A Conversation with Naomi Velaphi

Naomi Velaphi is an arts producer, who has worked on large-scale public art projects, participatory performance works, music and festivals. This has included with Federation Square, The Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Perth International Arts Festival, Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Fremantle Arts Centre and the Koorie Heritage Trust. Most recently, Naomi has been a Producer at Arts House. She is inspired by cultivating unique artistic relationships across a range of disciplines with a particular interest in site- specific projects and socially engaged practices.

Naomi caught up with Robert Wood to talk about the role of producing, being a hobbyist, and thinking about where one comes from.

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Tell us about your practice—what are you working on at the moment and where has your journey taken you so far?

I’m an Arts Producer and I’ve been working in the arts across a range of disciplines over the past 10 years. My practice entails bringing together artists, ideas and contexts for a range of audiences. Most recently I’ve been working as a Producer at Arts House, a venue with a focus on contemporary experimental performance. Whilst I was one of a few producers there, I had the opportunity to curate and produce a series of works looking at the broad and divisive theme of place and displacement. It was an amazing chance to bring together performance, conversations and art installations from diverse communities and it has recently been nominated for a Green Room Award, which is pretty exciting! Since then I’ve been on a little hiatus as I’ve recently become a new mum but I have a few independent projects in development including a documentary film and a cultural exchange/residency program for artists.

How did you come to be involved in the arts? Where did this interest come from and what was the environment you grew up in?

Growing up in Perth, all my extra curricular activities were performance based and this carried on through to my mid teens so I guess it’s where my initial interest in the arts began. It wasn’t really until after uni that I started to really look at the arts as a career and began volunteering for galleries and festivals where I found an area which fused so many of my interests. The environment I grew up in we read, sang, danced, played sport and talked a lot around the dinner table. Coming from a mixed cultural background—Japanese and Zimbabwean also meant three languages were in play. I guess this brought together lots of ideas, ways of being and creatively communicating, which is all inherent in the eclectic nature of the work I do today.

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Can you speak about your education and how this fits in with working in the sector?

My formal education is pretty stock standard having graduated high school in Perth. I continued on to do an undergraduate degree in Communications and I’ve just recently finished my Masters in Arts Management at Melbourne University. I must say though the best education I’ve had in the sector has been on the job and having the opportunity to work in quite a few different roles.

I know you have worked with a diverse range of groups including at the Abbotsford Convent for many years, the Koorie Heritage Trust and now with Arts House. Can you tell us about the challenges and opportunities of working with different organisations?

Working in the arts I’ve very much been attached to various institutions, which, I think, has pros and cons. I think the thing I like about working within arts institutions is the access to resources. Some have really aligned with how I like to work and some less so but having access to resources namely money, people and organisational gravity has been a great way for me to shape the projects I have worked on with a relatively low level of risk. It actually makes the work possible. The higher level of risk, I guess, lies in the artistic content and the messages you might want to get across through the work/s. When you are a part of an institution there are constant negotiations internally around content and how it will be received all whilst making sure creativity is not compromised - this can be challenging sometimes.   I’ve also had the pleasure of working with many independent artists as well as small to medium arts organisations for which funding has been particularly stretched over the past few years so being able to support these artists the best I can in my position has been most rewarding.

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Recently, there has been discussion about representation and diversity in contemporary art. I am thinking here of Andy Butler’s ‘Safe White Spaces’ and the conversation around that. How do you think about these questions now that you have been involved for a little while and can see the next generation coming through?

Great question and Andy’s piece was really interesting and necessary addressing both whiteness and the colonial constructs we exist amongst. As a person of colour, in the arts it’s an exciting time where for the first time it feels like voices and stories from diverse communities can just ‘be’ rather than curtailing to a white framework as a given. In saying this though there is still a long way to go. As often the only person of colour working in these institutions it’s the first time I feel empowered to be able to have people listen for a change and actually allow space for such conversations.

I hope in my position I can continue to facilitate and ensure representation isn’t compromised or commodified in the arts within these spaces so that over time we can see a shift. I see younger generations from diverse communities coming up and hope that they can feel proud of who they are and the work they are making. I think growing up it was much more about wanting to fit in which meant surrendering to whiteness. To unlearn all this is hard and how this all unravels in regards to my own identity is something I am still working on. However, it’s the first time I can remember representation has felt somewhat valid rather than token.

I hope I can create new ways of navigating these spaces and that artists and audiences feel safe. As a producer I am constantly ensuring diverse artists and audiences feel comfortable in spaces and can hold a space as their own. It can be as simple as greeting someone at the door of an institution and offering them a cup of tea rather than suggesting they enter a monolithic, Eurocentric building where most cultural activities exist.

It can be exhausting at times feeling like you need to have answers on diversity amongst co-workers but I think being from a cross cultural background I have developed a skill in identifying possible concerns within representation particularly how work is framed for audiences or recognising particular cultural nuances.

Building on from that, what are some of the ways that we can recognize identity politics, but also move towards empathy, understanding, imagination in the arts? What is the work to be done that allows art to be art yet with humour, morality, politics?

This is a tough one to answer as identity politics is complex. It is also very much tied in with power distribution and I think this needs to be re-imagined before we see any real change across society more broadly. Australia’s history is also fraught, existing on stolen land with sovereignty never ceded making it difficult for identities to exist comfortably without true recognition of Indigenous culture in the day to day.  

Most of us are settlers here and I do think this interest in identities, diversity and defining oneself does showcase Australia’s complexity and enables a better understanding and empathy towards lived experiences. The arts allow people to communicate this, which is important. By actively presenting work we are recognising the identities and communities, giving them voice. It provides space for new futures to be imagined on one’s own terms. The key towards more empathy and understanding is allowing the power to shift within arts institutions so diverse communities feel empowered and unapologetic.

Some great recent examples include the Sovereignty show at ACCA, Black Dot gallery’s programming, 4A Centre for Contemporary art in Sydney and Next Wave Festival 2016 program and recently launched 2018 Festival.

I grew up in the era of multiculturalism where it felt the very opposite to this, it was all about glazing over real struggles of diverse communities and exploring how harmonious Australia appeared through a united voice. Sharing culture but still under a veil of whiteness.

As to what work still needs to be done - a lot of this comes down to institutions who have resources to share who can spread these resources and allow diverse voices to exist without compromise. This is very hard to do but the more representation of diverse communities we have in institutions will assist in making this a reality. The other area or work which needs focus is cultural safety within spaces, so ensuring communities feel welcome, can exist on their own terms and aren’t seen as an exotic addition or ticking a checkbox. The reality is working respectfully and celebrating diversity and identities requires time and resources so we would need to look at the funding bodies too to help address this. Having this in place at base level would mean artists can make work safely without compromise and diverse audiences can feel comfortable in understanding the work from a perspective less tainted by whiteness. I feel there is still a sweet spot that we are yet to find where expectations of non-white communities can exist as a part of the day to day and I hope me existing in these institutions can provide a small part in doing so.

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I think that speaks to some of the contextual concerns that lots of people negotiate themselves and try to engage with. You also have a pottery practice. Tell us about how you started in this and how it connects to your curatorial interests.

I should start by saying it’s very much a hobby, which I hope to turn into a more formal practice as I grow older. My mother is Japanese and for many of our meals we would eat and drink out of a range of Japanese ceramics. I always remember how they would make the food even more delicious, enhance an object or simply be appreciated on its own. That is where the interest started and I’ve since come to appreciate and enjoy the pace and meditative nature of making ceramics on the wheel. I find working with clay on the wheel is all consuming which is what I love about it - it’s physical, tactile and mental. To make good work you need to be mentally and physically in tune and focused. As with much of Japanese craft, patience and persistence leads to precision and perfection. For me, my precision and perfection have some way to go but I ultimately see it as a meditation in contrast to my day to day.

What have been some of your pottery influences and how would you describe your aesthetic?

Melbourne has a pretty thriving ceramics scene with lots of amazing makers so that has been an initial inspiration. In terms of an aesthetic I enjoy clean lines and neutral tones makers like Clamlab, Andrei Davidoff and Takashi Endo. Whilst perfection is something to strive towards when working with clay I am also drawn to influences of wabi sabi where imperfections can be seen as beauty be it textural or form based.

Do you have any advice for emerging arts workers?

See as much work as you can. Go to shows, festivals, exhibitions don’t just read about them. Melbourne has so much but get to know the city and it’s artists and who is playing or showing around town and volunteer.

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Who are you inspired by?

My folks.

What are you currently listening to?

Nubya’s 5ive by Nubya Garcia.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished reading Terra Nullius by Clare Robertson and I’ve just started No way but this—In search of Paul Robeson by Jeff Sparrow.

How do you practice self-care?

A good coffee daily, a cheap and cheerful massage in a mall and solo walks/jogs by the river.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?

I don’t immediately identify with the term Asian-Australian as I’m biracial and feel equally drawn to both cultural backgrounds. However, I think as the child of migrants I’ve been taught to work hard no matter what might get in your way and to be resilient.

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Interview by Robert Wood.
Photographs by Leah Jing.

Liminal is a proud recipient of the Victorian Government’s VicArts grants program.
This interview was supported by Creative Victoria.

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