Performance uncovers migration truths
Twelve women have their passport photographs taken, each on a different day, each with a different name and story. It sounds benign enough, but these women have a secret that ties them together – they are not 12 different women at all, but one in disguise.
This scenario isn’t the start of a brainteaser, but the work of performance artist Jema Stellato Pledger. As part of her PhD in visual arts at ACU, Jema assumed the identities of 12 Hazara refugee women living in Australia. She dressed in their style, wore the hijab, assumed their facial expressions, and had her passport photograph taken in character at 12 different suburban post offices or pharmacies.
Hazaras are a minority group in Afghanistan and have frequently faced persecution and discrimination. Many became refugees after the 1998 massacre of 2,000 Hazaras in three days by the Taliban in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-I Sharif. Others left after attacks in 2010 and 2011.
No one who encountered Jema during her performances knew that she was acting. Her work was invisible theatre, where the reactions of the unknowing audience are as much part of the performance as the characters she plays. While the performances are ephemeral, the resulting passport images form an enduring visual record.
Between performing and becoming
Jema is an artist, migration agent and human rights advocate whose work explores diversity, identity and the line between performing and becoming.
“I’m interested in ways of performing, in how we become the other,” said Jema.
Jema explained that she did not see herself as acting in the role of each woman, but rather as absorbing and reflecting their stories so that she could experience what it was like to be them and observe how other people related to them.
Over an extended period, Jema describes how the Hazara women became friends. She was moved and inspired by their strength in the face of extraordinary journeys, and fascinated by each individual story with its tragedies and triumphs.
“I spent 16 months getting to know these women, really getting under their skins,” said Jema. “Then I performed as each woman, wearing what she would wear, with her expressions, her age.
“My involvement with the women left me with a sense of the extraordinary. I think a person needs to be exceptional to move from one country to another be it by choice or by force, particularly in times of civil and political unrest.”
An experience shared across cultures
Jema was herself an immigrant child, the daughter of Calabrian exiles, and she was struck by how much she had in common with the Hazara women. There was a strong echo of living with difference in the face of an uncomprehending majority, which made taking on the experience of being each woman feel quite natural.
“I chose to position myself as a conduit for the Hazara women and perform from a space of empathy. Coming from this space meant drawing from experiences throughout my life, and my mother’s and grandmother’s experiences and stories.”
Theatrical make-up, a wardrobe of scarves – from lime-green to sombre black – and the skill of an actor meant Jema was able to appear as different characters across a range of ages and education levels.
She walked Melbourne suburbia as the rebel who ran an underground school in Afghanistan, as the bereaved mother who lost four sons to the war, and as the nursing student who could not finish her degree because she had to flee.
She moved freely from her home through the chosen suburb, using public transport and interacting with passers-by.
Each character was created with the permission, co-operation and engagement of the women themselves. She never felt she was appropriating their lives or their culture.
“Because I come from a migrant background myself and I had such empathy for them, that really wasn’t an issue. I got to know them. They are my friends and they were 100 per cent behind what I was doing.”
One woman told her, “You can’t use my name, or my face, but tell my story.”
Resonance across the migration experience, whatever the period or place of origin, was key to the project. Jema’s own identity is deeply informed by her family’s migrant experience and the sense of being the “other” growing up in an Anglo-Saxon dominated suburb. Her grandmother’s dark olive skin was initially unwelcome under the White Australia policy. Young Jema was always aware of looking different from other children and of her family’s different accents, food and mannerisms.
“I often felt like an outsider, so I understand the experience of other migrants and I suppose that has influenced all the work I have done as a human rights advocate, working in migration and as an artist.
“There is the presumption that once a person has reached a place of refuge all will be well. However, underlying grief remains. I saw it in my family and I saw it with the women in my study.”
An array of responses
The response of the unknowing audience exposed how just wearing a hijab can reduce women to a type in the eyes of many Australians. “A lot of people condescended to me. One of the women did her Masters in English Literature and she had someone say, ‘Oh, you speak excellent English?’” said Jema.
In the expensive and predominately white suburb of Armadale, staff at the post office were exaggeratedly helpful. In Elsternwick, a young man interrogated her as to whether she was wearing the scarf for religious reasons. In Ripponlea, which has a noticeably high population of ultra-Orthodox Jews who also wear distinctive dress, the characters prompted less reaction.
theatre might play a small role in shifting attitudes and that her project will expose some of the many complex layers of the migrant experience.
While she found some reactions frustrating, Jema was not surprised. She had no difficulty keeping her feelings to herself, and understood that was the natural response of the women who had become so used to being misunderstood.
But she hopes her invisible
“I believe engaging in daily activities applicable to all people may be a means to connect individuals. I went into a post office in the suburb where I had grown up and experienced ‘otherness’ on a regular basis. This memory moved into the foreground quite unexpectedly and as I stood in line. I waited to be treated as the other. But my fears were not met. There was a polite ‘business as usual’ attitude.”
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