Is your art political?

an interview with Laila Umeko, circus artist and student at esac, Brussels


transcribed by Rahel Gieselmann

I interviewed Laila for a paper for my sociology studies, which is about feminist artists in times of Corona. When transcribing, I realized that the interview would also be interesting for the project 3xEva – I love it when different projects and activities in my life overlap. But well, maybe it isn’t really surprising, as all I can think about is “FEMINISM, FEMINISM, FEMINISM”. – So, here you go:

Laila is from Welligton in New Zealand. At the age of 13 she visited a circus space, was overwhelmed and excited. She just didn’t want to do anything else after that. Now she is in her 3rd year of the circus school esac in Brussels, where she will graduate in November 2021.


Laila has the same opinion like me about performance arts and its political relevance:

For me, I … I believe that art is something which is inherently political because we’re all products of the society where we grew up and where we live now. And whatever you put on stage or whatever you share with the world, it has already got a political meaning.“

She is conscious about it, but what to do with it?

„And for me, I want that political meaning to be consciously chosen. I don’t just want to put things on stage because I like them, I want to share my… my morals and my values and what I think is important and also maybe the things that I don’t like in the world that I would like to change or make people think about, and that’s what I want to put on stage. I don’t want to be just easy or just entertainment. I wouldn’t make people challenge themselves and challenge the world that they’re in.“

This isn’t easy, of course:

„That’s been the question of my last three years of studies. I think I definitely want my act to be political, but it’s hard sometimes to translate what I want to say into movement and into circus. And that’s kind of a struggle that I have been figuring out and breaking down kind of. Yeah, discovering over the last years, and I’ve definitely performed or had projects that have been based around specific political ideas, kind of mostly related to feminism or environmentalism and I don’t feel like I’ve fully succeeded so far and in creating art that is political in the way that I want it to be. But I definitely think so much of who I am is related to politics in the sense of, I know human values and valuing humanity and kind of wanting to fight against a society that I don’t always agree with.“

I understand what she says and I want to know more about it. I want specific examples:

„I feel like in this moment now, I’ve just discovered that I can base hand-to-hand or partner acrobatics and that I’m strong enough to do that. And there are obviously many other women who are strong enough to do that, but often people assume that men are strong and that women are weak, and that’s a stereotype that’s quite present in circus, especially when you look at a lot of aerialists, that are woman and woman that are often very thin and very small and graceful, elegant, delicate, all of those kind of stereotypes in a way and for a very long time. Well. -connection cut- …this thing that I really wanted and suddenly I’ve kind of discovered that actually being strong and being big is really… is really cool, too. And that, for the first time, and I mean, I’m not so big, but I’m bigger than a lot of other people around me. In the circus world, unfortunately,… And it’s been really amazing these last couple of months to discover that I enjoy being the size that I am because it means that I’m strong and that actually what’s more important for me than being delicate or graceful or sexy or whatever, whatever it is that you want to call the woman on stage, I want to be strong and I want to show that woman can be strong. […] I want to show that on stage, I want to show the world that women can be strong and being strong doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m a woman or that I’m feminine.“


How can we take this into the creation process?

„I think just also talking and kind of having, like, political ideas in your head throughout the creation process and saying, hey, this is… this is what I’m thinking about and this is what my research is about. It’s already going to take you somewhere… take me somewhere and  I believe also that just to be a woman… A female body on stage is a political act. And so I think in this moment, I really am kind of searching to find how having that body, my female body on stage, can say something in and of itself.“

This is really interesting. Does she have anything else to add? She tells me that she feels responsible as an artist:

„Just I think that, yeah, I mean, I said it already, but conversation is really important and I think that’s something that obviously I mean, we all know conversation is important, but I think in terms of like being an artist, we have a responsibility to kind of be conscious of what we are putting on stage. And part of that for me is kind of breaking down also my own privileges and my own kind of unconscious biases that are there and saying, hey, I don’t want to put these on stage. I don’t want to share these things with the world. But actually, I want to kind of break them down for myself and reflect and really be very sure of what I am sharing with people. And I think we have a responsibility as artists and as performing artists to educate ourselves about the world and about the societies that we live in so that we can present what we want to on stage and so that we can, we can be kind of more precise in what we are doing and in what direction we are going. And I think conversation throughout the creation process, through life in general, has the power to shape us in that sense. Yes, and that is all I have to say about that.“

Thank you Laila for sharing your thoughts and your art with the world! 


“I think art is kind of this really amazing way of... of expressing not only what we love, but also what we don't love about the world and kind of also maybe the path to changing the world, that in small or also in big ways.”