Just being brown and queer can be an act of disruption in Auckland, where in Pacific communities conservative church values are a dominating force. The stares you get as you walk down the street. Honking cars. Shitheads yelling out. Threats of violence on a train ride home. The continuous struggle to simply feel safe to be yourself.
For the past five years, members of the LGBQT arts collective FAF SWAG have been claiming a space for themselves that's visible, and inclusive. They've done it through the defiant, ferocious dance form that blossomed among marginalised black and Latino communities in 1980s Harlem—vogueing. Starting in underground venues in South Auckland, FAF SWAG have taken their vogue balls into mainstream consciousness and are now passing the phenomenon on to the wider queer community who have seized it not just as a form of expression, but as a lifestyle.
In March, FAF SWAG claimed that sense of disturbance on their own terms and put on the Disruption Ball at Artspace, a public contemporary gallery in the central city. It was the collective's most mainstream showing to date, as part of the Auckland Festival. Voguers strutted and dropped on the gallery floor competing for prize money in themed categories like Fuck the Police and Free West Papua. Everybody in that gallery from breast-baring trans goddess to buttoned-up art world observer threw their support towards the floor with a piercing YASS!
In response to a thirst from the growing vogue community who couldn't wait for a year to roll around, the balls have evolved from annual events to once every six weeks at Auckland's long-running LGBQT institution Family Bar. Aware that the success of the balls was starting to distort the perception of FAF SWAG—which includes artists working in visual arts, film and music—the collective are taking a step back from the balls and leaving it to the community to take vogueing to its next step.
Ahead of the launch of our video Auckland's Underground Vogue Scene, VICE talked to FAF SWAG co-founder Tanu Gago about the punk rock politics of vogue which has gone from trans students dancing on high school sports fields to the white box galleries of the mainstream.
VICE: Talofa Tanu. Can you walk me through the vision of FAF SWAG?
Tanu Gago: We started out as a group of friends who wanted to grapple with the reality of being queer and Pacific, which at the best of times can be extremely isolating. So we set up in a really informal way. It was just the Facebook page, me and my partner were sharing content around queerness and brownness, Indigenous identities and started to generate an audience of local people who were like, "Why don't we see more of this kind of stuff?" So we actively connected with people and went out into this group and community to identify people who had questions and points of interest.
I used to think to myself, why aren't we capturing ourselves in a way that embeds our identities within New Zealand's popular culture? With the internet now we've really created a stream of popular culture in a contemporary context, one that's grounded within its own unique diaspora and identities. Now we can talk about Pacific identities within populist culture.
Everything that we've produced has derived from the ethos of sharing and creating space.
Did you have a theme for the first vogue ball in Ōtara?
We used FAF SWAG as a brand to theme it. So we used our quirky little online aesthetic to get people thinking about how to be loved and vibrant and make statements around their visual presentation of themselves. Of course things were informed by South Auckland, being Polynesian and coming from low income neighbourhoods—all attached to the reality of what it is to live in those spaces.
The first one was a bit of a mess. It was kind of like a beauty pageant, quite awful. In fact when we reflect on it we're always kind of cringing. It was structured poorly because we didn't do enough homework around what a vogue ball was. In the Pacific, our third gender comes from a long history of pageantry so that was something that informed the earliest version of the FAF SWAG ball. We even gave people sashes and most of the categories were just runway. I don't think there was any vogueing.
It's taken years to do away with all the stagey, forced pageantry and get it back to the essence of body politics, disruption of space, the reclaiming of queerness from a contemporary Pacific identity.
What's changed by moving the vogue balls from South Auckland into central city venues like The Basement, Artspace and Family bar?
It does change the audience but what we've learnt is control is critical. When people ask us to host these events the first thing we tell them is that you need to give us full creative control around interpreting and occupying your physical space because otherwise you're just transplanting something that doesn't work, and that emotional detachment becomes really real for the performers. I don't even want to call them performers, but the voguers start to feel it.
Why do you not want to call them performers?
Because they're not performing. Vogue is a lifestyle. They're vogueing for their survival, not for a show.
"For some of these young people, this is the only space where they get to interpret their identity where there are no consequences."
They're vogueing for their survival?
Some of these kids come out to make money to pay their bills. For some of these young people, this is the only space where they get to interpret their identity where there are no consequences or repercussions that come with representing your body in a particular way.
Not everyone in our community is out, so we have created a space where the consequences of not being out are not getting to be affected by the threat of violence from their families or their communities. We talk about cultural safety all the time. We always ask our girls to check in, to make sure they've arrived safely and if they need support in venturing out after the event to let us know so we can support them to get home safely as well.
So there is a real risk to their safety?
There is. When you're a trans person or coloured person and someone doesn't understand your identity there's nothing preventing them from assaulting you on the train on the way home. That happened to someone last night, one of our girls. This is a daily thing. She was catching a train with our friends and she wrote a status on Facebook saying, "Can I just wear my dress? Can I just wear my high heels without someone trying to violate my body? And can I just live without being harassed on the train?" So I called her to see where she was, went to pick her up and make sure she got to where she needed to be. We create an inclusive space.
What stands out about being at a ball is that everyone in the room is involved, both audience and voguer, and everyone is putting energy in.
There's a relationship between every single person in that room, from the audience to the MC to the judges to the voguers to the DJ. Everyone has to get into it because when you hold back it creates barriers to people really being able to express themselves. They don't do it to perform. It's just a bonus that there's an audience.
"We're reaching the point now globally where the political agenda of Indigenous rainbow people needs to be brought to the forefront of everyone's consciousness."
What was behind the move to take a vogue ball to an institutional gallery like Artspace for the first time?
Well I've known had [Artspace director] Misal Adnan Yildiz for years. The first time he arrived in this country, he got off the plane and the first place he came to was the, I think, 2014 FAF SWAG ball. At that time he said to me, "This is incredible, I really want to stage this in Artspace". I said the community's really small it hasn't grown to a place where we have the confidence to be able to feel safe in places like that. So a lot of growth went on before we could have the power to feel like we could command the space.
We did it because we wanted to be in the Auckland Festival and also we're reaching the point now globally where the political agenda of Indigenous rainbow people needs to be brought to the forefront of everyone's consciousness. They need to be thinking about the things that we're living through every day, in a way that's going to help us transform our reality and create something more equitable for our people.
What needs to change and how?
It's about impact and visibility, because visibility is the thing that has for the longest time rendered our communities issues irrelevant and invisible. We're looking at being over-represented in suicide statistics and we still don't have adequate rainbow Pasifika support services. Why is it that like a country like New Zealand, as small as we are, still does not have the adequate infrastructure to create the support service that can offer holistic services to Indigenous people? We have some of the most progressive laws and policies in the world. We have had homosexual law reform for 30 years. Why can't we have the services?
I get really frustrated because it took for the artists to come along and say, "This is important, let's talk about these things." If I can get your attention for five minutes, while some people are vogueing, can we have a real conversation about something that matters? Can we talk about getting institutions to have basic things like gender neutral bathrooms?
I get really frustrated when people think that what we're trying to generate is mostly about entertainment. It's not. It's about social change and social justice. It's about improving quality of life.
This interview has been edited for length.