ENTERTAINMENT

'Black Birds' Actor Emele Ugavule Wants To Talk To You About Her Hair

And what it means to be a woman of colour in Australia.

29/03/2017 8:39 AM AEDT | Updated 30/03/2017 12:57 PM AEDT
Joshua Bentley
Meet Emele Ugavule and Ayeesha Ash.

When Emele Ugavule was moving through high school, she recalls countless times where kids would try and stick things in her "big, curly Afro hair".

"I started to straighten my hair in high school because I wanted to conform and fit in with everyone else. At that point in your life, you just want to avoid that kind of harassment," Ugavule told The Huffington Post Australia.

"As adults, it is hard to navigate when it keeps happening."

If people feel like they can touch your hair without asking your permission, what else do they think they can do to you?

Ugavule is one of two creators behind 'Black Birds,' a Sydney art collective that "dissects the female non-Indigenous black and Brown experience in Australia".

Born in New Zealand, she moved to Australia at a young age with her parents who are both Pacific Islanders.

"My mother is Tokelauan (or Polynesian) and my father is Fijian (or Melanesian). Both of them come from storytelling lineages so I grew up around singing, dancing and telling stories. It has always been important for me to carry on this part of my culture," Ugavule said.

Joshua Bentley
Uguvale has grown up as a storyteller.

Ugavule has studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), where she met her co-creator, Ayeesha Ash.

"After graduating, Ayeesha and I realised that there wasn't much happening in the industry in the kind of work that was accessible to us, as women who identify as black and brown," Ugavule said.

"We decided that the only way to see that work was to create that work, and that's how Black Birds came about."

In 2016, Ash and Ugavule began a residency at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Sydney's west that saw them connecting with like-minded women in the arts.

"We were looking for a commonality that could help us tell a story. We found that hair was a highly visible metaphor for the way we are treated by the wider public. It is a small but important issue for black and brown women in terms of physical space and violation of that space," Ugavule said.

It reduces your identity to something physical.

"People often feel that they have the right or the entitlement to touch our hair, or pick at us and ask us questions about what our mix is. If people feel like they can touch your hair without asking your permission, what else do they think they can do to you?" Ugavule said.

Coming full circle, the pair are returning to the Penrith performance space with their latest version of their self-titled stage play, 'Black Birds'.

The play tracks the Ugavule and Ash's journey from childhood to adulthood, using stories about their "hair identity" to unpack common stereotypes.

Joshua Bentley
"As an adult, you have to constantly navigate how you are going to deal with someone touching your hair."

"When we were children in primary school, new to Australia, our relationship with our hair and other people was quite innocent and curious. Whilst this curiousity tends to stick around, the naivety was more acceptable as a kid, because we were just as curious about kids who were different to us as they were about us," Ugavule said.

For Ugavule, adolescence was the hardest.

"When you get to high school, people start to create their own ideas about you and become more vocal about it," she said.

"Suddenly you are trying to work out what your own hair identity -- and your own identity -- is and you are trying to fit in with everyone else. Unlike the colour of our skin, our hair was something we could try to manipulate. And so we did," Ugavule said.

As an adult, do you choose to fight back? And if you fight back, is the person or people you are with going to support you?

"As an adult, you have to constantly navigate how you are going to deal with someone touching your hair. For us, it is unacceptable... Do you choose to fight back? And if you fight back, is the person or people you are with going to support you?" Ugavule said.

The play is strongly underpinned by traditional performance practices.

"Cultural preservation is crucial to us as Indigenous storytellers. We open the show with an acknowledgement of our ancestors and a welcome in our traditional language," Ugavule said.

"This is us inviting our audience into our story."

For Ugavule, the play is a chance to not only offer enlightenment, but encourage empathy.

"For people who haven't experienced what we experience, I hope that they come away with a bit more understanding about what it is like to be female, to be black or brown and to be non-Indigenous to this country," Ugavule said.

"But if they don't leave and feel connected to us, it won't inspire anyone to actually do anything about it or to look at their own actions, or those of others. We hope that audiences will ultimately connect to us as people."

'Black Birds' is screening at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Sydney from March 30 to April 8.

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