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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Festival of Women N.O.W. 2021: Bold claims on identity

By Patricia Tobin

(1,382 words, 4-minute read) 

Led by artistic director Noorlinah Mohamed, this year’s online edition of the Festival of Women N.O.W. 2021 explores issues pertaining to women that are often forgotten or overlooked. There is Not Grey: Intimacy, Ageing & Being, a series of livestreamed and pre-recorded virtual performances featuring 15 women aged 59 to 82. Rasanai explores the history of the Singaporean Tamil woman, while Cabaret Joy celebrates queer joy with standup, dance, music, videos, and art. Lastly, digital exhibition Nudes.jpg examines the relationship between our body and our personal stories.

Below are short reviews of each of these. 

Not Grey: Intimacy, Ageing & Being

Photo courtesy of TWorks

 

Not Grey takes place on Ohyay, a customisable virtual platform that is used effectively to convey the intersection of intimacy and ageing. The “lobby area”, for instance, belongs to director Salty Xi Jie Ng’s grandmother’s bedroom, with our webcam videos flanked on bright blue bed sheets and festooned within photo frames and mirrors. It creates a warm – and dare I say – intimate atmosphere that enriches the subsequent performances.  

For Not Grey, intimacy is not just about sexual arousal but “the deepest life force”, as quoted from feminist Audre Lorde. Viewers select between two journeys, comprising of various formats, ranging from a delicate movement piece by Elise Tan to an erotic poetry reading by Dana Lam, to discover the different meanings of intimacy for each of these women. 

The thematic thread of nature and the spiritual that runs throughout Not Grey is deeply enthralling. The opening sequence ‘Soul’ features Ajuntha Anwari’s burial rite and ‘My Intimate Relationship with Mother Earth’ has Saudah Marwan speaking to her plants. Not Grey shows women being in touch with (both mother and human) nature to learn more about themselves. Such as with the close-ups of hands on bare soil, these arresting images leave a lasting impression.

Faizah Jamal’s ‘Weaving the Web of Life’ is the standout live performance that brings these themes to the forefront. As a Banjar descendent of a diamond merchant, Faizah recalls her hiking adventures in the Malaysian and Indonesian wilderness. She drinks a small glass of jamu, a herbal tonic her mum made for her every Friday morning, while wearing a huge diamond ring, a family heirloom. This evocative image conveys a tremendous sense about our literal and figurative roots. With this, Not Grey effectively expresses how nature can bring a myriad of possibilities – we dig deep to discover ourselves, to uncover our health and wealth — making for an enticing and sensational performance.

Rasanai: An Invitation to Appreciate

Rasanai’s writers (from left): Vithya Subramaniam, Grace Kalaiselvi and Rajkumar Thiagaras. Photos courtesy of artists.

Rasanai is a truly impressive feat, in both how it runs without a technical glitch (on Zoom!) and in utilising the platform seamlessly. Rasanai, which loosely means ‘taste’, begins with a young woman (Vithya Subramaniam) on a video call with her family members (Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai and Mumtaz Maricar), including her grandmother, who is not shown on screen. 

Video montages, meant to represent the grandmother’s memories triggered in the conversation, are played throughout Rasanai. These striking montages range from a monologue by the Curd Lady who recalls setting up her shop in Little India (“best in Tekka!”) to a gentle lesson about beauty home remedies, with ghee, turmeric, coconut oil amongst its many ingredients. 

The highlight of these montages are two soundscapes created by sound designer Ramesh Krishnan. Ramesh uses found sound to create two distinct aural feasts featuring the rhythms and beats drawn from cooking and sewing practices. From grains being sieved to the churning of a sewing machine, the woman’s hand is prevalent throughout these acts of labour and domesticity. The soundscape is illustrious and entertaining, and elicits a peek into the Singaporean Tamil woman history.

Rasanai’s strong narrative (by Vithya, Rajkumar Thiagaras, and Grace Kalaiselvi who also directs the show) presents an exercise into memory work, often emotionally laden and unforgiving, while honouring the work done by Singaporean Tamil women. We fear the possibility of forgetting all that has passed and as a result, face an anxious future. Rasanai offers a persuasive solution, that our habits are instinctively formed from memory: “your body knows your history”. From the way we prepare meals to hosting festive celebrations, these traditions are inherited, traced down to our very own hands. 

Cabaret Joy

Screenshot of ‘Orifice Hour’ with Becca D’Bus and Marylyn Tan.

 

With the Phase 2 restrictions, Cabaret Joy is staged in two separate spaces within 72-13 (the home of T:>Works) – one space hosts the socially distanced audience alongside masked standup comics, while a livestream of the unmasked drag, dance and music performances play in another room. 

Despite these challenges, Cabaret Joy shines thanks to its lineup of earnest and talented artists. They define what queer joy means to them, from Deonn Yang’s standup set on modern dating perils to burlesque dancer Lychee Bye (terrific name, by the way)’s sultry and electric performance. Drag queens Dahlia Rose and ElNina steal the show, especially with Dahlia Rose, who moves from reveal to death drop to split with tremendous ease.

Most of all, the audiences—both in-person and virtual—are exceptionally warm and inviting, after being starved of an invigorating live performance like this for more than a year. The on-site crowd offers welcoming cheers during standup sets from Deonn, Quen Wong and Stephanie Chan, while an acoustic guitar performance from a slightly tipsy Jean Seizure had lesbians howling (figuratively, on the chat).

Cabaret Joy ends with ‘Orifice Hour’, an interactive smut poetry improv hosted by drag queen Becca D’Bus and writer Marylyn Tan. As the audience shares what turns them on via the Zoom chat or WhatsApp (gaping buttholes, the ACJC theatre and Yakult, to name a few), Becca rummages through dirty messages and Marylyn produces an erotic story unhurriedly. ‘Orifice Hour’ has its fair share of laughs, but for someone watching it from home, it felt considerably low energy compared to the high-octane performances prior. 

Cabaret Joy would have worked best in a packed club, with dance and music performances bookending ‘Orifice Hour’. Ideally, in this imagined space, the artists and audience breathe in the same muggy air, sticky with sweat, flushed under the strobe lights. Perhaps the Phase 2 restrictions resulted in a line-up adjustment and would explain the show’s uneven pace. Still, under the prevailing festival conditions, whether onsite or through the digital screen, we gaze back at each other, reveling in our excitement, communicating our thoughts (“omg relate!”), a feeling of pure euphoria washing over us all.

Nudes.jpg

Screenshot of nudes.jpg on the N.O.W website.

 

Nudes.jpg is a third iteration from the ‘Red Thread’ series by artists ila and Sonia Kwek. It is a digital exhibition that features user-submitted photographs of a part of their body alongside a write-up about that body part. There are faceless images of backs, knees, teeth, love handles, breasts, stretch marks. The accompanying texts feature stories about scars, self-acceptance, weight loss or gain. It is a medley of isolated skin or skin-on-skin contact, further enhanced with a video background of a hand rubbing on skin playing in a loop. The result is almost too confronting at times, but also deeply mesmerising. 

These nude bodies onscreen are not necessarily erotic. In fact, in viewing a body similar or dissimilar to yours, Nudes.jpg reminds us that our bodies can be so familiar yet alienating. The stories exhibit our instinctive desire for our bodies to be better or different; we love and cherish them, yet we can be so weirded out and repulsed by them. Nudes.jpg is a beguiling take on baring all to reclaim our bodies.

I relish in the fact that I am not the primary audience for N.O.W. 2021 (straight, cis, Chinese-ish), yet I can learn so much from the Festival’s bold claims on identity: that queer identity is beautiful in Cabaret Joy, that intimacy is intrinsically linked to our self and identity in Not Grey. There is also the significance of the physical body that highlights who we are, like in the recurring hand motif in Rasanai and of course, in Nudes.jpg. N.O.W. 2021 succeeds in a hyperlocal connection between the intimate and what lies beyond the digital world: a body that belongs to you, a hand that tells a Singaporean story, a world that is ours.


Festival of Women N.O.W. 2021 is presented by T:>Works. It ran from 13 to 31 July 2021. 

Patricia Tobin is a theatre reviewer from Singapore. She writes at havesomepatty.com.

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