Blog Archives: Hana Bojangles

Birth as Performance Art

I would be lying if I said I was able to think of much else at the moment other than my first two months of motherhood. I am constantly surprised at news that everybody knows unless they’re living under a rock – The Hobbit film is done? And out? Nelson Mandela is still alive? And I would be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking about writing this blog post while feeding my baby, and because there’s only so much writing I can do with one hand, that I decided to use it to do a quick Google search on “Birth as Performance Art.”

The first dozen or so links were for articles about the Brooklyn based artist Marni Kotak who gave birth to her son at a New York City art gallery. Mostly they focused on how radical her choice of location and context was. Apparently she is now turning the raising of her son into a work of art.

Whatever. I’d be interested to hear more about the actual experience. As far as I’m concerned, the interesting thing about giving birth is that it sure as hell feels like performance art, whether intended or not, and it sure as hell doesn’t require an audience to feel so. It’s like cathartic theatre that serves the performer (or performers, there are some acrobatics, subtle interpretations of time, and stylistic quips required of the baby for sure).

I was determined to do very little visualization of what I expected giving birth to be like. This was my way of being open to whatever might happen. For someone who is a bit of a control freak, pregnancy marked the zen-est experience of my life. I like to think that a long episode of uncontrollable vomiting in the first few months had something to do with putting me in my place. After that I just surrendered to whatever my body and the body growing in my body was up to.

When I started to feel my first contractions, I did exactly what my lazy pregnant self would do. Took the couch out onto the back deck and lounged in the sun, had a bath, tried to sleep sitting up, until at about 1am this seemed impossible so I got out of bed and said to myself with the hesitance of someone getting up early to get to work and who would really quite like to sleep in, “alright, let’s do dis.”

On went the short red robe with a dragon embroidered on the back that was my grandfather’s. Out went the wake up call to various sleeping family members and friends throughout the house. And onwards went the experimenting with various positions and sounds while everyone else moved around at a steady and silent pace.

Once I made it out of the bedroom, our living room had been converted into nothing less than a faux Greco roman theatre set. White sheets covering all the furniture. Candles in lanterns. A fire. Oh and a blow up swimming pool and Dolly Parton soundtrack. The stage was set and I subconsciously felt a bit like some kind of combination of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard and Grace Jones and Nina Simone. And also a gladiator. Fear-inducing and oozing with almighty power that is way beyond socially comfortable.

I thought that I might feel self-conscious about being butt naked and totally primal in front of a small and tending audience. But once the show started, I was just a heaving roaring woman with huge breasts and belly in a short red robe with a dragon embroidered on the back and there was no two ways about it.

I embellished in making sound. High, low, loud, loud. I don’t think I made one single breath that wasn’t audible. My legs were exhausted so I tried various ways to support my body. The couch. The dresser. The door. My husband. The bed. I kept moving. Forwards and backwards, side to side, up and down. They don’t call it labour for nothing.

When things really reached the next level, I would start the sounds and then they would just take off on their own. This was the part where I’m pretty sure I blew the microphones on the home video camera. There was no screaming. There was no crying. No swearing. But there were demented gurgling roars.

It was slowly slowly fading from dark to light. I hadn’t made eye contact with another human being for a good 6 hours. I spent the last few with my eyes looking only in the direction of the sea out the window, where the sun was slowly rising and a ferry slowly crossing between the north and south islands. But I only actually SAW the view in my deep subconscious.

At some point I thought I heard my friend say “I’m going to read you a poem now.” She read aloud something about a bat. I was happy for the added touch of avant garde. I only found out later that she had actually drawn a card from a pack of Medicine Cards she had brought. The bat symbolised birth and rebirth. Bats hang upside down like babies getting ready to launch themselves out of the womb. It couldn’t have been better if it was planned.

With one of my final pushes I yelled out “come ooooon baby!” which brought some comic relief to the whole scene. And once she did come shooting on out and on to my chest, the audience that had gathered in a circle around the pool all burst into spontaneous tears of joy. I looked all around at them in a bewildered state that I could never ever pull off convincingly as an actor. Laughing, crying, in total shock as if I’d only just fully realised what I had actually been doing.

My midwife wrote in her records of the birth that immediately afterwards I announced “well, that was easier than I thought!” Clearly I was blathering and drunk on hormones.  I was just so relieved. I had improvised my way through birth, let my body lead the way and rode that magical uninterrupted wave of synchronicity right on through to the beginning of the rest of my life.

 

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A First Attempt at Addressing Culture-Related Discomfort

Bali is one of those places in the world that people are mesmerised with, infatuated with. David Attenborough pretty much summed it up for me in his beautifully retro documentary The Miracle of Bali from 1969. It’s the culture, it’s mysterious, it’s in tact, it’s aesthetic and sensual and it involves so many rituals that you don’t have to understand to appreciate. And if you’re one of those people who have made Bali home, you would have come to love that smell of incense and the familiar offerings that line sidewalks and shop fronts, filled several times a day with flowers and treats for the gods.

I’ve spent a good portion of my life in Bali, and being half Indonesian, I’ve always grappled with defensive feelings about the island being swarmed by tourists and expatriates. I know that the locals depend on both for their economy. I know that the influx of Indonesians from other islands are just as threatening to the Balinese, as Javanese builders for example are seen as more ‘efficient’ employees because they don’t have to take as much time off work to attend customary prayers and ceremonies, of which there are a lot.

 

In the past 30 years I’ve seen Bali go through many transformations. I’ve watched development spread from Kuta down the beach to Seminyak and beyond. I’ve seen it go from the hair braids and beaded tops of the 80s to becoming a hub a extreme hipness with one-off boutiques and cocktail lounges. I’ve seen it completely dead and quiet after the bombings, to becoming busier than ever not long after. And I’ve always loved it. Lots of people do. This is why they come from all over the world to live there, starting NGOs, opening schools, buying real estate, starting artisan businesses, and living the life-style.

But hot damn it makes me cringe when I read about the bohemian expats of Ubud (inland part of the island that has become popular in recent years), their sustainable yoga fashions and righteous seed planting initiatives. When I meet someone overseas who has their own jewelry or clothing business, and then they tell me that they get everything made in Bali, it raises my hackles. And as much as I know that I really can’t generalise, that there really are people doing amazing things from the island, why is my first reaction always one of suspicion?

Balinese locals are  themselves are often the first to complain that it takes some foreign attention to address local issues ranging from agriculture to waste management to infant mortality. And many local artists and designers wouldn’t have had nearly as much exposure nor opportunity if it wasn’t for some overseas investment. And maybe that’s what bothers me. Maybe it’s unsettling to see a culture championed by another culture in a way that seems superficial and self-serving. Maybe it’s also frustrating to feel like Indonesians don’t have the support or infrastructure to do the kinds of things that gain as much international acclaim and attention. It’s also painful to know that a lot of the very problems that are being addressed and ‘solved’ are often times an indirect consequence of a lifetime of tourism cum expatriation. While the solutions were there to begin with. But now they have fancy English words for them – sustainable, permaculture, holistic, organic, fair trade, yogic, free range, biodynamic – and these concepts have become globally trendy, so they’re being given back. The problem bringing the solution, surely there’s a fable to illustrate. Does this make any sense? Probably not, OK I’m done.

 

 

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