Interview: Exchange across borders with Venuri Perera & Zwoisy Mears-Clarke

by Lies Mensink


For our October 10x10 program on International Exchange we invited international artists and professionals to share their work in a new context and to exchange with us and each other. With COVID-19 cases rising, physically exchanging across borders is not always feasible. Venuri Perera and Zwoisy Mears-Clarke are able to physically share time and space at Veem House for Performance and will show their film Porcelain White: The Conversation followed by a conversation moderated by Quinsy Gario on the 31st of October. With Mears-Clarke and Perera we reflect on what international exchange means.


Choreographers and performers Venuri Perera and Zwoisy Mears-Clarke were born oceans apart in former British colony’s. In Porcelain White: The Conversation they discuss their shared ‘whitened’ inheritance. Both were brought up in the English-speaking middle class which maintains certain practices adopted from the former colonial masters. While working on the intended performance Porcelain White travel restrictions forced Perera and Mears-Clarke to look for a different artistic form. Perera worked from Colombo Sri Lanka, Mears-Clarke from Rösrath Germany, and working towards completing the performance concluded with the making of a film.


During the making of Porcelain White you were unable to travel, and rehearse together how did you deal with that inability?


Venuri Perera: ‘You could say we were ahead of the game! We did not have the money to come together to work on the performance after 2018, where we presented a work-in-progress in Colombo. We had decided to create two separate solo’s, a sort of diptych, and then that we would come together for two weeks in Germany to find out where we could connect the works. But of course, when COVID-19 happened we did not get to meet at all. The dramaturgical framework of the performance Porcelain White was the conversation between us. But in the final presentation, we took out most of that conversation. Since we could not rehearse together, this film became an opportunity to bring that conversation back, and go even further with it.’


‘One of the great things about making this film is that I was able to stay in my context. I did not have to be displaced. And I could reflect together with my friends and collaborators who had shared questions. I was able to bring the world into the context of my family home. Although we could not travel, we could go deeper and respond to the places we were in. We then met in this third space of the visual medium.’


Has international exchange been important for your artistic career?


Zwoisy Mears-Clarke: ‘For me international exchange enters more into my work on a political level. When I think about the people who I’m choosing to be on stage, I’m thinking about the history that is stamped on their bodies: the visual signals. Those are part of international conversations because of (neo-)colonialism and therein capitalism.’

 

‘As a choreographer the body is your material, so these conversations are part of every single work in which a body is presented. What are the international or (neo-)colonialist codes that are projected onto me and the other performers right now? That is something I must know as a choreographer if I’m trying to make choices about how my body and other bodies are presented. This has always been a layer in every work I’ve ever made. Now working with Venuri, it came to the forefront as the centre point of the theme of the work.’


Venuri Perera: ‘International exchange has definitely affected a major part of who I am as an artist. But I think it is important to be aware of the power dynamics involved. My first International ‘exchange’ was in 2005, when I was part of a promenade theatre production, with an English director and Sri Lankan cast, that was shown at the Edinburgh Festival. When you’re young you think of it as a great opportunity, and of course the exposure has made me who I am. But later on, I started to be weary of the power dynamics that are present in international collaborations. I tried to look for more equal platforms: just two makers that come together and figure things out collectively. Instead of a choreographer or director coming to Sri Lanka for a brief period, taking the artists from there, and telling their stories back in Europe. Making a work with the aesthetics of a European production, and then people back home not being able to see it. Of course power dynamics still come into play because often the money is coming from Europe.’


What to you is a fruitful exchange?


Zwoisy Mears-Clarke: ‘When on both sides there is an impact, but that impact is self-defined by the receivers such that the encounter avoids being a charitable or exploitative exchange.’


Venuri Perera: ‘Not that you feel like you’ve given everything away and are not sure what you are left with. It can happen, when the stories come from you but you don’t have the power of deciding who is telling the story or how it is told. I think an exchange is fruitful when there is a shared interest and curiosity, where you want to explore something together. And where there is mutual sense of learning and growth at the end of it.’ 


How can we keep enabling exchange across borders now that travel is restricted due to COVID-19? 


Venuri Perera: ‘When you say people cannot be mobile anymore: who is not able to be mobile and who was mobile before? People with Sri Lankan passports were not easily mobile anyway. For the first time we seem to be on an equal platform, where nobody can go anywhere. Now, mobility is more in terms of who has access to technology and the internet.’


‘Normally I make performances for small audiences. Because we made this film which was accessible online, suddenly, a large cross section of people saw it. It was extremely vulnerable and exposing, but it created conversations we thought we would never have. When you talk about this post-covid time, a lot of things are going online, there are pro’s and con’s of that. Sometimes artists get uprooted from their locality. Maybe this is an opportunity to be hyper local while still being connected globally?’


Zwoisy Mears-Clarke: ‘Having worked in film suddenly allowed me to present something in Jamaica. That opened up conversations that I thought would have never happened - especially with my family, and within my own community - that is magical. Maybe there hasn’t been enough of a push before to consider different strategies of how to transport dance across borders. Something I’ve been thinking about is if a dance can be transported without a body moving outside its locality? What if a choreographer organizes local dancers a laptop and internet access? They rehearse and then perform it for the local audience. Why hasn’t that been a normative model so far?’


Venuri Perera: ‘Yes! But still I think we cannot let go and should insist on the beauty and magic that happens when people are actually in the same space. And when different people physically come together that’s when things like othering and prejudices can shift.’ 


What did you learn from your international collaboration?


Venuri Perera: ‘Because of Zwoisy I was able to ask certain questions that I may not have asked otherwise. The exchange created the conditions to go to a place where I may not have gone by myself. 

Coming from English speaking middle class, we don’t really critique ourselves. We are there to raise the voices of the marginalized. But we never really question what it means to be in that position, and how we got there. Because of our common history across continents Zwoisy and I started to question that. I had the strength to say these things in Colombo to that audience because I had the support of Zwoisy.’


Zwoisy Mears-Clarke: ‘As part of the privileged Middle class you are taught to be generous, but questioning and critiquing yourself is another thing. Not having ever been encouraged to do so by family it was nice to do that to each other. It is definitely something I would not have done as well by myself or with someone who can’t easily relate to the context that I come from.’


Is there something you would like to share?


Venuri Perera: I would like to share the book No Archive Will Restore You by Julietta Singh. It’s a book that everyone should read! She has also written Unthinking Mastery: dehumanism and decolonial entanglements, in which she has an interesting critique on Fanon and Gandhi. In No Archive Will Restore You she writes very personally and beautifully about the body as an archive. It is super inspiring, and still in the ‘back room’ - I don’t know how it is affecting my work yet.


Zwoisy Mears-Clarke:  I would recommend Gids Slavernijverleden Amsterdam/Slavery Heritage Guide by Dienke Hondius, Dineke Stam, Jennifer Tosch, Nancy Jouwe, Annemarie de Wildt. It is available in both Dutch and English. The people that wrote it also do a black heritage tour around Amsterdam. I went on it when I was in residency at Veem in 2016 as a part of my research, I can recommend that too!