Talanoa: Shigeyuki Kihara

The Emerge festival is upon us again. Presented by Multicultural Arts Victoria, it is a showcase for those artists newly arrived on our shores, presenting their art practise and traditions, establishing a basis of understanding amongst the variety of communities that cohabit Melbourne. One of the highlights of the festival is the Talanoa: Walk the Talk VII performance and forum, which will be kicking off on the 20th of June. Conceived and mediated by Samoan performance artist Shigeyuki Kihara, this is the seventh instalment of her trans-Tasman project. “As a Pacific Island diaspora artist… I wondered: in an age of global migration that results in cosmopolitanism in many big cities, how can we actually live along side by side with people who are already there, who are making their homes where they are, amongst other people who are making new homes for themselves?” Thinking about ways to bridge this gap, Kihara thought of the ancient Samoan concept of Talanoa. “It alludes to a process of exchange of dialogue between two conflicting clans, coming together to establish a mutual ground based on love, respect and peace. I strongly believe there is not enough Talanoa in this world.”

To explore this process, Shigeyuki brings together seemingly disparate groups with different cultural backgrounds, and mediates a process of understanding and sharing, culminating in a collaborative performance of song and dance. “I think there’s all these government policies… and a lot of critics that talk about concepts of ‘cross cultural’, ‘transcultural’, etc. etc. But all those fancy rancy terms are always up on high, and never trickle down.”

Her first Talanoa was staged in Auckland, between Chinese Dragon dancers and a Scottish Highland Pipe band. This time for the Emerge Festival, Kihara has been working with the Dambai Dancing Sudan Group and Te Roro n Rikirake Kiribati Youth Group. “My project has been understood by those who I have worked with as a community icebreaker, it’s a great way to get to know one another… And funnily enough, most of the time when I bring these communities together, like for example when I brought the Kiribati, which is a very rural pacific island, and the South Sudanese community into this, and the Sudanese said things like, ‘you know I wouldn’t have guessed there is such a country called Kiribati,’ and there are other cases where some members of the Kiribati and the South Sudanese were literally neighbours, they’ve never spoken to each other until they were engaged in this exercise.”

At first the project seems like a massive undertaking, if anything because of the dance groups’ radically different backgrounds. “My father’s Japanese, and it’s my mother that’s Samoan, and people often say: ‘My that’s an interesting, odd mix.’ But what is the right mix? There’s this really static idea that culture does not evolve, that it does not engage. When I approach them… a lot of the communities that say yes are communities that want to engage, and are prepared to share where they come from.” This means anything from fusing rhythms together to preparing afternoon tea for each other with traditional foods. “I’m trying to provide opportunities for people to explore each other, because most of the time we think we have to travel abroad to understand where a community comes from, when they’re just literally next door.”

When the concept of Talanoa is introduced to these communities, is there an equivalent in their own culture? “I find that a lot of traditional ideas from the Pacific, which is where my background is, are universal. It’s just a matter of, how do we apply it in this environment. Because I’m working with grassroots communities, and it’s always intergenerational… it’s more of a forum for the older generation to pass on the core values of the community: self-confidence, social responsibility, community engagement… because in the mainstream we only dance when we go out and get drunk at a nightclub, but for some communities song and dance is what they do all the time.”

Kihara is a powerful and eloquent speaker for Talanoa, and that drive is infectious. “When you strip away the costumes and the ethnicity, the gender, essentially what they are trying to pass on… are core values about social responsibility, which has been really inspiring. I’m trying to go beyond the surface of, what they wear, beyond the kilt, beyond the grass skirts, beyond the drums. Why is it that these communities are so attracted to coming together through music.”

Beat Issue June 16th 2010

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