From the jaws of JAHRA

mailife - - Disapora - By DRUE SLAT­TER

What do you do when your roots are sev­ered be­fore you have the chance to draw life from them? In which di­rec­tion do you grow and what earth do you hold on to? MaiLife Mag­a­zine spoke to Auck­land-based dancer and poet, Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala, about life, art, and the di­as­pora of Pa­cific Is­lan­ders raised just a spear’s throw from their motherland but long­ing for a more tan­gi­ble con­nec­tion. Through medi­ums of dance and spo­ken word, Jahra cel­e­brates the com­plex­ity of wom­an­hood and at the same time, protests in­equal­ity and the colo­nial face that con­tin­ues to stare upon in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. Raised in Aotearoa by a sin­gle mother, Jahra holds her mum, Kerri, as her big­gest in­flu­ence and great­est in­spi­ra­tion. While her pa­ter­nal ties are to Sorokoba vil­lage in Ba and Naduri vil­lage in Macu­ata, it was the “small white wo­man raising three big brown ba­bies” that shaped Jahra and her sib­lings into the re­silient and self-aware artists that they are to­day. Jahra spits fire and grinds out earthy truths, but talk­ing of her mother, words tum­ble from her in a flow of pride and ado­ra­tion. “She taught me that I am a holy ground; un­touch­able, un­de­ni­able and uni­ver­sally un­der­stood. She was my first idea of god, and within my cre­ative work she is my great­est muse and my most in­valu­able les­son. No mat­ter how dis­con­nected I feel from any phys­i­cal land­scape, she is the land that I will al­ways be in­dige­nous to.” Acutely aware of part of this phys­i­cal dis­con­nect, Kerri would con­stantly ‘feed’ her chil­dren with brown women to look at, to fill the void she be­lieved ex­isted due to the ab­sence of their iTaukei fa­ther.

“My mother in­tro­duced me to Janet Jack­son and took me to her con­cert when I was a child. I think that was a cat­a­lyst point for my life­long ob­ses­sion with dance and per­for­mance. It was one of my first ex­pe­ri­ences of see­ing a wo­man of colour with curly hair on stage.” Thus be­gan her jour­ney with hip hop dance that con­tin­ued through­out school. The tran­si­tion into her cur­rent genre of contemporary dance arose from an an­cient and fe­ro­cious call­ing she felt within her. Over­flow­ing with po­lit­i­cal and so­cial views, she needed a vo­cab­u­lary be­yond hip hop dance. It came in the form of Black Grace’s Ur­ban Youth Move­ment Com­pany for which she au­di­tioned and per­formed. The voice she found can be heard in her early work with the Ur­ban Youth Move­ment Com­pany, and then in per­for­mances at New Zealand’s Tempo Dance Fes­ti­val, The Fes­ti­val of the Pa­cific Arts, and many oth­ers around the globe. Part of her devel­op­ment in­cluded a Bach­e­lor of Per­form­ing and Screen Arts from Unitech in Auck­land, ma­jor­ing in Contemporary Dance. For­mal ed­u­ca­tion in the cre­ative arts is grow­ing in the Pa­cific but is still rare, al­though cre­ativ­ity and per­for­mance are key parts of Pa­cific cul­tures. Jahra’s time in a for­mal learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment was a time of learn­ing ‘neu­tral’. Build­ing a neu­tral foun­da­tion that is now the base she works from. Find­ing con­nec­tions has been a re­cur­ring theme in Jahra’s work, with an aware­ness of her dis­con­nec­tion from Fiji combined with a space of ul­ti­mate safety cre­ated by her mother. Her hes­i­ta­tion in re­con­nect­ing to Fiji was born only out of a sense of shame, but bro­ken by a chance meet­ing in a land far from both Fiji and Aotearoa.

A res­i­dency in Canada had at­tracted the talents of both Jahra and Eleni Tabua of VOU dance com­pany in Fiji. At the time, I felt that I couldn’t go back to Fiji be­cause it rep­re­sented my fa­ther,” she said. A lit­tle down the line, VOU made a trip to Aotearoa and par­tic­i­pated with Jahra in a re­search ex­change called ‘Mak­ing Con­nec­tions’. “It was the first time a Fi­jian com­mu­nity had fully em­braced and ac­cepted me. They didn’t ques­tion how much ‘Fi­jian’ I had in me or how much of the lan­guage I spoke. They just said, ‘Oh! You’re Fi­jian? Awe­some!” VOU Di­rec­tor Sachiko Miller at­tests to their con­tin­u­ing bond with Jahra. “We are richer in spirit hav­ing her in our lives. We danced along­side her in her bloo/d/ runk piece for the Fes­ti­val of Pa­cific Arts in Guam. Since then, Jahra and her sib­lings have re­turned once to Fiji and re­con­nected with the vanua. Her poem I say my name with a mouth full of dirt speaks of nav­i­gat­ing through a lan­guage she has never known and a hunger to learn more. “It was a con­flict­ing and beau­ti­ful and heart­break­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter re­turn­ing to his vil­lage, I be­gan to un­der­stand my fa­ther and the na­ture of his be­hav­iour.” “But when my sis­ters and I stepped back on this land, there was just this vi­bra­tion and we just knew. It’s so ac­tive and con­stantly con­vers­ing and you can just feel it. I hear this from a lot of other Pa­cific Is­lan­ders when they talk about Fiji. It’s a land that is al­ways talk­ing to it­self,” Jahra said.

Con­ver­sa­tion with Jahra held rem­nants of this con­stant flow of mana that the land of our home is­lands hold. Her past and her present are an ex­am­ple of so many in the over­seas Pa­cific com­mu­nity that reac­quaint them­selves with where they are form in or­der to find where they are go­ing. It is be­com­ing its own ex­pe­ri­ence, sub­stan­tial and unique. She cred­its this jour­ney to the many peo­ple that have pre­sented them­selves to her in her youth. When a young per­son, re­gard­less of their eth­nic­ity or back­ground, is sur­rounded by those de­vot­edly loyal to see­ing them suc­ceed, they flour­ish. And flour­ish, she has. Some of Jahra’s cur­rent projects are:

bloo/d/runk

- ‘bloo/d/runk’ is pri­mar­ily about the earth be­ing re­flected as a wo­man’s body and the com­plex­i­ties of this re­la­tion­ship within my spe­cific cul­tural con­text as well as a cul­tural con­text that speaks glob­ally to in­dige­nous women. This multi-dis­ci­plinary solo dance work will be in devel­op­ment through­out this year as I am look­ing to tour it over­seas next year. I have been do­ing re­search and de­vel­op­ments in Hawai’i, and will be do­ing an­other in­ten­sive in New York and then an­other back in Aotearoa be­fore per­form­ing the fin­ished ver­sion in New Zealand’s Na­tional Tempo Dance Fes­ti­val in October. The short film ver­sion of ‘bloo/d/runk’ will also be re­leased within the next month.

godd-less

- This is a phys­i­cal the­atre work col­lab­o­ra­tion with the bril­liant Grace Tay­lor (Samoa/Afakasi), who is also one of my men­tors. ‘god-less’ is a work that mag­ni­fies the mother-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship and looks at ‘god­dess’ as a per­for­ma­tive tool women use to nav­i­gate the world. ‘godd­less’ will be show­ing in full length in the lat­ter part of 2017.

‘Ai Kai - A Cul­ture Lab on Con­ver­gence

- I am cur­rently col­lab­o­rat­ing on a po­etry-based per­for­mance art work with three other fe­male Pa­cific Artists as part of Hawai’i’s Smith­so­nian Asia Pa­cific Cul­ture Cen­tre’s ‘Ai Kai show­case, which is pre­sent­ing 50+ in­ter­na­tional Pa­cific artists in early July this year. The three in­cred­i­ble Pa­cific artists I am work­ing with are Jo­ce­lyn Ng (Hawai’i), Kathy Jet­nil-Ki­jner (Marshell Is­lands) and Terisa Si­a­ga­tonu (Samoa).

Orchids

- This is a full-length dance work from ac­claimed New Zealand chore­og­ra­pher/di­rec­tor Sarah Foster-Sproull that I have been in­volved with since 2015. With a com­pany of 7 (the youngest be­ing 7 years old and the old­est be­ing in her 60s), this work uses po­tent im­agery, pow­er­ful char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion/ nar­ra­tive and un­pre­dictably in­no­va­tive move­ment to un­ravel the com­plex­i­ties and hid­den lan­guages within fe­male re­la­tion­ships. This amaz­ing work is set to pre­miere in October 2017 in New Zealand’s Na­tional Tempo Dance Fes­ti­val.

Photo AARON MARCH PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

Photo AARON MARCH PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

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