What Beauty Means to Dancer Jahra Rager Wasasala

Dancer and poet Jahra Rager Wasasala shares her perspective on beauty and performing

Jahra Rager Wasasala. Picture / Guy Coombes

Jahra Rager Wasasala is slowly crafting her way to becoming a powerful force within the local and international contemporary dance scene, inspired by the beauty of her multi-cultural heritage and the traditions and stories of those who have come before her. She is a dancer and a poet who vehemently supports the empowerment of people, especially women. 

She's participated in the contemporary dance group Black Grace's Urban Youth Movement as a leading female performer, eventually interning and training with the company. In 2010 she commenced formal dance studies at Unitec, graduating with a Bachelor in Performing and Screen Arts, majoring in Contemporary dance. 

Her quest to learn and share is evident in her other contributions too, as an active facilitator and mentor in the arts community for New Zealand-based organisations such as MIXIT Refugee Arts and the national Rising Voices Youth Poetry Slam. Aside from the arts, Jahra is also in her second year as a serving founding member of the Youth Advisory Group, as well as serving as a youth representative for the Pacific Advisory Board for the Auckland War Memorial Museum. She’s also a prominent voice in the spoken word scene and in 2014 took up a prestigious Indigenous Dance Residency at The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada.

She’s currently in Berlin where she is performing at the Sophiensaele Theatre as part of a mini-festival called The Witch Dance Project, and returns home next week to perform alongside three other rising choreographers Nikki Upoko, Katerina Fatupaito and Tupua Tigafua as part of the Tempo Dance Festival. Jahra’s shares her thoughts on the term beauty, empowerment and shifting the gaze.

What does the concept or idea of beauty mean to you?
For me, the expression of beauty is in the spirit and the wairua of a person. But beauty is someone’s perspective — it is subjective. It depends on the gaze, and the exchange that is happening between the eye and the subject. My idea of beauty is strongly connected to passion, power, and complexity of the human form, especially in women.

To have beauty, or to have something that others perceive as beautiful, is to know the duality of being incredibly vulnerable at the hands of others as well as possessing the power to manipulate circumstances around you. I look at it from a ‘woman’ point of view. My idea of beauty is something that unravels the human form, something that sheds and transforms. Being perceived as ‘beautiful’ and then manipulating what they see and reinterpreting as something else a little more devastating is a powerful thing to be able to do.

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You often use paints and body art in your performances, how does this, along with makeup help enhance your performances or the story you are conveying?
The idea or concept of physically transforming my physical state is something incredibly important to my creative practice as well as being a tapu/sacred act for myself. I work in otherworldly realms, so being able to use paint/body art/costume to help intensify that experience for the audience and myself is essential, and those things are tools to help me achieve that.

To be a performer is to be in a constant state of transformation and tension, so if my body is constantly being pushed physically as well as conceptually, it produces really special creative work. As well as being a tool, those things also help connect me to my culture, to my identity and link me into my Pacific ancestry. This ‘paint thing’ isn’t a sometimes thing, it isn’t a gimmick. Ask anyone that knows me — this is how I live. It is a life-long endurance work! Haha.

You have several tattoos. Can you tell me what you love about this medium and how this is an extension of who you are as a person?
I think it’s similar to what I said earlier about transforming my physical form and reconnecting and acknowledging my ancestry. Self-mutilation along the lines of tatau/tattoo and scarification have always been a rite of passage in my home. Tatau and scarification were the grounds of how my mother and I would bond and connect. It was an expression of the feminine. It was a way for me to understand in metaphor and physical experience the realms of womanhood that I was coming into, as well as understanding the complexity of my mother as her own woman. It was always a beautiful and traumatic experience.

I have not received scarification work though, but tatau has always been a significant part of my life since I was 17 years old. It has been a physically affirmative ritual that has empowered me as a young woman. It is also incredibly intertwined with the history of women and tatau in Viti/Fiji. So for me, to tatau is to connect, to affirm and to honour. My growth and unravelling is documented on my vessel.

There’s a lack of diversity in the beauty industry. What are your thoughts on this and how do you think the industry can improve?
There is a lack of diversity in the beauty industry because they’re only aiming for a certain demographic. They’re seeking to support those who are already powerful, who are already privileged, who are already represented. Honestly, it’s disgusting. It is wonderful though, to see mainstream platforms beginning to explore unconventional beauty, but even then, individuals like myself still fit into categories of light skin beauty privilege and exoticism. So yeah, there is progress, but it’s still working within the boundaries of what that privileged class is used to. Of course, including more diversity in body, physical expression, physical ability, gender, religion, and sexual orientation is necessary and kind of goes without saying. The more of it, the better.

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When was the last time you saw someone of mixed-ability or in a wheelchair representing a beauty campaign on a billboard? It doesn’t happen. Beauty isn’t limited to what is euro-centric or what is exotic enough to be allowed to be represented or to publicly fetishize.
I was raised in a way that allowed me to seek the beauty, diversity and representation that matters to me and that I align with. And that is what I think is the most important, is to train our young people to be media-literate enough to understand what is unrealistic, and to know what to look for when they need to see themselves represented in the beauty industry. Our role models are out there — they’re just not always on the cover of Vogue. Sometimes they're in your kitchen. And every time, they're in your mirror.

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