From the jaws of JAHRA
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’ 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.
- 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).
- 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