WOMEN OF THE ISLANDS - SHAKAIAH PEREZ
MULTI DIMENSIONAL ARTIST
My name is Shakaiah Perez and I am a multi disciplinary artist of Afro Polynesian descent originally from Whanganui but raised in West Auckland. My work as an artist includes visual arts such as videography and photography which is layered with movement, performance and poetry.
On my mother’s side I am Māori, Tahitian and Marquesan and on my father’s side I am Samoan, Tokelauan, Cape Verdean and Afro Portuguese. My heritage has a major influence on my work as an artist with hopes to encourage and inspire other people of colour by sharing our stories and re-writing the narrative that western society has written about us.
You recently had your multi-sensory artwork "Exotic Savage: The Decolonisation" commissioned by the Royal Academy of Arts in the Cosmic Ocean exhibition. Can you tell us about that experience?
Capturing people as their most genuine self is something that is important in my work as an artist, so when the opportunity arose I knew I needed to head home and share the stories of people from our Pacific community. I wanted to capture people from all walks of life and show the western world that we come in all shapes, sizes, skin tones, hair textures, cultures and lineage but at the end of the day we are the faces of the Pacific and ultimately are our ancestors wildest dreams. It was important for me that everyone had representation from trans activists to lesbian couples to heterosexual couples to Aunty who lives down the road with all her cats to DJ’s, tattooists, sports players, students, social workers and so forth.
Everyday of the process was fun and exciting and the amount of conversations that sparked from this project have created new collaborations, new opportunities and new ways of looking at art. Each and everyone of the people who were filmed brought something new to the table and contributed their thoughts on the idea of being labelled exotic and savage. I was excited to have my work played in the UK, but found it to be an interesting experience being that I wasn't able to be in London at the exhibition and see how others reacted to the project. For me it was important to stay true to my values and tell our stories unapologetically and that whether or not people were offended that it was created for us and by us. Filming, editing, directing and creating the soundtracks and poetry for the film within 3 weeks was a mission in itself but in the end it all paid off.
You created some of the film in the UK - how was that process and was there anything you learned that you were surprised to find out during the making of it?
As I was already living in the UK I really wanted to show the faces of the Pacific who live there but more in particular those who live in London to show that we do exist and are moving mountains for our community. I would have liked to have captured more of our community in the UK but that may just have to be another project of it’s own. I think the biggest thing I learnt from this entire process is that no matter where you are in the world that home is always with you, that you carry your ancestors in your spirit and in your heart and that was something I hoped our Pacific community in London would take from this project when they saw the film. Living in London I was surprised how little the world knew about us except from what they have seen on the movie Moana and their constant affiliation with Dwayne Johnson and rugby. I wanted everyone to know who we are and that we do not all look like Moana, we do not all play or even watch rugby and that we no longer wear grass skirts and live in huts.
Since the exhibition what have you been working on and is there anything you have coming up that we can see?
I am looking forward to building this project and am in the process of planning a viewing of the art film at my upcoming exhibition early next year in Auckland with hopes to take it to other parts of New Zealand, The Pacific and Europe. At this stage the film itself is not available online, but may be available as a resource in the future.
What struggles have you had on your journey as an artist?
I think what a lot of people do not realise is that living full time as an artist in New Zealand is no easy feat. Funding in our country is limited and art galleries, collectives and institutions aren’t necessarily giving out opportunities to just anyone. You really have to believe in your work and believe that you have what it takes to make a difference. Things do not happen overnight It takes time, hard work, perfecting your craft and a lot of networking. I had to realise that not everyone is going to like my work but as long as there was some sort of reaction positive or negative that my job was done.
What were the pathways that led you to where you are now?
All throughout my childhood I was the type of kid who wasn’t afraid to speak my mind as much as it would get me in to trouble. I didn’t want to fit into a box and I was always re-inventing myself and constantly thinking of ways to be different from everybody else. I was known mainly for my work as a dancer which had been my entire life since I was 5 years old. I had this idea that I wanted to be a commercial dancer and choreographer for Beyoncé and then when I returned from the Indigenous Dance Residency in Canada back in 2015 I realised I wanted to create my own art, not under or for anyone else’s success but under my name and for my community. Growing up in Māori schooling I was always surrounded by my culture and constantly inspired by the activism of those who came before us to reclaim what was taken. This was something that became prevalent in my work as an artist which inspired a lot of my poetry and movement. When I came back from London in 2016 I came up with this idea to start a video blog “Travelling Feather” to capture my journey as a woman of colour around the world meeting up with artists of colour to share our stories and inspire the youth. When I returned to London last year other Pacific arts collectives were seeing my work and from there opportunity after opportunity came. I am very grateful for all the support people have given me over the years to develop and craft my art form to what it is today and I am very excited to continue this artistic growth.
How has your upbringing & culture shaped you into the woman you are today?
Being multi-racial growing up in New Zealand was difficult as I always felt like I was never enough to be Samoan because I spoke Māori, never enough to be Māori because of the shape of my nose and the texture of my hair and not black enough to be Cape Verdean. Everything about my image made me constantly feel like an outcast and that no matter how much I loved my culture that I would still be questioned by everyone especially my own. Having the loving parents that I have who are also multi-racial led me to realise that I was enough and if people didn’t like it too bad. My parents always raised me to be unapologetic and confident in who I was whether I was accepted by society or not, because at the end of the day being yourself is much more fun than being a follower. In my household I was constantly surrounded by music from the Pacific and Afrika whether it was playing on a CD or my dad was singing it with his guitar. Although I may not speak all my Pacific tongues my parents made sure I knew who I was and where I came from, but I guess that was an interest I always had as a child.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration and why?
So many people ask me this question all the time and my answer is always the same. My parents are hands down my biggest inspiration not only because they are my parents, but because of the many sacrifices they made for not only me but also my brother, sisters and the rest of our extended family. Ever since I was little my parents pushed me to be the best at whatever I chose to do whether it was dance, music, art or sports. I aspire to have the love that they have for each other and us kids one day and to always go over and beyond what society expects of me in honour of my parents. I love you Mum and Dad.