Performance artist Maïa Nunes is blazing a trail in Ireland’s art scene. Here she discusses what her work means and how the notion of Irish identity is changing, with Anna Burzlaff
Maïa Nunes used to post letters to her family in Trinidad at her local Post Office in County Wicklow. One day her attempt to send her letter hit a snag when the woman behind the counter refused to believe Trinidad, the Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela, was real. An altercation ensued.
“That place doesn’t exist,” said the woman. “It does,” said Maïa. “I’m from there.”
A 24-year-old performance artist from Dublin, Maïa trained in Textile Art and Artefact at the National College of Art and Design. On being awarded a Fellowship of Creative Dissent at Yerba Buena Centre of the Arts in San Francisco, Maïa worked under Tania Bruguera, a Cuban installation and performance artist, participating in Brugueras’ first Escuela de Arte Útíl (roughly translated as ‘school of useful art’). Bruguera’s project set out to imagine, create and implement socially beneficial outcomes through art.
Maïa can’t quite sum up her practice and, with some irony, that’s the best definition you can give it. It’s a mixture of poetry, song, installation art, craft, movement, set design, painting and much more. One of her greatest aims with her work is to create what she sees as liberated futures. Inspired by the thinking of the queer, person of colour science-fiction writer and social justice organiser adrienne maree brown, Maïa sees her work as performing a future, or imagining a scenario, that can help create and inspire systemic change in the here and now.
Her most recent series of work is entitled Wish. A three part work-in-progress performance in which each iteration is built upon the last through text, sound and visuals. In the performances Maïa alternates between song, spoken word and movement to the backdrop of a variety of constructions, props, colours and symbols. Maïa describes the series as a short post-apocalyptic piece of prose / magic realist myth where the pleasure and grief of a queer wxman of colour give rise to new life.
“It’s like a post-apocalyptic creationist myth abstracted into poetry,” she says before laughing. “But this is only my story, it’s abstract for a reason.”
Born in London to Trinidadian parents, Maïa moved to Ireland before starting primary school. Maïa’s background reflects the lineage that so defines her parents’ birthplace: a mix of African, Irish, Madeiran, and Portuguese, this hybrid heritage is part and parcel of the Caribbean’s ethnic and cultural mix. As someone who’s interested not only in the intermingling of different mediums but also in the intermingling of different cultural traditions, the Caribbean is an interesting case study for Maïa’s art.
As Maïa talks about the hybridity that is so important to both her identity and her work, it’s hard not to be conscious of the homogeneity of the cafe we’re in. Maïa’s the only person of colour there. This is hardly unusual. Despite a steady influx of migrant communities since the early 90s, spaces in Ireland still feel palpably uniform. The cafe is, perhaps, relatively innocuous, but there are more pernicious examples. The Irish schooling system has been criticised for “ghettoising” migrant communities to the outer suburbs by including waiting lists and policies which favour pupils of a particular religious ethos. This occurs while the structural policies set in motion by the state exclude and segregate migrants arriving in Ireland who are seeking asylum. Direct Provision, as Maïa says, “is a classic example of creating a class divide and denying people their humanity”.
Feeling separate has been on Maïa’s mind since she was young.
“I feel like I spent my entire childhood and adolescence thinking I was white when I was in Ireland, or I was performing whiteness as much as I could to fit in,” she tells me. “And then in Trinidad that’s when I could relax and feel myself. Because of that a lot of my experiences in Ireland didn’t make sense. I was thinking about myself as the same as everyone else but I knew I was different.”
Since Maïa’s childhood things have been slowly changing. A new cohort of first and second generation immigrants are coming of age. Musicians like Fehdah, Loah and Pat Lagoon and spoken word artists like Felispeaks have embraced the multiple sides of their identity to create new words and sounds that now feel indispensable to contemporary Irish music and art. They, with those Irish on the international stage – like rapper Rejjie Snow and writer Emma Dabiri – are challenging the notion of what it means to be Irish, which up until recently felt so deeply ingrained as something intrinsically Catholic, conservative and white. Marriage Equality and Repeal changed that. This new wave of talent is changing that; giving life to new forms, mediums, and ideas that are undoubtedly enriching Ireland’s cultural capital. Music is the prime example. Art is somewhat further behind. Yet, figures like Iraqi artist Bassam Al-Sabah, who came to Ireland when he was ten, and Maïa herself are blazing a trail.
Along with Karen Miano, founder of record label DIAxDEM and member of Blackfish Collective, and Esther Mogada, co-founder of production and events collective Creating A Space, Maïa set up ÉALÚ: a podcast by people of colour for people of colour living in Ireland. Maïa says a primary aim of the podcast is to reach young people, living in remote parts of the country who may not know other people of colour. ÉALÚ also provides a space in which Maïa, and Karen and Esther (who are Kenyan-Irish and Ugandan-Irish respectively) can unpack what their dual identities mean.
“I think we need to start articulating what it means to be Irish and a person of colour,” Maïa explains. “We’re starting very slowly, partially because we’re still in the first wave of large scale immigration – people haven’t got their foothold enough to articulate their experiences – but it’s a conversation I’m excited to see evolve.”
Maïa wants her work to encompass three key areas: music, art, and social justice. Maïa’s communities – the people she wants her work to speak to – are those that lie at the margins of Ireland’s identity narrative: black and brown communities, queer communities, and queer communities of colour. Through the images of liberated futures she performs in her work, these communities’ hardships can find some resolution.
In Maïa’s work we see forms and mediums merge and blend in a shifting kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality; like that of the communities its dedicated to, this is a story in perpetual motion. Importantly, this is an emotional journey, not an intellectual one.
“Performance taps into emotion, it’s an expression that doesn’t need to be intellectualised,” she explains. “My performances are like assemblage art. That’s basically just a way of saying I’m more complex and this is more complex than a sentence that is easily legible. This is nuanced and it’s sometimes painful and it’s sometimes joyful and it can be both at the same time.”
The material for these performances comes from ritual and song, tools through which black and brown communities have drawn and continue to draw on as profound expressions of freedom. We see ritual through the use of cowrie shells and totems, as well as Maïa’s movements on stage, but it’s song that is the shining star.
The use of sound in Maïa’s work is pivotal. Collaborating with sound designer Hugh Cresswell, Maïa experiments in the aural: pouring water, lifting and dropping chains and coins into bowls, tearing pages from books — morphing and mashing these organic sounds with inorganic electronic tools. And, of course, there’s Maïa’s voice. Half way through Wish, No. 2 Narrative she sings “I love her with a thousand lives, A body lives a thousand sighs” before entering into an ethereal harmony with the organic and inorganic sounds she’s produced. It feels like a melding of Irish sean nos, African drums and freedom songs from the American south. It creates a sense of a new space — new identities based on the mashing of old ones. Is this the liberated future? There’s only one way to find out.
Maïa will discuss her work and perform at The Hugh Lane Gallery tomorrow, February 8, at 1pm as part of the Basic Talks series.