Theatre in Calgary, Alberta, speaks to the perennial themes of collective harmony, addressing gender, immigration and ecology along the way.
Honoring ancestral and ecological heritage is integral to Elephant Song, as heard through its music, composed and performed by a daughter of Southeast Asia who immigrated to Canada in 1982. Through đàn tranh and electronica, experiential individuality is the common denominator for both the content of immigration and the style of intuitive composition featured in the play. Semi-autobiographical, Elephant Song, as with Indigenous art, is both a representation, as well as example, of retaining one’s honor for ancestral and ecological heritage, and the journey of finding holism in the ambiguities and spectrums of contemporary human identity.
Elephant Song depicts the hardships and displacements of wild Thai elephants, as well as the displacement of a Vietnamese family. To begin the story, a mother flees from the fall of Ho Chi Minh City with two infant girls. A wild Thai elephant later discovers the feral infant protagonist, displaced from her mother and sister. The depiction of a feral child raised through interspecies compassion is a metaphor to represent every child as born of nature, without a predetermined gender identity.
The elephants leave the infant to be raised by a shaman, who soon after has a vision of the girl walking with elephants. The vision is fulfilled when the girl grows to become an independent elephant conservationist, rescuing elephants for the rest of her life. As the girl grows into her role in the environment, so she grows into herself, in comparison with the cultivation of gender identity as a spiritual maturation.
Along the way, other human characters influence the nameless protagonist of Elephant Song in her journey to self-identify as a woman, conservationist and member of a displaced immigrant family. Most of the male characters are quite absent and violent, such as poachers and farmers with guns, exhibiting the widespread hurtful treatment of elephants, currently pressing many species to the brink of extinction. Male characters are sundered from ecological harmony through preoccupations with demolition and construction over the once lush, fertile forested land.
Elephant Song calls forth the complex interrelationships of gender identity within one’s being, as with the environment. Female characters are mostly facilitators, who exhibit the maternal nature, yet more, are facilitators of proactive solutions to sustainable living. Despite the pure negativity of a few male characters, others exhibit a relational complexity with the environment and their fellow human beings, to mirror the sophistications of modern gender identity. For example, the pirate murders the mother with two infants during their emigration by sea. Similarly, the poacher and tourists disrespect and disregard elephant life. The passport hawker, however, gifts a passport, and therefore freedom, to a mother after hearing her traditional music. Likewise, the farmer releases an elephant from harm after taking advice from the child protagonist.
Uniquely, the shaman signifies the holism of the human being, in mind and spirit. The shaman is a male, yet exhibits the feminine traits of hurting, compassion and understanding, effectively transcending the mutual separatism inherent in the dominant gender binary. Similarly, the shaman envisions the harmony of interspecies relationship, crystallizing a vision holism among all creation, as within one’s self. Exemplified in the feminine, the mother sacrifices herself so that her two babies can carry on in life.
The protagonist finds solitude and contentment in her inner strengths, building effective communion with wild elephants. Bringing them to safety at an elephant sanctuary instated by a compassionate Thai lady, Elephant Song disseminates conservationist sympathies. Convinced and moved by the protagonist’s persistent rescue efforts, the Thai lady is also based on a true story of biological conservation in Thailand. The Thai woman offers sanctuary for elephants, and also temporarily nurses the heroine back to life. In keeping with respect for the self-expression of gender identity, and the non-predetermined gender of the feral child, at no time does the Thai woman say, “be my daughter.” She only facilitates the protagonist in being proactive in her quest for life.
The protagonist of Elephant Song, raised by elephants and a shaman, was led by her deep cultural roots, symbolized in the shaman, and her ecological heritage, symbolized in the elephants, to tread a journey of self-identity. Balancing holism and independence cultivates harmonious relationships between self and nature. Out of the touch of his loving heart, the shaman provides the protagonist personally, as his cultural legacy would provide to all collectively, an opportunity to fulfill a unique role in life: to share responsibility and empathy for all creation through human-ecological awareness.
Elephant Song explores Shamanic Taoism as a spiritual tradition of Vietnam, and Southeast Asia, among other regions on the planet. Shamanic Taoism reveals the duality, and the thin veil of the masculine-feminine binary. Here, light meets dark, destruction meets rebirth. The Buddhist teachings of Southeast Asia, exhibited in the way of an immigrant’s reconciling her traditional worldview, sees unconditional compassion and the Bodhi nature in all as the facilitation of kindness. Likewise, dualities inherent in gender identity cultivate internal interrelationships with respect to the immigrant’s navigation of family behaviors of a marginalized cultural upbringing with the learned behaviors of the normative social model. Such dualities arise from the immigrant experience in the examples of reusing things, purchasing power, work ethics, relationships and friendships.
Like the assimilation of Indigenous and Gendered identities, immigrants are also compartmentalized into acceptable and protocol-based cultural assimilations where their originating cultures are recognized as token and superfluous. The cultures from which the immigrants originate are seen as entertaining tidbits to add to the receiving country’s so-called multicultural tapestry. In reality, most immigrants face much culture shock and are persuaded to a Western culture of overconsumption and overstimulation by consumer entertainment. In Canada, immigrants are encouraged to exhibit their original cultures merely in a show-and-tell, talent-show style.
Like gender identity, an immigrant’s cultural identity is abandoned, often due to feelings of shame while submitting to the dominant culture. Immigrants accept colonization. As Healing and Reconciliation Program Animator and member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, Lori Ransom said at the ‘Wisdom on the Journey’ Truth and Reconciliation Conference in Indus, Alberta, “When you took your citizenship, you essentially signed Treaty with me.”
The Western culture has provided education, so that the immigrant can see to decolonize oneself by actively preserving one’s own self identity, cultural identity, gender identity, and rise above to lead a life with honor for one’s self and heritage. Still, Aboriginal leadership from global Indigenous eldership warns of the dependence of First Peoples’ on Western institutions, whether spiritual as in Elder Dave Courchene or artistic as in Samoan poet Sapa’u Ruperake Petaia. “That was one of the most successful things that the colonizer did, was to remove that special significant role that the Grandmothers had in our society,” Leading Earth Man of the Anishnabe Nation, Eagle Clan and former member of the Wisdom Keepers of the United Nations since 1992 Elder Dave Courchene Nii Gaani Aki Innini said in Calgary, Alberta during Aboriginal Awareness Week. “Once they were put into institutions, our people suffered great loneliness from the Grandmother and from the Mothers.”
Transformative Decolonization honors and instills a worldview of unceasing revolutionary freedom through creative acts in continuity with the nature of life as diverse and self-expressed. “Literature is, in essence, the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution,” stated the French philosopher and anti-institutional writer Jean Paul-Sartre in his essay, What is Literature? So, in keeping with revolutionary existentialism, art, and more specifically transformative Indigenous art, evokes the subjectivity of an individual in permanent revolution.
With diligent grace, Kihara often repeats and affirms the role of the artists in keeping with a society in permanent revolution in various manners throughout her voluminous interviews. “As an artist, a Samoan and a Fa’afafine my daily existence questions a wide range of Western classifications that people base a major part of their lives on, that shape their cognitive systems and worldview,” said Kihara for Peril Magazine in 2009. “People like me can cause havoc to the point of getting physically attacked, especially by those who feel their whole existence and worldview has been undermined and threatened.”