Writer-in-residence, Kembali: Dia Hakim Khaeri
Engagement date: 28 July 2022
In the Art world, there are many terms that separate our art – in genre, style, and more glaringly the artists themselves.
The theatre world has always been more toward this practice, likely because words influence the art form. When we think of “mainstream” theatre, we think of the starry, big budget shows staged at Marina Bay Sands or Drama Centre. When we think of “fringe” theatre, we think of the pop-up shows residing at Projector X, produced by independent artists like A Mirage.
There is also the “othered” community of theatre / performance, which is referred to as “applied” theatre.
By definition, The University of Auckland defines the practise as “an umbrella term, embracing a wide range of theatre practices that share an intentionality to provoke or shape social change.” This usually encompasses theatre for social change, disability theatre, amongst other things.
Both Sides Now, as a whole, is put in this corner of applied theatre / performance. The theme of death that it covers, and this year’s focus on the Malay-Muslim community on its own makes it a “social” project. When a project has more defined objectives, it is liable to be segregated from other forms of art making.
I have always had a more spectacled interest in this art form. Having been exposed to politics and social issues at an early age, as a young artist I dove right into the water. I was determined to get my voice out there – my naive understanding of what it meant to make political art was completely shrouded in the years of my repressed, queer, trans Malay anger.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with anger. Many forms of applied theatre have a righteous anger, amongst many other negative emotions marginalised artists and communities have.
But not all socially conscious art uses the stage as a more elegant protest. And Suddenly I Disappear by Access Path Productions for instance, uses the talents and joys of the disabled community to drive its narrative.
However, there is so much more than just anger and political stances when it comes to socially conscious art.
As we progress into surviving within a society charred by late-stage capitalism, we are seeing an increasing amount of need for community. It shows through simple effort actions; like leaving free groceries outside in case a needy neighbour should need it, or mutual aid spreadsheets.
Kembali being part of Both Side’s overall ethos places it into the community box. Its participants, composed of non-professional female senior citizens, bring a distinct feeling into the air. Having senior citizens openly talk (or even express, whether directly or indirectly) about death already brings the potential feeling of other. The discomfort, the curiosity, the questions you might have as an audience member. There is just so much to unpack, by the existence of someone on stage alone.
When it comes to making community art (especially with projects as large as Both Sides), there is the inevitable bridge of professionals and “non-professionals.” Someone to guide, and someone to receive that guidance.
In being an observer to Kembali, I’ve had to shift in more than one dimension. One, being that I tried my best not to see these women as solely participants. When you share the same community, when you have family that looks and talks like these women, it’s hard to try and separate my “observational” self and my regular self. The one that has a grandmother who could be gossiping, joking and laughing alone with these women. Who would have brought a packet of rojak to rehearsals too.
There are many lines in community art, as there is with the community as a whole. How we negotiate creation contains, creates and introduces many new rules or boundaries that we have to think of. The relationships that are made, the conversations that contribute to the overall art that is shown to the rest of the world.
The nature of Kembali differs from most “socially conscious” art. It even separates itself from the majority of the existing Both Sides Now works that have already been released. The fact that it displays Malay elderly women onstage, their moving bodies encapsulating of what the word “kembali” means, in relation to death and the Malay-Muslim community.
Involving the community in your art means bringing along the entire nature of their beings. Their histories, their stories, their beliefs, their biases. Making art with a “non-professional” demographic means the experts are the ones that have to accommodate the people who want to make art with. In a professional setting there is rarely that negotiation.
Perhaps the distinction comes in the most when we truly see the work for what it is. The more I sit amongst these women, I unlearn my own preconceived notions of what it means to display a political immediacy, especially with a topic as turbulent as death. The discussion of death will never really stop, the portrayals in media and art constantly evolving and changing. The ephemeral nature of performance, the one that dies constantly after it is performed.