Birthplace: Montreal, Canada
Grew up in: Montreal, Canada; then around the Northeast U.S. in upstate New York, Massachusetts, and finally, Queens, New York
Currently living in: Brooklyn, New York
Quick things: Zavé Martohardjono is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist, working in experimental theater, dance improvisation, multimedia installations, performance art, and poetry. As they write on their website, “My queer, transgender, non-binary body performs multiple border-crossings. My performances celebrate liminality and non-linear storytelling and explore legacies of colonial empire. I employ non-Western dance and mythology to unwind colonial conditioning.” Zavé also has poetry included in Nightboat Books’ “We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics,” published November 2020.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What sort of stories did you grow up with?
Most of my family lives in Canada, partly because my Indonesian family lived in Europe in the ’60s and then emigrated to Canada in the ’70s. My mom is a storyteller, and she used to tell me stories about her and her sisters and brother growing up, a very Indonesian family living in Italy and Germany, and she often told me about her Mbah, her grandmother who was her primary caretaker. Looking through family photograph collections is really wild. I try to think of what it was like for my family to be living in Europe in the ’60s. It’s a little hard for me to understand what they went through. My family tells happy stories about all the things that they love. They’re very nostalgic, so everything’s around food, and we all bond around food.
The other type of stories my mom told me were mythologies, and I realized that made its way into my artistic practices — creating mythologies, researching mythologies. My mom told me a mix of Western/Classic mythologies and stories from the wayang. There was a period where I was like, “OK, I’m going to try to read translations of the ‘Mahabharata.'” So I’ve gone through phases of trying to get familiar with these tremendous parable stories, and that was fun. I kind of got lost in there.
Q: Why was it important for you to tell stories in so many different media?
I think I am that kind of artist that refuses categorization. My work is a mix of theater, film, dance theater, performance art. Every time I would get into one form, I’m immediately interested in the thing right next to it.
When I was a kid, I was classically trained in painting by a Russian painter who was my neighbor in my building. She made a living restoring paintings, and she had a studio upstairs from my family. In high school and earlier, I wrote a lot of poetry. My friends and I started a little poetry club and magazine. Writing, poetry, and drawing have always been a big part of my life.
It’s interesting, sometimes you can make art your whole life and not feel like an artist. When I was young, I didn’t grow up with a lot of artists around me, so I didn’t understand that you can be an artist and make a living. I grew up in a family with a lot of academics and scientists.
It took me a long time to affirm for myself that I am an artist. That started in grad school, when I decided to go into filmmaking. I was working with a group of women filmmakers who I met at CUNY, who were running these awesome youth media workshops with Latinx kids in Bushwick. They were making a documentary about these young folks. I got really inspired and I wanted to become a documentary filmmaker, so I went to grad school and studied film production.
In grad school, I started making short experimental films, and that’s how I got exposed to different queer arts scenes in New York. After grad school, I started dancing with choreographers who were interested in improvisation and non-dancer dance practices, particularly interested in untrained dancers.
Between film and live performance, I kind of got hooked. I’ve thought of myself as a dance artist and performance artist since 2010. Dance got me hooked, and just being in my body and making work from my body feels so important. It feels like this whole other space.
Q: Tell me more about your journey into using your art to address colonization and decolonization, and wanting to complicate everything a bit more.
I’m interested in trying to understand my own settler and mixed-race position, which is inherently complicated.
There are all these layers in between me and my Indonesian-ness. The Indonesians around me when I was growing up were my immediate family, not extended family. From the time I was 9 when we moved to NYC, it really felt like my family unit was just my mom and I. My mom has her own complicated relationship to Indonesian culture, and she’s rejected a lot of the norms and pressures her family put on her. I never had to experience that pressure.
And there’s the cultural distance of my being mixed race and deeply assimilated to North American colonial culture. I don’t speak Indonesian; I understand it in very domestic contexts, but I can’t respond and speak back.
I think that’s why I use my art practice to establish understanding of these deeper questions I have. Art opens up entry points for me to learn about the colonial history around me and in me, and about my cultural history as well. In dance research, I’ve learned about anthropological access to Indonesian dance-theater that made Balinese dance-theater legible to the wider world, and then created pathways for modern Western dancers to appropriate many long-standing art forms.
For a long time, I’ve been thinking if I can come to understand colonial history — whether in Southeast Asia and here in the U.S. — I can start to understand why our world looks this way. Why these legacies of colonialism continue to shape our daily lives, and our disconnection from ourselves and our ancestors. There are many types of violences that disconnect us from our ancestors. And to understand how globalization operates, how we’ve come to live in these shiny, hypercapitalist societies that glorify really violent colonial practices.
And the more obsessive I became about understanding how colonial histories have shaped the contemporary world, and how are we connected through colonialism, I started realizing it’s actually about learning about pre-colonial and non-Western practices — cultural practices, thought, spiritual practices, art-making. All these things that came before colonialism, for me, can reconnect us to understanding how to survive our present world.
We’re living against all odds of constant economic crashes and completely unsustainable societies, with no social safety nets. Living in North America is this nightmare of individualism where you’re just on your own at all times. There’s no social state that is willing to take responsibility for your life, even though it asks you for your livelihood everyday. So, I’ve been shifting from “I’m interested in learning about colonial history,” to “I’m really interested in learning about anti-colonial culture, arts, thinking, and embodiment as resilience.” If we’re the folks that end up surviving all these waves of violences, then we have to learn how to live inside of surviving the odds.
I’m really curious but don’t yet know about my Javanese family’s history in relation to indigenous communities in Indonesia. I know that is a story of colonization. I’m hoping to find pathways to learn more and more and make connections. Javanese domination in Indonesia is ethnically specific, and is part of global stories of domination and erasure and assimilation, and the survival of those who experienced colonization. I’m really on a quest to understand it.
Q: Do you have advice for newer artists who are also interested in doing anti-colonial art practices, especially for people with multiple heritages?
I feel like folks who are younger than me, early 30s and younger, are really leading this conversation. I’m often looking to younger artists to be like, “How are you thinking about identity?”
When I was in college, some of the most amazing spaces that just blew my mind were spaces for students of color and mixed-race students of color to get together and talk about how complicated our identities and histories are, and be together in our emotional processes. Having that kind of community when I was in college opened up so much for me.
I see so many younger artists of color who are tackling questions of anti-racist practices, anti-institutional practices, de-colonial practices, and it feels like it’s shifting away from identity politics conversations into anti-colonial, anti-racist, and liberatory practices, being connected to and serving our communities. I feel like it’s younger artists leading that conversation, and I’m really grateful for that and I just want to be a part of it.
Q: What do your many heritages, including your Indonesian heritage, mean to you?
My Indonesian heritage is a really, really intimate relationship with my ancestors. Ancestor practice is becoming a really important part of my daily life. I connect with both my ancestors who I know really deeply, like my Oma, who passed away many years ago now, but as I’ve been cultivating an ancestral spirit practice, I’m cultivating an active relationship with ancestors that I don’t know. And that includes my Javanese ancestors, my Welsh ancestors, and my Italian ancestors. I do talk to my Oma a lot, and I think a lot of my mom’s Mbah as well — those strong grandmother connections really mean something.
I think for me, heritage — it’s so complicated. There’s so much that doesn’t get passed down. There’s a lot that isn’t spoken about openly.
Increasingly, for me, as a dance artist, I’ve been starting to teach workshops around resilience and embodied histories, and getting out of the intellectual approach of talking about histories so we can get into what our political history actually is in our bodies. That feels to me very connected to my Indonesian cultural heritage.
Even though I’ve had all these different distances from my Indonesian language, and certain cultural forms, I live in a house where my art and my culture are always around me. Cultural erasure is so powerful and can really shape our lives. It can convince us that we are not ourselves, that we are not of our ancestors, and that I think is the most dangerous thing.