How do you mobilize people who fear change, who fear shifting the status quo, and how do you suggest to them that as a minority they can win?
(Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies)
Art allows you to create spaces for yourself that otherwise do not exist. If that means a progression towards abstraction or toward or away from indigenous art, then perhaps it is both. But ultimately, people see my paintings, and their interpretation is really what it’s all about as well. The artist fulfills a narrative role in society that refocuses normative cultural attitudes toward a deeper reality of internalized identity, psychic belonging, and a sacred union between human life and the life of all creation.
Still, immigrant narratives revitalize the relational knowledge of ecological tradition. Where storytelling arts give voice and agency to Gendered worldviews and Indigenous voices, the holism of human individuality becomes central and necessary to the enduring harmony of collectives. The story of Elephant Song, a multimedia theatre work by Green Fools Theatre in Calgary, Alberta, speaks to the perennial themes of collective harmony, addressing gender, immigration and ecology along the way.
Honoring ancestral and ecological heritage is integral to Elephant Song, as heard through its music, composed and performed by a daughter of Southeast Asia who immigrated to Canada in 1982. Through đàn tranh and electronica, experiential individuality is the common denominator for both the content of immigration and the style of intuitive composition featured in the play. Semi-autobiographical, Elephant Song, as with Indigenous art, is both a representation, as well as example, of retaining one’s honor for ancestral and ecological heritage, and the journey of finding holism in the ambiguities and spectrums of contemporary human identity.
Elephant Song depicts the hardships and displacements of wild Thai elephants, as well as the displacement of a Vietnamese family. To begin the story, a mother flees from the fall of Ho Chi Minh City with two infant girls. A wild Thai elephant later discovers the feral infant protagonist, displaced from her mother and sister. The depiction of a feral child raised through interspecies compassion is a metaphor to represent every child as born of nature, without a predetermined gender identity.
The elephants leave the infant to be raised by a shaman, who soon after has a vision of the girl walking with elephants. The vision is fulfilled when the girl grows to become an independent elephant conservationist, rescuing elephants for the rest of her life. As the girl grows into her role in the environment, so she grows into herself, in comparison with the cultivation of gender identity as a spiritual maturation.
Along the way, other human characters influence the nameless protagonist of Elephant Song in her journey to self-identify as a woman, conservationist and member of a displaced immigrant family. Most of the male characters are quite absent and violent, such as poachers and farmers with guns, exhibiting the widespread hurtful treatment of elephants, currently pressing many species to the brink of extinction. Male characters are sundered from ecological harmony through preoccupations with demolition and construction over the once lush, fertile forested land.
Elephant Song calls forth the complex interrelationships of gender identity within one’s being, as with the environment. Female characters are mostly facilitators, who exhibit the maternal nature, yet more, are facilitators of proactive solutions to sustainable living. Despite the pure negativity of a few male characters, others exhibit a relational complexity with the environment and their fellow human beings, to mirror the sophistications of modern gender identity.
For example, the pirate murders the mother with two infants during their emigration by sea. Similarly, the poacher and tourists disrespect and disregard elephant life. The passport hawker, however, gifts a passport, and therefore freedom, to a mother after hearing her traditional music. Likewise, the farmer releases an elephant from harm after taking advice from the child protagonist.
Uniquely, the shaman signifies the holism of the human being, in mind and spirit. The shaman is a male, yet exhibits the feminine traits of hurting, compassion and understanding, effectively transcending the mutual separatism inherent in the dominant gender binary. Similarly, the shaman envisions the harmony of interspecies relationship, crystallizing a vision holism among all creation, as within one’s self. Exemplified in the feminine, the mother sacrifices herself so that her two babies can carry on in life.
The protagonist finds solitude and contentment in her inner strengths, building effective communion with wild elephants. Bringing them to safety at an elephant sanctuary instated by a compassionate Thai lady, Elephant Song disseminates conservationist sympathies. Convinced and moved by the protagonist’s persistent rescue efforts, the Thai lady is also based on a true story of biological conservation in Thailand.
The Thai woman offers sanctuary for elephants, and also temporarily nurses the heroine back to life. In keeping with respect for the self-expression of gender identity, and the non-predetermined gender of the feral child, at no time does the Thai woman say: “Be my daughter.” She only facilitates the protagonist in being proactive in her quest for life.
The protagonist of Elephant Song, raised by elephants and a shaman, was led by her deep cultural roots, symbolized in the shaman, and her ecological heritage, symbolized in the elephants, to tread a journey of self-identity. Balancing holism and independence cultivates harmonious relationships between self and nature.
Out of the touch of his loving heart, the shaman provides the protagonist personally, as his cultural legacy would provide to all collectively, an opportunity to fulfill a unique role in life: to share responsibility and empathy for all creation through human-ecological awareness.
Elephant Song explores Shamanic Taoism as a spiritual tradition of Vietnam, and Southeast Asia, among other regions on the planet. Shamanic Taoism reveals the duality, and the thin veil of the masculine-feminine binary. Here, light meets dark, destruction meets rebirth. The Buddhist teachings of Southeast Asia, exhibited in the way of an immigrant’s reconciling her traditional worldview, sees unconditional compassion and the Bodhi nature in all as the facilitation of kindness.
Likewise, dualities inherent in gender identity cultivate internal interrelationships with respect to the immigrant’s navigation of family behaviors of a marginalized cultural upbringing with the learned behaviors of the normative social model. Such dualities arise from the immigrant experience in the examples of reusing things, purchasing power, work ethics, relationships and friendships.
Like the assimilation of Indigenous and Gendered identities, immigrants are also compartmentalized into acceptable and protocol-based cultural assimilations where their originating cultures are recognized as token and superfluous. The cultures from which the immigrants originate are seen as entertaining tidbits to add to the receiving country’s so-called multicultural tapestry.
In reality, most immigrants face much culture shock and are persuaded to a Western culture of overconsumption and overstimulation by consumer entertainment. In Canada, immigrants are encouraged to exhibit their original cultures merely in a show-and-tell, talent-show style.
Like gender identity, an immigrant’s cultural identity is abandoned, often due to feelings of shame while submitting to the dominant culture. Immigrants accept colonization. As Healing and Reconciliation Program Animator and member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, Lori Ransom said at the ‘Wisdom on the Journey’ Truth and Reconciliation Conference in Indus, Alberta: “When you took your citizenship, you essentially signed Treaty with me.”
The Western culture has provided education, so that the immigrant can see to decolonize oneself by actively preserving one’s own self identity, cultural identity, gender identity, and rise above to lead a life with honor for one’s self and heritage.
Still, Aboriginal leadership from global Indigenous eldership warns of the dependence of First Peoples’ on Western institutions, whether spiritual as in Elder Dave Courchene or artistic as in Samoan poet Sapa’u Ruperake Petaia. “That was one of the most successful things that the colonizer did, was to remove that special significant role that the Grandmothers had in our society,” Leading Earth Man of the Anishnabe Nation, Eagle Clan and former member of the Wisdom Keepers of the United Nations since 1992 Elder Dave Courchene Nii Gaani Aki Innini said in Calgary, Alberta, during Aboriginal Awareness Week: “Once they were put into institutions, our people suffered great loneliness from the Grandmother and from the Mothers.”
Transformative Decolonization honors and instills a worldview of unceasing revolutionary freedom through creative acts in continuity with the nature of life as diverse and self-expressed. “Literature is, in essence, the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution,” stated the French philosopher and anti-institutional writer Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay What is Literature? So, in keeping with revolutionary existentialism, art, and more specifically transformative Indigenous art, evokes the subjectivity of an individual in permanent revolution.
With diligent grace, Kihara often repeats and affirms the role of the artists in keeping with a society in permanent revolution in various manners throughout her voluminous interviews. “As an artist, a Samoan and a Fa’afafine my daily existence questions a wide range of Western classifications that people base a major part of their lives on, that shape their cognitive systems and worldview,” said Kihara for Peril Magazine in 2009. “People like me can cause havoc to the point of getting physically attacked, especially by those who feel their whole existence and worldview has been undermined and threatened.”