‘Blak On Both Sides’
BELOW is the first piece I wrote then “performed” at ‘Fifty Shades of Blak: Performance Night’, inside Blak Dot Gallery last night. It was an intimate, energising evening of performances from a beautiful, powerful and diverse group of women of colour, and I am really lucky to have been invited to be amongst them.
‘Fifty Shades of Blak’ was an art exhibition held as part of Melbourne Fringe Festival this year – and it just took out the Best Visual Art Show Award!!! Curated by force of nature and Blak Dot visionary Kimba Thompson, ‘Fifty Shades of Blak’ highlighted the voices of fifty visual and performing female artists, each addressing issues of stereotyping, colour coding, racism, identity and societal perceptions of First Nations women and women of colour. It was the first exhibition in the gallery’s fantastic new location at 33 Saxon Street, Brunswick. Support Blak Dot!!! Pay them a visit in person and follow them on Facebook here.
Congratulations to the ‘Fifty Shades’ visual artists: Atong Atem | Cora-Allan Wickliffe | Dulcie Stewart | Frances Tapueluelu | Georgia MacGuire | Gina Ropiha | Ira Fernandez | Jasmine Togo-Brisby | Julie O’Toole | Katie West | Katherine Gailer | Kirsten Lyttle | Lily Laita | Lisa Hilli | Maree Clarke | Megan Van Den Berg | Paola Balla | Sarah Hudson | Shona Tawhiao | Tania Remana | Texta Queen | Treahna Hamm | Vicki Couzens | Ying Huang.
(Side note: In 2012, another Blak Dot Gallery show I co-curated with Leuli Eshraghi took out the Melbourne Fringe Festival Best Visual Art Show Award that year; I feel lucky to have even a peripheral association with the second winning show haha!)
BLAK ON BOTH SIDES
(© 2016 Pauline Vetuna, All Rights Reserved.)
Many years ago, I made a little film called ‘Coconut’.
The uncomfortable coconut in question, was myself. It was something I was called as a young person many times. But the larger question I sought to explore through the film, was this:
“If there is such a thing as being Black on the outside and white on the inside, what does it mean to be Black on the inside?”
This is the question that plagued my entire adolescence and young adulthood; when I was tortuously straightening out my beautiful big natural afro, that both my Tolai father and my Tolai mother blessed me with, and wishing I didn’t have all the thoroughly Melanesian features I am proud to have today.
It is the question that rang in my ears as I would deliberately stay out of the sun, because the ever present hum of non-Black racists, and Black colorists, all around me, let me know pretty unambiguously that my Blackness was too Black. That my Blackness needed to be watered down with whiteness both in colour of skin and in content of character.
It is the question that lingered in the background when I was being affirmed by friendly, kindly white racist “friends” for not being like the only other Black girl in the schoolyard (who by the way was my best friend) for being more Martin Luther King to her Malcolm X, for quietly integrating and assimilating before I even knew what that was or that assimilating meant erasing… starving… myself.
It is the question that pained me, deep inside, when white people would say “you’re a different kind of Black girl”, and mean ‘coconut’, and think it was a compliment. When Black people would say “you’re a different kind of Black girl”, and mean ‘coconut’, and know it was an insult.
It is the question that represented the void within me that used to exist. The void left by the absence of a home, language and culture that can haunt Black immigrant kids growing up disconnected from a motherland long left, with indigenous immigrant parents also feeling the pain of that disconnection, and living in a colonial illegal settlement that will only accept you if you reject an identity you are strongly yet subtly encouraged at every turn to never fully develop… to instead stay cocooned and never become the butterfly.
I used to think that not developing those wings of identity would serve me well, somehow; at least allow me to live and pursue my watered down dreams in this white colony to some degree, accepting a second class reality of never feeling at home in my surroundings let alone my own skin and features. A wingless existence. In some kind of spiritual way I felt like turning myself into colourless WATER would allow me to flow into any space and become anything I needed to be to survive in that time and place.
That is true, to some degree. And I know now that this was lesson PART A in the wisdom syllabus that my Tolai Melanesian Black ancestors passed to me as I grew, through a vital and alive INTUITIVE GIFT that only in the last few years I have realised is my genetic family legacy… the gift of being indigenous, the inherited gift of my Black genetic lines on both sides. Guidance from my ancestors.
In the midst of a “rational “white supremacist culture it took me years of honing that intuition to even trust it, let alone to recognise its true origin being my indigenous cultural roots.
But now, I know. And that is my birthright identity. I claim it now, every single day.
Some years ago, a friend sent me a short story she found about the necessity of struggle as a precursor to wholeness. Sadly I don’t know who wrote it, but there is this passage in it that talks about how a restricting cocoon and the struggle that the emerging butterfly has to go through to break free of it, are the Life Force’s way of forcing fluid, WATER, from its body and into it’s wings, so that the butterfly can be as strong as it can be… and be able to fly.
In other words, the WATER came before the flight. So, today I like to think of my coconutty struggle through the confusing wasteland of whiteness and pervasive colorism that I went through, as having empowered me to be as strong as I am today. That struggle, ironically, gave me wings.
Because my ancestors whispers to me were right. Water is LIFE. Water is powerful, and forceful, it animates us and fills us and although colourless it reflects every colour we can see. It is a shape shifter, an adapter. It is an important element to understand, and master, and in some cases become… in order to survive. But once it is mastered and contained it must be directed back to the roots, to our cultural roots, to feed and nourish them,WATER them, so the life of our people can continue. In the person, the water must be forced into the wings, so that they, the butterfly, can fly.
I live so far from the land where my ancestors bodies returned to the soil yet I see with such clarity now that they have reached through time and space every day my whole life to give me guidance, even when I didn’t yet know their names. This is the gift that I say with embarrassment now that I almost forfeited to be accepted into a world that lacks the wisdom that my ancestors – my people – embodied. The gift of being Black on both sides.
Why would I ever want to be anything else?