Q&A with Ayeesha Ash

NAVA chats with Ayeesha, to talk self-empowerment and creating safe practice as First Nations women today. 

Image credit: Muna Hamid

Ayeesha Ash is a proud Grenadian Māori Woman of Colour who creates art to spark social change. Her work is inspired by her experience as a mixed race, Third Culture Kid. As the Artistic Director of Black Birds, she has performed in, written, directed & produced shows, events & workshops in Australia & Aotearoa.

Ayeesha Ash and Sela Vai are facilitating a workshop at SHARE. EAT. CONNECT: First Nations led dialogues of self-advocacy and self-care as a practicing artist’ as part of the public program for OK Democracy, We Need to Talk at Campbelltown Arts Centre on 18 June 2019.

Ayeesha, can you tell us about your own creative practice?

I create as a reaction to, or an expression of, what’s happening in my community; geographical, cultural or familial. I think there’s some kind of perception that as an artist, especially one whose main practice is in performance, that you spend a lot of time rolling around the floor and feeling the space in order to create a work. That’s probably true 1% of the time. The other 99% of the time is spent researching, developing ideas, trashing them, redeveloping, community korero (chat) and a lot of reflection. I’m very lucky to have been able to create so much work as Black Birds alongside Emele Ugavule. She’s been a great support and influence and I don’t think I would be where I am today without her.

Black Birds started as a response to the lack of representation and misrepresentation that Women of Colour face in the Australian arts sector.  Can you tell us more about Black Birds?

Emele and I had both graduated from acting school (me from WAAPA & Emele from NIDA) and felt so disheartened by the opportunities (or lack thereof) for Women of Colour actors. Sure, there’s kinda always been that token spot for the ‘best friend’ and there’s ALWAYS a spot for ‘the help’, but we’re more than that, WoC are more than that! We have stories that we want to tell and we want to tell them on our terms; we won’t apologise for who we are, what we look like or what we have to say. We initially got together to make a podcast so that we could korero and spill-the-tea on the ‘industry’, but we’ve been majorly sidetracked. In the meantime we’ve created theatrical works, visual art, short films and curated events. We’ve collaborated with a range of wonderful artists and been able to take our work around the East Coast of Australia, Aotearoa and even Barbados.

What does self-care and self-empowerment mean to you as a practicing First Nations artist living in the country?

It means acknowledging that I’m a visitor on this land and finding ways in which my cultures can speak with and learn from the First Nations cultures around me. It also means actively learning more about my own peoples and not shying away from the tough conversations. I’m still figuring it out, but I think the first part of my self-empowerment came from not being afraid of my own identity and caring less about what other people think of me. That’s allowed me to trust myself and my practice enough to challenge myself and cut the bullshit from my life, professionally and personally.

Healing holds a strong place in your work, for the artists involved and for your audience. Why is healing so integral to your work?

First Nations & PoC communities are so often asked, or expected, to perform their trauma on stage, with historical tragedies serving as the most recognisable markers of our identities. Of course it’s important that trauma is acknowledged, but we need to question who we’re reliving our pain for and why. There’s so much joy and healing power within our cultures and it’s important that these are shared between the audience and performer within Black Birds works.

What do you think Australian arts sector could improve on to increase cultural safety and care for First Nations and PoC artists?

Speaking from a theatre and performance perspective; I’ve been to a lot of forums, symposiums, networking events where issues that face First Nations and PoC artists in the arts are hot and widely discussed topics. Some companies have taken real steps in making sure that the stages are more linguistically and culturally diverse, through peoples and stories, but representation doesn’t beget cultural safety. Companies could have cultural advisors as part of their staff and remove the pressure from First Nations peoples & PoC to be the voice on cultural issues. Or! If you expect your First Nations or PoC artist to share cultural knowledge with you (which also takes a whole lot of emotional labour) then you should pay them a higher fee. There also needs to be greater education on the diversity of First Nations cultures. It’s really not a one-size-fits-all situation. The more that the arts sector (and beyond) can understand the range of First Nations identities the easier it’ll be to create culturally safe spaces.

To hear more from Ayeesha Ash and Sela Vai, register for SHARE.  EAT. CONNECT right here.