Ayer Hitam 14 cover
Irfan Kasban

“Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore”: On The Edges of History

The sound of djembe drums filtered out into the courtyard of Centre 42 — the signal to take our seats before the production started. The stage was arranged like the hull of a slave ship with wooden beams converging to the bow, where the drummer sat, resplendent in a blue Ankara agbada and wrapper. She was solemn, her face set in an indiscernible frown as she played the rhythms of an Akan drummer, who spurred slaves to exercise their cramped and weary bodies as they traversed the Middle Passage three centuries ago. The lights dimmed and the drummer arose, removing the Ankara garments to reveal a sarong kebaya, before addressing the audience. “Hi, my name is Sharon Frese. I am standing on the edges of history.”

The brainchild of local poet and LGBT activist Ng Yi-Sheng, Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore was staged as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. In this part-lecture, part-performance, the fascinating histories and realities of black folk were brought to life by Sharon Frese’s captivating performance. Each chapter of the performance was framed by turbulent water, an inventive effect made with symbolically coloured water, poured into a bowl over a projector. The uniquely mystical quality enshrouding the performance was the work of Irfan Kasban, director and production designer whose lilting voice could be heard singing the Azan, an Islamic call to prayer. Ng appeared sporadically throughout the performance, at times a water bearer, a womanising Yoruba prince or an uncoordinated, yet endearing dance partner.

Photo: Irfan Kasban

The lecture was originally hoped to be staged as a walking tour through the National Gallery, tracing black lives, black voices, and black histories. The “No” that they received from the Gallery raised the poignant question that Sharon Frese posed at the start of the lecture: “If our voices aren’t heard in a house of memory, then will we be remembered at all? Will anyone remember that we gathered here, sharing our stories?”

As the performance flows through the chapters, we are transported from the mythical beginnings of time in Yorubaland to the history of trade routes that brought flora and fauna between Africa and Asia. The history of Singapore first appears through the darker side of the trade, slavery, and the inextricable life of Sir Stamford Raffles and other pillars of Singapore’s society. From slavery came emancipation, and opportunity from war. The story winds seamlessly to the last century, in which black culture was coveted but black people were not. To the tune of Mama’s Little Alabama Coon, Frese powders her face and dons a gelé (a Yoruba headdress) made of batik, a striking stance of appreciation in the face of appropriation. We enter the modern day, a time of supposed racial harmony and the double-edged sword of nationalism, a time in which black individuals strive for visibility and the privilege, but not the right, to exist in these spaces. We see the lives of prolific black Singaporeans – boxers, footballers, politicians – whose histories are seldom remembered.

I was fortunate to attend the preview of this performance, during which a question was posed from a member of the audience: “Should we, as Singaporeans, feel complicit [in the erasure of black histories]?” From nearly all of us present, local and foreign, there seemed to be a consensus: Yes, and I think that’s a good thing. With a world of information streaming through our screens, it is easier than ever to wash away one’s ignorance and prejudices. We are no longer grateful to have our existence acknowledged, we expect it. Ng went beyond those expectations, taking time to delve into archives and follow the threads of black lives in and around Singapore, weaving it into the colourful tapestry that was Ayer Hitam.

Photo: Irfan Kasban

Amidst the dancing and folktale, the histories both troubling and triumphant, there came moments of reflection. The most sobering of these was when Frese spoke of the stark reality of being black in Singapore: no matter how much we may integrate into and contribute positively towards Singaporean society, there will never be a ‘we.’ On the census, we often do not even count as ‘Other’. Having lived here for ten years, Frese considers Singapore her home. Like many of us, she has applied for a permanent residence pass and has had to wait endlessly, watching her white and Asian friends settle and knowing that there will soon be no choice but to leave. She is not alone in this. Her frustration and resignation were palpable, the same we have all faced when countless people have tried to reason that it is equally hard for everyone to get their papers. Though it may be difficult for those who are ‘Other’s, why is it so unfathomable that it is even more so for those who are considered ‘Less Than’?

Attending the performance and even writing this piece was not an easy experience for me. Though I was not involved in the production, I was mentioned as a black person who has gained recognition in Singapore. Words from an article that I wrote about prejudice entitled “Is Singapore a Racist country?” were read out by members of the audience. The answer I gave at the time of writing the article was naïve, for there was much I was yet to live through, but if anything tactful. Though I believe that I could not have been more misinformed, I would not go back to edit the article because, as Frese said, “I cannot afford to call anyone racist.”

It is with this sober feeling that the performance draws to a close in a poetic epilogue. Frese carries a bowl of water around the stage in a ritual ceremony. The sounds and sights of water seek to wash away the sting of the wounds that became exposed once more. For a moment there is stillness and peace. She turns to the backdrop, against which all the history, emotion and pain have been projected. In one swift move, she pulls it free. As the light fades, the white fabric wafts to the ground, revealing a resonant blackness, heavy with the weight of our own.

Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore by Sharon Frese, Ng Yi-Sheng and Irfan Kasban, was staged at Centre 42 from 17 – 20 January as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019.

About the author(s)

Iwani Mawocha is an actor, writer and digital designer from Zimbabwe, based in Singapore where she graduated from Yale-NUS College. She is an award-winning videographer and content creator, and an aspiring hyperpolyglot. Iwani is the co-founder of Mustard Seed Africa and Panalyt, and is the youngest winner of the Digital Female Leader Award 2018.

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