Joshua Pether: Disability, Performance, Dance & Indigeneity ✨😃🙌
Joshua Pether is of Kalkadoon heritage but lives and works on Noongar country in Western Australia.
He is an experimental performance artist, first nations person and also a disabled person.
Peta and Josh discuss his connection with his disabled body, growing up in a country town where he was known as 'the boy dancer' and how his indigeneity doesn't always influence his work as a performer.
If you would like more information on his performance at Alter State Festival you can find it here: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2022/festivals-and-series/alter-state/yirramboi
Connect with Peta:
Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the Icons podcast. The podcast, answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peter. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I'm speaking to Josh Pepper. Josh is many things, including a performer, a dancer, an artist and a pharmacist. Quite a combo. Josh is a foundation artist that helped create the Festival Alter State. I spoke about it on the podcast a few weeks ago, and if you want to listen to that episode, I will link it in the description. So without any further ado, I'm going to hand over to Josh.
Joshua [00:01:20] Hi Peta. My name's Joshua Bethel, and I'm an independent artist based here in much of the country here, and I'm primarily a performance artist, but I have tried to be in dance and choreography, so I'm also one of the three foundation artists of Step Festival in Melbourne happening at the moment.
Peta [00:01:40] It's a pleasure to speak to you today and you must be so proud to get something like Alter State off the ground. For me as a disabled person, I find it very empowering. So thank you.
Joshua [00:01:52] You know, it was such an honour to what a real privilege I felt like myself being an independent artist. Not really. I really felt I had too much clout in that sort of sense of like, you know, directing something such as so big as this. And so yeah, I think it's been really lovely to still be on board with this journey and still having an active role and voice. Even though I'm not based in Melbourne and I'm sort of literally 3000 kilometres away from where the festival is and still having some sort of say or input into it has been pretty miraculous. We were given this task of creating the foundations and principles for this festival that would specifically look through the lens of disability consciousness and all the other issues and those things that, you know, you come up with when you have a disability and to be able to see it and grow from this idea to what was an online version last year to now being an in-person event, was still some online activity still happening as well?
Peta [00:03:06] That's the beauty, I guess as far as having disabled people, creative festival people have an understanding of what disabled people need because often I find that when things are created for us, there's an understanding to a point. But things like allowing people to have time to rest and recuperate can be really important and also having the option to make sure that there are online are online opportunities as well for people that don't either live too far away or simply don't have the capacity to be there in-person.
Joshua [00:03:44] Since COVID, there's been this sense of like the online ness of lust for the life that other artists played before COVID that couldn't really attend things. And so they accept, as you said, being so accessible during time, it, I think, has awakened everyone's deceptions as to, you know, the the issues that people with disabilities eyes every day in terms of body. Like the the thing that we looked at as part of the festival was prep time, which is basically the time it takes for you to do something. And that was part of the principles that I sort of put forward. As I said, it's a really important, I think, thing that as a disabled artist you experience, especially if you have invisible disabilities or whatever you want to call it, there's often the sense of like your the time that it takes for you to do things or to think about things that take you out yourself sometimes takes time. And, you know, that's fine.
Peta [00:04:53] And I would also probably assert because being a person with a disability, you probably also have to manage pain like I do. And you're aware of how pain can impact people. And I'm sure that might influence your work as well.
Joshua [00:05:10] I had my back when I was 15 and scoliosis. And so my back isn't and it's quite it's stuck there. It's interesting because I haven't really Touchwood haven't had that experience where it's become like chronic pain situation. I look at my body as a spiritual body as opposed to a physical body. And so to me, the this the sense of the physical ness of the body has become less and less important in the work that I do. And it's more about the spirituality of the body. So it transcends the physical into the spiritual plane.
Peta [00:05:57] You have a very clear and concise relationship with your body. I feel like your you know, it's so important to you that you feel connected to your body. But of course, when you were younger, your scoliosis might have affected your flexibility to be able to dance. Is that been an ongoing process for you? How do you found the concept of having a disability?
Joshua [00:06:23] Yeah. Look it. Yeah. Before I had an operation, I wasn't really aware of the situation. And it was only when my manager at the time was doing massage as a as a course. And she happened to spot this hump. We weren't sure what it was. And so it went to it was kind of it was a first was maybe a carpenter or physiotherapist or some unknown that he was maybe a doctor and it was diagnosed as scoliosis. And initially women have wear a brace and that was what I was expecting. And it was wasn't until he went to Townsville to get the brace fitted that it was actually said that it was actually more severe than initially thought and an operation was what was needed. I felt like I woke up as a different person. I totally feel like I am. There's a different version of me that has been existing since well, since that time. And it seems like I've got new eyes. It's really weird. It. It totally affects everything. And I don't think it really I don't think I was really aware that until I did start moving again. And the level of like I suppose cognition and I suppose understanding of your body was I was very naive. There was praise heaped upon me in terms of my talent and ability before and the operation. I sort of carried that along with me into what I thought I could offer. And it sort of, you know, was this little flame that I held along the way knowing that I could dance. And even if I had this situation where my back wouldn't bend on so bad and make it, funnily enough, I sort of did in a way, not to the point of not being at all. Actually, it was in a few companies, but not anything quite as far as the mainstream companies. But yeah, I think it's definitely it definitely affects your body. And I think that took time to actually understand that and to also understand that, yeah, it's actually okay. It's not a it's not an issue. And I think to me, like the biggest lightning bolt moment to me in terms of being able to identify as having a disability was knowing the social model of disability. To me, it was obvious that being in a dance context, I was totally disabled in terms of the social context, but in terms of the pharmacy context nominated crap about the fact that couldn't be back, it wasn't even talked about, no one even knew.
I mean, if I didn't say it to people, I don't know who. So it was for me, it was very obvious that, you know, the disability state of the term disability and how people perceive it today is very much based around, for me, a social situation where in a different situation I didn't feel disempowered, but in another situation I felt disempowered. And also it was felt to be I'm not unnatural, but I'm not substantial in terms of what I was doing. At the same time, what I found with dance was often ruled by some sort of aesthetic the ideal person, and often would equate that with how a person was. So as long as you were a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing dancer, you were also a lovely person. Even that was quite the opposite. I've known many dances that were lovely to look at and beautiful, but both total arseholes and realise. To me, it was a really big thing that I was because I couldn't do what I did, that it was also quite a that was a bad person for that. I was not really worth talking to or listening to. And it was mainly when I left that area and became more interested in MySpace, conceptual art and things that are beyond the capacity of like just to dance and dance his body. Then I began to expand my horizons and I found that I think a lot of people. Once you start to go out there and make your own work and also get, I suppose, validated for that work that you make and they are doing it on their own terms and not in the terms of what I thought, what I was expected to do. And so that I think was also quite empowering is that I left what I thought was the ideal dance situation or world that I thought I had to be in to. Then I think totally becoming quite not anti dance, but in a way not to dance is not a big part of what I do anymore.
Peta [00:11:19] I think it can be really impactful to be like, Oh yes, I am actually following the right path for me, even though everybody else didn't necessarily see that to begin with. From my research, I understand that you are often the only one in a room, particularly when you did start dance. Were you the only boy in your dance class when you were really little?
Joshua [00:11:45] Absolutely. I mean, I remember there a lot, one or two that sort of came through, especially in a town like mannerism. And I think, you know, being quite naive as you are at that age and, you know, announcing to, you know, primary school friends that you do, you know, you've gone to the dance class. It's a ballet class. And, you know, in the time it was everything. It just became a hurdle. Each time I did it. And, you know, the thing is that a man was such a small town, everyone knew what you were doing. So even neighbouring schools knew that I was the boy. And so even though I'd never seen them from about our side, and so it was just this constant sort of thing and what people just knowing that I danced and, you know, taking it out on making fun of me and whatnot, you know, being the only male dance in the city that sort of the town, I should say, that sort of took it as. But more time would have been potentially seen as a career or what I did was very unusual. And I think I. Well, I didn't have a paid price, but I just had a different journey to everybody else.
Peta [00:13:02] Also what I wanted to talk to you about is the fact that, you know, you have so many different identities. Your pharmacist, your dancer, that you're also a First Nations person. How does that influence your work? Have you found it that it really empowers you? Or is it also created barriers because of people's lack of understanding and acceptance?
Joshua [00:13:26] Yeah. I think to begin with, a six nations identity didn't really come into my consciousness about what I was doing, man, because I did ballet and the the training that I sort of was seeking out wasn't really in regards to any sort of what I would call cultural dance or anything like that. And it was funny. It was I was working with Touch Compass in New Zealand and I was there for years as a contract and the director there said something about like, you know, the two things that make you, you, you make your back and also you're into jamming. And I thought, Oh, and then I saw Batman digitally. And there was this sort of call out at the time for this thing called dining marinara, which this organisation called lap dances, been a massive supporter of me since that time, and I sort of looked forward in an expression of interest to attend. And I didn't really think too much of it because I just thought, well, what if I've got to say I'm really, you know, I don't really have a large identity or like a knowledge base of my cultural identity at that point.
My practise is really at that time looking at disability and the body. And you know, I got a call from Brenda Donnelly, who was who's still the director of the organisation, and she said, We'd love to have you as part of this conference. And I was up. Oh, thank you. So I was surprised and shocked. I went to Brisbane and yes, spoke about my but I did, I don't think it resonated with many people in that room because they are mainly looking at a cultural identity that connects in a way to what you did as a science person or whatever. But my cultural identity was disability and I was connecting to performance that way. But it wasn't anything to do with my actual my cultural identity in the capital City Times. And I think, like, over time, reconciling with your what I call my two inherent cultures of the body, which is disability indigeneity and how they intersections to find mate don't meet. I think it just made people more aware of the fact that, yeah, you're black artist, but isn't this time made to be about your culture all the time? It can just be about your experience as a person. It's once again this thing of like, you know, I think people. Have expectations of. And particularly when they like trying to work out what you do that they need to put you in a certain category that your first 90 days or year and ask for disability, there's never the two. And I think this is where hopefully the conversation we're having on six October where we can start to talk about this, the two exist as both. It's not separate.
Peta [00:16:37] What do you love about having a disability?
Joshua [00:16:40] I think it's to me it's opened up the doorway to something that I probably would never, ever have explored, never really would have entered my consciousness. And I think it's led to this pathway where, once again, I've met all these amazing people in this journey. So I think it's it's opened up the doorway for. A different perspective on life, a different attitude. A different feeling in the body as well.
Peta [00:17:08] And is there anything you don't like about having a disability, Josh?
Joshua [00:17:12] Oh, yeah. Look, I mean, if I had my time again up at the operation, it is quite disabling in terms of when you talk about a physical disability, it's very disabling. Yeah, it is said in elements as you get older that you're experiencing, I have to stop to become more conscious about my posture when I do my work for some assistance. And interestingly, quite life is bending over so I'm having to like adjust that. I can't do it as I would do it if I didn't have a if my back bent normally. If I had my time I would get I would definitely have more of a voice and what I wanted to do in regards.
Peta [00:17:55] What do you wish people better understood about having a disability as far as the non-disabled community?
Joshua [00:18:02] That everyone has some form of understanding of this. Like, it's not it's not necessarily. I think a lot of people think of it as a physical situation in terms of like, you know, it's it's some wheelchairs, disability. But I it's not emotional. And I think once people understand that the social implications of how you are disabled in society in regards to the way that you operate in a job, whether that be in regards to time management and other things like that, that is quite disabling and you're sort of up against this sort of quite hierarchical structure. And I think once people understand that, it's actually the structure that they're involved in and understand not set, not necessarily their body. That's the problem that I think more and more people actually identify in this way. And, you know, and that's sort of interesting because in a way, disability could become obsolete if we all start to look at the societal implications of things.
Peta [00:19:08] And finally, what do you hope for in the future for people with disabilities?
Joshua [00:19:13] I hope that all of us just are able to be who we are and that, yeah, you, you may identify as having disability, but also you're X, Y and Z. You're not just you know, that's what you state your claim on. Understand that? Yeah. It's you are just a human being in many ways. Well, you are a human being. And that's that's made up of many different constructs, both societal, physical, emotional and spiritual. And so, you know, for me, I hope that people disability get to just be who they are without feeling that they need to always test a claim on that as being part of my identity.
Peta [00:19:58] Thank you so much for your time of thoroughly enjoyed talking and listening to you today.
Joshua [00:20:03] No worries. Thanks, Peta.
Peta [00:20:07] Thank you for listening to this week's podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, can you please leave writing a review? If you listen on Apple Podcasts or if you listen on another platform, please make sure that you're following the show. It all helps more people find the podcast. So until next week. Have a good one, guys. Bye.