TANIA CAÑAS: Step Up.
Naarm (Melbourne, VIC).
This particular MEET has been a long time coming, for which we apologise. The conversation that came from this MEET in particular has helped shape the way we approach interviews for 2018 and we are so excited to bring it to you now.
At the start of 2017, Tania Cañas first got our attention when we read her ArtsHub article Diversity is a white word, a critical analysis on how organisations in and around the arts tackle diversify themselves in the face of social change. It was the first time that we, at The Pin, had read a well articulated criticism of a system that we and many people have found themselves in, as we move forward to one day have more diverse representation and voices in the arts and beyond.
Like many of the people you will MEET in 2018, Tania Cañas has a lot going on, and it would be remiss of us to not give you an brief outline of the many hats that Cañas wears. Tania Cañas is the Arts Director of RISE Refugee the first and only asylum and refugee advocacy organisation in Australia, she a Melbourne University Research Candidate, Tutor (VCA) and Lecturer (VCA), an international guest curator at the International Community Arts Festival (ICAF) in the Netherlands, the Editorial Board of the International Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Journal and works in community theatre.
MEET TANIA CAÑAS
TANIA CAÑAS. I’m trying to develop for want of a better way to describe it, a critical reflective guide of what are the questions and what do you have to think about when you’re entering new community spaces as an outsider because it is so easy to be assimilated.
If you’re working in the system - it’s bloody hard to fight against that, isn’t it?! You’ve got to navigate so much. Other times it’s the allure of being that go-to cultural representative, that community informant and I get that...but I also believe that our communities need to step it up.
Right now it’s in vogue to talk about about these things [cultural appropriation, respect and diversity]. Yet, we ourselves find that we are also perpetuating lateral violence towards each other in order to get the opportunity over someone else to be in the position of community representative and to have a louder voice than others. That makes me really sad because you expect this in white spaces, and from whiteness but, when it’s perpetuated by our communities, it makes you see historically why and how neo-capitalism forces enable us to hurt each other on top of the hurt that we’re already going through, systematically.
THE PIN. Do you think it’s also apart of the individual and collective psyche to be on top?
T.C. I agree with that sentiment, but also think it’s this idea that the public space is the only space to make that change.
When a person agrees to be a voice for others, what are they really doing for their community? They shouldn’t be there to just to speak for others, their role should also be about creating roles for others to exist in, not just in visible spaces but also the invisible spaces. There is the allure of visibility and I understand that. That’s one way to protest. I feel like there are other ways, they’re just as valuable but not valued. Even by our communities unfortunately.
Getting people seen on t.v. or otherwise is great, but I wonder, who is the director behind this? - The invisible director, who has framed the questions or the situations in which these public figures find themselves answering to.
Someone from Footscray Arts came to the class I was taking and he said ‘for every opportunity you get, create three more’ and I think that’s an interesting way to look at it. What is the speaker doing to create other voices? It’s not about how you are occupying a space or about how someone has bestowed that value on you - because then they could easily take it away when they’ve decided they’ve had enough diverse voices for the year. So it becomes about how are you creating other roles for our community? I don’t mean on stage with you either, I mean around you, in the building - what are those roles and those hierarchies, and how can we get people in? That for me is what I’m interested in.
THE PIN. How does this play out for you in academia and through your work in the arts?
T.C. I know a lot of people in academia trying to fight that fight and bring new voices in, but they are seen as assimilated by their own communities because they’re in academia.
The arts is an interesting site to have these conversations and talk about these things, but I’m also wary of how the arts, and even activism are so far behind. There are times when theatre or activism works land on the conversation and it feels like you have to say, ‘hey guys we’ve been doing this for years’.
If we look at creative practice, just being on stage - the visibility - that for me, I argue, feeds into whiteness and creates disposable voices. Looking at the industry now, and the vogue of getting people of colour on stage, you see that they do that for maybe one or two seasons to be fashionable and then the industry moves on takes that value away. The power doesn’t change. Then that person is left with just your creative practice and no support in any way past that project. They’ve fallen victim to being a part of a framework that supports those disposable voices.
THE PIN. Does it surprise you that the people battling the industry framework and also the people fighting for rights of many through activism are women of colour like yourself?
T.C. Women of colour, are like urban guerrilla fighters, that’s what it’s like. It’s the same strategies of urban guerrilla warfare that we have to employ.
Community arts is very female dominated, the dynamics become really interesting when a men of colour enters into this space compared to what happens when it’s a woman. I argue that the way women of colour navigate the arts is not understood by men of colour because they don’t understand allyship. It’s so rare when they do.
When a man of colour steps into these matriarchal environments he is often given so much more support and privilege than his female counterpart. The level comfort and privilege in which men of colour enter the arts, makes them blind to how women of colour have to navigate through these spaces also. They become the poster child, the patronage of this person who is in power and thinks ‘I need to have this poster child that I supported, that I made…’ I call it the world vision affect in the arts. Becoming the chosen one, how you’re seen as a particular identity, then that’s the world vision affect. So many resources are placed here for us all and one person absorbs, absorbs and doesn’t support the other people around him. They start think they are the difference, and it becomes about their ego and individualism. From there they don’t understand allyship. There is no empathy and at times it could even be them throwing you under the bus, that’s how violent it gets.
On top of that there is the perception of what makes you victim enough to be of value. For example, I told a fellow academic what my thesis was on, and he looked me up and down and said, ‘you don’t look like you struggle’. I was in sneakers, and had hoop earrings. I thought, ‘woah that’s so offensive. What they’re looking for is a certain type of struggle, world vision style’.
THE PIN. When someone is in that position, how do they check themselves?
TANIA CAÑAS. A friend of mine posted something on Facebook recently saying we need to include the new activists, the emerging people in our conversations, and we shouldn't judge them necessarily. Part of his post was asking for recommendations to new people in the movement. I would say, you gotta actually listen first.
Even us, we talk about white people listening, but we have to listen ourselves. I feel like we don’t really have respect for the OG’s that have allowed us to even be in this space. If you’re not looking at who came before you, how are you going to understand beyond yourself or your ego about how you got there.
I would also say go and spend 8 - 12 months just reading. For me it’s about reading and research, and I don’t mean research in the institutional academic sense, I mean reading outside of Angela Davis, we’ve got first nation amazing writers here. We have to do our research too. It might not look the same as uni research, but it’s our own research.
In Spanish we say ‘luca’ which means struggle but also fighting. I gives it a positive sense, more like in a stepping up sense. I think historically we have looked at struggle as ‘oh, we’re struggling to do this’...but for me I look at struggle as a movement. Struggle for me, is still an important word. To claim it and say it’s a struggle also talks about how violent society is. Even though it’s not overtly violent, it’s still violent in so many other ways. So to say women of colour are guerrilla fighters, to use that terminology that seems quite powerful, quite strong is actually a stance in itself.
*This interview has been edited and condensed