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Norah Lea: Exercising Performance in Art

'In Love' by Norah Lea is an important showcase, which quite possibly normalises transgender identity through a series of self-portraits created with her collaborator Nicolas Ow. The exhibition was art directed by Diva Agar. On our record, this is one of the best shows accomplished in 2018.
Norah Lea: Exercising Performance in Art

by SAND Magazine

December 31, 2018

NORAH LEA, In Love, 2017

This interview journals Norah Lea's artistic perspectives post-exhibition, providing insights into how In Love has continued to influence her other works such as the recently showcased 'Mother & Son' at Hatch Art Project, Singapore. 

Looking back now, did your exhibition, In Love, inform your self portraiture, Mother & Son, at Hatch Art Project?

In Love was done back in 2017 and the portrait work I did for Mother & Son had its genesis a couple of months after we wrapped up the first permutation of the exhibition. Having to revisit the work in 2018 and a space dedicated to only In Love was a really daunting experience. I had to be conscious in utilising the space properly so that every corner of the room—light, smell or sound—could extend the storytelling I've done with the photographs and letters in 2017.

one-half of Mother & Son (2018), Norah Lea

With Mother & Son, it's a lot more straight forward as it was posited amongst other works that were also queer-themed. I would say the solo exhibition at Coda Culture consciously informed me about how I could activate spaces in response to In Love. Even though Mother & Son referenced existing (Catholic) religious imagery, the main conversation my collaborator Vimal Kumar and I were interested in was seeing the similarities within our own respective cultural and spiritual practices and how differently we view representative images of divinity. We invited Arin Alycia Fong, an up and coming writer and a dear friend, to share her short story ‘Madonna of The Pomegranate’ as part of our activation of the space. This was a really enlightening conversation to have because, within my own upbringing as a Malay person who was raised within the Islamic faith, images of representation are rather aniconic, subtle and/or hidden in plain sight.

In Love at Coda Culture, 2018, Image: Munn Iskandar

Both In Love and Mother & Son are completely separate bodies of works not only in terms of subject exploration, but also the use of aesthetic tools. I was always told among my peers that my aesthetic was the “no aesthetic” and with Mother & Son, I really wanted the grandeur of religious paintings which was why Vimal was roped in to employ his painting skills.

How else has In Love continued to form your perspectives as an individual and artist?

To be completely honest, In Love really changed my entire life. Prior to working on it, I had doubts about my own gender identity and the entire process of In Love really affirmed it. I wasn’t called Norah before In Love. I created Norah during the project and I realised after the process that she is very much the woman that I feel inside me.

In Love taught me about how I can perform specific dimensions of my own identity in front of the camera and still, there is never full autonomy.
How the viewer consumes your image and what they make of your self-representation and the narratives you present will never 100% align with your original intentions.
It has also sort of thrown me into this conversation on how we perform vulnerability, or rather vulnerability as a form of currency – a lot of people entered the show at Coda Culture and came out feeling like they should also share a story of theirs with me.

As an artist, do you believe that discussions can lead to dilution of works? Were there any situations where you found discussions limiting and unproductive?

I’m still very new to art... a baby, if you please. I’m still very iffy about my own experience and place as an artist and how to go about it because I've only had one year of interacting within the sphere of exhibitions. Coming from film school, one of my favourite things were the debates we had right after film screenings. Would I say it’s pointless? Sometimes. The movie’s already out, the script is eternal, the cast and crew have already been paid. Sometimes the theories that we present can really be far flung but most times talking about a certain work really shows how much effort we perceive has been done within a scene.

NORAH LEA, In Love, 2017
Talking about a work can really give more insight and I almost feel that most times it’s necessary, especially in a world that is super saturated with images. Two similar images in terms of content might have different styles. Two similar images in style might have different content.
But really though, sometimes it feels more like, here’s an image of a big tree near my house and it looks really good during sunset – period. I guess it’s really a matter of how differently we all consume images and often, the need for discussion is only there if there are questions brought about in the first place.

Based on your experience, how does performance art help to emphasise a message, and allow one to come to terms with human and body politics given the cultural differences that exist across different societies and places in the world?

In one of her many interviews with Biesenbach, Marina Abramovic talks about the importance of shame. She said “to do things with your shame, or say things that you’re ashamed of or to expose yourself in a shameless way, it’s like opening yourself to the audience”

I read this quote in one of the many biographies about Ms. Abramovic available in my school library and it struck such a chord within me. I think initially I didn’t consider myself as much of a performance artist (maybe I still don’t) but I was a little aware of the performative nature of my works.
For me, it made sense to look into performance art because it was an extension of how I “perform” my identity. The first project I ever did as a photography major was to document myself doing a mandi bunga (floral shower ritual).
The quote about shame resonated with me because for a long time I was ashamed of who I was, where I came from and what I can possibly become. Through my photographs, I was able to own that shame. People could no longer shame me if I allowed the same shame to empower me.

The dynamics of performing in front of the camera and performing within a live space are completely different. In the former, I get to bask in the comfort of a studio, like getting to make my skin prettier on screen. I also get to employ angles that will help me “pass”. Within a live space, you get to see all my pores. You see me sweat. You can smell me. You can hear my voice and “clock” that I was assigned male at birth.

I did my first performance ever at the Power Up! Pop Up Art Market at Pasir Panjang Power Station organised by The Local People back in August 2018. I really just wanted to try durational performance and interactive performance all at one go. I set up a transformative ritual set-up inspired hugely by Zarina Muhammad, sat in a spot for hours like Marina Abramovic and allowed people to transform me into who they think “Norah Lea” was with makeup and grooming tools.

After every mark has been made, the team that was exhibiting with me would take a polaroid of the transformation. People started drawing whiskers on me, cutting up my real hair before putting a wig on me... One person even cut a sleeve of my dress. White people drew henna-inspired motifs on me and honest to God that was my "Wow I’m really allowing myself to be a human zoo" moment. The most heart-warming thing that happened was when someone decided to cover up my exposed nipple, wiped off the feline facade other people painted on me, then offered me a hug. After the performance, my leg was numb and I slept the entire afternoon the next day.

I don’t think I can say much about how performance art can help emphasise other people’s practices because performance art can be anything and for everything. It is argued that there is no other art practice that has such a boundless manifesto as performance.

NORAH LEA, In Love, 2017
Each performer makes their own definition in their process and manner of execution. Within my own practice, it’s really necessary in the sense that I must occupy the space in flesh, unlike that in a photograph.
You will see me and it is up to you whether you would like for us to confront each other and negotiate how we can share a space despite the differences we have. But I’m also learning that the human intervention element of performance can come in a lot of different ways – even Arin Alycia Fong reading her short story in front of my Mother & Son portraits while Vimal Kumar and I pluck rose petals into a yoni form can be a performance in the sense that we are involving the audience’s gaze to purposefully pay attention to women and queer bodies without having to necessarily directly interact with them.

Criticism seems to be an unsurprising element in your life, whether as an individual or artist criticising or as someone who has been criticised. How do criticism on both fronts impact or affect your work?

First of all, not at all “unsurprising”! That’s just life, no? I wouldn’t go as far to call it “criticism” but maybe conversation. Not that criticism is negative in any way!

I went to Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film & Media Studies and it was a highly competitive and stimulating environment. Criticism was very much ingrained in all of us there in the sense that change was always the constant. You better have something good to say or you are better off silent because time was precious. I was silent. I did not really know what I wanted back in my formative year and as a result, I was in one way or another, pushed around. However, I was always open to criticism and more than anything, I have always wanted to improve myself.

I think choosing to stay silent back then made me feel the need to speak up later on… creating conversations! I got very involved with online social justice movements or for the lack of a better word, hashtag activism. I realised I was becoming unhappy with the way things were, with what I perceived to be erasure and wanted to empower people like myself.
During my National Service, I picked up a film camera for the first time and worked on a personal project called 'Brown Is Beautiful' in which I wanted to photograph people who did not fall into the Eurocentric and Sinocentric beauty ideals in Singapore. This would later on result in #SingapuraBeauty in 2016.
That same year, I also partnered up with affiliates of The Local Rebel and created the hashtag, #EidsTheTakeOver in response to Zalora’s white-washing of the baju kurung. The hashtag was so overwhelmingly received! I think that was my breakthrough into the concept of identity politics and self-representation. In that sense, dabbling in online activism sort of laid the foundations of critique, or rather, conversation, within my own work.

To answer your question about how external criticisms feed my work, they very much do. Often, I want the power to be completely in my viewer’s court. They should feel like they have complete power over my own image. Growing up, I saw a lot of images that felt like they could never belong to me. I would not want that for my viewers. My viewers are very much a part of the image making process I do as well. With In Love especially, the work interacted with all of my close friends and even strangers at the basement of my school.
I would ask them to construct their own meaning with the images before incorporating their projected meanings so that way the project can belong to everyone.
When setting up a piece of work or an exhibition, what are the most crucial qualities you look for in potential collaborators?

I guess it truly depends on what I feel like that month. When I started In Love, I was sick and tired of the heteronormative agenda in college especially during the period of Valentine’s Day. How would I subvert that in a project that critiques heteronormative notions of romance? Get a collaborator who looks like someone who would benefit from that agenda. That being said, Nicolas, my collaborator for In Love is a complete sweetheart for even being agreeable to the project. He truly went above and beyond for the project and he really has a special place in my heart not only in terms of artistic collaboration, but as a wholesome person and a friend that I got to experience within this lifetime.

After Nicolas, I collaborated with Vimal Kumar, Diva Agar and Zulkhairi Zulkiflee very closely throughout different works and exhibitions. Both Vimal and Diva are amazing in terms of technical execution. Zulkhairi constantly challenges me to think out of the box. I've also had the opportunity to work together with Zarina Muhammad, whose legacy within her years of work one cannot deny. I see her as a mother figure! I think with these collaborators there were intersections within our different practices that were necessary.

In Love at Coda Culture, 2018, Image: Munn Iskandar
Kinship is also a very important factor to me. I will only collaborate with somebody if I feel deeply for their own explorations and the conversations that they seek within their work.
That being said, I am also absolutely drawn to artists whose works, explorations and choice of medium are not in line with my works at all. The dream is to collaborate with Ryan Ben Lee and Tristan Lim really closely someday and see what can arise out of our differing practices!

Coming from your accomplishments in 2018, how will you expand on your areas of interest in the next year? Are there new themes that you’re already thinking of?

I’m in my final semester of my undergraduate studies for the first half of 2019. I don’t wish to spoil my final year project for anyone, so everyone’s just gonna have to come to NTU’s School of Art, Design and Media’s 2019 Grad Show to see what’s up.

Truth be told, 2018 was my lucky year and the works I showed this year were works driven by sentiments I had time to meditate on way before heading into art school. Even my final year project was conceived back in 2015. I really haven’t thought of what exactly I might do in 2019 but I do know that I would like to get married to a filmmaker husband in 2020 – I’m half-kidding.

In 2019, I really do hope to return the kindness people have sent my way this year by making and holding space for younger people that I see myself in. Vimal and I have also been playing around with the idea of compiling queer resources into our mother tongues as a love letter to the older generation that often see queerness as an import of the West.
If I may end this interview with a note, or a message of some sort, I really hope that independent news outlets, media and art platforms will push for representation for non-binary individuals next year.
As much as I identify myself within femininity, visibility of non-binary individuals can really facilitate conversations of gender beyond what is in between our legs and the clothes we wear. A lot of people going through gender dysphoria will not have to feel so lonely in knowing that their own gender expression is valid.

Emotions and action will no longer need to feel gendered if the norm is no gender and all genders. Degendering would also mean to decolonise binary notions of gender that have erased thousands of years of indigenous traditions that have acknowledged beyond just the male and the female. And what better year to decolonise than 200 year later after Raffles has landed. Now that’s what I call a bye centennial!

Norah Lea (b. 1993, Singapore) is a multidisciplinary artist whose works investigate the performative aspects of our identities. Her work is rooted in self-portraiture, exploring themes such as gender, sexuality and ethnicity through photography, film, performance and spoken word.

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