Image description: A woman stands before a wooden log bridge that sits over a brown river. She is facing towards the right, but looks at the camera. She wears a black top; rainbow feather earrings; holds an approximately sixty-centimetre-long feather; and has a serious, yet calm facial expression.
By Sam Beard and Aninya Marzohl
Imagine sitting in a canoe gently rocking down the Amazon. The water is calm and still. Hushahu, the first woman shaman of the Yawanawa people, begins to tell you of her culture, people and community.
Awavena is a virtual reality (VR) artwork that imbeds you in this true story – its sounds and sights. Directed by Emmy award-winner Lynette Wallworth, in collaboration with the Yawanawa of the Amazon, Awavena is divided into two parts, both of which use virtual reality.
In the first part, you wear a VR headset while seated, during which Hushahu shares with you her story of becoming a shaman, and the survival of her culture. After about twenty minutes, you are directed to the second part. This second sequence gestures towards the powerful medicines used in the cultural rituals of the Yawanawa. Walking around with the headset on, you explore these induced visions firsthand.
Any technology is liable to difficulties, but the structure of the piece enables an easy flow of people. After the VR experience of Awavena concludes, you are invited to sit and reflect on the work, given the opportunity to write to Hushahu, and served a cup of tea. This adds to the feeling of connection to the community that is witnessed through the medium of VR.
Awavena bridges cultural distance in a way that is non-invasive, without replicating colonial power imbalances. Hushahu and the Yawanawa community are able to tell their stories on their own terms, showing us what they want to share in their own words. Wallworth’s experience with collaboration and communication allows her to give Hushahu the platform and space to take ownership of her story. VR truly comes into its own here – as a tool for communication that is intimate and powerful, encouraging understanding and empathy. We enter Hushahu’s world upon her invitation.
Experiencing the fluorescent and hypnotic VR visuals, you empathise with Hushahu’s description of her becoming a shaman – nausea, but also utter wonder. First-time viewers of VR will certainly enjoy the second segment of the show, in which you are free to move around within the visions and enjoy the immersion. This segment does not follow any narrative, but importantly connects you even more deeply with the visions you have seen in the first part, allowing for active play and interaction.
Awavena does not feel like a documentary, nor does it feel didactic. The VR format forces you to be an active participant in the dialogue that unfolds; when Hushahu looks deeply into your eyes, you cannot hide amongst an audience or crowd – in that moment, she is addressing you, and you alone. Wallworth continues to push the boundaries of what VR is capable of in terms of communication, breaking down barriers in a way that maintains complete respect for all parties involved.
Hushahu’s story of creating change within a community is one that many of us need right now. Within her lifetime, she shifts gender perceptions; pioneers women’s knowledge; and reinstates lost rituals. It is a story of communal healing and restructuring for the better.
Inspirational feels too reductive a word for this story. Witnessing this success left me feeling uplifted, and empowered to enact similar change within my own community. The ginger tea and time to reflect at the end of the VR experience is a lovely way to conclude the show (also, ginger tea is excellent for nausea if you find yourself feeling a bit sick from VR).
Awavena runs at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until the 2nd of March. Tickets are free, but you need to book. You can do so here.
Four and a half ginger teas out of five.
Aninya Marzohl is an arts student who just wants more tattoos.
Sam Beard studies art history and enjoys cycling.
Image courtesy of Awavena (production still).