Interview with whatsthebigmistry (Priya Mistry)

whatsthebigmistry is the work of Midlands based artist and CDS Member, Priya Mistry. Her bold, interdisciplinary work straddles performance, live art, visual art and dance, and explores themes such as race, gender, sexuality and mental health. We had a chat with her about her current performance work, Tropical Awkward Bastard, which she will perform at Chisenhale Dance Space on Saturday 5th October.


What was it that gave you the impulse to begin making this work? Was there a specific experience or frustration you were feeling?

I wanted to make a rant, so I thought about all the things that bothered me. What came up were issues around my gender, my sex, what it meant to be disabled and able, feminine, brown in a white world, exotic and exoticised. The first thing I wrote was about the boxes I tick, what I'm asked or not asked to do; where I am invited in and where I am shut out. 

I have come to find, as I get older, that speaking your own truth is crucial. If your truth hasn’t been spoken by another out there then finding it is tricky. You wonder if it is valid. In finding a truth I have had to find my own anger. In finding my anger, I have had to find a lot of things that are really awkward and I feel alone in that. In being alone, I feel like I don’t belong to anything. It feels like my awkwardness - not belonging to anyone else. I found inspiration in the problem of awkwardness; that it wasn’t ok to say or share my feelings because I hadn’t heard or seen anyone else do so. Feeling isolated or disconnected from aspects of the culture that claimed me, or that I was claimed to be from. This is a confusing situation. You feel out of sorts, not in line with what you call home; where you have grown up, been fed and nourished. And this is how I am a bastard. 


You say it is a work about language and etymology and I'm curious to know how it feels to be making a movement work about words, and what tensions might have arisen?

Just like words, there is a language of movement, sound, touch and scent. In the work I am considering the origins of particular movements, words, objects, music and costume. I am looking at their purpose or function and how this has shifted over time. Broadly, how meaning changes and different sets of values are appointed.

In Tropical Awkward Bastard, it’s my brown female body that is doing things - performing, dancing, making sounds, speaking. What does it mean when this body is wearing that Jamaican swim costume, that tutu or that saree? When is it appropriation and when is it reclamation? At every twist and turn there is tension. The work is presenting a problem. The piece is a provocation. 


I know that you've performed versions of this work in several different contexts, including galleries. How does the work change in each of these settings?

The work is about me, all the boxes that I tick and how none adequately represent me, but it is also about colonial herstory. As well as exploring language in the show, I am also exploring place and situation. The performance event is the moment when those things meet in the now. The interaction, clash and collaboration of the past and everything that has happened; ‘me’ as defined by various categories; the current political climate, and the context or site that we in. What are we going to do with all of this?

I often say that its like doing a phd without doing the writing! I am performing the research. In doing that I am learning about myself, Britain, and my parents. My parents don’t really know what I do - they have barely seen any of my work, which says a lot about the work and about me, being a bastard.

So, in each setting I always include research on the location of the performance. I explore the history and politics of the building, consider what the space is used for: who occupies it, how it works and who the piece is being performed to. The work changes because it responds to its environment. In a gallery context, for example, I have drawn on the history of the collection, how it came to be and how the institution ended up with these objects. The history of huge collections hidden away in basements; objects made by artists of colour; things that have come from other countries through the practice of colonising and looting that have never been on show. The purpose of such facts has gone from a specific function in a different culture to a symbol of white western wealth. What does it mean to be a brown woman performing to a room of white people? What is my responsibility in all that? What should I do about it? Should I stop performing to rooms full of white people? Would it be possible to perform this work in a gurudwara, a temple, or a community hall?


In the copy you express a desire to put promoted histories 'on trial'. I wonder if you could say a bit about the histories you would like to replace these with, that perhaps you feel are made invisible, or misrepresented?

I feel very strongly that people should think for themselves, it might seem obvious but it’s not. There is value in questioning everything - everything you know and what you’re told.  My experience from school is that histories are taught in a binary fashion. The particular histories that I was taught were all to do with Britain and WWII. We didn’t learn anything about colonisation and the Sikh and Indian soldiers that fought in that war, for example. If you don’t see it, if its not reported, if you don’t hear about it aurally it doesn’t exist. I am interested in the problem of what is omitted and the pictures that people want to paint about things; the ideologies they want to promote and the shameful histories they want to shove under the rug in an effort to hold onto power. I am concerned with the British idea of what it means to be civilised and acceptable whilst, elsewhere in the world, complicit in modern day slavery and oppressive regimes in place to uphold it. At the crux of all this is power and authority. Exercising force and power over the other(s). I am also interested in the notion of legacy. For example, the narrative that the Brits gifted the railroads to India when, in actual fact, those railroads were entirely constructed by Indians resulting in prosperity for the British Empire. It is about how stuff is twisted. Historical accounts can be very binary, with only selected stories being told and entire peoples being written out completely. 

The show is also making some of my own herstory visible. It is about age. I have come into finding that voice, and there are others of my generation for whom this has also happened. Each person’s history is different, there is not a single homogenous racial experience as it were, however I hope to help shed light on a generation’s collective experience through this piece. To speak my truth and in doing so make visible what may previously have been invisible. What is really dangerous is deliberate and absolute omittance. That is a black hole, and it’s even darker because you doesn’t know that the void is even there. But information is changing - in my life I have known pre- and post- internet. What it means to report or archive is changing. What it means to show or share vs. choose not to share is also up for re-negotiation. 

The work is calling for us to be the mother of invention. People need to think for themselves and imagine a different way that doesn’t exist - that is what imagination is and what the work invites. Black holes are not things that can just be worked out by calculations. These bigger more complex constructs and ideas had to be imagined. The work is a call to change. It’s a work of activism. 


Tropical Awkward Bastard is at Chisenhale Dance Space on Saturday 5th October, 7:30pm.

Learn more about the work of whatsthebigmistry (Priya Mistry).