This text is my earnest response to the question posed to me:
“How do artists approach cultural diversity in relation to their work or arts practice?”
In 2001 I was commissioned by Urban Theatre Projects to write and perform my first full-length solo performance, Fa’a fafine, named after the cultural phenomenon of the same name. Fa’a fafine is a feminine role in Samoan society ascribed to either effeminate men or men with no women in their family to assist the matriarch with her domestic duties. Those reading this probably know as much as I do about fa’a fafine, it wouldn’t surprise me if they knew more. But that is not the point. It’s not the point to know anything about fa’a fafine or anything “Samoan” really. The only point to consider is that these words are written from a body that looks Samoan, has a gay twang and a strange affectation of an English accent.
My personal experience of fa’a fafine-ness is relegated to my childhood moniker of “aunty”, which was at age six exclaimed joyously upon me at family gatherings where I would perform impromptu girl dances wearing a floral lava-lava hiked up to my armpits, a gloss of makeup and a flower behind my ear. I remember the crowded room of relatives cheering in Samoan, a language that I still don’t speak or hear fluently. The fact is my childhood was predominantly westernised, brought up in the suburbs of Brisbane, without a rearing in fa’a Samoa (literally meaning Samoan way).
The commission from Urban Theatre Projects to develop a work that investigated fa’a fafine acted as a trigger to re-evaluate these childhood memories in a discourse that was culturally specific, that shifted their meaning beyond a childish act, a mere nickname “aunty” and the term “gay” – a word I had identified with since the age of eleven. My resulting performance for Urban Theatre Projects was a reaction to the curatorial provocation, to its socio-political agenda, to post-colonial, queer and gender frameworks, to existing outside of my own classification. In the performance I utilised personal narrative as a way to navigate and comment on these issues.
Despite not readily identifying as a fa’a fafine the term has since stuck. Further confirmations of my supposed status as such have come through subsequent friendships with fa’a fafine artists including Shigeyuki Kihara (Western Samoa/Japan/NZ) and Dan Taulapapa McMullin (American Samoa/US). Unlike with Kihara, McMullin and I have never met in person. I met McMullin via a late night meandering on YouTube where I fell upon his short film Sinalela. I immediately sent him an introduction, which has led to a friendship lasting four years that manifests in occasional online letters of our whereabouts, creative comings and banal musings.
In these written exchanges we share a liberal and deft control of female pronouns to talk of each other and of other men in our lives. In total this is what I know of fa’a fafine. It is a lived rather than known experience, a nickname, a family context, Kihara and McMullin, a child’s drag act, someone else, a cultural ascription, a cyber friendship, a short film, a passing meeting, a Google search, a wrong classification, an islander body. I know nothing more theoretical, official or definite.
In that same year that Fa’a fafine was part of the Pacific Wave Festival of Pacific Island Arts, I was also curated in Unbecomings, a group show for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival; in the Carnivale Multi-Cultural Arts Festival to produce a collaborative commission with visual artist Hayden Fowler; and in a show called The Museum of Fetishised Identities with visiting Chicano artist Guillermo Gómez Peña and La Pocha Nostra.
The following four years saw the same type of programming, highlighting the multiple institutional positioning of my work in terms of my culture or my sexuality. Importantly, these commissions were not born of my own volition but were instigated by the arts organisations. Without them these performances would not have happened. For a 23-year-old from suburban Brisbane without a tertiary education, these paid creative opportunities were culturally and artistically legitimising, as they enabled me to pursue a practice, albeit in structures that were not entirely my own.
These days, a decade on, I am predominantly engaged in interdisciplinary collaboration and hybrid performance, which has provided me with new ways to navigate, present and naturalise the complexities of my identity by its relation to another. This shift has seen the context in which my work is curated similarly move to include exhibitions and performance events that more broadly consider contemporary art practices. Most recently, in February 2010, I initiated WRONG SOLO PRESENTS FRASERSTUDIO PERFORMANCES at FraserStudio, Sydney.
This process-based performance project consisted of a fourteen-day series of day-long collaborations between an invited artist and me. During this time, I worked with dance artist Jane McKernan, live-artist Sarah Rodigari, writer Adam Jasper, actor Eden Falk and thirteen visual artists: Todd McMillian, Wade Marynowsky, Christopher Hanrahan, Pete Volich, Mitch Cairns, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Anna John, Kate Mitchell, Kate Murphy, Sarah Goffman, Emma Ramsay, Andrew Haining and Shane Haseman. The project’s process consisted of the artists meeting me on their designated day, with us then working together to produce a compulsory performance by close of business that “showcased” our outcomes.
There were no other parameters. There were no restrictions. No guidelines or preferences of style or genre. The artist brought in whatever tools, objects, materials or skills they chose to, thus creating a ready acceptance from both performing artists and audience, to receive whatever outcome as mere and absolute. In relation to a notion of identity and the cultural diversity thereof, such a project reflects a contemporary art society that is inherently diversified and acknowledging of that.
Through these performances, and more generally through my ongoing investigation into the construct of interdisciplinary collaboration, I have discovered often surprising, sometimes uncomfortable and occasionally revelatory, ways of thinking, making and doing. For me it is an interesting way to breach an imagined/perceived/real gap between the different disciplines, between identities and between people through a very immediate, spontaneous and social means.
When viewed cumulatively what became interesting about WRONG SOLO PRESENTS FRASERSTUDIO PERFORMANCES was what the performances revealed about the participants. Particular interests, practices and idiosyncrasies of each person and myself were made apparent as we negotiated our way through the collaborative process and as the outcome of each day was seen against that of the day before. The title of Wrong Solo was taken directly from the name of my collaboration with visual artist Agatha Gothe-Snape.
As a title, Wrong Solo suggested an idea of collaboration as a solo practice gone skewiff, and seemed an appropriate label to explain my neurosis and dysfunction in the face of inter-cultural/disciplinary activity and the exciting provocations within that. This extends to Gothe-Snape and I engaging in different performance spaces – either in the gallery, theatre, or being site-specific including the house that we both live in. Our house is also home to a parallel and broader artistic engagement called The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart – a domestic collaboration that also includes Mitch Cairns and Kelly Doley from Brown Council.
With this in mind reflecting on my first solo commission Fa’a fafine the idea of “a wrong solo” has a different resonance. Fixed in a term, a rebuttal of for and against, Fa’a fafine was problematic as I attempted to negotiate this definition in terms of myself. Comparatively my interest in interdisciplinary collaboration has opened up my practice to a larger network of people, who share shifting cultural identifications, allowing a way for audiences and artists to see outcomes that may be less certain, as good.
Brian Fuata is a writer and maker working in interdisciplinary performance. He makes both domestic and public solo and collaborative work for theatre, gallery and site-specific locations. He is also a member of Wrong Solo with Agatha Gothe-Snape and the artist group, The Cosmic Battle for Your Heart.