Interview: Imana Gunawan

Birthplace: Texas, U.S.A.

Grew up in: Bogor and Jakarta, Indonesia; Washington state, U.S.A.

Currently living in: Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.

Age: 25 going on 26

Find her: WebsiteInstagram Twitter Au Collective 

(Photo on left by Devin Muñoz | Photo on right by Helen Moga)

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Tell me more about your journey into journalism and dance. 

At one point, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was younger, but my mom said, “You know, you don’t have to be just one thing, right?” So that kind of stuck with me. The dance portion didn’t come until later.

My mom has always been a multi-hyphenate; she’s had so many different lives. It was useful to see that model in someone you look up to so much, just to be like oh, you can have these different iterations of yourself.

I think it took going to the U.S. and then coming back to Indonesia — I had all these feelings I had to process. I did pottery, I did dance, I did a bunch of other things, and I think dance was the one that stuck, helping me process through that, and I realized how much I loved it.

When I got into the University of Washington, originally I was going to major in journalism and then minor in dance, but then I ended up doing a double major. Both of them kind of complimented not just the way my brain worked but…having that balance of being here on earth and imagining new worlds, new futures, what’s possible, I think it just complimented nicely, in terms of mental health and all those things.

Q: Tell me more about your journey from Texas to Indonesia to Washington state.

I was born in Texas because my parents went to school there. When I was a baby, we went back to where my family’s from, which is Bogor. I think it was sometime in elementary school that my family moved to Jakarta because my dad was working in Jakarta and the commute was too much for him. And then, in high school, I decided I wanted to move to the U.S. because my mom was like, you know, you do have citizenship if you’re interested.

I moved here when I was 15; I moved to Vashon Island (Washington state), which is a little outside west Seattle. It was super random how I got there. There was a family friend who used to work with my mom in Jakarta…So, I moved in with that colleague. It wasn’t a super good experience living with her…and Vashon was also probably not the best place to move to, especially as a young woman of color, a young Indonesian, this was my first experience living abroad by myself and having teenage angst in general.

I went back (to Jakarta) to finish high school and then applied to community college (in Washington state) and started going there for one school year and then transferred to UW after that.

Basically, I’ve been living here (in the U.S.) for 10 years this year, which is pretty crazy to think about, because it felt like such a long time ago, but it also felt like yesterday at the same time. It’s been interesting seeing the different iterations of who I’ve become, who I’ve had to become, all those things, to get to the point where I am now.

Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as someone of Indonesian heritage?

I think the first memory was that I was an Indonesian, and that was sort of the first identity that came to be. But I think when I first moved here (to the U.S.), it was that slow realization of, well, I’m also American, what does that mean? And having dual citizenship but knowing that there was a deadline on that, and knowing that you had to choose one or the other. It’s such a gradual process figuring out what does it mean to me to be Indonesian not in Indonesia.

Slowly, it just means embracing nuance and embracing complexity, whatever that means. It’s kind of difficult for me to think of my Indonesian identity outside my American identity, because they’re so intertwined together, especially now, having kind of grown into this version of myself — I’m sure it’ll be shed for newer versions later on.

Q: How did you find your community? Tell me more about your work with Au Collective.

A lot of the communities that I’ve come into or the ones that stuck with me have been centered around my college friends. All of the people in the Au Collective went to UW with me; we’re all from the dance department. It started so much with the community I came into in college.

With the Au Collective, we saw such a gap in the Seattle dance scene — I mean, the Pacific Northwest in general is pretty white, but especially the modern dance scene here. There were a couple of co-founders who’d been dancing professionally in Seattle for a while and they saw a need not just for the community but also for themselves to be a part of something that’s not just oh, you go to a dance studio, you work with a choreographer, and you have to check your identities at the door, to be this blank canvas. Having that agency and to claim your community and all those things was how Au Collective came to be. It’s a group of dance artists of color, queer artists, women artists. When we make art, we don’t check our identities at the door.

In the same way when we build our communities, a lot of that has to come with community health first in order for people to even begin to think about making art or experiencing art. Figuring out, how do we get people paid? How do we make sure people have homes? All of those really basic things before even thinking about what art means or all these other questions.

Q: What has your experience been performing dance pieces that speak to your Indonesian heritage (such as “wali panca” and “untuk ibu, untuk sri”) in front of non-Indonesian audiences, particularly with a white audience?

I had this huge anxiety at the beginning. What if people listen to it and people don’t get it because they don’t know these things? They don’t know these references and then just end up putting me in a box? And people in Au Collective — they’re like family to me — they were like, if they’re going to put you in a box, make it the best fucking box there ever was.

A review was like — it’s funny now, but I was pissed at the time — this reviewer was comparing me to this one dance artist from the early to mid-1900s, and her whole schtick was using South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures to make “exotic” dances. So the reviewer thought that my piece was inspired by that artist. I was like…uh…what?

I care less now about whether people get it or not because I think different people, when they experience art, are going to experience different things anyway. I do owe it to myself to just be honest about what I’m trying to get out of it and being diligent and investigating what it is I want to investigate. So, if people get it, great. If they don’t, they don’t. All of the things that I am are a mess, and that’s fine, let it spill out where it wants to and embrace it.

I also think there is a tendency for a lot of BIPOC American artists, especially when they are young, to define themselves in relation to whiteness, and I’ve noticed it a lot especially in academia. Like, explaining your existence for the white gaze. Sometimes, this is out of necessity; other times, because we weren’t taught any other way. I’m grateful that I’ve grown into a version of myself where that is no longer the only way I know how to describe myself or look at my work. And so, in my art, I think whiteness and white audiences are now peripheral, and I try really hard to maintain that. They can’t take that away from me.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

It’s such a huge part of who I am and I also feel a huge privilege in being able to say that because I know that not a lot of people can say that for various reasons. It just leads me to question more about what I knew, what I thought I knew.

There’s so many unanswered questions, so much history I’ve yet to know, simply because I haven’t learned it yet. Having Indonesian heritage is so much about continuously coming into yourself and continuously asking what that even means. I think so much of the discourse around what it means to be Indonesian is so Java-centric. Creating space for other voices is so important because Indonesia is so diverse. And internalized colonialism, fervent nationalism, and anti-Blackness are also so rampant, so I think dismantling that within myself and my surroundings become a huge part of this process of coming into myself.

Early on, when I first moved to the U.S., it was so easy to think of Indonesia in this romantic way and all the things that are beautiful about it. But, I think understanding about all the different complexities of the country…I always joke that it’s the biggest source of inspiration but also the biggest source of heartbreak sometimes because it’s, like anything, messy. That’s what I think a lot when I think about Indonesian heritage — continuous relearning, unlearning, figuring out what it is, and just allowing things to be messy, because it is.

Q: Plug your projects and anything else!

Look up Au Collective. If anybody is in need of resources — I think we’ve given funds to over 200 people now across the U.S. who are in need because they’ve been affected by this pandemic. We want to make the barrier of entry as low as possible so that people who are immigrants, people who are sex workers, people who don’t have access to all these things can easily access these funds. We’re always taking donations, too.

I’m also working on a lookbook based on a cabaret I did two years ago. And that cabaret actually came out of the piece that I made for my mom. It was specifically about oral stories and creating rituals based on the moon, because that came out of the different travel experiences that I’ve had and me just realizing mythologies about the moon always exist in most cultures. It was called “moonshine,” and now we’re making a lookbook out of it.

I’m also in this exploratory period where I don’t feel as called to dance anymore as a practice. I mean, I still dance here and there, and I still have physical practices, but just figuring out different ways of storytelling. And figuring out what does development look like for me as an artist.

Lastly, I love reminding people to redistribute their wealth now and always! If you reside in the U.S. and have the means, please set up recurring donations to your local bail funds! Aside from protesters getting arrested en masse right now, the U.S. criminal justice system targets Black, brown and poor people daily. You can find ones for different states and cities here. If you are reading this from Indonesia, check out Bagi Rata to redistribute your wealth to the working class heavily affected by the pandemic. Also, check out this webinar on how you can take lessons from the Black Lives Matter movement and apply it to ongoing repression in Papua.