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The following article contains extracts from an archival report of da:ns lab 2019, written from the perspectives of participants Chloe Chotrani and Chan Sze-Wei. This article also contains verbatim transcriptions of conversations among facilitators and participants.
As I write this, the Singapore skyline is hazy from the neighboring forest fires. A reminder of the call of the climate crisis. The haze returns every year and is treated by society in Singapore as a normal part of the weather. All conversations at this point are interwoven to our ecology. This year’s da:ns lab theme, Listen to Country brings questions about our relationship to land. What is our place in relationship to the land we live on? What does it mean to listen to the land? What can we do to respond to the call of the land? Are we willing to listen?
I quote Kidlat Tahimik, National Artist and Father of Philippine Independent Cinema, whose works critique the division of globalisation, capitalism, and tradition. Kidlat coined the term "indio genius" of people who identify with indigenous values, but are not from a direct indigenous ancestral lineage. Indio genius—I find to be a good framework of indigenous intervention within a contemporary content to read the engagement with the work of Jacob on our first day at da:ns lab.
Jacob Boehme is a Melbourne-born and based artist of Aboriginal heritage, from the Narangga (Yorke Peninsula) and Kaurna (Adelaide Plains) nations of South Australia. Jacob is the founding Creative Director of YIRRAMBOI First Nations Arts Festival 2017.
Jacob introduced himself by sharing his ancestral lineages. His work in Australia fills the gap created through colonial indigenous erasure—of language, of people, of memory. As a young actor and troublemaker at the age of 13, a social worker put him into a theatre class instead of juvenile detention, which led him to study dance at the Aboriginal Island Dance College in Sydney, where he learned from Aboriginal elders and where Jacob adapted pre-colonial performance models of interdisciplinary song and storytelling. Of which, one of these models was shared and practiced with us in his workshop. He also generously gave the participants the opportunity to take this model and share it with others in our own contexts.
In the South of Australia, the erasure by colonisation was heavier and absence of culture more felt, as compared to the North where there is a stronger presence of Aboriginal historical narratives and songs due to slower colonisation. In the South, banning and censorship of song and dance led to Aboriginal communities continuing their ceremonial practices in secret. Jacob initiated the YIRRAMBOI festival for the revival and reclaiming of cultural practice, pride, ceremonies, and connection to country.
Jacob’s presentation leads me to question: Jacob comes from an indigenous lineage, which gives him the authority to reclaim indigenous narratives, but how about everyone else? There is risk in cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to the indigenous. How does one build a holistic relationship with a community where art can be an expressive medium to mutually benefit both the artist and the community?
Country meaning landscape, a place you have been given to be custodian of, not the owner, but the custodian. How you treat that country directly reflects how healthy you are or not. Jacob mentions that his elders say,
Singapore has grown so quickly and fast, that it makes me question if we are going to die as quickly and as fast? At the rate we are going, with continuous air-conditioning, which acts as a lighter and heats up the city twice as fast as the rest of the world. Indoor gardens, to replace the wild land that has grown freely, in the name of economic development. It is only the privileged who can afford to even consider thinking about potential positive changes for the climate. Those who are the most affected by it are the marginalized communities on the fringe. If we choose not to act, the haze will only thicken. Smoke doesn’t see country borders, nor does melting of ice, or warming of oceans. How then can we re-think listening to country in Singapore?
Jacob goes on to speak about the interconnectedness of memory, movement, trauma, and DNA. How trauma memory from our ancestors remains coded in our DNA and is something that everyone can tap into. He works within this approach through movement.
“Listening to country” also means listening to the body. We spent the next few hours being in the body. The 33 participants formed a large circle and we were each asked to prompt a brief stretch, giving each person a chance to lead the warm up.
We then went into a series of tasks of memory and movement.
We broke into two groups, one group as witness, the second group as performers. Each performer was tasked to dance the memory, while the group behind the performer would echo and also perform that memory. This process created a transmission of memory through the body and a witnessing of memory with the spectators. It added a layer of depth to knowing each other on a kinesthetic level. It gave us grounds for an immediate bond, sharing a deeply personal side of our history, without directly telling people, without necessarily understanding the context logically.
Shawn Chua shared that “...the exercise felt like a crash course in embodying the entire room’s history as a repertoire. It was easier to access those experiences through another person’s action, rather than my own. I was also asking myself—What were the kinds of actions that felt more dissonant with my body? At the same time, being aware when an action feels familiar to my body. I felt there were two main types of movement, one that was action oriented, and one that can dwell and had an emotional arc, those were the ones that allowed me to access history.”
Later on, we explored a group movement choreography exercise responding to the theme of "feeling home" when you are not at "home" (or, on your own country). It gave the participants the opportunity to co-create together as a collective, compared to as individuals in the earlier exercise.
In the afternoon, Jacob shares more on landscape as a defining factor that shapes who we are. Being near salt water as compared to fresh water changes behaviour in people. Environment breeds behaviour for generations to come. “When we speak about a country, we are speaking of landscape.”
This opens up into an engaging and exciting discussion.
Daniel Kok: “Singapore for me is actually dislocated from the land. Our history often times starts with the ’60s, the time of British colonialism. In the ’60s, the racial groups were very divided, there was no strong sense of nationhood. When Singapore became its own country, we had to learn quickly to forget all of that. We forgot our dialects. All that got erased. All the Indians are presumed to speak Tamil, all the Chinese learned Mandarin. Everything got reduced and simplified. To add to that, the indigenous people in Singapore, they (the Malays) became the minority group, and they were treated in an odd way, and the politics of that have yet to be unpacked. We don’t spend so much time on how we really belong to this land. Added to that, the rapid need to change our economic situation, from agriculture into high-tech telecommunication services. We actually don’t have any real relationship to the land. Our buildings get torn down, people protest but are not listened to.
As a subject then what do I connect with? Is there anything left for me to connect to? I have no choice but to think about people and places as country. If we make another leap to think about dance. I am thinking about dance as a practice of displacement of movement. How do I deal with a sense of displacement?”
Other Singaporeans in the room add to that conversation on displacement.
Loo Zihan: “Because of Singaporeans’ context of constant deliberate erasure, the response we have to the term ‘listen to country’ is instinctively a very adverse response. ‘Listen to country’ reminds me of propaganda. It really took me some time to try to find a way to engage with the term ‘country’: I immediately have the sense of the nation, in a way that is oppressive and can be draconian or severe. I am not sure how we grapple with a benign notion of country?”
Jacob continued to question and provoke the room, asking everyone if there is an existing relationship with the indigenous in Singapore? Which becomes a heated discussion on the complexity of indigeneity, especially in Southeast Asia as an archipelago, as compared to Australia as a continent.
Mok Cui Yin: “It is not that we do not have a relationship. For the indigenous groups, there has been a lot of carving of seas and erasure of identities. It’s not just about the history of colonisation and the history of migration throughout centuries, within the region, across Asia, as well as a large diaspora. I come from a dialect group that were exiles sent to the southernmost point of China, and they were last of the Chinese migrants to come to Southeast Asia. They do not even have a place in China. I feel that country is less of what I receive and carry with me but what I choose and will do and draw to. Personally, I draw a distinction between country and nation. There is a distinction between what is national identity and what is country, which is an imagined space that floats above geography. Although, for you, because you have a strong connection to ancestry and history to receive that’s tied to the land. Mine is one that’s moved from island to island, from seas to seas.”
Soultari Amin Farid: “We could be fighting about who is indigenous. At the same time, I feel we are cultural orphans. I find it problematic, the Malays or whatever fits into that Malay label is orphaned because of what the region is to us. I like to say “constitutionally indigenous” so I don’t have to deal with the contestations of what indigeneity in the country means. But, I feel indigenous to this island, to this region. I see the culture of maritime Southeast Asia to be mine as well. I see it to be part of who I am. I am all for the Nusantara. I am abhorrent of the colonial legacy that has carved us onto many different paths. I think the way I am, how emotional I am, also has to do with privilege. I am a minority and yet sometimes I am not able to decide for myself. Yes, in certain times, when any minority starts talking about Chinese privilege, suddenly, I am Malay or Indian and not Singaporean. It is complex.”
Fehzah Maznan: “I do find it problematic the notion of purely indigenous because we are so mixed, we have influences from everywhere. There is Malay from Indonesia or from Malacca. Is it our land because we were born here? Our history is so nomadic in that sense, it is hard to say we are indigenous to this land. As a Malay, I know that is not a word I would use to describe myself constantly. There is too much race and culture that has been collapsed under the term Malay. In Singapore, it has been constructed in a way where you do not own the land. This is a transit place. In your lease, you only have 99 years. Even then it is not something I can pass to my children or grandchildren. I am curious to actually know what is our relationship right now within the context of the various identities that we have. What is our relationship to the Malay archipelago?”
Chloe Chotrani: “Personally, I do feel an affinity and connection to this land and that is affirming enough to have a sense of indigeneity. If we look past the ’60s, at the Orang Laut and their seafaring and nomadic nature… It is actually quite similar to how people in Singapore live today. There is a lot of cultural mobility, it is very transitory. Maybe, we are more similar to our indigenous lineages that we know to be.”
Shawn Chua: “What kinds of forms of kinships or networks of care can we re-create? How can we care? How can we accompany? I am interested in finding ways to nourish these relations.”
Hoo Kuan Cien: “Is it possible to go beyond owning the land? Is it possible to have a connection to one’s neighbourhood or environment? For instance, when I go away and come back and I see a tree cut down in my neighbourhood, I feel that a murder has taken place. It is this visceral feeling you have with the land. You can’t really describe it in words, but it is something quite magical. This moment occurred for me when I visited Bukit Brown Cemetery. I was there for a tour, it was a rainy morning, and it was a visceral and emotional experience for me.”
Xiao Ke: “When we think about country in a geographic way, it is related with political benefits. Somehow, most of us always change our attitude to who we are. For sample, if I am Korean-Chinese, in mainland China I can choose to identify as Korean, but I am living in China. If I move to Europe, I can choose to be defined as Chinese. How we identify ourselves also changes. My question is – Why do we only have one way to simplify and identify what is country? How can we refresh our ideas on country?”
Paz Ponce: “I am from Spain and I live in Germany. Country is the social contract that we as a society have. What we have in common is that we pay taxes, which enables us to be a social custodian of the country. Those who do not work they are not regarded as able citizens—they do not exist. In Germany, there is a problematic thing now where it is part of a culture of able-ism. Are you paying taxes? Are you working? Meaning, you are represented if you are a custodian. If you do not work, as thousands of people do not work, such as women who care for the house, basically they do not exist. Able-ism is differentiating because we are regarded as parasites who suck resources from the state because we are not able to produce. The only differentiation is do you produce? Why do we have to be defined by what we produce?”
As the conversation shifts into remembering stories told by our grandparents, it raised provocations, frictions, tensions, and further questions within a Singaporean context. Interestingly, this sharply changes the direction and perspective of Jacob’s original intentions, which was to have a second movement exercise based on stories of our ancestors. We ended up instead in a heated conversation about voluntary amnesia and trauma within familial ties.
Cui Yin, Loo Zihan, Sze-Wei and Nabilah Said speak about how in Singapore, family storytelling is not a usual mode of connection. The older generations were determined to forget trauma so as to move on. Questions were raised on how to expand the notion of kinship beyond genetic ancestry? Here is how the discussion went:
Jacob: “If we go with the notion of country as a commitment to family, those that have walked before us, without them we wouldn’t be here. It is through those ancestors that have given us the opportunities today. This is where I’d like to shift the focus into a movement exercise. I was wondering, if we could do two more memory exercises and apply it to the choreographic technique. Think of a story that you have been told by a grandparent of ancestors you don’t know.”
Cui Yin: “That doesn’t exist.”
Jacob: “Your grandmother has never spoken about her mothers and elders?”
Cui Yin: “My grandmother speaks a different language.”
Loo Zihan: “Their dialect is different from our dialect.”
Jacob: “Is there any story you have heard from the older generations? Whom you have never met?”
Zihan shared that for the older generations, there was a deliberate willing of self to forget due to the trauma of the past, poverty, migration, violence, and war. Shawn questions the room on how we can expand to think beyond genetic ancestry?
Aparna Nambiar: “I was thinking how much of culture is passed through stories, which is one way. It is only in the mid-nineteenth century where there is the homogenisation of how the world is transformed. If we are talking about migration that has happened over half a millennium, there is cultural continuity, though not necessarily through the passing of stories… I feel there is something about different ways of passing on values. Some of which are verbal, some are different forms of encouraging different forms of behaviour. Here as a dance space, there is a lot of embodiment and transfer of histories.”
Chloe: “I feel for many of us here that blood kinship is a source of estrangement and rejection, and so you don’t go there as a source of healing, because it is the source of trauma. Your sense of family, story, history, then comes from other sources, or ideally, inside. Perhaps, you’ll find a rhythm, or dance, or song, where you find a source of home. I am curious about ways we can look beyond a racial boundary.”
Jacob: “It is not beyond your blood, it is in your blood. Your DNA memory, every two generations, it tracks back. When you do come across songs, or rhythms, or something that feels familiar to you. DNA memory is going two generations plus two generations plus two generations back. It is already in your body, that’s why you remember. It is already in us.”
Nabilah continues to share on how she finds freedom in being able to re-make our own myths, finding a strength of being present, rather than digging into family trauma. While Zihan shares his resistance to a genetic determinism of who we are, a narrative that has been woven, spun, used, and inflected as a weapon to discipline Singaporeans. Shawn shares that in trauma discourse, it is not just genetics that one inherits, but also how the environment changes the genetic expression. I think the understanding of genetic inheritance of trauma needs to be contextualised. Sze-Wei also shares how remembering and identifying with a culture that is an oppressing majority brings upon cultural guilt.
Paz: “When a nation state works based on geography there is a consensus of forgetting. From that point zero of the collective decision of when one is a country, things happen very fast, people consciously eliminate where they come from because its more ‘efficient’ to move forward.”
“… maybe it is not about listening to country, but thinking about how your country is where you are listening to.”
Cui Yin: “I don’t care about reconciliation or lost things along the way. But, I know that I have been programmed to a culture that has cut me blind and deaf to many people and their experiences because of the nature of my identified existence as Chinese. I feel that, maybe it is not about listening to country, but thinking about how your country is where you are listening to. Maybe those who are listening should be listening to those that are subjugated. For that is how I inhabit the present situation in Singapore. There is no such thing as Chinese, that word is a fake word. The concept of Chinese-ness is of a sojourner, of being diasporic, of being multiplicities. In and of that, then for what? The label is just a demographic label. The label I have been given has caused a lot of unnecessary harm. That harm is what I should be listening to, rather than to focus on what came before me.”
Jacob shifts the conversation away from country being something to with your blood or culture. Country being environment and ecology. What is your relationship to that? What is the position of responsibility to ecology and environment? What are people's feelings on how that plays in your practice?
Andrei Pamintuan: “Listening to country for me in context of what I do (as a Festival Director) and where I am (the Philippines) is providing a sense of belongingness, to make them feel seen or heard.”
Preethi Athreya: “In India to find unbuilt land is almost impossible because the population is increasing. In the last few years, a group of us have been occupying open spaces. How do you be in these open spaces? How do you inhabit those places? These are spaces where our thinking is starting to develop. Taking action upon open spaces. There was such an urgency that some of us bought land, so that nothing could be built on it.”
Sze-Wei: “I have a strong sense that the local environmental context of Singapore and its situation as a confluence of things is a context of transformation over time. And, I try to think about transformations at the time of the ocean, not in the time of human life. In the time of the horseshoe crab which has retained its inherent genetic makeup, and how it has not needed to change in a million years. With that project, I work with things that come to these shores, to look at that transformation and how those things have been reclaimed by the sea. It is also a connecting to the sense that migration, say of my grandparents, is only a small scheme of the larger changing or non-changing patterns.”
Chloe: “I work with soil and I think my hands in contact with the earth is a way to listen to country. The way information is being passed can also be ephemeral in this way, the insects that come by, the dragon flies, monitor lizards, frogs, and all of that translates into my work as an artist. That is one way to listen to country, to listen to nature. I feel one way to break the illusion of separation of man and nature is through plant medicines. I feel it is so deeply profound, it can be a re-wiring of our cells and neuropaths, that is also another way to listen.”
Amin: “Before this talk about indigeneity, the idea of land was important, that allowed me to reflect upon traditional ideas with nature pre-Islam. Understanding of the wind in itself as a way to describe modes of being and understanding. And, nature was a way of looking at the life or understanding life of Malay people before Islam. After Islam, it became quite a sanitized way of looking. A lot of training in traditional dance it was mostly from nature, how soil works, and returning back to the land.”
Jacob: “In order for us to go forward ecologically and environmentally, I do think it is important that we consult with as many indigenous communities around the world as possible, who have spent long periods of time and managed them pristinely; until the coming of the industrial revolution and after the industrial revolution. We need to start listening to those that have been listening to country for a long time in order to go back to the land renewal. Because unfortunately, we have f--ked it.”
We close the day by having a conversation on the current fellowship that Jacob is under for the next two years. Where Jacob has the opportunity to seek alternative business models based on indigenous cultures around the world. To re-seek for ideas of the art market that is more focused on cultivating craft rather than selling performance as product. Which leaves us with room for actual on the grounds, possibilities.
We did not end up doing the initial movement exercises that Jacob had planned. There is no conclusion. There are no answers. There cannot be answers in four days. This conversation is too complex to unpack in a workshop or two. However, we did arrive somewhere. Ideas surrounding the urban-indio, the notion of country beyond nation-state borders, country as ecology and environment, listening to people that listen to country, listening to those that are subjugated, as a way to listen to country, and a myriad of layers that each can unpack in one’s own way.
I appreciated Jacob’s sharing of his work and practice very much. He offered a sincere perspective on something we don’t discuss that much here—injustice to indigenous people and ritual links to forefathers, land, language, and the act of politicising group identity.
He led us to create movement from specific lived memories of the body, of people who are important to us—a set of his choreographic tools that are an alternative to looking at specific steps or aesthetics. The principles seemed too simple to me at first but I could sense the sincerity and commitment to the method, and I can imagine how this helps him to access rich material from collaborators in communities who don’t relate to the formal aesthetics of Western contemporary dance or choreographic concepts. The group ritual exercises that we did together based on this approach turned out to be very evocative, and everyone watched each group-solo with rapt silence.
It was a pity that we did not end up spending more time on his discussion of his current initiative for the curation of indigenous arts, through a new set of organising principles that don’t follow the systems of neoliberal capitalism.
Trained as a dancer, Sze-Wei now makes “stuff” for theatre, interactive performance, video and film. She is currently working on a documentary about queer communities around voguers in Southeast Asia. She facilitates the Working Group for Dancers’ Advocacy in Singapore, and the networks Singapore Interdependent Dance, Independent Dance Southeast Asia, and Contact Improvisation Southeast Asia.
Jacob Boehme is a Melbourne born and based artist of Aborignal heritage, from the Narangga (Yorke Peninsula) and Kaurna (Adelaide Plains) nations of South Australia.
Jacob is the founding Creative Director of YIRRAMBOI First Nations Arts Festival 2017.
With a 20 year history working in Cultural Maintenace, Research & Revival of traditional dance with Elders and youth from urban to remote Indigneous communities across Australia, Jacob combines dance (Diploma in Dance, NAISDA 2000), puppetry (Masters in Puppetry, Victorian College of the Arts 2007), and playwriting (Masters in Writing for Performance, Victorian College of the Arts, 2014) to create multi-disciplinary theatre, dance and ceremony for stage, screen, large-scale public events and festivals.
Other International Residencies include teaching traditional and contemporary Aboriginal dance at Teatteri ILMI O in Helsinki, Finland and the Schaxpir Festival Linz, Austria.
Jacob's solo work Blood on the Dance Floor, produced in partnership with ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, is touring nationally and internationally in 2019.
da:ns lab is an annual platform for dance practitioners to reflect upon key issues surrounding their creative practice, as part of da:ns festival at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay. The programme aims to engage dance practitioners in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region in artistic discourse, research, reflection and exchange.