Get To Know Interdisciplinary Artist Pelenakeke Brown

By Sarah Downs
Pelenakeke Brown. Photo / Greta van der Star.

Pelenakeke Brown is an interdisciplinary artist whose work combines art, writing, and performance.

She is from New Zealand and is Samoan/Pakeha, a heritage integral to her creative process. She recently returned home after being based in New York for six years, and has performed and exhibited her work in the US and internationally.

Her work has been lauded by the arts community both locally and internationally, and she is the 2020 Eyebeam Artist-in-Residence.

She has worked with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Gibney Dance Center and The Goethe Institute.

Her non-fiction creative work has been published in The James Franco Review, Hawai'i Review, Apogee Journal, and the Movement Research Performance Journal issue. She is a founding member of Touch Compass, New Zealand's first mixed-ability dance company.

She attended the National Academy School of Fine Art, Studio Intensive Program, NY and received a BA in English literature and Pacific Studies, focusing on art and literature by Pasifika artists, from Auckland University, NZ.

We talk to Pelenakeke upon her recent appointment as new artistic director of dance company Touch Compass - the first to be living with a disability.

I first got into art and dance when I was 7 or 8 years old.

A family friend, Abigail Hector-Taylor, was studying Dance at Unitec and she would take me to community dance classes facilitated by Catherine Chappell.

Catherine formed Touch Compass and asked me and fellow dancers from the class to join. I worked with them from 1997-2000, toured New Zealand and went to the High Beam Festival in Adelaide. I loved it.

I moved to New York six years ago where I worked with arts organisation Culture Push and juggled working as an independent artist.

I have done projects with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Performing Arts Library (part of the Lincoln Center) and, most recently, the Goethe Institute in Munich. Excitingly, this year I was named an artist-in-residence at Eyebeam, a studio dedicated to artists working across technology and social justice, which was my dream residency opportunity.

Working as an independent has meant I’ve had to hustle (a lot) but has also given me the freedom to explore my practice in multiple ways and connect with many communities and art forms.

I was in London when the borders closed to non-citizens of the US and ultimately, I couldn't get back.

I needed to be somewhere I could stay long-term, so I decided to come home. I miss New York and am really worried for my community there, but I am checking in with folks, donating to mutual aid organisations and trying to support how I can.

Touch Compass is the silver lining to all this change and disruption. We've all had plans change and there is grief around that but I am ready to be here and support the wonderful work occurring in New Zealand and share some of what I've learned.

Pelenakeke is leading the conversation of understanding disability as a creative source. Photo / Supplied.
Pelenakeke is leading the conversation of understanding disability as a creative source. Photo / Supplied.

Questions that inform my art practice are: How can disability be seen as artistry? How can values and tenets of disability and care be part of my disability aesthetic? Where can I find overlapping sites of knowledge? How does this work honour crip time and the va? What sites of choreography and movement can I find in everyday objects/movement? Whose story am I telling? And whose is not being said?"

I work across multiple mediums: drawing, writing and performing. Is it a poem, a drawing or a choreographic score? I think the work can be all those things and I challenge you to see it that way. I always wish to expand what can constitute dance and where choreographed movement can be found.

The work is always connected by the va (in-between space or spatial relationships). My work investigates the relationships occurring within the space, context and history.

I also love duality and finding this duality everywhere. I'm most intrigued in finding sites and projects that hold both disability concepts, like crip time and Samoan concepts, (like the va).

As a disabled, Samoan/Pakeha I contain many genealogies and I want to honour that and find places where these intersections are housed.

Being appointed as the interim artistic director for Touch Compass is huge. And it's hard to put into words. But it's special and exciting.

I am the first disabled Samoan/Pakeha artist to lead the company. I think that statement sums up the magnitude of it. Often in the disability arts it is not led by people who have lived experience.

I think having someone who is from that community shifts everything, even in seemingly minute ways. While in NYC I have been focusing on fostering spaces for disabled/chronically ill folks and contributing to the conversation that is occurring: understanding disability as a creative source.

I always wanted to return home and contribute to the arts here. With this appointment, I thought about my community and the Samoan saying "o le ala i le pule o le tautua" (the road to leadership is through service).

I like to think of Touch Compass as a laboratory that explores exciting, performance ideas and projects.

First and foremost thinking about disability as artistry. Disability and the way we move and navigate the world is a source of creativity.

I want Touch Compass to be a company that fosters these ideas. I want it to reflect Aotearoa and the many cultures that we have.

I want it to honour tangata whenua and tangata haua (disabled people), as well as our Pasifika people and other residents of Aotearoa.

A favourite project was work where I investigated my medical file and all the stories and unknown histories I found after reading. I used the medical letters doctors sent to each other to make choreographic scores.

I would choose words related to the body and dance, leave them and blackout the rest. It fascinated me to find this overlap between medical language and dance. And felt there was a poetry to that.

I used them to create movement and also released a limited series of books called grasp + release.

During my residency at Eyebeam I worked on a project which came from a piece I wrote for Movement Research, Performance Journal Issue 52/53. It was their first indigenous issue and I was honoured to contribute.

The work is called "a travelling practice" and explores how the keyboard console is a site that holds crip time (time that is non-normative, non-capitalist, productive time) and Samoan tatau, specifically the malu.

Finding sites of technology that hold both disabled concepts and Samoan concepts excites me. And I was hoping to create eventually choreographic scores and a language from this research.

I use the keyboard to travel, across time and space. For me the internet and technology is an integral way that I communicate and be in the world, when I am tired and need to rest and stay home.

I think Covid-19 has made many non-disabled folks use the internet and technology in a similar way. It changes your world. Your house, your room, your bubble becomes your world.

You bring your folks to your living room, or even your bedroom. This work explores these ideas and feels most relevant to our Covid-19 world.

I admire artists such as Christine Sun Kim, Shannon Finnegan, Alice Sheppard and Carolyn Lazard because they are disabled artists thinking about their disabled aesthetics and perspectives as artists.

Movement artists I follow are Nic Kay, Tendayi Kuumba and Okui Okpokwasili, because their practice is interdisciplinary; thinking about the body and somatics in powerful ways.

In Aotearoa the artists I admire are Rosanna Raymond, Grace Taylor and Tusiata Avia. All strong Samoan women who in their own way have changed their art practice and nurtured arts communities in Aotearoa and have spoken deeply to my own understanding of what it means to be afakasi Samoan.

The best advice I've been given is not advice but people just saying "yes, of course you can do that"". When I first told people I wanted to go to NYC they didn't believe me or asked lots of questions that discouraged me.

But the people who look you in the eye and say "yes, that’s a great idea"? Just having someone else believe in your big idea has been enough. Because if one person believes in you, it helps you remember to believe in yourself.

My favourite travel destination is always New Zealand and I try to come home once a year. I never realised how lucky and beautiful we are until I left.

Outside New Zealand I've been going for a residency to a place called Denniston Hill, in upstate New York, and there's a barn to work from, a garden that we cultivate and the Neversink river where friends and I have spent many days floating down the river.

I hope to return and spend many more summers there. There's not much Wi-Fi, which is also great.

Last year I travelled to London to be in a exhibit curated by the inter*island collective ( a collective of Oceanic artists based in London) and after this exhibit I took home with me a work made by Jaq Brown, a Samoan Hawaiian artist.

It's a six-layered giant, lei installation. It always reminds of home and I can't wait to put it up in my next whare.

A favourite song of mine is Love is stronger than Pride by Amber Marks. When I need to listen to a playlist I listen to Chani Nicholas' astrology playlists.

Moanafresh is a great place in Avondale to get local Pacific wares made by local Pacific artists! During Covid I have found the NZ Made Products Facebook page. It is really great to hear from vendors themselves and help support local during this time.

My favourite book is The Lot by Michael Leunig. It was the last item my grandmother gave me and has a handwritten inscription. It's a book of essays and every so often I will open up to a random page when I need some inspiration, and read an essay.

I go through phases of listening to different podcasts but This American Life is always a staple I can return to. During Covid-19 I've been listening to true crime podcasts especially In the Dark.

They just released a pandemic special which looks at Covid-19 in Mississippi which I want to listen to. Also Esther Perel, a relationship therapist, has a Covid-19 special, counselling couples under lockdown.

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