SHARING EQUAL SPACE
NZ Fringe Festival 2013|
DUSKY MAIDENS AND NOBLE SAVAGES
at Bodega, Wellington
From 5 Mar 2013 to 6 Mar 2013
Reviewed by John Smythe, 6 Mar 2013
Before someone asks what a white boy like me is doing reviewing this “evening of poetry payback with Maori and Pacific poets”, it is the descendants of European explorers, traders, missionaries, early settlers and soldiers, who are the primary target audience. And it soon becomes clear that those for whom these six poets speak thoroughly appreciate having their thoughts and feelings so eloquently and wittily expressed.
Of course we all know now that the ‘dusky maidens' painted with European features in their pre-Colonial ‘natural habitats', and on black velvet with a red hibiscus behind the ear, are quaint oddities of abiding interest largely to collectors of kitsch. And the myth of the ‘noble savage' – the new world's innocent child of nature; tabula rasa awaiting the imprints of civilisation and sophistication from the enlightened ones – has long been consigned to the trash can of ignorance. Hasn't it?
The provocation for this event is that the myths and fantasies live on in thoughtless stereotyping and sexualised constructs, so “this performance is an act of ‘speaking back' to those erotic/exotic stereotypes that define us still.”
Clad in a fusion of traditional and contemporary clothing, the line-up is a splendid sight, simultaneously celebrating identity and challenging our assumptions and expectations. Likewise their diverse range of 23 poems are lively, clear, insightful, enlightening, sometimes challenging and often humorous.
Marama Davidson (from Te Tairawhiti and Te Tai Tokerau, now living in Tamaki Makaurau) welcomes us with a karanga/waiata. Her ‘Papatuanuku Calls' embodies an entreaty from the Earth Mother to recall the value of life-giving nature, the love of which has been replaced with a thirst to destroy her: “How will you resuscitate me.”
Later Davidson's ‘Love for Parihaka' celebrates “sassy, intelligent resistance” while ‘If This Love Could Be True For Us All' asserts “no revolution can come home without love.” Her final piece, ‘To my daughters', enjoins the next generation of warrior women to “push through” perceived limits.
Karlo Mila – who describes herself as “a transnational Dusky-hot-mama from Palmerston North living in Newtown” – leads with ‘Oceania', a paean to the ocean and “the simple faith of floating”. Towards the end, her ‘Conversation with The Mannequin From Marquesas' pits an encounter at Te Papa with the gorgeous man who won't make eye-contact against her response, as a “Dusky Maiden walking through The Fat Lady's Arms”, to the salaciousness of blokes in rugby jerseys.
But it's Mila's mid-set piece, ‘This is Reverse Racism', revealing “what we say about them” out of earshot, that hits home most strongly. For example: our demand for straight lines that lead nowhere; putting old people in old folks homes and contracting out child care; our aversion to chewing food and passing its saliva-coated value on to the next generation … Food for thought indeed.
Teresia Teaiwa (from Kiribati via Fiji, now of Tawa) brings a wry humour to her poems. ‘Demystifying Cannibalism' finds a grandmother telling her granddaughters that “we never ate people” and explains how preachers and anthropologists created the myth for control and trade. In the penultimate poem of the evening, ‘The Hongi Principle or How Not to Eat Each Other', she reveals the grandmother had found the girls ‘French kissing' … There's amusing wordplay here, too.
In between times, her ‘We Make Love With The Lights Off' and ‘Niudity' offer insights that may be cultural or personal, take your pick.
Rob Hack (from Invercargill via Niue, Manihiki, Mauke and Rarotonga, now living in Paekakariki) leads with ‘Manihiki Remembers', recalling floral perfumes rather than car fumes. I've had to ask Google to confirm the bizarre ‘Blue Laws' of his second poem were real, and yes, the missionaries imposed them in the Cook Islands. Simply reciting them speaks volumes.
Hack enlightens us further on true Island values and further atrocities with ‘On Rarotongta / Three Old Women Raking Leaves / Aitu'; aitu being the Niuean word for ghost.
Pala Molisa (from Vanuatu, now Mount Victoria) is a majestic figure in his traditional vegetable fibre ‘skirt'. His ‘Liberal Tolerance' sounds more like a lecture-cum-political speech than a poem but is powerful all the same in its call to fight all manifestations of racism. ‘Skin Deep' considers what else, other than skin colour, is skin deep and exhumes “cheeky darkie” for scrutiny.
His ‘Sexy Noble Savage' plays with the female fantasy – or is it his? – that men like him are “completely irresistible” and the women “cannot get enough” before making the point that this perception also “frames and constrains”.
Most confrontational and edgy, and so provoking the most laughter, is Maraea Rakuraku, “a Tuhoe/Kahuninja princess staunching out Miramar” who, with Faye Jansen, has formed RJ Productions to present this event.
Her first contribution, ‘Yo Cook if I met you', subverts most expectations the title may inspire. ‘Mesdames' contrasts vanities and atrocities from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. ‘We Have Sex With Our Hoodies On' contrasts people who “plant their flags where they don't belong” with those who “make love like explorers discovering new land” and expresses ambivalence about “the final conquering” of love.
‘Traditional Polynesian Medicine' satirises the cruisey academic junket scored by an American from Hawaii who still gets away with using the term “witch doctor” and provokes a clandestine Tweet-attack. And Rakuraku brings the evening to a close with ‘Hongi 101', comically elucidating its perversions and pitfalls before reminding us that “in the meeting of our breath we are sharing equal space.”
And so we do, this night at Bodega Bar. But I cannot remain to bask in that because now my sense of duty demands I get back to my car and race up the winding road to my next reviewing commitment in the 15 minutes available. It's not a straight line and it does lead somewhere; even so …
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