True Story: I’m A Performance Artist

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of Tiara and her work as a performance artist.


Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m Tiara the Merch Girl, performance artist, writer, producer, and Creatrix of Awesome. I’m originally from Malaysia and have been based in Brisbane, Australia for the past 4.5 years. I’m 25 and basically my philosophy is if it looks interesting, sign up for it!When did you first become interested in performance art? What was your first piece?
I had been making up ideas for a while without knowing of the concept of “performance art”, but I didn’t pick up on the term until about 2008. I love being creative and learned I could, but at the time I was more heavily involved in writing and media and didn’t really think about performance.

In early 2009 after I finished university I got involved with 3 different performance things at once: being cast in the Vagina Monologues, taking up burlesque classes, and being selected for a circus traineeship. What was supposed to be a short-term thing to do before I went back to Malaysia sparked a deep passion. It was AMAZING! I loved it so much, I stayed on and kept going.

My first solo piece was Lullaby, a slow reverse strip where I change into a burqa or Islamic prayer clothes. I grew up Muslim and I was dealing with the clash between my now sensual and sexual side and my upbringing and history. I was also very deeply frustrated with all the anti-burqa rhetoric that never really considered what the women themselves felt. I wanted to show that under every veil and burqa and hijab lies a woman with her own sexuality, her own sense of self, her own agency.

What topics does your art deal with?
A lot of my work deal with my personal experiences and politics, largely around being an Other! I’ve always been very activist-minded so a lot of my work is quite political but also very personal – from Lullaby to Ex/Rotic, sparked after being fed up with being called the Bollywood Princess or being typecast because I was brown. Through my work I present what it means for me to be a female queer migrant minority – never quite fitting in.

Not all of my work is deathly serious – I’ve got some fun random acts too that are usually quite personal or me being inspired by a song and wanting to make something of it. Teenage Fangirl is about my adolescent fascination with Savage Garden (which still holds!) and Coxcomb Red is a poignant sad ode to a lost love. Whether I’m being serious, sad, or silly, everything I do is very heartfelt and reflects an aspect of my personality and character.

What do you hope people ‘take away’ from your pieces?
I want people to really reconsider their preconceived ideas about things – such as Lullaby challenging ideas of Muslim women in burqas. I really appreciate and treasure people having conversations from my pieces, like stories of teenage crushes after Teenage Fangirl.

Something that has really touched me is all the people who write to me after reading something I wrote or watching one of my acts thanking me for doing what I do. They are often fellow minorities who also feel alienated and alone no matter which circle they’re in and thought they were the only ones that do so. They help me feel like I’m not alone in this universe and that somewhere someone is able to resonate with my story.

How have the people in your life reacted to your work?
My parents don’t quite understand it; for a long time they thought I was being a prostitute or a brothel owner! It probably doesn’t help that a lot of my work is quite erotically charged. They’ve since decided to resign themselves to the face that they’ve got a flamboyant exhibitionist daughter – but hey, I’ve always been quite a ham!

My boyfriend’s been amazingly supportive, even though his lifestyle is very different from mine – typical straight guy IT geek! One big reason he loves me is because I make his life interesting, and he wholeheartedly supports me all the way. My friends have been great too. I have lost some friends, even those I met through performing, because of my very outspoken political nature but I’ve also gained so many friends who support what I’m doing and help me out however they can.

How does a performance artist make money? Do you have a ‘day job’ to support yourself?
Good question – if you find out let me know! I’ve started being paid for my performances, though it will likely be a while before I can really make a living out of this.

Most people in my position tend to be funded with grants or scholarships or government support, but as I’m on a bridging visa in Australia I don’t qualify for most financial help. So I have to work outside the box. I do quite a bit of support work for artists and performances – stage management, editing, personal assistance, ticketing, freelance media work, random odd jobs.

Thankfully I still have my parents’ support, even if it means getting the odd lecture or two and occasionally my boyfriend chips in while I wait for a paycheck to clear. For my San Fran Plan project I’ve mostly been crowdfunding and I would appreciate any ideas on getting more money!

Professionally, where do you see yourself in five years?
I tend to work with the philosophy of expressing my truths and encouraging others to do so, however it is I do that – whether through performance art or alternative education activism or media work or whatever.

I would like to get into production; I’ve put on a couple of events and it’s been fun, and when I was in university I was really inspired by the work of artistic directors, people who come up with great concepts and figure out what needs to be done to make it happen.

Once I get enough money together I’d like to pass on my opportunities to others, even as a small scholarship – every little bit helps!

What advice would you give to other people who are interested in becoming performance artists?
The one piece of advice I kept getting was “Just start!”, which is true but can be hard to wrap your head around – especially since unlike ballet or traditional theater there aren’t usually typical pathways. If something intrigues you go check it out – even if it’s something you think doesn’t really gel with your personality.

Experiment! If you’ve got a story to tell, tell it – work with it, pick out symbols, play with it .Have fun. Say what you want to say. Host a dinner party, invite your friends, and show off. The beauty of performance art is that you can do whatever you want.

Any question for Tiara? Have any of you done performance art?

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  1. Ashley

    love!! fascinating and important, thank you!

  2. fellow malaysia

    Awesome stuff.. Real inspiration…

  3. nova

    Wow, I watched the video of Lullaby and was moved! Good work.


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