The Hybrid Phenomena of Identity and Representation: Kicking Back with Wendy Mocke
Throughout this 4A Paper, Wendy Mocke has offered a stimulus used in the M E R I exhibition for any Papua New Guinean Women reading this to use to help reconnect whilst practicing social distancing.
Sometimes art is Random, like the heartthrob X-factor winners. The Random I remember laid the pinkprint for more to come. And for lack of a better phrase, the Random I knew walked so a boy band like 5SOS could run—and this can be disappointing for a real one. An important reminder that some of us just want to walk, with 1.5 government-mandated metres of course. That big water to the left of me (the moana) is all rhythm and blues and Random’s impact will always be heart for me.
The point is, Australia’s relationship to Pacifika identity in conventional forms of media is quite stark, and often never speaks to its own art world—it’s weird IMHO. I won’t even bother with mentioning he who shall never be named: J*nah Tak*lua. Or maybe the former ghost of Izzy Folau and Australia’s obsession with dysfuntionalising the brown and black body. But surely there’s more to all of this? It was at the Wansolwara Symposium at UNSW Galleries in Sydney that a conversation took place about how the convergence of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ in popular culture creates new hybrid phenomena. Beyond these practices, it could be said that whiteness and institutions can ensure that identities can be split and sold. So, like, how have I embodied or cannibalised myself into a new hybrid phenomena? I’m not a hundred percent sure; I’m still unpacking personally, maybe through therapy. Although maybe beyond these questions I try not to empathise with this relationship I have with the structure. The structure asks that Blackness and Pacifika needs to be decided on—it’s true. I also overheard it say other mean things—I have the screenshots. (Ayo! Mixed-race cheeeckkkkkkkk)
This is why when M E R I, an exhibition curated by Wendy Mocke through Melanin Haus in Cairns, popped up on my phone, it’s promise to ‘delve into the duality of being both a woman and being Black and Pacifika’ interested me. As writers and artists operating in the realm of performance-based hybrid phenomena, sometimes us girls just want to kick back and have fun!
I first met Wendy Mocke through the Emerging Writers Group at Sydney Theatre Company where we were both incoming recipients of the 2019–20 fellowship. The Port Moresby-born artist was the first Papua New Guinean actress to be accepted into NIDA’s acting course. She moved to Cairns alone at age 13 to attend boarding school and her love for acting was spurred through exposure to theatre—although this information doesn’t really display Mocke’s devotion to grassroots and community based art-making.
Throughout 2019 Mocke developed a photo-series named M E R I, Tok Pisin for woman or girl. On the surface M E R I explores ‘modern-day Papua New Guinean women’. Although it doesn’t take much when yarning with Mocke to understand that her curatorial practice or vantage point transcends the language of ‘identity art’ that many exhibitions deal with or are entrenched in. Through M E R I, as a writer I understand the nuances of contemporary forms of Indigenous performance as an embodied outlook and action.
Sometimes the best writers and artists can do in a community is just offer questions and respond to those with questions.
Image from a one-sided mukbank.
NOTE: The texts below in green are a series of texts and questions used by Wendy Mocke to develop M E R I.
Mailangi: Wendy, do you eat the core of the apple?
Mocke: Ew, no. Do people eat the cores of apples?
Mailangi: Yes. All the time. Don’t shame people for it. Melanin Haus?
Mocke: Melanin Haus was a seedling developed during my time at university. I was thinking of the [arts] industry and about representation as an idea and the type of art we consume through institutions. But also in which ways can we move beyond these ideas without white permissions. As an artist from a marginalised community, my primary focus soon became about the action of giving an opportunity to my own community in an industry that wasn’t necessarily designed for them or me. Although it’s also about exploring how we view privilege, especially during times like this when first-world landscapes are crumbling at the seams.
Up in far-north Queensland the arts community is sparse, so we created Melanin Haus out of necessity. And we called it melanin because we wanted it to be a space for anybody who identified as POC/Black/Pacifika/Indigenous to generate art in whatever medium they were drawn too.
TOKIM EM/TELL HER
Pinisim lain/Finish the line
Black girl, you are built from stories, you are moulded by songs, you are…
Mailangi: Tell me about how M E R I came about?
Mocke: M E R I started off a series of questions and it’s something that I kept coming back to. Questions that we receive as women of colour and as we wade through these uncertain waters, in terms of just being a black woman. But the M E R I project stems from years of self-exploration, fuelled by copious amounts of tea and words passed around tables between fellow PNG sisters. With our cultural identity shifting, and women continuing to redefine, reshape and diversify their presence in the spaces we occupy, M E R I was born from a need to understand who and what makes a Papua New Guinean woman. I wanted to explore how our cultural identity lives and breathes within our flesh and the barriers and roadblocks PNG women face. I embarked on a quest to try to unpack some questions. What is a Papua New Guinean woman? What does she look like? What is her voice? How does she identify herself? Is she herself?
I didn’t want this to be an individualistic project. Because I knew that this struggle and this movement was far greater than my own issues. While unpacking questions surrounding cultural identity and Black womanhood, I encountered a recurring theme: young PNG women often feel silenced and regularly fight against a limited vision of what is deemed possible for themselves. The common portrayal of PNG women in Western media is often associated with tragedy or poverty. This narrative is not only damaging but further silences an already marginalised group of people.
TAIM BIPO/TIME BEFORE
Lik lik Meri/Girl
Like home, She rested HER hand in my hand. HER grasp tight, HER touch familiar. HER skin a
memory of mine. SHE is my yesterdays, a rolling wave rumbling towards my shores.
SHE is YOU at 6.
Share with HER what SHE needs to know about travelling through the world within the skin of a PNG WOMAN.
Mailangi: What are some more compelling moments you’ve had creating M E R I?
Mocke: It’s really naff and corny even, but every conversation has been mind-blowing. Not only the sheer honesty but the weight that these women carry. There is so much, so many things that we don’t have enough time to unpack, the struggles they experience. One of the main things is having to be resilient and strong. Filling these roles and expectations, and also understanding that it’s okay to be weak and soft, and be upset, or even lazy, and that you can have those moments when the world is going to come down on you, because you are human at the end of the day.
A beautiful example is when I interviewed and photographed Mary-jane, a transgender sex worker and she spoke to those experiences while she was living in PNG. I was going to bawl my eyes out five minutes into speaking with her, but I got it keep it cute, you know? And she asked me when you bring M E R I home to Port Moresby ‘You better invite the politicians because they need to know my community know we exist.’
Many black women have the exhausting task assigned to them to be resilient, to be strong. And while there is a certain level of pride fashioned to that narrative, it is also exhausting and suffocating trying to maintain that perception. It leaves no room to be vulnerable and therefore it makes it harder to heal from years of mis-treatment. And those issues will leak into the practice of the artist: the drive of having to create excellent work when that’s not what art as a tool is actually for.
We need to understand how art structures can be complicit in this too. I was asked during the development of M E R I, in featuring the works without translation from Tok Pisin to English, ‘How are people going to understand?’. My reply was always, ‘What people?’
Sharing stories is a valid medium of art, it’s one of the oldest tools in these regions and this should be reflected in our visual art institutions. I couldn’t give a shit who comes and listens to the works: it’s not about what a Bob Henry thinks of it. It’s about the transformative and connecting power of art-making. And as an artist, a lot of my work is for community.
EM USAIT/WHO IS SHE
Within their words
they spat HER out.
What misconceptions do people have about PNG WOMEN?
There is light in you. A careful consideration of flesh & blood. A delicate dance of strength &
Tell people what they must know about PNG WOMEN.
HER soul. Where SHE cleanses. Where SHE is sacred.
How does your culture play a part in how you see yourself?
Mailangi: Issues you see within Australia’s consumption of Pacifika Arts?
Mocke: Australia has a very narrow perception of Pacifika arts, and galleries often romanticise what they feel are the glory days, where they get to sit back and have this colonial re-living of me by the water in a hula-skirt—but more importantly of water as this never-ending resource. Also as artists in Australia, I guess there’s this sort of entry into our worlds through Black trauma and tragedy porn—which is important to me to actively dismantle. For me, personally, it’s just stepping away, for example, from my idea of what feminism was, which wasn’t influenced by my own community.
But these issues are just like everything else for people of diverse backgrounds, and if you can’t acknowledge or be an active participant in making the structure visible to you then how are you ever supposed to consume art from your peers correctly or meaningfully? But, to be frank, I don’t really try to understand or pander to Australia and their idea of consuming our culture, and in turn us.
EM MOA YET/SHE IS MORE
If the past shapes who we are, who or what are we becoming?
Mailangi: Hybrid Phenomena?
Mocke: I mean, to begin, I’d probably start by addressing colourism in PNG and the ghosts which haunt our colonial pasts and presents. Colourism is an interesting place to begin because these pop culty sort of moments that steer our culture now are not just there but need to be magnified and understood among us. For example, when PNG won the Miss Pacific Islands Pageant it blew everyone’s mind—a dark-skinned PNG woman who then went on to receive online racism due to the win. But these ideas aren’t born out of nowhere, they are born out of hybrid phenomena—for example, advertising that sees light-skinned people push products for skin-bleaching and this is now repackaging the marketing of our new colonial futures. Hybrid Phenomena is dependent on their time, not ours.
These tools, like storytelling, like poetry, were invented in these regions; we’ve been using them to connect with each other for centuries and still to this day use them to survive. Just because it’s on the internet now doesn’t make it hybrid. It’s sometimes not that deep.
Mailangi: Yes, zactly. It’s not the deep, some of us love swimming in the shallow end. Thank you so much for yarning.
Mailangi: Also 14th of May… Happy Birthday for today!
Image top: Yu pikinini blo man na meri wantaim.
Enoch Mailangi is a TV writer and text-based artist based in Lakemba. You can follow them on Instagram.