(De)Colonization and Collaboration
by Nikki Shaffeeullah
In September of last fall, I had the pleasure of attending the third biennial Prismatic Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Prismatic is a national festival and conference that sets out to be Canada’s premiere venue for showcasing Aboriginal and culturally diverse artists. Run by Shahin Sayadi and Maggie Stewart—who double as the Artistic Director and the Managing Director of Halifax’s Onelight Theatre, respectively—the Prismatic 2012 program featured Onelight’s tenth original theatrical production, Hawk or How He Plays His Song. Hawk is the story of a twenty-year-old man who struggles to find his identity amid the competing influences of his urban lawyer father, who fights for their Mi’kmaq community in Halifax’s political arena; his rural mother, who is committed to living with and for their community on the reserve; and his loving Indo-Canadian girlfriend, Mitra. The Prismatic program also featured theatre, dance, photography, and musical works by leading artists from across the country, as well as a three-day conference that invited conversation surrounding key questions facing (culturally diverse and Aboriginal) artists. In my role as rapporteur for the Prismatic 2012 conference, I was tasked to pay close attention to the discussions and debates of the proceedings. Much like Prismatic 2010, the conversations (on policy, funding, education, and more) were marked by enthusiasm, energy, anger, determination, hope, and—certainly—passion.
Amid all of this, however, throughout both this Prismatic and the last, a question seemed to linger in the conference room: “What are we actually doing here?”
One possible response is that Prismatic facilitates social change, which writer, scholar, and disability activist Dr. Catherine Frazee spoke to with her words at the conference’s opening panel: “We can work until we drop in the courts and the policy work, but we get nowhere until we’ve had an impact on culture. Everything we know about justice and being human, that’s where all those things happen.” Cultural products are social agents with the power to either perpetuate the status quo or challenge (if not change) it; and in many ways, Prismatic is an ethnoculturally minded platform for the latter. But what makes the festival unique, I am starting to think, is not simply that it showcases “minority” work and issues, but how it does so. Firstly, this large and growing festival brings together culturally diverse artists and Aboriginal artists, as well as their allies. Secondly, while Prismatic’s motivations are rooted in ethno-cultural minority rights activism, as an event Prismatic is simply about celebrating artistic innovation in Canada. It centralizes what is typically relegated to the periphery, and fittingly does so in a smaller Canadian city. In this way, Prismatic suggests a reconstituted Canadian arts landscape that, without tokenizing or depoliticizing, prioritizes culturally diverse and Aboriginal people, stories, and ways of creation.
I am currently in the throes of facilitating a community-based collective creation theatre project in Edmonton that for now is loosely titled Staging Diversity. The project has brought together people who identify both as women and as “brown”—the latter term being deliberately nebulous and referring to culturally and religiously diverse people who are seen as brown and thus connected through the (Islamaphobic) racialization of their bodies, rendered hypervisible by post-9/11 “anti-terrorism” discourses. The project seeks to create an avenue for these “brown women” to respond to the selective “feminism” that has been appropriated by the Western mainstream, casting “brown” women as victims, oppressed at the hands of their male cultural counterparts.
A few critical questions seem to underlie the images, stories, and myths that have come up in our work: Which stories tend to go untold? How much should we worry about bearing the burden of our traditionally unrepresented cultures when telling our individual stories? How can we confront patriarchy that exists in our communities—as it does in all communities—when we are so often forced to strategically essentialize with and support our male counterparts, put on the cultural defensive in the face of faux-feminist xeno-racism? In what ways can we best invite audiences to think, criticize, reflect and laugh with us? How can theatre help those onstage and off unlearn the (self-)othering and (self-)hate that was created during the Orientalist colonizing of our parents’ and grandparents’ homelands and which is upheld today through neo-colonial wars? In short, how can theatre help to decolonize—to unpack internal and external racism, Islamophobia, and patriarchy?
I was describing this project to an Ojibway friend who is active and invested in Indigenous anti-colonial resistance and she jokingly commented, “Everyone is trying to decolonize something these days.” The vocabulary representing this all-consuming need to decolonize is indeed popular in activist circles. While decolonizing refers to many actions and attitudes, some concrete and legal and others abstract, I suggest that the kind of decolonization that seeks to undo internal colonization bears notable resemblance to the questions that catalyze most artistic creation: Who am I? Who are we? What are we doing here?
“What are we doing here?” Again, that question lingering in the room at Prismatic, which, in 2012, was held a few months before the dawn of the Idle No More movement. What were we doing there? To further explore this question, I ask, what does it mean for people of colour and Aboriginal artists—and these communities in general—to work together in solidarity? What is meaningful collaboration? I ask of myself: How can “brown women,” such as the migrants and the daughters of migrants involved in my Staging Diversity project, work in solidarity with Aboriginal women who, due to sexualized racism, are five to seven times more likely to die of violence than their non-Native sisters? (Amnesty International) How can racialized people on this land now called Canada, migrants and children of migrants from colonized countries, begin to seek their own decolonization when they have come to participate in the colonial project as settlers on Turtle Island?
For Canadians of all walks, the starting point for the long and elusive journey of mapping identity should perhaps begin with the land. It follows that anti-racism work by racialized settlers must not define progress as gaining more access to power, resources, and opportunity within the existing systems of the Canadian state and civic society.
The dissonance within these questions may also be the answer. The quest for internal decolonization and the quest to create art both seek to answer those “who” and “what” questions. They both probe the ever-loaded concept of identity and seek self-determined constructions thereof. As Shahin Sayadi told the Halifax Chronicle Herald, “It’s always been a struggle [as an immigrant] to understand the Canadian identity and I have come to understand it’s a mix … and not just one. The beginning of it is our natives and the land we’re in is the land of the Mi’kmaq and Hawk is a story of family” (Barnard). For Canadians of all walks, the starting point for the long and elusive journey of mapping identity should perhaps begin with the land. It follows that anti-racism work by racialized settlers must not define progress as gaining more access to power, resources, and opportunity within the existing systems of the Canadian state and civic society. On the contrary, anti-racism must challenge the colonial project at its core and at every level, centralizing indigineity at all turns. I am reminded of the opening panel at Prismatic where Jani Lauzon shared the powerful words of Sam Osawamick, an elder from Kaboni on the Wikwemikong reserve on Manitoulin Island: “This country will never be healthy unless it recognizes the roots of the tree … every healthy tree requires the roots to be fed … all right relationships will come from that.”
Hawk, like Prismatic itself, is a cultural event that strives to embody this kind of symbiosis of Canadian identities. The show is rooted in Mi’kmaq land and blends immigrant and Aboriginal narratives in a distinctly Canadian context, perhaps most poetically demonstrated in the relationship of the young lovers Hawk and Mitra, two different types of “Indian” who share a love of Tim Hortons. What enabled Hawk to achieve its intercultural character so effectively was that the content of the product reflected the tools of its creation process. Iranian-Canadian Sayadi wrote this play after twelve years of immersion in and friendship with Mi’kmaq families, and the show was developed in close consultation with cultural consultant William Nevin, Chief of the White Eagle Sundance in New Brunswick. This sort of long-term, collective, community-based play creation has a long history in Canada (and elsewhere), but still, it would seem, falls outside of conventional univocal theatre-making practice. Indeed, mainstream reception of Hawk wrote with reference to its uniqueness: one theatre blogger called the narrative and style a “new type of theatrical experience” that she had “never seen before” (Campbell), and a local reviewer commented on the “unusual theatrical structure” (Barnard).
On International Human Rights Day, December 10, ten weeks after Prismatic’s close, protests across Canada launched Idle No More: a multivocal, dialogical Indigenous sovereignty movement. The following day, Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat began what would be a six-week hunger strike intended to bring attention to First Nations issues, to contest the Conservative government’s Bill C-45, and to bring about a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnson to seriously discuss the relationship between the Canadian state and First Nations. Much of the negative criticism surrounding Idle No More and Chief Theresa Spence has focused on its tactics—or, its tools. The Globe and Mail editorial board called Chief Spence’s hunger strike a “regrettable moral-pressure tactic,” and the Calgary Herald wrote it off as “blackmail.” Both of these sources, and others like them, suggest that Spence would be better off to use established channels of communication. But why would she? Four hundred years of restriction to the established colonial channels have only allowed the ongoing exploitation and oppression of this land and its Indigenous peoples. Why is it so surprising that a First Nations leader, whose community is in crisis, would use a radically different strategy? The employment of unconventional methods to affect social change is part and parcel of anti-colonial resistance. As Audre Lorde famously said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Chief Spence did what was necessary: she developed her own toolkit.
Although neither Hawk’s creation process nor Chief Spence’s protest tactics are without precedent, both represent non-normative tools that were received with surprise and proved extremely potent. The play and the hunger strike each employed counter-hegemonic methods to achieve anti-colonial ends. Many of the contributors to this issue of alt.theatre explore this notion of alternative toolkits. Jimena Ortuza underscores the need for activist art and art-gatherings to practise politics in form as well as content, framing her discussion of the 2012 Toronto-based Panamerican Routes/Rutas Panamericanas conference around an understanding of English-Spanish language politics in the Americas. Manpreet Dhaliwal calls attention to cultural biases embedded in the structure of the Canadian court system in “The Performativity of Evidence.” Her discussion demonstrates how the use of oral testimony in the case of Aboriginal land claims is at once culturally responsive and inclusive, while also serving to destabilize and subvert hegemonic structures. In “Lightness and Political Theatre,” Lib Spry argues that comedy is an often overlooked, yet effective tool for creating politically engaged art. The dispatch “Why Metachroma?” provides what is perhaps an interesting counter-example to this exploration of revolutionary tools. While the article itself defies common practice, having been collectively written by the company members of Montreal’s newest culturally diverse theatre company, the founders seems to have used not only ‘the master’s tools,’ but his very favourite ones when building their company. Striving to “[see] players who look like us onstage, to find our identities affirmed in the landscape of Canadian storytelling,” these actors of colour chose Richard III as their inaugural production—a work by, of course, William Shakespeare, the hegemon of drama in the Commonwealth and beyond. Their name, meaning “beyond colour,” finds its etymological roots in Greek, the language of the so-called birthplace of (Western) theatre. Does Metachroma’s explicit use of Eurocentric theatre conventions abate their multicultural goals, or is it a conscious appropriation of mainstream models that subverts through strategic re-invention?
And where does alt.theatre find itself amidst this talk of form and content? Much like Prismatic, alt.theatre seeks to centralize innovative creative work that would typically be kept at the margins: culturally diverse and Aboriginal art, politically and community-engaged art, and arts-based activism. We do so within the logophilic walls of a print journal, albeit one that is mandated to represent a diversity of voices and aims to be receptive to change—form, content, and otherwise. Welcoming new tools for our kit, I’d like to think, is a part of alt’s journey, too.
ERRATUM: In alt.theatre 10.1, the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company was mistakenly referred to as the “Saskatoon Native Theatre Company” multiple times throughout the issue. alt.theatre sincerely regrets the error.
This article was originally published as the editorial in Issue 10.2 of alt.theatre.