All artists face moments where they contemplate giving up. I think about my life and its direction: I’m a single parent; I’ve had a challenging cultural upbringing; I have intermittent health issues.
I’m not listing these barriers to have a whinge. My life could be much worse.
People ask me how I keep going. The motivating force that pushes me: my art can help empower or ease the pain of women. From early teenage-hood to my final emancipation where I claimed my life, I contemplated suicide many times. I was not exposed to strong women from diverse backgrounds on television or in books. I felt like a freak of nature.
The current climate for arts funding is terrible. Organisations like Meanjin are facing closure. The marginalised have always existed on the fringes, waiting for the scraps. Our arts world is hardly empowering for diverse women. It’s a well-oiled machine of whiteness where everything other is perceived as lesser. Now the scraps have reduced to dust.
While men from diverse backgrounds are gaining recognition, women are marginalised. Waleed gets his Gold Logie, we all swoon. Comedians Nazeem Hussain and Ronnie Chieng have shows on TV – I love their work, but I was raised in a patriarchy.. Is it a surprise that I feel somewhat disempowered by the system?
This is what spurred me to embark on my new project Koraly (a mockumentary): I wonder if they’ll make a TV show. Launching on June 5 in Melbourne, it follows on from my Good Greek Girl Film Project, four poetic films funded by an Australia Council ArtStart grant. After creating these I was signed by Romper Stomper producer Daniel Scharf for Profile Creative and had Cristina Pozzan (Carla Cametti PD) sign TV rights.
The mockumentary, which is a separate screen project, follows me as I stumble through the perils or life, men, culture and friendships, wondering if broadcasters and funding bodies will get on board and if the TV show will actually get made. Weighed down by my ethnic background, I also wanted to show the woman behind the poems, the single mother.
Emerging playwright, Vydia Rajan, who is of Tamil heritage, agrees that there are barriers for women of colour. “Some of these are attitudes within the industry, but they also end up being psychological. The more you don't see yourself, or know that you can only be cast as a bit part, or feel unsure that the material you're writing about deserves cultural space because it's 'minority stuff', the less likely you are to try, or take risks with your work. It's an isolating experience.”
I try not to let the rejection and status quo drown me, but it’s not easy. Apart from my ArtStart grant, where I couldn’t pay myself, I’ve never been funded. The viability criteria in applications makes it almost impossible for marginalised voices to attain funding when they don’t have a proven track record such as having already staged a full season theatre show at a reputable theatre or published a book with a medium-large publisher.
A few years ago my health wasn’t great and I announced I was quitting, but to my amazement a Greek woman I’d never met sent me $500. “You are worth so much more,” she says via email. “One day the world will see it. I just want you to keep writing!”
Similarly, when I staged my 2013 La Mama Theatre three-night work-in-development Good Greek Girl a woman approached me. It was my first ever theatre show. “Thank you for saying all the things we are too afraid to say,” she says.
Critics and people in general feel more comfortable being critical of works by women and minorities, basically anyone they see as holding less power.
After thanking her she took my hand and insisted, in Greek, that I look her in the eyes. I saw the sadness and repression in her eyes and was reminded of my own from years ago. “Keep going,” she says. This was my success moment. But despite being picked up for a full season by La Mama to premier as ‘Koraly : I say the wrong things all the time’ at the end of 2016, a well-regarded white theatre critic reviewed the show on national radio saying that if I am going to get up and confess my life story then I need to apply some art to it. There was no mention of how women from migrant backgrounds might relate to it. There was laughter. It felt belittling. Condescending. I felt like I was being put in my place.
Producer and director Ana Tiwary believes there is a problem. “Critics and people in general feel more comfortable being critical of works by women and minorities, basically anyone they see as holding less power. Many critics in Australia are not trained to be able to critique anything that is non-anglo.”
Similarly, after three reviews by white men for her show Who’s That Chik? which won her best performance at Melbourne Fringe, one of which she found implied a lack of talent on her part, theatre maker Candy Bowers realised she wasn’t interested in criticism from the establishment, or the white dominant mono-culture.
For Bowers, who is Australian-born and of South African descent, “The system is set up for those opinions to be the most important. But they are not the most important to me in my practice or in my life.
“When Who's that Chik hit the Arts Centre in Melbourne there was a massive push to diversify the audience and with that came my first reviews by women of colour,” she says. “[Writers]Lian Low and Maxine Beneba Clarke wrote about the work. Their reviews were literary and in depth. Their reference points were on point, and cultural understanding was delivered.”
Bowers believes it’s much more important to have her creative works “reviewed by political and critical thinkers.”
Bowers believes it’s much more important to have her creative works “reviewed by political and critical thinkers.” She adds, “with the exception of John Bailey, I prefer women of colour to review my work and any work I have a hand in.”
The industry should consider being more culturally sensitive. Do we want to squash or support these voices? Is anything shifting in the status quo?
I wonder sometimes. The industry is as is it. I can’t sit around and wait for things to change. If I did I’d still be waiting for a publisher for my book Love and F**k Poems. Bowers is also passionate about pressing on. “Making work helps me make sense of the cruel world. Women of colour are my community, my sisters and my family. I actually don't want these women to have to fight at all – I want them to be able to be and live their lives to the fullest.
“I know that social, political and artistic structures in place in Australia deny, cut, beat down and pretend not to see the glorious women we are talking about. That denial, that dismissal, and that barrier is unacceptable.... The work that sings comes from the corners, edges and cracks in the walls.”
Watch a teaser from Koraly’s mockumentary.