Thursday, February 15, 2018

Reflections on Akashi Fisiinaua and Fafswag's Xhrome Xhrysalis. Written by Cat Ruka.

Before the beginning.

Before I begin, I have to proclaim my uneasiness with the process of writing about creative expression. I hold the belief that any person engaged in the act of reviewing an art work cannot separate themselves from also re-conjuring and re-affirming the critic’s problematic position of power. For a long time, arts communities have scripted the reviewer (or responder, or whatever softening term), into a role of authority in which they are the gatekeeper who has the final hand in constructing and contouring the artistic-cultural scene. Maybe the review writer is a myth maker who - often unconsciously operating from an ego-realm - will etch their myth in stone, and it is these stones that lay down the narrative of what the art WAS and how appreciative the community SHOUD BE of the artist. It’s a whack and archaic practice, and maybe the following writing should have stayed in my journal along with my shopping lists and boring personal confessions. It is my opinion that no matter how much poetry, fragmentation, or buzz words we employ in earnest attempts to deconstruct the act, we can’t escape the dynamic of power inherent in the historical relationship between artist,critic and community. This is a relationship I believe will exist until our secretive and darkened needs to be the best artist in all of the land really, truly dies in favour of a total desire to succeed collectively. 

After many showdowns of conflict and comment trolling from privileged old yt people on theatreview, I discontinued writing reviews and removed my rather unfiltered yet minorised voice from critique altogether about 7 years ago. But then on Saturday night I attended Xhrome Xhrysalis curated by Fafswag artist Akáshi Fisiinaua, and was inspired enough to press in to the tension of reviewing again. The following is some personal fiction about partial aspects of this event as experienced through the skin-lens of my brown and marginalised artist body. I also note here that I come to this writing as a collaborator and proud friend of many of the artists involved.

Okay, now we can start.

Interdisciplinary artist and curator of Xhrome Xhrysalis Akashi Fisiinaua seems to move through literal and figurative spaces without fear. I experience her as an ancient and deadly presence, recently storming many facets of the arts scene with a body that chants, dances, ritualises and gives voice to the lived experiences of herself and her burgeoning peers. Whether she’s jamming around with her sisters in Myers Park or MCing a Vogue Ball at Auckland Art Gallery, Akashi is always out to execute to the death. Xhrome Xhrysalis is no exception - here she draws on her taste-maker powers and assembles some of her art family into a confederation of expressions that take over both levels of Auckland city’s Basement Space. Traversing across fashion (Jasper Powell), music (Coco Solid, Fānau Spa, Whaea Queenie, Selecta Rei), digital installation (Tanu Gago, Pati Tyrell, Sione Monu, Jermaine Dean) and performance (Fang, Honey, Duchess, Mistress Supreme, Jaime Waititi, Julian Chote, Rosanna Raymond), Xhrome Xhrysallis is a magical wild card that can never be revisited or replicated.

Upon arrival, I am immediately welcomed in to an environment that - at an energetic level - feels warm and safe enough to express my aroha and receive it. Isn’t this what we all want whānau, I mean lets be honest. It’s the vibe I’m totally accustomed to feeling when I’m around Fafswag and the wider community, but to be brutally honest seldom perhaps never feel at the Basement. I’ve been attending and making shows at this venue for over 15 years and I’ve never until this moment felt culturally and physically safe there, and on this night it’s a massive triumph to be able to walk across the car park and up to the entrance knowing that my people are inside and that it’s possible I may get through the evening without feeling anxious and culturally alienated. Fafswag are an important presence within the realm of theatre for this alone; for the way in which they are able to transform and flatten the coloniality of the theatre space (and all its subtle socio-cultural hierarchies and micro-agressions) into a plane of intersectional queer POC belonging. I also thank those currently involved in programming at the Basement for facilitating this event, who have finally allowed a rupture to occur in the racially superior history of this space. A rupture that is significant enough for brown people to actually, finally, feel at home. 

As with most Fafswag offerings, the event is beyond full capacity and we are sandwiched into a delicious body-intimacy as we wait for the doors to open. When they do, me and my mete head up to the studio first and enter into a predominantly digital environment with multiple works being screened at once. It’s dope to see Tanu’s work first, a multi-channel video work on a stack of old TV screens. Tanu’s distinct visual language takes me back to seeing those iconic large-scale portrait prints of his in the original Fresh Gallery Ōtara, and Fafswag’s first Vogue Ball just down the road from that in what feels like a lifetime ago. Tanu’s work is an important marker of time and signifies one of the most disruptive moments in urban pacific art. The bold and staccato messaging in the work is a needle through my third eye and in this moment I am also reminded of the important mahi of Ema Tavola, Leilani Kake, Nicole Lim and many many others whose self-determination in those early days carved an ornate space for the current yung blood to enjoy, protect and critique.

There are no chairs in the space (fucking hallelujah) but rather rostra in each corner that encourage us to establish social nooks through the evening. The fairy lights hanging from ceiling to floor create a softened, galactic ambience within which to feel comfortable and teleported. There’s no sense of rush or spectacle just yet. Selecta Rei (Reina Sutton) occupies one corner behind her sound system in all her mega-glory, kick back on a yellow cane chair and it’s one of the most low-key poignant statements of the night. Headliner and queen of ‘ActiVAtion’ Rosanna Raymond promenades her bare skinned body through the space - stalklike, forceful and entangling. Mother of COVEN and performance artist Mistress Supreme (Moe Laga) is draped in black lace and weaves her way through the crowd with a series of reductionist fucking/birth poses that totally strip everything down to the bone - she is irreverent and subtly transformative. We soak up what has now become a revolutionized space through performance, and after some dancing, hearty elevated discussions and one or two potent rums, the space has filled and we become the audience of a fashion show. 

Jasper Powell is a clothing designer with maaaaajor potential. I’ve seen Jasper’s work in previous shows where more muted fabric choices have been made, but in this moment I get my colour-science jollies out of the collection’s bright, unexpected combos and tonal-clash vibrancy. Rich plums, hot pinks, canary yellows and nicoll blues are cleverly assembled into faux fur coats and tassel-trimmed sportswear. I find myself deeply satisfied with the tailoring, the order of garment presentation and the consistent BEHOLD ME BECAUSE I AM A GOD performance energy of Jasper’s models. I also have to admit that it’s just hella pleasurable to see the millennial point of view shared so authentically and unapologetically in a social context that celebrates and laps that shit up. Overall I’m left feeling utterly uplifted and excited to see Jasper’s next move. 

We head back downstairs for a nosey, and on our wandering through the in-between spaces I become aware of the circle of manaaki and service that is being held by a group of quiet and humble background assassins. They are doing everything they can to keep the event at a high vibrational frequency, and ultimately it is this service that ends up ‘glowing’ for me the most throughout the evening. What I love is that they are not there to keep everything under control but rather to respond to and flow with the emerging needs in a way that only our pacific people know how. I notice it on several occasions and find aroha brimming up to my eyeballs for Jermaine, Leo, Elyssia, Tanu, Sione, and Pati. Tonight these are the members of the collective who are not there to receive adoration from culture-consuming fans but rather to keep the walls of the whare upright for their family.

In the main theatre space we are lucky to catch a performance from COVEN member Fang who provocatively opens up territory between Vogue and performance art through ritualising their dancing within the task of unveiling and undressing. I’ve heard Fang is racking up the mean fan-base through Fafswag’s interactive documentary - and it’s no wonder - their performance presence is an intoxicating mix of raging fire and lithe delicacy at once. After rousing the crowd into stupor, Fang is joined by her baby COVEN sister Honey who places the glazed cherry on top in the candy-coated way that only Honey knows how. We break for more drinking and then before the humidity and exhilaration both finally get the better of us and it’s time to go and find an ocean, we catch the beginning of Coco Solid’s set. It’s the perfectly iconic end to our evening and for us, wraps the overall experience in touching nostalgia.

So basically for me, Xhrome Xhrysalis was lit. There’s nothing more to express than utter gratitude. Thank you Akashi, Tanu, the artists, and the entire Fafswag collective, not just for this important moment but for every other moment that has gone before and for the even more epic ones yet to be manifested. Thank you for the sacrifices and tough choices you always make so that the rest of us can breathe, if just for an evening. Thank you for catching multiple buses and trains home late at night from the inner-city venues so the rest of us can witness the striking brilliance of your bodies under colourful lights. Thank you for the Vogue injuries, the notes in your journals that become works, the hustling, the divine and infinite wisdom. I see you. I totally fucking see you. And to those who might have picked this writing up and managed to read to the end. This is nothing more than my own bullshit projected onto words on a page. You don’t have to be special to write a review.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Down the throat of a megaphone: on NEON BOOTLEG, FAFSWAG, bodies, spaces, agency and decolonisation

This is a story about Moe Laga-Fa’aofo’s debut solo show Neon Bootleg, produced by Tanu Gago and FAFSWAG, directed by Cat Ruka, designed by Ralph Brown, and presented at the Basement Theatre in November 2017.  The story explores the productive forces of the bodies, spaces, performances and decolonisation practices of Neon Bootleg and FAFSWAG. 

FAFSWAG was the first official Company in Residence at Auckland’s Basement Theatre, a programme initiated in 2017.  This prolific collective of queer Pacific artists used the opportunity to mount three significant full length works: Moe Laga's Neon Bootleg being the final work of the three, which followed Akashi Fisiinaua's Femslick, a translation of a Pacific vogue ball scene from horizontally composed space in Te Puke O Tara Community Centre in Ōtara to the performance space of Basement Theatre in central city Tāmaki Makaurau, and Pati Solomona Tyrell's Fa'aafa, which immersed us into a metaphysical world using a traverse staging set up.  In all three works, an intentional holding of space for a reciprocation of energy between artists and audiences was palpable, a FAFSWAG signature.

(Just as a casual aside - the collective was also recently presented the Excellence Award for Overall Body of Work, at the 9th Annual Auckland Theatre Awards 2017.)

I attend FAFSWAG events, shows and exhibitions as a White non-binary pansexual artist with a background of involvement in predominantly Pākehā activist scenes such as anarchist collectives, anarcho-feminist performance groups, Wicca worlds, experimental dance scenes, and other DIY sub-cultures. So it is through these lenses that I reflect on FAFSWAG’s work here.  My White cultural perspective (Pākehā Irish English) limits my reading of, and understanding of the significance of FAFSWAG’s art, activism, and all that they do.  With this in mind, I echo calls by other artists wishing for more visibility of queer People of Colour (PoC) writers on the art scenes of Aotearoa.

I walk up a steep set of stairs to enter ‘The Studio’ space at Basement Theatre.  Neon Bootleg divides the space in two - performance space, and audience space - with chairs in rows that face the wall farthest from the entrance.  This spatial setup signals to me that we are to witness the performance and performer, rather than be invited into the space of the performance as co-participants, as in Akashi Fisiinaua's Femslick and FAFSWAG Balls.  The space of Neon Bootleg is wider than it is deep.  And in this way, I anticipate our potential closeness to Moe.  This is an intimate space where I feel welcomed to really see and sense this “unauthorised autobiography of Mistress Moe Laga”. 

I want to invoke in this writing the particular dialogic exchange instigated by Neon Bootleg, with attention to the relationships between movement, bodies and things inside of the performance environment.  Moe’s movement and activation open up a conversation about her past and everyday embodiments as a Performance Artist from South Auckland.  The work is instilled with specific knowledge and the culturally located experience of Moe’s life in Sāmoan family spaces, and Pacific, queer and gender diverse communities.  It is through the content of Neon Bootleg that we enter into an exchange of the ephemeral, the mystical, the relational, and the fleeting sparks of insight that arise in the space between us and Moe.  Is it possible to map our interweaving social and psychic behaviours as Moe’s audience?

Neon Bootleg is episodic and accumulative in structure.  Moe comes and goes from the space, adding ideas, scenes and props.  I want to refer to four small fragments from the performance through this piece of writing.  Moments which touched me, reaching across the space to stir my breath and pulse, misplacing my sense of certainty.  This is the TOUCHING SPACE of Neon Bootleg.


Fragment 1: hair dryer


Moe stands in profile and blows her hair dry electrically.  Mesmerizing because she is captivated in the doing.  In absolute conviction.  Blowing and being blown.  Head-hair-neck swing and flip delicately, meticulously, fluidly.  It is beautiful. 

<begin art daydream that responds to this scene>
I want to sit inside a huge cocoon made of sticks with Moe Laga-Fa’aofo.  The cocoon is woven tightly with thick black rope.  It smells like ferns, sea wind and blood.  Moe and I laugh maniacally for a long time, and then begin to talk around ritual actiVAtion* and Fucking Shit Up.  Someone unseen plugs in a plastic red hair dryer, and points the warm blast directly at our faces. We begin to flick our hair.  Flicking in unison, then canon.  Flicking with grace and force.  Flicking with the intention of fucking shit up. 

*concept of actiVAtion coined by artist Rosanna Raymond

As Neon Bootleg begins to unfold, what opens before me is a liminal space that invites the involvement of all levels of my being –sexual, emotional, metaphysical, psychological, visceral, intellectual.  I read this as a communal queer Pacific spacetime that dances outside the norms of Western capitalism, and heteronormative temporalities.  In this spacetime, we are carried someplace else, where utopic and dystopic tasks occur, and blur.  Since it is night time, it is also queer time, and I notice an embodied absorption into the languid buzz and sway of a queer sensibility and sensuality.  Bodily rhythms compose the space of the performance, with Moe's valiant strides moving in direct and unswerving pathways and softer ambles that snake the edges of the stage.  Wherever we are seated in Basement theatre’s upstairs studio we are held in the relational space of Moe, Neon Bootleg and FAFSWAG.

Is Moe’s hair dryer scene intentionally fucking with a Western voyeuristic gaze?  Is Neon Bootleg intending to fuck with the virtuosic traditions of local contemporary Western dance, music and theatre?

The va of Neon Bootleg sparks our eyes alive.

“Va — or vā, va’a, vaha — can be loosely translated as a spatial way of conceiving the secular and spiritual dimensions of relationships and relational order, that facilitates both personal and collective well-being, and teu le va as the ‘valuing’, ‘nurturing’ and ‘looking after’ of these relationships to achieve optimal outcomes for all stakeholders.”
(Melani Anae, 2007)

Through the room, the glint of perceptual arousal stirs.  Third eyes, brown eyes, virtual eyes.  This va holds our hand and slaps our face.  It awakens revolutions, reveals, and the thud sound of Death Drops.  This va allows our queer and gender diverse bodies to move and swell and melt.  A space that acknowledges the way we orient ourselves towards each other.   It initiates a friction between all of us present, a gritty surface to grip and “walk forward into the past while walking back into the future” (Yuki Kihara). 

The movement of affect in queer/queered spaces.

Moe re/appears in the room whispering the boniest of spells in movement, to dis/appear again in shadow.  Articulations move against and with memories of family, church, rugby, idols, mentors, friends, years of performance training, and a list of the artist’s accolades.  A dance that shifts and morphs in multiple directions, we are called into the life of Moe Laga, towards the magnetic play of a self-determined embodiment.  An embodiment that is culturally and socially specific, and yet shares the potent feeling of possibility for owning my own cultural and gendered expressions and identities.  A corridor of music temporally lines the pages of this performance, from tracks that chant back the past, and more current feels, the ghosts of vogue.  In relationship with the music and all of us here in this moment, Moe’s body is the space of the event.

I would like to beckon you down the rabbit hole of philosophies and theories of bodies in this moment.  I am thinking in particular about an essay by Portuguese Philosopher José Gil called The Paradoxical Body.

“Depth is the primordial dimension of the dancer’s space. It allows the dancer to mold space, to expand it, or to restrict it, to make it acquire the most paradoxical forms. … although invisible, the space, the air, acquire a diversity of textures—they become dense or rarified, invigorating or suffocating. It is as if they were enveloping things with a surface similar to the skin. The space of the body is the skin extending itself into space; it is skin becoming space—thus, the extreme proximity between things and the body.”
(Jose Gil, 2006)

The Paradoxical Body leads this story into a political courtyard, the ‘frictitious’ garden of bodily actiVAtion that Neon Bootleg tends to, and that FAFSWAG has cultivated for the last five years in various spaces and contexts.

Fragment 2: whip

The certainty of Whip in hand, she is Mistress Moe Laga, Mother of the house of COVEN, seducing us to submission.  I am not sure if Moe was actually wearing big boots in this scene, but I imagine she was.  Big Black Shiny Boots, CLAIMING and COMMANDING the space.  Stomping and strutting around and around a determined circle.  Then, turning the delight of sting against her own body, the repetitions begin.  A rotation of Whip strikes from left to right, to left again.  We wait, in breathless pause, for the snap to begin again.  Intensity rising, the force of wrist, wrench of shoulder, twist of torso.  A throaty base of endurance, and resolution.  A sovereign body flogging the weight of gendered empowerment, then lashing in silent cries for solace, security and self-rule.

This scene excites and exhausts.  The heft of whip collides spines with walls, to sink quite low to the ground really.  Quite low indeed.

Fragment 3: orange on red stool

“fucking up the patriarchy, one Caucasian space at a time.”
(Akasi Fisiinaua in VICE Documentary)

Tearing at the skin un-self-consciously, eating to be filled.  Out of hunger, as if that wasn’t enough.  The steady drip of juice descends our attention slowly to the floor.  There is something very satiating about the casual simplicity of this action - to eat an orange whilst sitting on a red high stool.  I would have welcomed a full bowl of fruit in fact.  Pealed and consumed in a duration that plots a taxonomy of fruit; performing categories by shape, colour, taste, tautness, and texture of rind.  

I enjoy the skin REMAINS of the orange, in all of its thickness and sturdiness, scattered across the space. 

What does the work of FAFSWAG do politically?

This moment with the orange, and it's remaining in space, has me thinking about the political intention behind one of FAFSWAG’s sayings - “fucking up the patriarchy”.  Somehow, Moe Laga’s low-key DIY orange-eating action captures for me the spirit of her particular approach to fucking shit up.  Can the political force of Moe’s embodiment be pinned to an essence of style?  I read her performance mode as a sorcerous language, where feelings are facts, and qualities of being in the body hold a potency* beyond words.  If you didn’t get to see Neon Bootleg, perhaps this usurped image of Moe Laga, from Taleni Mapu of FAFSWAG’s MAKE SPACE / The Visibility Project (2017), offers an insight into her embodied powers. Video link here.

*dancers, and their powers

In my view, the artists of FAFSWAG, with their distinctive creative approaches, are broadening notions of what it means to fuck shit up, fuck up space, and “fucking up the patriarchy”.  Through a framework of decolonisation, these artists are creating nuanced responses to the policing and violation of gender non-conformity and the representation of Pacific stories, bodies and identities.  Simultaneously, they are celebrating the public and private lives of Pacific queers living in Aotearoa.  It is through the negotiation of Pākehā-centric spaces such as Basement theatre and art galleries that I see FAFSWAG provoking and dismantling the oppression of non-white, non-cis queer folk, drawing attention to a system of white supremacy.

Fragment 4: neon cross

To be ignored in my opinion.  Though the harsh neon glow of Christianity will no doubt continue to shine into our eyes.  Blindly dilating itself up on top of that mountain, resistant to the sharp cut of axe, or a chainsaw’s tooth, the neon cross is pervasive and cruel.  A tinnitus squeal in the background of our attention.  Throughout the 60-minute duration of Neon Bootleg, Moe does not acknowledge it, not once.
I am told it is a popular backdrop for selfies post-show.  I give it a go but have to force a smile.

What affects and effects do the spaces created by FAFSWAG have on audiences, on other queer POC, on gender diverse folks, on artists, and on Pacific and rainbow identities? 

What is created and enabled through the indigeneity and queerness of FAFSWAG’s artistic endeavours?  

What if, how we care for each other in queer/queered space was archived?

The show sees the solo dancer as a productive entity, but the performance wasn’t really a ‘solo’ as such.  Neon Bootleg is a between-space that pings with afe, aroha, manaakitanga.  The aliveness on stage is nourished by everyone in the production and support crew, and who showed up on the night. There is a profound social dynamic that also lingers after the performance ends in the extended space of Neon Bootleg.  I notice that the prevalent contemplation in chats I am privy to outside Basement is a shared feeling of gratitude.  I sit with my friends, not really feeling a need to talk, but wanting to linger in collective time, if only to bask a bit longer in the alofa of Neon Bootleg.  The sound of the HEART SPACE is deafening.  

It is a feeling of utter joy that this work has been made, and that FAFSWAG is, as Louisa Afoa puts it in the exhibition notes of Social Matter, “creating important self determining spaces for the queer brown body through art and their now iconic balls”.  Being held so carefully by FAFSWAG, these PoC queer spaces and events enable a Pacific-designed community to grow.  I am particularly gripped by an emphasis on collectivity as integral to FAFSWAG’s art-making processes, which accentuates togetherness, and processes that uplift the artists’ mana in layers of protection and backing.  FAFSWAG creates, translates, takes, holds, commands, and touches space in ways that uphold and amplify Pacific principles, a social world enriched with diversely gendered feelings. 

Neon Bootleg is also a space of experimentation.  A vibrant statement for being and becoming whatever and whoever the fuck you want to.  A space of communal expansion where fragments of Moe’s life are felt up close and personal; graphic, epic, and raw.  Passionate and alive.  Vulnerable.  Noble.


A huge thank you to Tanu Gago, Caitlin Scott, and Lance Cablk for your support, editing and feedback on this piece of writing.

val smith

Neon Bootleg
21 NOV - 25 NOV 2017
Basement Theatre

Creator: Moe Laga-Toleafoa
Produced by: FAF SWAG
Directed by: Cat Ruka
Stills & Video by: Ralph Brown
Styled by: Honey Logan Collis
Sound by: Jermaine Deez

TIME: 6:30PM

Thursday, November 2, 2017


CONTRAST is a system of relations. A space of continuous imagination, which produces the performance, constitutes the choreography. The imagination of the dancers, the dreamy visions and narratives of the audience, and the hopes of the choreographer and other theatre designers and technicians, together become a rich red and gold triptych, a swirling messy action painting.

I drive from Western Springs to Epsom, in a small black car.  It has tinted windows, and a flashing stereo system that does not work.  After parking, I remember my ex went to school here at Auckland Girls Grammar School.

What I thought I might propose here, is that the dancers themselves are the artwork and the artists.  Walking, breathing, moving, feeling, interrelating, sensing artworks.  Interacting with each other, with the space, and with us, in the creation of a shared experience.  They are artworks composed of bodily intelligence and other hard-to-describe sensibilities.  They are holding space, creating space, leaking space, enfolding space.

“It was like a big chunk of the year. Eating porridge for days on end.
I was really poor. I’m always poor."


Participation by Emma Murray

The choreography would operate in this vein as a vehicle for us, the ‘audience’, to experience the artwork-artists.  From this perspective, the choreographers serve the vision of the dancers, as collaborators in the artists' works.  The dancers’ performances on any one night, in any one moment, interdependently and collectively, create what we are witnessing, participating in.  A tiny instance, or the complete flow from arrival, foyer, entry into the theatre, curtains opening, program, post-performance chats, and the walk back to the little black car, also become part of the artworks.

I want to be in relation to the live event, inside of it, with it, dancing with it. 

I want to engage the dancers with all of my senses, in a state of listening, feeling, knowing, unknowing.  I want to sink into them as art, and ‘review’ the dancer-artworks through a diagrammatic practice. 

I am Diagramming.

Despite these speculative conceptions, I encounter the live event from inside the event, and I realise my propositions do not fit in.  The question then becomes: Choreography?


I stop to participate.

Jazz shoes on ice. 

Terpsichore in upright sneakers.


Super Ornate Construct by Sarah Foster-Sproull

Stop Remembering


He wonders if you like it. Being in the rain.

I cannot see the dancer for the choreography.  

Am I seeing the dancer in collaboration with the choreography, the processes, the techniques, the choreographer, the space, the Footnote company, the theatre, the audience, the institution...?

Not Thinking

King Thin

I moved with Fale, with a feeling of diving into and through.

I heard the choreography
I saw the baby suckling
I am Adam

My feet touched the light
So yellow.
So yellow.

I remember the orange. In the yellow. 
I see the red. The curtains, pulled back.

Witch/cloud gif gone missing

Adam imagines something in his hand.

Whose pace is this?
Whose pace is this?

Whose rhythm?


The smell of urgency

I suggest that it is the embodied knowledge of the dancers that the audience engages with, and often, that it is the dancers that we come to see.  The choreographers, Footnote’s management team, the designers, the theatre techs, and the theatre itself, in collaboration with the dancer-artists, we are all supporting the dance production/the production of the dance.  What will the performance be/become from this vantage point?  And how will we respond to it on the page?

drawing, photos, writing etc by val smith (they/them) - 02.11.2017

Introductory information to this 'dance review' on Theatreview here