Meet Ayeesha Ash, Fringe Face for 2019 and Artistic Director, Writer and Performer Making Her Own Path in Australia's Creative Arts

There’s an old saying, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. It’s a fairly grim sentiment, but not entirely without precedent. It’s certainly been the motivation of Ayeesha Ash, the Artistic Director and co-founder of the Sydney based Black Birds Creative Arts Co. along with Community Outreach Officer Emele Ugavule. Together they established the company with a view to addressing the persistent lack of representation and misrepresentation of women of colour in the media in Australia. With each new project the artists involved are encouraged to explore and interrogate the experiences of black, brown and diasporic communities in Australia, which has lead to works that straddle the boundaries of traditional form. Since the company’s inception in 2015 they have supported over twenty events across theatre, visual arts, performance art and film; all of which with a focus on accessibility, be it financial, physical or cultural.  

In addition to this Ayeesha is also a writer and performer in her own right. After studying at WAAPA she has gone on to feature in works across Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, including shows with Bell Shakespeare, Hayes Theatre Company, City Recital Hall, Pan African Poets Café, the Footscray Community Arts Centre and many more. And drawing on her own experiences having been born in St George’s, Grenada to parents of Grenadian and Maori heritage; and being subsequently raised in Brisbane, she has created and devised a number of productions that speak directly and passionately to the triumphs and tribulations of other women of colour.

Photo by Muna Hamid

Photo by Muna Hamid

We spoke to Ayeesha, one of our 2019 Fringe Faces, about fronting a company in the NSW arts scene and the need for inclusivity.

You’re a poet, a theatremaker, and an actor, amongst many other things. What made you go down the interdisciplinary path rather than focus on one medium?

I grew up doing almost every extra-curricular activity under the sun, so I think as a result of that I find I’m more creative and productive when I’m working in a range of art forms. When I’m developing a show or an idea I don’t want to be held back by tradition; for my work to effectively represents my cultures and communities it has to be interdisciplinary.

Your company Black Birds seeks to address misrepresentation of Women of Colour in the arts, particularly in Australia, how have you gone about this so far?

Emele Ugavule and I founded Black Birds in 2015 after graduating from acting school and realising the startling lack of opportunity for black and brown womxn in the acting world. We knew that if we wanted to put truthful and diverse representations of Womxn of Colour on stage we’d have to have total creative control over all our projects - so that’s we’ve stuck to! Each work that we have performed or presented has been entirely our own which has allowed has to have total agency of how we, as Womxn of Colour (WoC) are represented on stage. By developing our ideas, writing our own scripts, creating sound, costume and set design we’re able to bring nuanced and truthful stories to stage that have resonated with audiences from a range of demographics. Onstage and off, we’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with some wonderful artists who have shared their own personal experiences as WoC as part of our work.

How important is accessibility in the arts and what are some of the barriers for both practitioners and audiences?

So important! Venues need to be wheelchair accessible and close to public transport, tickets need to financially accessible, and show content has to be accessible to people from a range of socio-cultural backgrounds. These are issues for audiences as well as practitioners; artists don’t want to work in spaces that exclude certain parts of the community. If theatres and arts spaces want to diversify their audiences accessibility, in all of its forms, needs to be the number one priority.

Why choose the arts as a vessel for activism?

Photo by Muna Hamid

Photo by Muna Hamid

I think one of the best things about the arts is that people engage with them because they want to feel, learn or experience something. Art is subjective, so not everyone is going to connect with your work in the way you want them to, but it has the real potential to spark conversation and challenge common ways of thinking.

What’s next for Black Birds?

New collaborations and new work! On July 27 we’re curating PACT Salon: Reclaim in collaboration with our Resident Choreographer, Sela Vai, and her artistic development group You Therefore Me. Then, in August you can catch Te Molimau, a new play written by Taofia Pelesasa and directed by Emele Ugavule, at 25a (downstairs at Belvoir). In September, Black Birds in collaboration with my good friend Muna (munasib) and YOKE Magazine are curating a one-of-a-kind-event (you don’t wanna miss it!) for Sydney Fringe. And in November we’re partnering with The Pin for a series of interviews and an event. Come thruuuu!

What would a truly intersectional arts culture in Australia look like?

Less cliques and more friends (too optimistic/unrealistic??) If artists from different art forms collaborated more we’d have more new work, more performances and events and hopefully reach a much wider audience. There would be room for more intercultural collaboration and the opportunity for independent, community and cultural works to reach main stages and spaces.

What are your favourite performance spaces in Sydney and why?

I love the Red Rattler. It’s such an inclusive and safe space and plays host to everything from poetry, to vogue balls, to hip hop nights, to birthday parties.

I’ve been to some great exhibition-meets-live-performance evenings at Goodspace (upstairs at the Lord Gladstone). The exhibitions only run for one night so there’s always a crowd and a vibe.

The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s where Emele and I performed our first full-length Black Birds work (also titled Black Birds - didn’t think that through too well) in 2017.

Who has been inspiring you lately?

I love Arthur Jafa’s work and the way that he represents the black experience. And I’m constantly inspired by Taika Waititi’s work; I love the way that he uses comedy to bring light to pressing socio-cultural issues (also Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of my grandpa’s favourite movies, so I have a deep respect for Taika). In 2016 I saw Doug Aitken’s work Electric Earth at The Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles and I fell in love with it. It was a multi channel video work that used mixed-media in surveyance of his hometown (L.A.). I was mesmerised by it and it’s played a lot on my mind ever since. 

Photo by Muna Hamid

Photo by Muna Hamid

What do you love about Sydney?

I feel like I’m part of a really great community of artists in Sydney and I’ve made some truly wonderful friends. Sydney is a hard place to exist in because of the general cost of living and the restrictions around venues, but the people who I surround myself with make it all worth the while. I also love walking around Sydney; I find there’s nothing better than putting my headphones on and power-walking between the city and the inner west. 

What does the Sydney Fringe mean to you?

The opportunity to present new ideas that might be deemed too ‘risky’ to programme for certain independent or mainstage venues in Sydney. Because of this Sydney Fringe also gives the artists the chance to stretch their imaginations and use the festival to create something wild that audiences wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else. This is my first Sydney Fringe and I’m so excited to be working with YOKE & Muna to create something totally new and outside of the box for Black Birds.