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Human jukeboxe fun provokes thought

Apr 1st, 2014 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features


STAND ALONE: One of the performers at ‘Culture for Sale’ remains unmoved until money is placed before her.

A COMBINATION of glee and guilt is what top New Zealand artist Shigeyuki Kihara wants the audience to feel at the artist’s newest exhibit in Wellington.

The show Culture for Sale at the Wellington City Gallery uses an interesting concept of dancers as “human jukeboxes”.

Performers are put on a stage and not allowed to move until money is put into a bowl in front of them. Then they do a short dance then return to being still.

“I asked them not to step outside the white stage, so it acts as sort of their confine space, like a cell,” Shigeyuki said.

“The idea is they’re contained, trapped.”

The inspiration for ‘Culture for Sale’ came from early Völkerschau performances, or ‘human zoos’, that were popular in Europe and America early in the 20th century.

Samoan people would be paid a few cents an hour to perform for long periods of time in front of spectators.

When talking about the show, Shigeyuki made clear what the artist was expecting the show to evoke.

“I want people to feel guilt. It’s deliberate.”

One important factor for the show to have effect was the sudden enthusiasm that the performers showed after money was put in front of them.

“That light up part is the most important part for me in the performance. Because when you come alive, the audience also comes alive,” Shigeyuki said.

Shigeyuki said that after a while though, performers become fatigued and the crowd can sense it, which is when Shigeyuki’s message begins to be felt.

“Every time I stage this show the first 20 minutes or half an hour everybody is very excited about this provocation. It’s like a fun human jukebox.

“But after half an hour it gets quite durational. They can see ‘oh she’s kind of tired’ or ‘he’s puffing’ and then that’s when you start questioning,” said the artist.

Confidence from the dancers was also pivotal to the authenticity and knowing historical context was how to build it.

HeadPicTaofi“When I recruited the dancers, it was important for me to empower the dancers with the information that I had. So they sat there and basically heard me dump all this information on them,” Shigeyuki said.

Though knowing the reasons for the style of the exhibit, the show still took a toll emotionally on some of the dancers.

Taofi Mose-Tuiloma, right, one of the performers for Culture for Sale, said she had a rough time adjusting to the format.

“I felt like this animal waiting there for somebody to pay me to see me do some tricks,” Ms Mose-Tuiloma said

“My passion is dance but it takes me back and makes me think ‘what am I actually doing?’“

The Whitireia dance tutor spoke of one experience that was particularly hard for her.

“My child being there and seeing me in that whole light, it was a lot for me to take on.

“I felt like an idiot to be quite honest.”

Also being from Samoa, Ms Mose-Tuiloma said her cultural connection to the show made the whole experience harder to handle.

“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster because of what our people went through over there.”

For the historical context and further information about the ‘Völkerschau’, Shigeyuki had the expert help of Dr Mandy Treagus.

Dr Treagus is a lecturer at the University of Adelaide in Australia and an expert in Pacific peoples in colonial exhibitions, especially with regard to the agency of performers.

She explained how early performers were kept inside viewing enclosures and had homes similar to those they had in Samoa.

People would walk around different enclosures seeing how different cultures lived similar to how we view animals at the zoo now.

Payment for the Samoan dancers was only a few cents an hour but Treagus said that was not a deterrent to those who first travelled to America for Chicago’s World fair.

“They were all delighted with their Chicago experience and appeared to have returned to Samoa with a positive view of their time away,” Dr Treagus said.

“And many were keen to return for the mid-winter fair in San Francisco.”

She was part of a forum to kick of the show and used it as a chance to make the audience think about some difficult questions that the exhibit rose.

“What does it mean to sell culture? Can it be done? Is there always something unequal about the exchange in cultural performances?” Dr Treagus said.

Shigeyuki had said that it was not her job to answer the questions that the show raised, but instead the artist wanted the spectators, the dancers, and the experts to be able to figure it out for themselves.

The Culture for Sale exhibit has just been completed at City Gallery. Information on the show can be found here.



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