Images courtesy of Piki Films.

Auckland’s Vogue Balls Are a Church for Queers, And Everyone Else

Next stop Paris.

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14 August 2018, 1:08am

Images courtesy of Piki Films.

“At what point in history,” asked Tanu Gago of FAFSWAG, “did a bunch of queer kids represent the ideological context of New Zealand? Like when?”

Answer: “Now.”

FAFSWAG, the arts collective operating out of the South Auckland suburbs, is the shining star of Aotearoa’s contemporary art scene. Core member Pati Solomona Tyrell has been nominated for the Walters Prize, New Zealand art’s most prestigious; the group has been profiled here, here and here; and last year VICE released an intimate portrait of FAFSWAG members, as they got ready for one of the raucously transgressive balls that are its speciality. With the FAFSWAG Aitu Ball, in partnership with VICE, coming to K Rd’s Raynham Park Studio on August 25th, the group’s ubiquity on the arts pages would be enough to prompt Gago’s question.

But Gago asked and answered it in relation to the group’s upcoming trip to Paris’ Centre Pompidou, where on September 27 they will present a screening of the immersive interactive documentary the group released earlier this year. I asked Fang, a member of the performing arts collective and Vogue House COVEN who will be travelling to Paris, how it feels to be invited present your work at a beating heart of global contemporary art? “It means the world. It’s like validation of life, to have your life and your path accepted the way that it is and the format that it’s displayed in. Especially in a Pacific context, where we’re so small in the world, to have our work displayed in somewhere like Paris, and at the Pompidou—it’s very prestigious.”

Vogue culture’s spiritual home, of course, is New York City. Gago calls it “this weird cultural transmission” that allows FAFSWAG to respond artistically to that culture—and do it in a non-exploitative way. Māori and Pacific cultures have been ravaged by colonisation and have no interest in repeating that crime by culturally appropriating an art form, he says. “[We] do it in a way that is genuine, that adds to the culture, doesn’t take from it.”

FAFSWAG has no intention, he says, of presenting their work as a “definitive response to queer culture, to ballroom culture”; rather vogue has become the vehicle used to present their stories and “has helped to facilitate some sort of journey for our people”. Set in a Polynesian context, vogue derives a different kind of power, even if, performatively, it looks similar to that which comes out of New York. “There’s not much variation except for what indigenous people bring into it in terms of their mana,” Gago says. “If you think of the type of power that’s embedded behind something like a haka or like indigenous Polynesian performance, there’s this ancestral sort of muscle memory that’s built into the physique of Māori and Pacific people… vogue lends itself to that fluid movement.”

The upcoming FAFSWAG Aitu Ball adds another chapter to the dialogue between Māori and Pacific cultures and that of vogue. Aitu, meaning “ghosts” in many Polynesian languages, is the jumping off point for a consideration of spirituality as it relates to the queer brown community. “On the spiritual side, we’re talking about a process that Māori and Pacific people are really entrenched in, but [that] queer people are rejected from. So often we don’t get to have a spiritual experience that connects us to our peer group or other humans, so often this is a space to explore what that looks like in a very peer-to-peer but personable experience. It’s a good church for queers.”

Unlike those mainstream churches, Gago says, the Aitu Vogue Ball is an inclusive space. Hosted by Pati Solomona Tyrell and billed as the “space where spirits are awakened and brought to the floor in a battle of the elements; earth, wind, water and fire”, the themes, Gago says, are broad and elemental, rather than overly culturally specific. “The Aitu Ball is really great in re-establishing but also re-emphasising for our community that we do come from a very unique place in the world. And that this is something super-relevant to our reality and something that everyone can participate in, no matter where you come from, whether you're Asian or Indian or Pakeha: there’s a place for you in that space as well.”

Fang calls vogue a “tool-kit to fuck shit up”, one that has helped them transcend negative responses to their identity as brown and queer. “I use vogueing as a tool to get through that—it’s like helped my depression a lot. Oh my gosh, honestly, like walking through South Auckland… somebody like myself can still receive these femmephobic comments and just like looks and made to feel less valid.”

Fucking shit up. Bringing FAFSWAG out of the South Auckland suburbs where it gestated and into the CBD is part of the process to demand visibility for brown bodies. Auckland is often referred to as “the world’s largest Polynesian city”, which Gago calls a “bullshit umbrella”, whereby brown communities are relegated to certain suburbs. “Auckland City is my home,” he says. “I want Auckland to feel like I’m part of it.... Often you occupy the city and you’re like, ‘This space is not for me.’ For us, it’s about actually, ‘This whole city is for me and we’re going to come here and we’re going to occupy it in this way that empowers us or gives us presence.’”

Gago’s individual practice focuses on contemporary masculinity, and some of his work will be included among a prestigious line-up of artists at From the Shore, an upcoming exhibition at Waitakere’s Te Uru Gallery. He says it’s time for Pacific men to just “talk about our fucking feelings. Because it’s getting to a point where like, if we don’t address this it’s going to create problems, and it already is.” The patriarchy, he says, has “got to go. There’s a generation now who understand the complexity of that conversation.”

Questions around gender politics, identity, colonisation, the representation of indigenous bodies: these are big questions, the context in which the FAFSWAG operates. But on the floor these ideas are unpicked naturally, in the spectacle of two bodies—“visceral and crazy and dramatic and even soft,” Fang says—competing for the space: just take one look at the Paris-bound documentary for confirmation. “When you’re on the floor,” Gago says, “it all evaporates because the only moment that counts is the battle between two people.”

VICE NZ is happy to be partnering with FAFSWAG to present the next AITU Vogue Ball on August 25 at K Road's Raynham Park Studios. See here for details.