Interview: Tiara the Merch Girl

When Tiara the Merch Girl tweeted about her latest creative scheme – a performance art research residency at CELLspace, San Francisco – I had to hear all about it. In the following conversation, we chat about art, work, life and the challenges of representing a minority group several times over. Tiara also lets us know how we can help make the #sanfranplan a reality.

The Merch Girl - Creative

Describe for us, in a nutshell (if that’s possible given your amazing array of activities), who you are and what you do.

I describe myself as an Interdisciplinary Iconoclast and Creatrix of Awesome – I do a variety of things in different areas, tend to stand out as unique/unusual within them, and if it sounds interesting or awesome I sign on for it!

I create performance art that combines burlesque, circus, improv, spoken word, comedy, physical theatre, and stagecraft to tell personal stories and relate them to my politics, especially as a multiple minority: young female queer South Asian migrant in Australia. Some are deeply poignant and political, while some are more personal, and some even silly – I’ve done an ode to Savage Garden, danced my heartbreak for a girl I longed for, and reverse-stripped into a burqa because I got fed up that people were making assumptions & rules around Muslim women without ever actually
asking the women what they were after.

I also assist with various events, productions, and festivals around Brisbane and Australia (and starting to go international) that deal with the issues I’m interested in – from small-scale burlesque revues, to queer art festivals, to being a runner at BurlyCon in Seattle! I’ve become the semi-resident stage manager for queer events in Brisbane, which is pretty cool – queer audiences are great to perform to as they tend to be more open about who performs art and what they portray. I’m starting to get into event production myself, having organised a queer cabaret for Museum of Brisbane’s Prejudice and Pride, the world’s first ever museum exhibition of local queer history, cofounded the Awesome GRRRLS Collective and currently in the midst of co-producing Brisbane’s Vagina Monologues and an Erotic Cabaret.

Besides that (!!!) I write a great deal on my blog, contribute as Associate Editor to
Australian alternative webzine The Scavenger, co-present feminist community radio show 4zzz Megaherzzz and co-present for ABC Australia Network’s My Australia, a TV show that follows new migrants around as they experience Australian culture.

Knowing me, by the time you get this, I’ve probably signed on for another 100 new things XD

Performing - Ex/Rotic

What about some more details of an interdisciplinary art project you’ve worked on?

Wow, what have I worked on that _isn’t_ interdisciplinary? I suppose a good example would be my involvement with the Aperture project for Vulcana Women’s Circus, one of an awesome bunch of community women’s circuses in Australia. Aperture was about developing emerging artists and their concepts into stage-ready performances – in our case, for the Island Vibe festival in 2009. My proposal talked about how I was feeling frustrated with people appropriating and mistreating other cultures in burlesque (it was sparked by an argument with an ex-mentor) and how I was feeling tokenized and marginalised because I didn’t want to be the Bollywood Princess or Exotic Other.

My awesomesauce directors Penny Lowther and Celia White took my rage and politics and rambling and helped me channel it into a performance piece that combined burlesque, magic, striptease, and spoken word – with a reworked version of Suheir Hammad’s fabulous poem “Not Your Exotic”. To complement the performance piece, Ex/Rotic, I also had some pinup-esque photos taken contrasting differing ideas of culture and sexuality, and got epic henna designs on my back and hands as part of the climax – now I’m addicted to henna!

The piece has been performed a few different places since and gets pretty well-received each time. A friend and pinup enthusiast lovingly called it “The Anti-Burlesque” – it’s certainly a burlesque of expectations within the contemporary burlesque scene!

So, you scored a fantastic art residency in San Francisco at CELLspace’s Project 2048. What will you be using the time to do?

Ooh yes! Every so often I’ll learn about some awesome performer or find out about some conference or other that would almost always be based in San Francisco, and for a while I’d idly wondered about going there and spending some time being creative and exploring things. A few months ago I decided to make it more of a structured challenge, and applied for the residency largely on my principle to “apply for anything interesting” – I didn’t expect to be accepted so quickly!

In my residency I plan to explore how gender, sexuality, and culture intersect, and transform my experiences and perspectives of love, relationships, and being a minority in multiple ways into performance pieces. It’s a culmination of ideas I’ve had for performances, especially since I want to go beyond typical burlesque and take more risks, but it wasn’t until mentors and inspirations like Sunny Drake actually challenged me to *do something about it* rather than sit there and wonder (and drown in my fear) that I started getting proactive.

My start & growth as a performer has come together with me starting to really explore my sexuality and the queer world, after a lifetime of not even really knowing what sexuality was and then not feeling safe about discovering my body and my sexuality. San Francisco has so much happening that intrigues me – from Mission Control and the Kinky Salon, to conferences like FemmeCon, to performance events like the Kaleidoscope Cabaret , a national burlesque festival for performers of colour. It’s wild, it’s challenging, and it’s totally unlike most things I’ve seen – and I’m highly HIGHLY intrigued. I would love to investigate these initiatives further, volunteer and intern with them, maybe even perform for them!

do i remind you...

Clearly, you’re passionate about diversity…

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a minority in multiple ways – I’m Bangladeshi born & bred in Malaysia and automatically classed as “Other” (not just for my race, which was a major factor, but also for being a permanent resident in a country that doesn’t value them), recently migrated to Australia. Malaysia is a very asexual country that doesn’t even _consider_ sexuality or gender (beyond “don’t do it until you’re married”) so while I had known I was queer since my late teens I never felt the need nor the opportunity to do anything about it – not even date! – until after I arrived in Australia. Yet even in my performance and activist circles, I often stand out as The Token Foreigner, often with subtly clashing perspectives or missing some sort of shared experience. I basically feel like a Perpetual Foreigner; everywhere I go, I’m the odd one out.

I know how frustrating it is to be alienated, silenced, not even given due consideration just because you’re different and people don’t know how to deal with that – let alone figure out what you may actually have *in common* with them. It’s been hard to find stories from any culture or background that I could relate to – I realise my situation is rather unique, but it would be nice to hear from more queer South Asians, or first-generation “Others” in Malaysia, or some other intersecting minority. This is partly why San Francisco appealed to me – it seemed that for any sort of obscure circumstance, there is a group out there who would welcome you and help you out.

How can we help you out with the #sanfranplan?

The San Fran Plan is the name of my crowdfunding efforts to get to my Project 2048 residency in August. I need at least $5000 – around $2000 for flights, and the rest for the residency fee/rent (three months) and living costs. As it is I’m due for a $650 deposit by this month!

The most crucial thing I need at this stage is *money* – people can donate at IndieGoGo and there are a few perks to choose from. In-kind donations are also appreciated – especially airfare or frequent flyer miles. Also helpful is more publicity – getting the word out to people in a position to help.

There’s a small site being built at the moment with more information on what I’m up to and how to help; I’m thinking of including affiliate sales links and merchandise on there. But in the meantime, head on to, drop a dollar, and spread the word!

Where can we go to find out more about The San Fran Plan and about your life and work in general?

Have a look at my website, The Merch Girl and my blog (hosted on Tumblr – follow me!). I’m also on Flickr, Vimeo, Facebook and Twitter!


PHOTO CREDITS: Copyright. All rights reserved by tiaramerchgirl

This entry was published on December 12, 2010 at 3:03 pm and is filed under being an artist, creativity, interview, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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