I miss travelling on my own to countries outside of this continent. I miss that sense of wonder and the excitement of possibilities. There’s a scene in the show Skins (season one or two) with the dude who goes on to be in Game of Thrones. Ace of Spades is playing, and he walks down the street naked. It might be his birthday or something; he wakes up stoked and says the day is, “pregnant with potential.” That is how I feel when I travel. Anything can happen. I am pregnant with potential. The colonial baggage stays at the terminal. This isn’t to say that colonialism is only relevant where I am colonised. It’s more to say that the people in that foreign country haven’t been conditioned to relate to me through the colonised/coloniser prism. There is anonymity. Not always though, like the time I was at the Berghain (Sven wasn’t on that night, but I think he would have let me in anyway on this particular night because I looked like every other queer who wears black and isn’t too fat – I didn’t see a single fat person in that place, how is that even possible? Not like the first time, when I wore a red jacket and my cousin wore a yellow jumper with bright red lipstick). Anyway, I was dancing upstairs with my titties out and someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was Nayuka, the writer? The only time you should do that is if you are offering drugs to someone. Reparations through bumps!
I miss touching down at some foreign airport, moving with the other passengers through the arrival terminal like cattle, scared that I might have missed out on some vital piece of information about this place. Like the time I touched down in Istanbul and didn’t realise I had to pay a $70 visa fee and I didn’t have $70. There had been a terrorist attack in Istanbul earlier that day. My Mum saw it on the news and called me after I had spent the last few hours tossing up which staff member’s dick I’d have to suck to get through to the other side. I really miss that, you know?
I haven’t left the country since August 2019, when I was pregnant. My boyfriend and I went to Hawai’i. I had a heavy bleed that I thought was a miscarriage and we had to cancel the camping we’d planned. Instead of camping, we stayed at a hotel closer to the hospital, and close to the beach. Along the beach were signposted sacred sites. It is very easy to not go to a site you are not allowed on. You just don’t do it. Your life stays exactly the same. Or it is better in ways you don’t understand or can perceive. I’ve started watching Fargo and Billy-bob Thornton, and there’s a moment where his fringe’s character gets pulled over by a cop. He tells the cop that there are some roads you don’t go down. Sacred sites are a bit like that for me – like yeah, sure you could climb that mountain but do you need to? There were white people who went on the sacred sites (of course) and I yelled at them, “that’s a sacred site, you can’t go there,” and they still went anyway (of course). Are their lives materially or metaphysically better for violating someone’s sacred country? Probably not. One afternoon we went swimming and there was a seal on the beach. I don’t fuck with seals like that. They look cute but I really think they could do some damage if they wanted to. There were signs on the way to the beach specifically telling you to leave the seals alone. A white, heterosexual couple approached the seal and looked like they were trying to pat it. My (white) partner swam back to the shore to tell them to leave the seal alone. They didn’t listen. No matter where they go, white people carry their own baggage around that seems to entitle them to every and anything.
I moved to South Gippsland at the end of last year because I needed to breathe and the Brunswick brick-and-concrete bunker I was living in started feeling really small and was only getting smaller. The kids were putting everything in their mouths, especially when I put them outside, and there’d be who-knows-what-had-blown-in-that making its way through their digestive systems – dog shit, methamphetamines? Anyone’s guess.
I love the town I live in. I didn’t expect to. People are friendly, especially if they realise you’re a local and not some Wilson’s Prom tourist blow in. People have been so friendly that I forgot racism exists – not the sort of racism where Indigenous Business Australia requires you to provide proof of prompt rental payments in order to get a home loan, even though the banks don’t. I mean the sort of racism where people still really want to call you a coon.
I was standing in line for my coffee and this older, leathery-looking farmer-dude was standing close enough to the counter to perhaps be ordering a coffee but also far away enough that he could be waiting. So, I asked him if he was waiting. He ignored me. I asked him again, louder. He looked at me and ignored me again. So I got louder again, “HAVE YOU ORDERED?” He was wearing a mask so I couldn’t see what his mouth was doing but the top half of his face scowled at me like I’d just shat on his shoes. He still didn’t answer. The barista then yelled out his name, and he took his coffee and left. There are still so many places left in this country where even just the very presence of your body is offensive. Your mere existence is an aberration. For all I know he’s my fucking neighbour. I actually haven’t met my neighbour yet. My Mum has. On the first day we moved here Mum was outside and he said something like, “good weather” and Mum, being terminally unable to avoid pouring kerosene on small talk engaged with him. Somehow he got to talking about how Covid19 was the fault of “Asians and Muslims,” at which point Mum turned her back and walked away and told him she wasn’t having that conversation with him.
I don’t know when I’ll travel next. My itchy feet and I are planted here for a while, but maybe staying still isn’t so bad. Getting to know one bit of country like it is attached to my body – or perhaps more accurately, like I am attached to its body – is a different kind of wonder and possibility, too. I can’t have bumps on country (or I could but it would be weird) but there is a joy that I feel completely in my soul. I go hiking most weekends and there is a type of anonymity on country. The other walkers don’t matter to me. I am not known to them and don’t want to be. I want to know and be known and remembered by my country.
Michael Camakaris is a multi-disciplinary artist whose practice encompasses drawing, painting, collage, printmaking and ceramics. Instantly recognisable by his distinctive artistic thumbprint, characterised by subtle detailing and layered graphical mark-making, he is a skilled draftsman whose compositions are bold and often references art history; drawing from surrealism to dada and abstraction. Michael is a studio artist at Arts Project Australia (APA).
Katie: I’ve visited the studio at Arts Project a few times back in 2019 and even once in 2020, just before the first lockdown. There’s such incredible energy and focus in that studio with so many artists working alongside one another. How long have you been working at Arts Project and how has being part of that community affected your practice?
Michael: I’ve been at APA since 2010, and for most of that time I’ve been attending the studio three days a week. It took me a little while to become accustomed to the various personalities at the studio but working there has made me a lot more tolerant of other people. Being exposed to such a range of different work has made me a lot more open to trying more adventurous and daring things in my own practice, which has been great! In addition to painting and drawing, I’ve also had the opportunity to explore different disciplines like printmaking, ceramics, 3D and computer graphics and even painting a large mural at Shepparton Art Museum. I’ve also been a member of a professional development group at APA called the Northcote Penguins which gave me the opportunity to learn art theory, hear artist talks, go to exhibitions and help curate exhibitions. Exhibiting and selling works at APA and external exhibitions has also been rewarding.
Katie: So what are the Northcote Penguins?
Michael: The Northcote Penguins are an off-shoot group from APA of people who are interested in art theory and art history. It usually starts quite informally. We kind of discuss what’s happening in our lives, what’s been going on. I guess all of that affects our work and what we’re making. We also discuss conceptual ideas, watch talks and visit exhibitions. It was started by Camille Hannah, who is one of the staff members at Arts Project.
Katie: And where did the name come from, Northcote Penguins?
Michael: I suggested the name, the Northcote Penguins, as homage to the Angry Penguins, which was an art movement associated with the Heide School, which started at the house of John and Sunday Reid, at what is now the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Bulleen. The Heide circle included Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Danila Vassilieff and Joy Hester. It was named after a literary journal that was started by Max Harris.
Katie: So, this is the contemporary Northcote version?
Michael: Yes. I designed some T-shirts actually, like penguin suits, like tuxedos. And we have now designed a coat of arms, featuring Penguins.
Katie: That sounds great, some Northcote Penguins iconography! There’s a few symbols in the piece you made for ‘Live From the Field’. Could you talk about that work?
Michael: The piece is called ‘Separate but Together’, it’s a direct response to being separated for such a long time from the artists and staff of APA. On the right are five houses that I have portrayed in a child-like style. Inside each house is the face of an artist, and I have depicted each of these with varying facial expressions to convey the range of emotions being felt during this period. The houses are all interlocking to suggest that, whilst we were separated, we were still very much together; hence the title of the work. The curving line that cuts through the centre of the composition represents our world. The sun on the left symbolizes the reaching out of the staff, whose warmth helped get us through this challenging period.
Katie: I like that line that cuts through the middle of the piece. It’s sort of an abstracted horizon line. which gives a feeling of how, while we’ve been so isolated, there’s an awareness that this is in a way, the first truly global event.
Michael: Yes, it’s been very strange. I felt during lockdown there was this sense of the world being distant, on the horizon. With Asperger’s, I’m highly visual so there was a feeling of being robbed of all that sensory information. Like all of the sounds of other people, and different places and colours and things.
Katie: I really felt that too. The lack of new information that didn’t come from a screen. I was watching films and reading a lot to feel like I had new stimulus coming in but as you said, it’s not the same as a full sensory experience. Even the walks outside, it was the same route all the time. Everything felt sort of dulled.
Michael: Yes. Although I have saved money through from not being able to do things! I love the performing Arts, normally I would go to the theatre regularly, see lots of art exhibitions and eat out. Those are other senses that were dulled – taste and smell. I love different foods, even the colours in food, and then it was just restricted to what I had at home.
Katie: That’s so funny, I’m a bit hung up on the colours of my food too! I hate eating meals that have only one or two colours in them. Maybe it’s an artist thing, we’re over-visualising everything, making our meals into paintings. Painting seems to be a key reference point for your work? Like the history of painting and the formalities of it?
Michael: Yes, I love painting… both doing it myself, and looking at other people’s work. My favourite artist is John Olsen, who does these bold, painterly, semi-abstract, expressionist works. He also sometimes paints his favourite meals! His paintings are childlike but refined with an artistic sensibility. The sun in my image was actually inspired by one of his paintings.
Katie: I really like when works have that kind of tension or contradiction in them too. But I sometimes wonder about setting up an opposition between child-like and refined… Maybe children’s work isn’t refined in an intellectual way, but it’s a very immediate response to their experience of our world. Like, it’s not a given what children will make, their work is a kind of barometer for the social and cultural contexts that they live in. And I suppose with children, as their work isn’t ‘research-based’, it’s a pretty direct interpretation of their lived experience.
Michael: It would be interesting to see the kind of art children were producing during lockdown. How they’ve been using art to express how they’re feeling.
Katie: Yea, it must have been so difficult for them to understand what’s been going on. What’s your process like when you’re making work?
Michael: Well, I like to relate emotionally to what I’m creating. I personally don’t want to make art that’s didactic or too obvious. That’s the thing about art, it’s a visual medium but it’s very much linked to poetry. You know, things standing in for other things, motifs and symbols. I don’t know, do you feel like that?
Katie: I do. I’m really interested in language, the meaning behind linguistic associations and metaphor. And I definitely see the link to poetry, in that art can relate to things in a way that is tangential or more evocative than descriptive.
Michael: Yea, I like art that works on a number of levels. Looking at my own practice I wonder how to do that, how to have it work on multiple levels. Sometimes you want to be more instinctive or emotional, not use the analytical part of your brain.
Katie: Definitely. I think often the work comes out best when you don’t know everything that’s going on. Trying to embed all these layers into work, that’s when things can end up didactic or over-wrought. And it’s more interesting when things reveal themselves along the way. There are some long-standing questions that I have in my practice but new things always reveal themselves too. Or new directions emerge as a project develops. Trying to pre-empt all of that isn’t the best approach for me as an artist anyway.
Michael: Yes, because sometimes you can analyse the thing to death.
Katie: And that can inhibit your making. It feels like there’s too much you’re expecting from your work and what it should communicate. Thinking can happen in parallel and just affect the work by osmosis.
Michael: Yes, analytic thinking can inform the work rather than direct it. You never know what it’s going to look like in the end and you never know when it’s resolved. Being obsessive I also like to dissect things. To figure out why we respond to certain things in certain ways. Like why is a picture of a pond pleasing to us? Why are the rolling hills of Tuscany appealing?
Katie: So, like what’s the meaning behind aesthetic pleasure?
Michael: Yes. Like are the rolling hills of Tuscany pleasing because there are lots of places to hide? It returns to that sort of basic predator/prey instinct. Is an image of a lake appealing because we need water?
Katie: Like are the visuals tapping into our animal brain or something?
Michael: Yea, and then in terms of aesthetics, when you know those things, you can throw them off too, make things off kilter. We know the rule of thirds makes things pleasing but then you can choose to not use that.
Katie: Is that something you like to play with in your work? To create a sense of unease?
Michael: Sometimes, when it suits the piece I’m working on.
Katie: Things are feeling quite safe in Australia at the moment, especially compared to almost everywhere else in the world, but there is still a huge sense of uncertainty. How are you feeling about the year ahead?
Michael: There is still a sense of uncertainty, but I feel like there is light at the end of the tunnel. We were able to return to APA towards the end of 2020, albeit with a much smaller number of artists and staff. And a vaccine is now not too far off. For me personally, my work over the last five years or so, has often expressed a feeling of uncertainty as a result of the themes I have explored. In my opinion human induced climate change is still the greatest existential threat we are facing.
Katie: Yes, that’s definitely been looming quite ominously in the background during the pandemic!
Michael: I’ve been reading about the difference between the response that humans have to Covid and to climate change. And it seems that it could be to do with our evolutionary response to danger. Covid is immediate and has to do with our bodies so we respond to that, but climate change, being sort of invisible or long-term, we don’t respond to it. Even though it became very present with the bushfires last year.
Katie: Yes. Particularly in Australia the government seems to be ignoring it and just forging ahead with extractive industry projects. I suppose climate change will make itself more and more present so hopefully governments will be forced to make serious changes soon. Are you planning to continue making work about climate change?
Michael: I think I’m going to have a break actually. I’m half Greek and I’ve visited Greece quite a few times. I have a lot of photos and I’m interested in working from those. Drawing the streets, the chairs set out in the alleyways, the colours. I came across some works Sidney Nolan did while he was living on the island of Hydra in Greece. They were really inspiring and I’m looking forward to working on a lighter topic for a while!
MY FIRST PLAGUE AND BEFORE
I remember the last plague year of 2003.
It was a very anxious time. There was a SARS-contaminated ward in my local hospital in Shatin, and medical workers were infected alongside their patients. In public spaces, everything was covered in translucent PVC for easy disinfection. 1:99 was the bleach and water ratio for making your own disinfectant. I drew on my disposable face masks with a black fine-liner as I returned to school. Later that year, when SARS cleared, I attended the first large-scale July 1 protest with roughly half a million citizens. It was a hot and humid summer day, streams of black shirts poured in from MTR exits. ‘Delay no more’ was printed on a huge banner hung across a circular bridge in Causeway Bay as I marched across.
2003 was, apparently, my second ever protest. My parents carried me to the pro-democracy protests in 1989, immediately after the events at Tiananmen Square. As an infant, I had no recollection of this. But with the looming anxiety of the 1997 handover, my parents were worried that I would never have another opportunity to protest again. And so we went, as if it would be the very last time.
THAT FIRST PLAGUE WAS MORE THAN A PANDEMIC
Ten years later in 2013, opened at Para Site Art Space in Hong Kong. A travelling exhibition and an expanded publication, it drew on the book of the same title, written by Daniel Defoe and published in 1722. Defoe’s book was a semi-fictional account of the Great Plague of London in 1665-1666. The Para Site exhibition reflected not only on the SARS outbreak, as 2003 also brought the tragic death of queer icon Leslie Cheung, and the first large-scale protest since the historic handover of sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997. The protest saw 500,000 citizens pouring into the streets against a proposed National Security Law, or Article 23 in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution. The exhibition reflected on the various social and political issues since the handover, examining the rising tension in politics, the city’s desire for democracy, and anxiety towards 2047—the inevitable end of ‘One Country Two Systems’ as declared in the (1984). At the time of the exhibition, , a student-led activist group, had started to lobby for universal suffrage for the upcoming 2014 Chief Executive election in Hong Kong. A year later, Occupy movement swept across the globe which led to the eruption of Occupy Central in Hong Kong, with universal suffrage as the key demand from protestors. It was later referred as the 2014 for the significance use of umbrellas during the protest.
I was streaming these events in 2014. At 26, I remember not having the means to travel. Instead, I spent evenings and early mornings stuck to live-streams. I remember the night when tear gas was first fired. My body remembered the pixelated image with a slight delay. Little did I know, then, this mediated experience would be normalised a few years later. That same image of a smoked crowd came back over and over again during the 2019 protests. It was as if some power above foresaw the events in the years to come.
THE SECOND PLAGUE WAS— ALSO— MORE THAN A PANDEMIC
In 2020, A Journal of the Plague Year became an echo from the past that we almost didn’t want to remember.
Another year of similar—in fact, much worse—series of events. The 2019 protests persisted for over nine months before the government weaponised COVID-19 health measures to stop public gatherings. The city is now completely divided. Not only was there another pandemic, but the (NSL) that Hong Kongers protested against in 2003 has now been introduced by the Chinese government, bypassing the legislative processes in Hong Kong. On 1 July 2020, protests officially became illegal under the new law. ‘One Country Two Systems’ is symbolically still in place, but we know it is all over. Activists, journalists and pro-democracy politicians have since either been jailed, or have had to flee the city and seek refuge elsewhere. Even international activists, writers and organisers are now at risk of being blacklisted. Any Hongkongers who once spoke out against the government must now make plans for self-preservation, be that erasing traces of dissent on social media or making emigration plans in fear of retaliation. It is a dire situation, a deadlock, an ever-expanding black hole that feeds on our resistance to create an even bigger void.
THE TRANSNATIONAL ARTIST-MIGRANT CONTEXT/COMPLEX
In truth, I did not see the exhibition in 2013, nor have I been able to visit Hong Kong since NSL had been in place due to border closures. I have been in relative safety at home under various lockdowns in Naarm (Melbourne). Reading A Journal of the Plague Year in the backyard, doom-scrolling for Hong Kong news, FaceTiming family overseas, but mostly still employed with access to healthcare and welfare, thanks to my Australian citizenship having arrived only a few months prior to the pandemic.
I have been sitting with this new privilege awkwardly throughout 2020. This single piece of paper not only offers me safety just when my hometown falls apart, it’s a lifeline as the pandemic sweeps across the globe. And, just when I probably need it the most, access to both welfare and arts funding for the first time in my 15-year-residence. While these new privileges have allowed me to keep my art practice, when faced with the broken economic models in the arts industry, the intense burnouts / fallouts, extreme nepotism that is often the disguise for racism, classism, ableism and sexism, there have been days when I have dreamt about an alternative to this life in the arts. The hurt and exclusion I have received over the years as a non-white-middle-class migrant, a visa-holder, an artist, have yet to be forgotten. The irony isn’t lost on me that while diversity is on every organisation’s action plan, there is little capacity for intercultural and multilingual practices within the industry. And this continues to shape the reality of my practice and others like me. So now that I am part of the ‘system’, with access to resources and opportunities, I feel that I must not look away. Despite the fact that I do, now, also have the privilege to look away. And yet, in a world facing climate disasters, complete collapses of political systems and a raging pandemic, where am I supposed to actually look?
THE MULTIPLICITY OF A POTENTIAL STORY ABOUT PLAGUE(S)
The layers of political, cultural and personal contexts from which I am speaking are crucial to understanding the multiplicity of the way I am (/we are) telling stories of plagues, protests and traumas. I am hoping to draw a through line in this rhizome of experiences and occurrences. They may seem irrelevant or random to follow, but they are crucial elements in my articulation of these events.
Being physically dislocated from political upheavals back home has been complex to say the least. It’s challenging to write about Hong Kong—to put thoughts into words, and to conceal the overwhelming sense of loss. My own translations of events and experiences means that everything I share about Hong Kong is implicitly subjective. With the added complexity of representation and diversity discourse where I am, I have struggled to toe the line of personal ethics when writing or making art about Hong Kong, as the stories I tell are partial, incomplete and largely personal.
I do not want to repeat the familiar but often traumatic stories Hong Kongers read about everyday for the sake of art, nor does it feel ethical for me to do so without considering my own contexts, privileges and my distance from the city. Words such as authoritarianism, loss of freedom, oppression suggested an experience I barely have, while sharing accounts of protests and tear gas are not only self-incriminating under the new security law, they are triggers for unresolved trauma for myself and other Hong Kongers. I have wept, sobbed, or simply fell into a heap of despair reading, listening and watching Hong Kong related creative content. Unfortunately, consumption of these materials does not help me heal. In fact, it often deepens my own wounds.
This is why I began this piece of writing within an exhibition in Hong Kong that I had never visited, with the multiple chains of realities that I continue to experience. These occurrences form the interconnected, inter-cultural narratives that only this body could tell. The context in which our body and practice are in must be acknowledged, because without them, the stories are in danger of being reduced to singular narratives that do not represent their realities.
NAVIGATING POLITICS AROUND SHARING PLAGUE STORIES
If 2020 has taught me anything, it is this: we are not defined by histories and traumatic stories that either we, our families or communities experience, and we must find ways to heal, for ourselves. If we are to refuse to look away from the problems, be that climate change or politics or the insufferable art world, we should also make sure that at the very least, we look to ourselves. It is exhausting enough to have to deal with ongoing trauma, let alone to have to perform or share it for the sake of art.
For me, Hong Kong isn’t just a news story, a topic or a memory. It is the context to my existence and my practice. It is my family, my identity and more. It’s complex, messy, but most of all, personal. Reporting the truth is beyond the scope of an artist. As an artist I am simply here to make my own truths, for myself and sometimes others. Therefore, how I choose to conceal or reveal my own stories is a decision only I can make.
At a time when artists, particularly First Nations artists and artists-of-colour are often asked to perform, re-tell, or share their trauma through their art, the refusal to be transparent could, maybe, help us regain power and agency. Perhaps, it could be a way to help us tell complex stories and more importantly, to help us heal instead of deepen the trauma in political, artistic or personal realms.
On the bad news days, the most common tweet you would see on Hong Kong (diaspora) Twitter sphere would be words of encouragement, ‘加油 ga yiu (add oil)’, ‘remember to hydrate’, ‘take care of yourselves today’. When all else fails, take care of you. When we are unsure about where to look, perhaps we simply should look at ourselves and our immediate surrounds and tangible communities. And when we feel okay, we can be purposefully vague with our expressions. I am already very tired from the diversity discourse ™ and while I want to continue to share my story, just sometimes, even telling this story (again) is all too much.
The past never stops urging us to reconsider the present. There is no singular event, occurrence or emotion that isn’t connected to broader narratives. The multitude of experiences must be accounted for, even when I feel like I must continue to share stories of Hong Kong, of protests, of my subjective yearning for a more hopeful future. I too must be accountable for the stories I tell, to myself and others. The context for my story may not be obvious now, but it will always be relevant. Much like A Journal of the Plague Year, our contributions to the broader narratives could be tangential, partial, incomplete. Their resonance may not be obvious until another plague year, another quarantine, another revolution. My expressions may not make sense now, but one day they will. And next time when that echo rings in the air, I hope, we will know better.
As the dust begins to settle on 2020 and another Invasion Day has passed in protest and in sorrow. We return to a conversation from early November as Aida and Bea drove to Djab Wurrung Camp.
The Directions Tree was felled a week ago from this Country. A slaughter of culture shielded tactfully behind bureaucracy – give the people back their freedom after dangling it in front of them for long enough, and it is the best diversion. Colonisers never stopped taking. They just become better at doing it behind our backs.
Aida and I met through a Filipino/x collective, SALUHAN. SALUHAN is a space to facilitate cultural and artistic exchanges with Filipino/x locals and diaspora, engaging with discourses of Indigeneity, anti-colonialism and challenging dominant Euro-American Western narratives. It’s a space for us to rewrite history – however that may look. SALUHAN makes a space for open discussion, for sharing and exchange, and for a collaborative art practice to help us reimagine our histories and futures.
As guests, you have a responsibility to the home you have come to. After all, when you enter somebody else’s house, you do not knock it down and take their possessions. This conversation was born from asking ourselves what that responsibility looks like. Not just a responsibility to this land we are both currently guests on, but also the responsibility to the lands and people we came from. And ultimately, we ask a question often overlooked, of the responsibility to ourselves.
Bea Rubio_Gabriel: I’m curious what actually made you want to interrogate responsibility in the first place?
Aida Azin: So I think it happened after one SALUHAN meeting. I was having a session with my therapist, and I was talking about how I feel, and [how] it’s hard for me to make a decisions, or tell people in SALUHAN where I want the project to go or whatever. Then I think the following session I came back and said, “hey I think we just kind of need a space to just interact and communicate,” and the thought was actually triggered with G’s comment that we have an obligation to the Indigenous people in…
BR: …in the Philippines?
AA: In the Philippines. I might even have the notes somewhere of what his quote was – but it was like he was basically saying, “we owe it to the people in the Philippines.”
BR: I think I remember that.
AA: And I thought, ‘that’s a really valuable comment.’ However, I don’t know if I fully agree that it should always be about people in the diaspora always saving people in the homeland. Because it kind of… even though we’re saying “oh, we want to be allies, we want to be in solidarity,” we don’t really understand how to do that, so it ends up taking up a place in our mind of wanting to save rather than knowing how to empower.
And I came across that thought because a friend asked me, “can you be in my Uni research group,” – like a focus group – “what we’re doing is conducting a study” – on behalf of this really stupid program that was done by this white woman that was basically trying to say, this is an advocacy toolkit. So we were a focus group for how well this advocacy toolkit thing [worked], and nowhere along the line did it talk about intentions, or connection within the community, or anything like that. And so I thought, ‘so basically anyone nowadays can think of themselves as an advocate.’
I don’t know. I was thinking, ‘just because you want to help, it doesn’t mean that you’re helping.’ And that’s been something that I’ve been trying to figure out for so long, that really I just want to help myself. At the end of the day, all of this is feeding my ego. My search for identity – and I need to be careful that I don’t come to Djab Warrung and say, “oh yeah I’m here to serve you, but really, I’m here for my own identity crisis, or something like that.”
BR: Is that why you’re here?
AA: No, I don’t think so.
BR: Is that why you came here the first time?
AA: Oh no, no. I already thought about that. No, I just feel like I’ve got some…well this time ‘round I thought that I’d have more energy. Last time I thought I’d have energy, and I thought it’d be in physical work, but it ended up being more emotional. Last time I was really good with that. This time I’m a little bit blocked off.
BR: It’s…I kind of get it. Obviously, a different perspective because this is my first time. Completely. And I feel so…not ready. And unsure. And I feel like that always holds me back – even with our own community. Not even just with our First Nations community, but even with people back home. Maybe it’s that there are always these constant reminders of how outside you are. And of course the communities are welcoming. Of course, people back home are welcoming. Of course, the people back here are really welcoming, but…sometimes I wonder. Where is the line where I’m overstepping, my sort of…what is solidarity and what is…I don’t know. That self-fulfillment that I’m doing the right thing, you know?
BR: Because I think intent’s really important when you think about all this stuff. Especially responsibility.
AA: Could I consider that as solidarity vs self-gratification? I think that’s two very opposite ends of the spectrum, and I don’t think that we fall on those binaries I think that it’s-
AA + BR: -somewhere in between
AA: and both.
BR: Yes, that’s true.
AA: But I think when you’re a little more honest about your intention, which is, ‘yeah, I want to do all of this stuff that could be deemed as selfish – self-healing.’ I’m actually creating a ripple effect. I’m actually doing it to make myself a stronger ally for the project.
So I’m just like, where – like with everyone, for whatever reasons you do it for – I feel like the problem is that we’re not even honest with our intentions because it’s almost like such a dirty thing to acknowledge that you are partly doing it because it ties into your own identity, or it makes you feel good (if you’re the kind of activist who feels good when they do this) or it gives you a sense of purpose.
BR: For some reason it almost seems dirty if it’s not 100% selfless.
AA: Well, a thought that validated me when coming here, is that a lot of people who are First Nations who are coming here also have intentions of healing. So they spend one-on-one time with each other. And by no means do I want to shut down political action in SALUHAN, I just don’t know….I want to amplify, but I don’t want to double up, if that makes sense?
BR: I think we’re also forgetting that it’s okay for us to hold a space for ourselves.
AA: Yeah, that was the main part of the conversation of responsibility with my therapist, where I asked, “at what point do we stop feeling guilty?”
But I think a lot of people would disagree with that and say: “well, we’re not coming from a place of guilt – maybe you are, Aida, but we’re not.”
BR: But I feel like sometimes you are made to feel guilty when you do something for enjoyment. Especially in the socio-political sphere. But I think holding a space for us, just to hold a space for us, is valid. Because clearly coming up here, we see how important that is. To have a space for community and connection, and cultural reconnection, too. Especially when you’ve had a period of cultural dislocation.
AA: Yeah. And that was really evident in those first sessions of SALUHAN, where we were just looking at each other’s faces, ‘wow, we’re all here together. I haven’t seen all these different Filipinos.’
BR: And we all look different, too, you know? We come from different walks, some of us have parents who aren’t Filipino.
And this is the thing, I think before we acknowledge our responsibility to others, we do have a responsibility to ourselves and our immediate locality. Especially this idea of an ‘immediate locality’ to fulfill. Because if we don’t do that, literally no one else will, you know?
And I don’t think it means that we stop standing in solidarity with our own Indigenous people, but I think it’s so valid to understand that we do have a responsibility to ourselves and it’s not selfish. I mean to an extent it’s selfish, but it’s not something we should feel guilty about. That’s what cultures around the world are doing – why is it that as diaspora, we aren’t allowed to do that? It’s almost as if…it’s kind of like the same thing when you’re an OFW. You constantly have a responsibility to the people back home. But what about your family back here? No one’s going to help them if you don’t help them.
And I think we forget that sometimes in SALUHAN. Especially because we’re not only concerned with our own Indigenous people, we’re concerned with Indigenous people here. But we do have an immediate community that no one else is looking out for.
AA: Yeah! We also have to be looking out for ourselves.
BR: Yeah, and it’s so important. So I don’t- yeah. And I agree with the whole doubling up thing. Especially if there is a space for it, especially if it’s full of other Filipinos and they are already doing that. Why can’t we have the option to do that if we so want to? Why can’t we then use the second space we have for something else? And that way we have two different spaces that we can float between. As opposed to making our agenda one single thing. Because no one has the same agenda.
AA: Yeah. Well that’s what makes sense in my mind.
BR: Yeah, me too. But it might also be because we don’t come from an activist background?
AA: Yeah. I think that’s also it. Coming from an Arts background, you’ve got a different sense of what activism can be. How you can take action.
BR: Mm. Zach, and me were talking about music, and he was like, “you know personally for me, activist lyrics don’t do it. I like it when it’s wrapped up in imagery and metaphor.” And that’s not to say we make it inaccessible, but it’s to say that sometimes we don’t always have to hand it up on a silver platter. So I think as artists, we know that activism looks different. Like my work with the Baybayin script, I consider that activist work. Literally trying to resuscitate a dead language, you know?
AA: Yeah and sometimes you’re communicating through a language that you know your community speaks, and you’re building a stronger community speaking to each other rather than trying to beat down the door of the other, you know?
BR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Which is what I feel like happens a lot with diaspora communities. We do struggle to navigate that kind of socio-political sphere because we don’t know where our responsibilities lie. We think they lie everywhere, and indeed they do, but you can only ever do one thing at a time. We’re all only single bodies.
AA: Yeah and like you said, acting to your strengths…
BR: And I think it’s important to consider too, for some people, being the overt activist is not to their strengths. It gives them anxiety. It has to be a negotiation because everyone wants different things in a collective. Even politically, everyone wants different things. The same way everyone’s here for different things. Everyone’s here to different capacities, as well. Of course it has to be a negotiation or stuff like this wouldn’t work.
AA: Yeah. But back to that responsibility thing. I wonder if we are carrying some sort of shame about being in the diaspora? That we’re the lucky ones, and that they’re the not so lucky ones back home and that’s why we’re acting in solidarity or something like that?
BR: What I see more is that we overlook ourselves. I mean for sure, I’m sure there are some people who say, “we need to help the Philippines because we are in a better position,” and I’m sure that must come into it, but I think we assume then, that we are doing so much better. And so of course our responsibility must, first and foremost, be to people back home. But sometimes we’re not. And you see that with the declining numbers at SVGs. People get tired. So how do you account for that? How do you then care for the people in a collective like that?
BR: And I think that is your context Aida. Being a diasporic body. On colonised land, trying to form a community full of other diasporic bodies, who also come from their own colonised land.
AA: Yeah it’s just hard because I think talking about something where if I say, “oh this is how I feel,” I know that I’m actually misrepresenting a whole group of people – including yourself – who might not feel the same way that I do.
I’m having these dreams about cleaning up the Motherland, and literally going into a place and feeling like I have to clean and clean. Or I had a dream about rock-climbing and carrying a baby on my back, and looking after this baby. Lots of dreams about looking after children, but the children aren’t mine and I haven’t been asked to look after this child – but I feel responsible, or I feel like I should take it upon myself to look after that kid, even though it’s got its own parents.
I had a dream this kid was driving a 4WD really recklessly and I didn’t want to say, “oh hey buddy, you shouldn’t be driving. I should drive,” because I felt like that kid should…I didn’t want to undermine the kid. But then the kid crashed the car and was all, “it’s alright. Whatever.” And then I carried all the guilt, and all the embarrassment and all the “fuck!” like-
BR: -as if you should’ve been the one to have known better.
AA: And I can’t work out if that’s me carrying a story that’s actually coming from growing up with my sister, [and] I’m now realising in my last therapy session, how much trauma I’ve gone through. I didn’t really realise it was like a trauma, but from this last session I had, I just cried and cried and cried because of all the dangerous situations that I’ve seen her in. That I’ve put myself in, all the times I’ve had to put myself last to care for her and the sake of my family, or whatever. So now, I can’t tell what narratives I’m getting mixed up.
BR: I think they do kind of go hand in hand. You seemed to have almost lived your entire life with a sense of responsibility to something external to yourself.
AA: Yeah, that was the question my therapist came up with: “what was it like having a sister that takes up so much space?” and I was just shocked at how hard that was for me to even recognise and allow myself to even talk to her about how much I’ve been hurting.
BR: Because you kind of feel like you’re not allowed to. Like, ‘of course we’re supposed to do that, we’re older sisters.’
But this is what I mean, it’s kind of like the same thing with this idea of standing in solidarity with people at home. We forget, the same way we forget we have a responsibility to ourselves, our own responsibility to our immediate locality. Our immediate community. Because we’re taught to always think of looking out for people back home.
It’s why – have you noticed? – [many] families here are so strained. Because they’re so busy trying to send money back home. They’re so busy trying to send donations back, thinking of how to keep the family there surviving when they’re barely surviving themselves here. They’re barely making their own mortgage payments, they’re barely there for their own children. I think we reflect that to some extent on a broader level.
AA: Yeah and that’s another thing. I think my mum’s talked to me about, she’s just sick of the Philippines. She doesn’t want to go back or anything, and for me I’m like, “Mum, I so badly want you to confront what makes you dislike the Philippines.” I don’t know what’s happened there but she has really painted a picture of [how] she’s sick of being used by her family.
BR: I can see where that’s coming from because it gets tiring. I’ve seen it. I think a year ago, my mother was already laying out how much my payments had to be for back home when they die, how often I need to send it, all of this stuff. And I thought, ‘I am not ready for that responsibility. I’m not ready for you to lay that responsibility on me. I can barely make my own goddamn payments,’ you know?
But what she said was, “you have to. If you don’t do it, who else will?”
BR: For some reason, – especially with my mum’s side – the responsibility is on you, the one who’s moved. People assume you must be doing so great.
AA: But then at the same time I think I also feel a lot of guilt as though it’s like I’m not worthy of what I have. As though it’s stolen from somewhere. If I have it, it must have come from somewhere. And it might be at someone else’s loss.
BR: I acknowledge that it was at my parent’s loss. The fact that my parents work in labour jobs now, even though my dad was a Political Science major and wanted to be a lawyer, and my mum was working in an Administrative firm. They had good jobs. That made more money with less effort than what they’ve got now. So, I completely acknowledge that I took from my parents. And when they came here, my mum couldn’t study to make up for the difference in degrees because they already had me. So I guess it does come from somewhere. But the earlier you see from where, you can acknowledge where it comes from.
AA: Guess that’s why we’re workaholics.
BR: Yeah probably. Because they keep telling you to do something with the opportunity they gave you. That’s a big diaspora responsibility – like child diaspora, especially.
AA: Yeah. Another dream that I kind of have is something similar to a bus leaving, and me needing to get on that bus because that bus is going somewhere for me. It’s very important that I get on the bus or something. Like sometimes I’ll need to find my way to the bus stop, or something like that, to kind of go on my journey, but I’ll get tied up in getting lost on the path, or getting distracted by needing to help someone else, or needing to protect someone else’s belongings – or my belongings are too heavy, or my shoes are too wobbly to walk in. Sometimes I’ll be wearing high heeled shoes and be really embarrassed that I’m in these dressy shoes, that are too wobbly and too – and it’s almost like that kind of um – what it’s called? Those feelings of self-sabotage – what’s it called when it’s an imposter syndrome or something?
BR: [When you] feel like you don’t deserve something you have? You know, [like] you’re not good enough to be where you are, when clearly you are?
AA: Yeah. I’ve also been having these dreams about like carrying, like taking care?
BR: I think they speak a lot as well to the underlying theme of care: how do you care for this thing that’s not yours? With the kid that was driving a 4WD? How do you care without overstepping your boundaries?
AA: It’s just hard because I feel like I thought about that a lot earlier this year, and then sort of wiped that thought clean – and now I’ve got an amnesia towards it. So as we’re talking I was like, ‘what were my thoughts on that?’ Because I don’t feel as passionately about it, because I almost…it was like I almost finished how I felt about that. It felt like it was resolved or something in my brain.
BR: And I think because we [also] haven’t had a SALUHAN meeting in a while. I think because we left the last meeting acknowledging that this needs to be a multi-faceted space…I took that as a resolution also. There’s no more…there isn’t any more of an obligation to do – I call it “overt activism” because I don’t want to call it “conventional activism”, so I call it “overt activism,” – there’s no more of an obligation to do activism like that. Because don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it, but I can’t do it all the time.
AA: Mm mm. Yeah well like you said, just act to your strengths. For me, doing art is activism enough.
Modest Illumination, 2021