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“Nurturing the Space That We’re In Together:” An Interview with Artist Pelenakeke Brown

Pelenakeke Brown’s art practice explores the body as an archive, examining Indigenous identity’s relationship to disabled identity and crip concepts of time. Pelenakeke was a Laundromat Project Create Change Fellow in 2018, and in the summer of 2019 was the recipient of an annual artist residency at Denniston Hill for Laundromat Project alumni, a partnership facilitated by the two organizations in 2017. In anticipation of a collaborative event on December 4 featuring Pelenakeke Brown and Yo-Yo Lin, organized in partnership with Denniston Hill and Eyebeam, The LP Media & Storytelling Manager Emma Colón spoke with Pelenakeke about medical records as storytelling, intersectional identity, and being a good neighbor. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Emma Colón (EC): Could you talk a bit about your personal art practice and what you’re focusing on right now?

Pelenakeke Brown (PB): My art practice is interdisciplinary—I work across drawing, writing, and performing. My work is grounded in one concept, which is the Samoan concept of the vā, which explores space and spatial relationships. I’m always looking at how we relate to each other, how people are navigating their bodies in space, and then how we nurture the space that we’re in together. That’s the grounding principal of my work. [For more on the vā, see Albert Wendt, Rosanna Raymond, Raymond Sagapolutele, Grace Teuila Taylor, or Albert Refiti.]

Excavātion: an archival process, performance still, Gibney, 2019. Photo credit: Arielle Knight 

PB: This year, I’ve been looking at my medical files, which I requested from the New Zealand health system. I was born with—or have always had, ever since I can remember—cerebral palsy, which affects the right side of my body. [Cerebral palsy] is kind of an umbrella term for disabilities that happen before, at birth, or just after, due to brain damage, and can affect mobility and sometimes speech, with each person affected differently and to varying levels. I wanted to get my medical file because I didn’t know anything about my medical history, even though I’d grown up knowing that I’m disabled and was really used to growing up in hospitals.

So I got my file and found out all this information, like that my mum was undocumented for the first three years of my life—there were all these letters [in the file] from doctors to lawyers. She had a really hard time navigating the medical industry, so I wasn’t diagnosed until I was eighteen months old. She had three or four different trips to the doctor to try to tell them [about my disability], but they weren’t really listening. I’ve been thinking about her experience navigating the system as an immigrant to New Zealand from Samoa, with her lack of English and being a woman of color, which I think heavily impacted the support she was offered, and this is important because it is a common occurrence for our POC communities navigating the medical industry.

I also learned a lot about interpersonal relationships in the file—there were all these letters that used heavy medical language, but then they’d include a really insightful note about an interaction between me and my dad, something like that.

So the medical file turned into this storytelling product, a really important source of material for me to understand all this life history that is political, but also very personal for me and my family. I’m interested in how the medical file can be an archive, or how these fragments of letters and notes from doctors turned into this historical record. I’m also thinking about who got to record the knowledge—all of the letters were about my mum (and myself), but not in her voice.

So looking at all of this, I started to make work. I made audio scores and created movement to them, and eventually began to look at how the medical file can be a source for choreography. I also made blackout poems from my medical archives, where I’d black out [selective] text and what remained became a new text. One day I thought, “What if I only choose to keep words that could also be [interpreted as] dance terms?” So they’re both medical and dance terms. That’s how a lot of the poems became choreographic scores.

she assists, black out poem, scanned, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

PB: I also like to think about where the intersections are in my work. There’s the medical file and dance, but there are also crossovers between disability identity and Oceanic concepts. I’m always trying to straddle multiple things because I am disabled. I am from New Zealand, but Indigenous—my mother is indigenous to Samoa. So I like thinking about all those intersections, because a lot of POC spaces are not really thinking about disability, and a lot of disability spaces are not thinking about POC.

EC: How did you make the decision to apply for the Create Change Fellowship, and what kind of work did you end up doing within the program? How do you see that work relating to your personal art practice, or not?

PB: I was really excited to apply for Create Change because I’d been thinking about what it means to be an immigrant. What is that identity, what does “immigrant” mean? I know that my family wouldn’t necessarily think of me as an immigrant to the United States, because I have Pakeha ancestry—half my family is white. And I think it’s only certain people that get called immigrants—in New Zealand I think we would call ourselves ex-pats, which I think [implies] a lot of privilege.

So I’d just gotten a visa to stay in the states for another three years, and I was thinking about this identity, what it means to be an immigrant and to live in New York City, to live in a neighborhood. At that time I was living with two other Samoan women, we were kind of carving out this space for ourselves in Washington Heights, and I really just wanted to be more part of my community. That’s one reason I applied for Create Change, and also because [The LP] is a non-profit that works for artists of color, with artists of color. That was great for me. I felt like The LP was a good model for making work in community. 

Keke Brown facilitates community drawing at Harlem Create Change Fellowship project activation, 2018. Photo: Osjua A. Newton

EC: Do you see the work that you did in the fellowship as relating to the work you’re doing in your personal practice? Do you feel like they informed each other? 

PB: I came into the Create Change program really wanting to learn, and having done a few socially engaged projects. I’d sort of started doing work in community, but I felt like I needed a few more skills. And also because I am an immigrant to the United States, I wanted to investigate more about what it means to be a good neighbor. I think that relates to my practice because my practice has become quite collaborative. It’s always rooted to my personal experience and thinking about those intersections, but I’ve been collaborating with a lot of people. This year, I’ve been facilitating movement workshops for disabled or chronically ill people with Yo-Yo Lin and other collaborators, and I see the Create Change fellowship as part of that.

Another hat that I wear is as Assistant Director at Culture Push. We work with a lot of artists who are doing socially engaged projects, and I always say to them, “Do you know the community that you’re working with?” I think a lot of the lessons that I learned from Create Change I take with me into that work, when I’m talking with our fellows about how they can make their projects happen. I would definitely say that The LP experience is a part of my practice, and part of the way that I’m supporting other artists or trying to collaborate with other artists.

Excavation, Open House at Denniston Hill, 2018. Photo credit: Vladimir Radojicic 

EC: How did you experience your time at the Denniston Hill residency in relation to your experience with The LP, in terms of the focus of your work and the focus of the organizations? Did you feel a through-line at all?

PB: Yeah, I think Denniston Hill and The LP are really special because they were started by POC. I think The LP Create Change Fellowship is more structured, and Denniston Hill is special because they support you by giving you time and space. The residency was really helpful for me because I had been working nonstop up until it started, and it really gave me time to slow down and read all the things I wanted to read, and go deeper with this project. I like that the two organizations support a wide range [of people]—not everyone in the [Create Change] Fellowship is an artist, and similarly with Denniston Hill, there are curators, academics, artists, and so on. I really like that kind of cross conversation.

EC: What are some upcoming projects for you? Things that you’re excited about? Things you have brewing? 

PB: What I’m really excited about is releasing some of the poems I made while I was up at Denniston Hill, and the collaboration with Yo-Yo. And next year I’m going to be a resident at Eyebeam, so I’m really excited about that. They’re great at giving you time and space to really delve, so I’m looking forward to having a break from thinking about the future and applying to things, to just focus on making work. My project [at Eyebeam] is about the intersection of technology, oceanic concepts of space and time, disabled concepts of time, and ancestral knowledge seen in Samoan women’s tatau, or tattoos. 

EC: Thank you so much.

PB: Thank you.

Image description: Pelenakeke stands head tilted at an angle looking directly to the camera wearing a gingham halter neck with her hair braided over one shoulder. 

Pelenakeke Brown is an interdisciplinary, afakasi Samoan, disabled, immigrant artist from Aotearoa (New Zealand). In 2019, Brown received a Dance/NYC’s Disability. Dance. Artistry. Residency and was selected as curator for the Artists of Color Council Movement Research at the Judson Church Spring season. She is an alum of the NYFA Immigrant Artist Program and The Laundromat Project. She has attended residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Denniston Hill, and Ana Pekapeka Studio, as well as exhibited works in San Francisco, New York, London, and Auckland. Brown’s non-fiction work is published in The James Franco Review, the Hawai‘i Review, Apogee Journal, and Movement Research Performance Journal. She has created projects with Movement Research, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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