In One the Bear, “Teddy” is an insult traded between two bears, One (Candy Bowers) and Ursula (Nancy Denis), to imply the other is an ineffectual ally and sell-out to the cause. Stripped of its fierce, carnivorous connotations, the “Teddy Bear” also derives its affectionate moniker from the first US president, Theodore Roosevelt, who invited prominent African-American activist Booker T Washington to dine with him in the White House, an act that attracted a strident backlash from the segregated South, but nevertheless planted a seed for further momentum in the African-American civil rights movement.

Commitment to portraying the lived experience of those fighting for social inclusion defines the work of the genre-busting Black Honey Company, whose members hail from African, Asian and Polynesian diasporas. Known for its award-winning feminist circus burlesque, the company now aims to play to a younger crowd, without holding back its political punches. Written entirely in verse, One the Bear follows the Icarus-like rise and fall of One who shares her aspiration to reveal the plight of bears with her close pal, Ursula.

Nancy Denis, One the Bear, Black Honey Company, Campbelltown Arts Centre, photo Heidrun Löhr

Both are dumpster-diving bears who spend their days avoiding being captured and harvested for their bile, a reference to a brutal traditional East-Asian medical practice. In this case, bear bile is proxy for the cultural essence the bears desperately try to protect from appropriation. One and Ursula also chase escapist highs in the shape of neon glow-sticks — Kryptonite-like hallucinogenics that simultaneously numb their willpower and fan faraway visions of transcending their situation. Meanwhile, they keep the munchies at bay, snacking from cereal boxes labelled “Captain Cookies” and “Columbus Crunch,” some of many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them postcolonial jabs.

Amid the gloom, One and Ursula find themselves in many a mirthful state, including a vivid demonstration of the consequences of over-indulgence by way of purging bright Silly String from every bear orifice imaginable.

The pair become skilled at fending off various sinister forces of domination — the bear protection authorities and the wily ethnographer-journalists threatening to extract their essence graphically. One, harbouring ambitions to transcend her situation, displays her aptitude for delivering her message in song and dance. Her wish is granted in a chance encounter with a hunter/talent scout — One spits out her empowerment anthem, “Growl with Me,” putting her on the fast track to mainstream exposure, which turns out to be nothing more than a tokenistic lure to cast wider attention on the plight of the bear community.

One the Bear, Black Honey Company, Campbelltown Arts Centre, photo Document Photography

Nancy Denis’ zany versatility is well used beyond her role as One’s more grounded sidekick. She juggles a cavalcade of characters that simultaneously question, provoke, echo and bamboozle One to great comic effect, including nosy journalists, bear hunters and other exploitative characters. As talent scout and eventual manager, Denis plays the enabler to One’s own transformation from raw street talent into celebrity community spokesbear, and eventually into a disturbing slick and passionless pop puppet. Sporting a Groucho Marx nose and other cosmetic enhancements in the final act, One goes through the motions.

Throughout, hip hop artist, sibling and collaborator DJ Kim Busty Beatz Bowers provides infectious tunes and chest-thumping verses, with “All That Fame” and “Furry pride” notable offerings alongside “Growl for me” in One the bear’s cautionary tale.

The penultimate scene which reveals One’s status as expendable celebrity jolts us into accepting the logical yet unthinkable result of the Faustian deal that has been negotiated. A bear staring down the barrel of a loaded gun cuts close to the bone.

Candy Bowers, Nancy Denis, One the Bear, Black Honey Company and Campbelltown Arts Centre, photo Heidrun Löhr

Installation artist Jason Wing has created a dynamic space, populating the stage with urban paraphernalia, garbage skips and rocks, all bearing sacred markings that blend with optikal bloc’s digitally generated constellations of stardust to complement our heroine’s journey to pink-and-green glory. The characters are dressed by Melbourne’s Sarah Seahorse whose neon-augmented urban activewear hammers home the hyper-consumerist explosion.

Pitched as a “fairytale for the hiphop generation,” One the Bear is aimed at but does not talk down to younger audiences. In 2016, Bowers connected with high school students through workshops held at schools around southwest Sydney to build local interest for this quirky partnership between Brisbane’s La Boite and Campbelltown Arts Centre.

If this ambitious hour-long production occasionally feels crowded, it will doubtless refine with time. One the Bear is a stunning gathering of artistic talents and a timely allegorical warning about cultural commodification and its oppressive narratives. And Bowers and Denis’ skilful, iconic buffoonery excites hope for life beyond this production for the artists’ bear alter-egos.

One the Bear will play at Brisbane’s La Boite, 10-21 October.

La Boite Theatre Company & Campbelltown Arts Centre, Black Honey Company, One The Bear, writer, concept Candy Bowers, performers Candy Bowers, Nancy Denis, design, composition Kim Busty Beats Bowers, dramaturgs, Claire Christian, Sista Zai Zanda, directorial eye Susie Dee, video design optical bloc, production design Jason Wing, costume design Sarah Seahorse, lighting design Daniel Anderson; Campbelltown Arts Centre, 26 May-3 June 2017

Top image credit: Candy Bowers, One the Bear, Black Honey Company, Campbelltown Arts Centre, photo Document Photography

Like much of the work in the Video oediV exhibition Kawita Vatanajyankur’s rewards careful viewing. The vivid digital colour spectrum alone is a workout for the eyes. Acid yellow, dazzling orange, brilliant pink or bright sky blue remind us of the synthetic colours of plastics—or Thai silk. Against each vivid backdrop we observe the artist’s slender body—dark hair pulled back from her face, a slash of bright red lipstick against pale skin—performing one of a number of challenging, often desultory tasks. All in a day’s work for Vatanajyankur includes the following:

  1. While suspended from a rope, balancing a large circular basket on each arm, catch as many grains as you can of two endless streams of rice pouring from above (The Scale 2, 2015)
  2. Hurl yourself soggy from a variety of angles into a plastic laundry basket (The Basket, 2014)
  3. Hold your mouth open and allow water to be funnelled into it (Poured, 2014)
  4. Allow your head to be repeatedly dipped into a plastic bucket as if your body were a mop (Soaked, 2013)
  5. Become a pole for carrying baskets of bananas (The Carrying Pole, 2015)
  6. Repeat

The Scale 2, 2015 – Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

To accomplish each of these tasks, Vatanajyankur’s body blends with the tool it mimics. In the sixth and definitely one of the more disturbing tasks the artist has set herself (The Ice Shaver, 2013), we observe her face-down in a solid brick of ice, using her nose, lips and chin to move it like some cruelly designed mandolin. Watch for a while and you’ll feel your own lips freeze.

On first viewing The Basket, you’ll note the artist’s deft landing but stay a while to watch the subtle grimaces on the face of the older woman in hair curlers who’s holding the receptacle and with her, feel the weight of that body.

The question as to who might be responsible for all the off-stage hurling and the dipping and the pouring remains unanswered. More important is the sense of cumulative audience discomfort generated by the subtle modus operandi of this Thai-Australian artist who graduated from RMIT in 2011 and who has exhibited widely across Australia as well as Asia and Europe. Last year, she was a finalist in the Jaguar Asia Tech Art Prize in Taipei and curated into the prestigious Thailand Eye exhibition at Saatchi Gallery, London. Her focus is on creating “works that examine the psychological, social and cultural ways of viewing and valuing the continuing challenges of women’s everyday labour…. undertaking physical experiments that playfully, often painfully, test her own body’s limits.” (Artist’s website)

As well as the often-observed juxtaposition between its seductively glamorous surfaces and the gruelling experience of this work, is the contradiction inherent in its creation—the contrast between gothically exaggerated domestic tasks and the “meditation postures,” as she calls them, which Vatanajyankur adopts to enact them. These “acts of extreme physical endurance,” the artist says, “offer a way to free herself from her mind: a mechanism to lose her sense of being. This deliberate objectification,” she says, “turns her body into sculpture.”

Kawita Vatanajyankur, The Ice Shaver, 2013, from Tools – Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

Kawita Vatanajyankur’s work can also be seen at Stills Gallery, which represents her, in Sydney until 13 February. She has posted other work, The Robes and The Dustpan, in Vimeo.

Campbelltown Arts Centre, Video oediV, curator Megan Monte, 16 Jan-20 March

Top image credit: Kawita Vatanajyankur, Poured, 2014 – Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

3 February 2016