Burlesque star believes Black Lives Matter is changing the arts

The chance to work on director Santilla Chingaipe’s short film The Dancer arrived at the right time.

The Zambian-born journalist and filmmaker cast the Congolese-Australian performer to dance while female artists with African heritage talk in pre-recorded interviews about their motivation, hopes and racism they face.

It is part of an innovative project called Voxdocs — eight short documentaries about the state of the performing arts created as a collaboration between Shark Island Institute, Documentary Australia Foundation, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Chingaipe said a friend recommended Rose.

“I saw an Instagram video of her performing and thought she’d be perfect,” she said. “At the time, she was quite vocal about the Black Lives Matter movement so I thought her own personal politics aligned with what the film was trying to do. And she’s an incredible dancer.”

The thoughtful and articulate Rose, who grew up with her white Australian mother estranged from her Congolese father, identified with the experiences of the other women in the film.

“It took me a while to find my community”: Zelia Rose.Credit:Jason South

“I think we all have a lot in common — those who grew up here and those who came here from Africa,” she said. “We all experience things in the same way in a sense.

“When I was younger … it took me a while to find my community and find my people. It was so enlightening and comforting when I did because we could talk about things that we’d experienced specifically from being of the African diaspora.”

Rose believes the provocative style of dance that is burlesque is inevitably political as a woman of colour.

“You don’t have to be innately political to say something: you can just do it and be who you are,” she said. “Just by being you in this world and being unapologetically that, there’s such strength … especially as a woman of colour [who is] proud.”

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Rose said she had experienced racism in “so many different nuances and indirect and direct ways”.

Sometimes it was overt; other times through what she calls micro-aggressions.

“If I’m on a film set or I’m working on some show or a television commercial, I’ve often had people attempt to do my hair and they haven’t because they don’t have the training or the knowledge,” she said. “They then vent their frustration and you’re made to feel bad and responsible for your difference.

“It’s little things as well, like going to the pharmacy and not being able to find your foundation colour … there’s all these things that point at you being the ‘other’.

“I think that’s how racism exists in our society even on a day-to-day level: things that should be easy and are accessible to everybody else are not as easy for you.”

Then there is the question of representation: not being cast.

“A lot of the big shows I’ve been in, there has been one or two people of colour in the cast,” Rose said. “A lot of the time maybe people weren’t aware of trying to include more diverse backgrounds but I think that’s really changing culturally now. People are definitely becoming more aware of that, especially after the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Rose is optimistic about life after COVID-19.

“The world has seen pandemics before and I’m sure we can work through this and it just has to be a readjustment for everybody,” she said. “It’s a good time to really look at what we want to improve in our lives and what we want to improve in the world.”

Voxdocs is a collaboration between Shark Island Institute, Documentary Australia Foundation, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. To watch the eight films, visit smh.com.au/voxdocs and www.theage.com.au/voxdocs.

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