Yet Still We Dance! – blurring the boundaries between art, performance and activism

Yet Still We Dance! – blurring the boundaries between art, performance and activism

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

By Empower Foundation

Sex workers are creative. We create environments and services which provide enjoyment, pleasure and hospitality to people from many different walks of life.The ability to do this is a gift … a learned talent … a performance … an art form.

Sex workers are creative. We create environments and services which provide enjoyment, pleasure and hospitality to people from many different walks of life.The ability to do this is a gift … a learned talent … a performance … an art form.

Sex work is an art. Using art to speak to society feels like a natural extension of sex worker activism.

In 1987, Empower became the first community group to create information about HIV in Thailand. At that time, public health campaign images and messages about HIV were frightening and ugly, feeding stigma in society.

In contrast, the small booklet produced by Empower was full of beautiful cartoons and friendly messages. The artwork invited people to think about HIV and life, not death; of inclusion and not isolation. It also presented society with anew view of sex workers as community leaders.

For more than 25 years, Empower has continued to use art and cultural performances to talk to society. We make art that does not aim to teach, but rather,we try to inspire a process of reflection and questioning. We try to create a space where people will dare to challenge their own beliefs.

We show how things are now and suggest what could be. We encourage people to think about creating new traditions and new perspectives about old stories like sex work.

Empower’s art is community art. It is not uncommon to have 20 or more Empower sex worker artists working together to produce a single artwork. We believe that the process of creating the artworks is as valuable as the final product, and that the inclusion of each individual is a vital part of our creations.

The art Empower creates also demands involvement from the audience. During our performances, people interact directly with the sex worker artists, becoming apart of a larger creation. This is the art of social inclusion and acceptance.

Empower performances do not depend on the individual skills or talents of any one artist, but rather each piece relies on the strength of the characters drawn from the lived experience of sex workers. In these ways, Empower blurs the boundaries between art, performance and activism.

We have used performance art as a way to speak about many issues affecting sex workers over the last two decades.This includes our pantomime, The Honey Bee Special, which is about reducing the stigma of condoms. This interactive performance has been performed since the late 1980s.

The Honey Bee Special, an interactive pantomime about reducing the stigma of using condoms, being performed in being in Can Do Bar Chiang Mai Thailand.

The most recent interactive performance commenting on HIV policy is our Mobile Test Unit, that lets people share the experience of being targeted for HIV testing.

It was first performed at the 11th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP11) in Bangkok,where the Director of HIV for the World Health Organization, Dr Gottfried Hirnschall, was interrupted to be tested.

Mobile Test Unit with Dr Gottfried Hirnschall WHO, at ICAAP11 in Bangkok, a performance which highlights the experience of being targeted for HIV testing.

Migrant sex workers of Empower have embraced community art as a way to be heard and visible in society. They embroidered panels, known as the ‘Mida tapestry’, sharing their experience of having their workplaces raided and forced rescue.

Migrant sex workers were the inspiration and leaders of the ‘Labor Without Borders’ project. Empower made around200 half life-sized papier-mache dolls called Kumjing.

The Kumjing artworks travelled to Bangkok and around the world, exploring immigration and reminding society that like others,migrants are simply people travelling to build better lives. Kumjing was awarded the ‘Freedom to Create’ prize at the Tate Gallery in London 2008.

In 2010, Empower produced the first film made by sex workers in Thailand, Last Rescue in Siam. It is a short 10-minute black and white film reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin films.

The film highlights the absurdity of anti-trafficking law enforcement and chronicles the adventures of a woman wrongfully rescued. It has been included in 11 International Film Festivals in nine countries.

A new film, Last Condom in Siam – the second adventure for our hero – will be released at the National AIDS Conference in Thailand (17–19 December 2014). Over 40 sex workers worked on each film.

In 2012, Empower began a project working with sex worker organisations in ten ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries representing more than 1 million sex workers.

One of the common stories to all the groups was how sex workers live and work on top of stigma. Cheerful resilience to stigma is an art. In addition, there is a definite art to living well in the face discrimination at the hands of the State and society.

Each organisation developed collective community artworks in their own countries that would let people see and understand their experiences and at the same time suggest solutions.

Empower created two artworks. The migrant sex workers painted their own reflections in mirrors so it became impossible to see one’s self without also seeing them.

The work was titled ‘Look at Me’. We have painted our image on these mirrors because we want to be really seen not just looked at.When you see you, can you see me looking back at you?

‘My name is…’ addresses discrimination against sex workers.

Thai sex workers used paper bags and colours to create an interactive artwork titled My name is …which addresses discrimination against sex workers, as one of the sex worker artists explains:

‘When you see people heads were covered with bag in the media, their humanity were destroy, they were not a person.

‘To paint our images on the bag, is to personalise ourselves even when we were condemn to be non-person/non-human.It is one way we can fight back like prisoners who want to paint their cells wall.’

The sex worker artists brought their pieces to Bangkok in February 2013, and the exhibition, Yet Still We Dance!, was held in the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. The exhibition has since travelled to Yangon, Mynamar and Singapore and will continue touring the ASEAN region.

Many of our artworks can be seen on our website  or if you are in Thailand, visit our largest art project – the Empower Foundation National Museum, This is Us.

Empower is a registered Thai Foundation promoting rights and opportunities for sex workers. Founded in 1985, Empower works with a rights based philosophy aiming to promote human rights, reduce discrimination, stigma and abuses.

Empower strives to create an avenue for sex workers to access their basic human rights like decent work, access to justice and good health, including HIV prevention and access to treatment. Empower is a hub for sex worker, community, social and political participation.

Empower strives to make these basic human rights available to all sex workers as a part of mainstream society by addressing current discrimination and stigma under the law and within society.