Zavé Martohardjono

I make work using transcultural practices. My work is queer not just because I am queer and trans or because I draw from queer iconography and dance. Crossing multiple boundaries is queer. Making work that shapeshifts and rests in liminal spaces is queer. Resisting neo-colonial categorization is queer. In the political climate of 2017, a transcultural queer practice also serves as resistance to the nationalist tactics of alt-right extremism.

I am a mixed-race, genderqueer, and Southeast Asian. My Asian-ness and Indonesian-ness is seldom legible to others and my gender expression is slippery – it threatens binary gender boundaries and legal definitions of gender. So I address shapeshifting and liminality frequently in my work. Having grown up in the West and disconnected from Indonesia, I connect with the country through its performing arts legacies as well as the mythologies I grew up with from there.  

UNTITLED (BALINESE DANCE STUDY) is a solo made in 2016. The piece blends Balinese dance vocabulary and queer House and Ball gesture, with consideration to histories of appropriation in iconography.

This piece was inspired by a night at the Latex Ball in NYC. In one competition, a woman came out in a Thai costume and walked the runway to the adoration of the crowd. My heart stopped. She was beautiful, dripping in gold. And as one of the only Southeast Asians in the crowd – as far as I could tell – I also felt tense. Colonialism and orientalism has enabled Southeast Asian iconography and aesthetics to be consumed through the ages, stripped of historical meaning, repackaged and equated with symbolism that has nothing to do with the communities and traditions they come from. And the monolith of white gay culture and pop consumption of queerness has similarly erased Black and brown queer legacies, repackaging Black queer gesture into symbols and signifiers for “gayness.” Pulled out of the communities it comes from, queer gesture, language, and affect is whitewashed and pop-culture ready for global export.

How do all these gestures read on my mixed-race, trans body? Who do I become and what does the audience experience when I muddle together Balinese gesture and Black queer gesture?

As research, I worked with a Burlesque performance artist, Dame Cuchifrita, who was trained in Balinese dance from childhood. She taught me the basic vocabulary of Balinese dance: male and female stances, footwork, hand and arm positions, and head and eye movement. We talked about gender in Balinese dance and aesthetic parallels between Balinese and House and Ball movement.

While researching Balinese and queer gesture and iconography, I am both outsider and intimate knower. I am community member and tourist all at once. In both, I find a praxis to resist Western hegemony and narrative, decolonize the body, and unravel generations of assimilation that my body has inherited.

I’ve performed UNTITLED (BALINESE DANCE STUDY) a few times in different U.S. cities. The silence and demand for attention in the piece creates immense tension. I make intense eye contact with audience and respond to watchers through gesture and affect. There are many ghosts in this piece. And audience members have told me they don’t know how to respond to the work. There is tension in spectatorship. The usual permission to consume, unthinking and without thought, is not available to viewers.

This tension feels important and political. As white leaders in the U.S. and Europe double up on the definitions of nationhood and double down on persecuting women, immigrants, refugees, trans people, queer people – and so many other border crossers – it’s vital to explore, feel through, call out all that is being erased: the non-binary, the unassimilated, the ancestral, the muddy, the complicated, the liminal, the illegal.