Amrita Hepi is a multidisciplinary artist who focuses on the body in dance and choreography. She uses video, installation, live performance and gallery spaces to examine social practice, histories and hybridity, especially in a colonial context. A First Nations woman from Bundjalung (Australia) and Ngāpuhi (New Zealand) territories, she has won many awards, residencies and commissions throughout Australia. Her recent installation A Call to Echo, in the Children’s Gallery at the new Shepparton Art Museum, reminds us that “dancing is like an echo”.
Hepi chose to speak about American philosopher and conceptual artist Adrian Piper’s short video Funk Lessons (1983). Hepi has previously exhibited homages to Piper’s work, including The Ropes: Amrita Hepi x Adrian Piper, and Cass (2020), at one point called my this being, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
The wonderful Adrian Piper… Like you, she traverses disciplines and spaces. How did you come across this work?
I really love her work, her premise, her dedication. I admire her commitment to performance and striking that balance between the incredibly simple and also very complex. Yeah: I think she’s a genius.
In 2018 I had a show called The Ropes at a gallery called Cement Fondu, and I had a video work in it called The Pace. And I was showing alongside her. I’d first become familiar with her work in 2017, but when I was living in New York I’d read and seen some excerpts from Funk Lessons. When the show came up they were like, “You’ll be showing alongside Adrian Piper”, and I was thrilled. What a person to rub shoulders with, even if it was just a showing of that specific work. It was an honour.
What do you love about her work?
So in the work she’s giving funk lessons inside a gallery to participants and it’s being videoed. Then it’s interspersed with other shots from different dancing shows. There’s people participating in funk lessons – it’s just a two-stepper she’s teaching: “Step to the right, step to the left, step to the right… Okay everybody, let your hair down… We’re going to turn it up, we’re going to give it a go!” It’s also got her being interviewed about, “can white people dance?” and there’s text of “white people can’t dance” and then it says “white people can dance”. She answers along the lines of: Well, you know, if you’ve grown up in a place and culture that does it then you probably can, and you know, practice makes perfect if you just give it a go, I’m sure you’ll be able to get it.
As an artist she was questioned a lot about being biracial, and being a conceptual artist she’s interested in these levels of authenticity, of looking through a lens and then turning that back on other people in these sophisticated yet simple ways, which I guess come from being a Harvard scholar in philosophy – but she’s able to let people participate in things.
In this work she addresses multiple things. She says that when she would have dinner parties with middle-class people in the art world she’d play Bach, Mozart and the classics, then she’d put in some funk music and people would be like, “What’s with this mix? Why are you doing that?” She’d say something like, Well, it’s just as virtuosic, and it’s a little bit like me. And they’d be like, “Oh, I don’t mean it that way, of course you can play whatever you want…” She plays with that uncomfortability really nicely when she’s talking about gender or race, and it’s never bitter, never to ostracise. Rather, she’s inviting people – especially in this work – to look at their participation in something while doing it themselves.
When I came back from New York I was teaching dance classes in nightclubs of video clip choreography. I felt akin to Adrian Piper at that point because I realised with teaching these classes I could say whatever I wanted in a space that was charged but very dark, very loud and very fun. That’s made its way into my work now: I think about the dynamics of participation when you’re an audience member, and also how I can use that as a maker myself. It’s a delicate balance. If I see a busker in the street I’m like, please don’t ask me to be in it! But if you can create a space where the dynamics are right, you can have critical conversations in quite simple and fun ways and get people to do things that they thought they would never do. I like that a lot.
I know a lot of your work is around participation. This is a kind of stealth piece to unpack identity and so on. Piper has a questioning relationship with identity politics and at one point retired from being Black. Is it possible to evoke race or gender identities and also overcome them?
For myself, whether or not you overcome it is not the outcome that I’m looking for. Everybody is under the grip of hegemony, everyone is scuffling for some kind of identification, personally, culturally or otherwise. In the work I make, and maybe with Adrian Piper too, participation is the place where we can hold an aperture to the different kinds of categories that there are, while still doing something together.
If you look at relationality in her practice, and the kind of praxis for social practice she’s engaged in – whether in dance or dressing up in drag or other ways – it’s about holding a moment of focus on these differing templates. Let’s start with a two-step and see where it goes from there! It’s masquerading as a dance class. As an early example of using the dance floor as a way to talk about different relational and racial ideologies, it was quite successful. It has a gentle touch with a bigger subject.
Has this Funk Lessons video always been a work of philosophical inquiry or was it just a dance class that had a future application?
I don’t know what her stance on Hegel is but I think it was always a part of a dialectic tool. She had another work that was at the National Gallery of Victoria for the last Triennial, a room you were only allowed in if you were humming. They had a guard stand by, so you could enter the room but you had to continue humming while you were in the room. These quietly clever moments.
Now I must say I wasn’t expecting this to be a conversation about philosophy. Is this a big thing, the praxis between philosophy and dance?
There’s a joke that the sound designer that I work with makes. He says, “I like coming to rehearse with you because I know we’ll be dancing just about straight away. I’m not going to walk in and see a dancer lying on the floor reading Deleuze.” But a lot of dancers are practising things in philosophy that aren’t spoken about: you’re thinking about things symbolically, or things that you can’t express with words. Maybe there is that link between dance and philosophy and the inexpressible expressed in some way that dancers are very good at. [Laughs]
It’s nice to talk about dance and race and philosophy and all the things that tie into the practice of things. Piper addresses this in humorous and stealthily clever ways and has for many years. Dance is a nice place to have those conversations.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 20, 2021 as "Amrita Hepi".
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