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SIFA 2023: An Interview with Joanna Dudley, creator of art installation ‘We Will Slam You With Our Wings’

Artist Joanna Dudley primarily specialises in the medium of performance, singing and music theatre. So it might be somewhat surprising that the 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) is presenting an installation work from her, rather than a full-blown performance.

But if you take a look at We Will Slam You With Our Wings, the performance and performative aspect of it comes through quite clearly. Set to be displayed at the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall Atrium for the entire duration of the festival, this video and sound installation comprises seven hanging screens, depicting an army of young girls aged 8 to 16 each stand in her own frame, in her own regalia and holding her own stance of power.

Championing the right to assert their identity, these women fight for a future that is female, taking autonomy over their own voices and set to create the world afresh, battling the ghosts of misogynists past, and blending opera and videography. Read our interview with Joanna Dudley in full below, as she elaborates more on the inspiration behind the work, her subjects, and her own hopes for the future of women:

Bakchormeeboy: The exhibition riffs off 19th century imperialistic portraits. Was there any specific incident or encounter that inspired you to create this project?

Joanna: Yes, indeed there was. I was in NYC working with William Kentridge on a
blockbuster performance piece called The Head and The Load. It was late 2019
and Trump was in power. I was sitting in my dressing room in the incredible
arts venue- The Park Avenue Armory and feeling oddly uneasy. The Armory, was
originally a 19th gentlemen’s club for the “Blue-Blood Regiment” for WW1,
named due to the large number of members who were part of New York’s
social elite. Their portraits also covered the entire interior of this huge building,
including my dressing room. As I changed every night I was looked down on by
at least 30 sets of eyes from at least 30 military portraits. On mass, the
absurdity of the situation kicked in. The gesturing, the costumes, the pointing
at overly romanticised landscapes soon to be stolen from those originally living
there- we know it well, it was distastefully absurd. It was doubly odd as the
character I was playing was Kaiser Wilhelm, the last German Emperor who
many believe started WW1. In all psychopathic excess I screeched out Kaiser
Wilhelm’s. declaration of war on the world, night after night. The stances of
colonial and military men has been the disquieting norm of our cultural
landscape for a while now. Tearing this apart and creating another narrative
was going to be the job but who would be the strongest people to show this?
The most inspiring people I know in my life- girls.

Bakchormeeboy: You mentioned that this work takes its name from Henry Darger’s ‘We will slam them with our wings’, which depicts a large number of girls who seemed to be engaged in play. How did that piece end up translating into this one, and why the change in pronoun from ‘them’ to ‘you’?

Joanna: Yes indeed, I saw the collages by the outsider artist Henry Darger. His depiction of an army of girls creating a new world for themselves was one of the inspirations for this piece. I found the titles of his works also very interesting. As I was making my own very different work, however, I felt it important to alter the title slightly. I also felt by replacing “them” with “you”, the title became more direct and stronger which suits the story I want to tell.

Bakchormeeboy: What was the process like of finding the subjects for each portrait? Were they children you knew personally, or were they strangers?

Joanna: The performers are the daughters of best friends, long-time colleagues and of my brother. They are normal kids I’ve watched growing up in Sydney, London, NYC and Johannesburg. For many years, each one has astounded me with their own very personal strengths. The theatrical and choreographic material came from the girls themselves and was very much based on their individual personalities.

Bakchormeeboy: In what ways does ‘We will slam you with our wings’ become an ‘operatic’ video installation, and why the choice to adopt such a medium? Is there a specific storyline you envisioned as you crafted this?

Joanna: I was in NY working with William Kentridge again but this time at the Met Opera on the opera Lulu and I was playing Lulu’s alter ego. One day the soprano who played Lulu was working on her death scene. It really took time, like hours of prolonged dying. I thought about that soprano and what an odd job she had. After this production, she would be rehearsing another role with a similar fate, possibly right now as we all stand here together, she is once again dying her operatic death. It occurred to me that this could be a psychologically questionable path for a vibrant woman of today, as wondrous as the music can be.

Opera’s blatant frieze of elaborately destroyed women and stances of colonial and military men has been the disquieting norm of our cultural landscape for a while now. The tragic fates of famous operatic characters such as Dido, Tosca, Madame Butterfly, Salome, Brünnhilde, and Suor Angelica take a turn for the better and the girls conquer all around them, making the stances of power very much their own.

Bakchormeeboy: The vision of feminism presented in this work is one that is about reclaiming power and conquering misogynists through war and violence. Do you think that there are times when physical violence and revolution is necessary to enact change, especially in a more ‘sensitive’ world where a large number of people would still condemn protestors and activists if they resort to such tactics?

Joanna: Actually, this is interesting to discuss as I disagree with you. The vision of feminism in this work is actually about finding power in a peaceful way and the girls find their power through their own peaceful means. While clutching onto branches from trees like objects of power or even weapons, they shout who they are and what they are proud of. The ending takes them out of their overly romantic 19th century interiors and painterly depiction of nature and outside in front of their own real tree in their own country- a symbol of the power of their own identity, strength and wisdom. The girls override the one adult character in the installation played by me with their own powerful and new language, not one with its roots in war, violence, old patriarchal structures or aesthetics.

Yes, I believe in some cases revolution is absolutely necessary as there is at times, no other option. Many revolutions have led to crucial changes in history. Just look at what the girls and women in Iran have been driven to. Their anger needs to be expressed, as there doesn’t seem to be any other option and let’s face it, they have not been the violent ones in this revolution.

I do believe it is most powerful when physical violence is not the weapon used, as again we are falling back on old patriarchal patterns of behaviour. Unfortunately, though, this has not always been possible.

Bakchormeeboy: What changes do you envision for the future world for when these girls in the work grow up? What are some of the most immediate changes you hope to see in either attitudes or policies for women?

Joanna: Gosh, here we go: Unquestioned rights to women for their own reproductive choice, equal access to education, equal pay, more funding and power given to women to run their own businesses in developing countries, minimum 50/50 representation of women on any body of power, also essential that women are involved in the top levels when it comes to town planning and design- I do believe we are shaped by the environments we live in and at the moment many of them are unsafe for women and girls and last but not least- proper attention, education and support given to the areas of menstruation and the medical conditions around this and that tampons and pads are given free of charge to all girls and women whether insured or not.

Bakchormeeboy: How do you think this work ties in with the festival’s overarching theme of ‘Some People’?

Joanna: This theme is such a beautiful one and I do believe this work fits in perfectly. In We will slam you with our wings, one can feel a connection with each very different character in the installation. It’s humorous and beautiful and this helps in telling what I believe is an important story. This is a piece I believe everyone will enjoy. As Natalie Hennedige explained, she and her co-curators invite audiences to come together, and find new ways of relating to other people through art, opening their hearts to each other’s perspectives. As a performer it has always been important for me to connect with people on an emotional level, once the heart is open then empathy kicks in and that is where real change on a lasting level can happen. I can’t wait. I also can’t wait to meet the local girls from Singapore that I will be working with to create the performances accompanying the installation.

Photo Credit: Joanna Dudley

We will slam you with our wings runs at the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall Atrium from 19th May to 4th June 2023. More details available here

The 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 19th May to 4th June 2023. Tickets and full details of programme available here

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