When artistic director and performer Jodee Mundy was six, a teacher hauled her up at school assembly to answer personal questions about her family’s deafness (Mundy is the only one with hearing and Auslan is her first language). It’s hard to imagine a kid being grilled like that these days: to make it worse, her teacher didn’t even bother obtaining parental consent.
The grainy footage of the event shows a slightly bewildered and bemused Mundy responding as best she can, before the interview culminates with this bombshell: “how do your brothers get to school?”. “They walk,” Mundy replies.
“My mum told me recently that [the teacher] had a deaf family member and I think she just wanted to increase awareness around the deaf community,” Mundy says. “It’s a strange experience to watch now, but I think she was well intentioned. Although, it does come across as curious and putting me on the spot. She called me an expert in sign language and I clearly wasn’t that at all – I didn’t even know what the words ‘subtitle’, ’caption’ or ‘tele-text’ were. It all went way over my head. God, I didn’t even have two front teeth.”
A lifetime of responding to questions like this, ranging from the respectfully curious to voyeuristic, informs Mundy’s new work, Personal. Mundy is keen for audiences to understand that it’s not a show about deafness as a disability, but, rather, deafness as a linguistic difference.
“That fact that my family ‘sign’ is not ‘less than’ or a deficit, it’s just a point of diversity,” Mundy says. “I’d love people to see the Auslan community as a culturally and linguistically diverse community. What stands deaf people apart is language. Many deaf people don’t identity themselves as having a disability. For them, it’s just language – they just don’t speak English.”
The multimedia-multidisciplinary show, which incorporates a hologram of Mundy interpreting what she’s saying on stage, has been in the making for three years. It was only when a fellow artist called her to elaborate on it in 2011 that Personal began to unfold.
“I was at an artist’s retreat and we had to present everything about why we make art and why we do what we do. I presented my work and didn’t mention my family at all. Someone in the audience put their hand up and said: ‘Yeah, well, that’s all very interesting, but your family – that’s way more interesting. Of course, I was taken aback – he’d put a finger on a raw nerve.
“I went home and thought: ‘stuff him’, but I had a big think about why I was so resistant and I started to draw pictures of my memories. Two hundred drawings later, I realised I had quite a lot of material.”
Personal tour dates:
- April 24-29, Arts House at North Melbourne Town Hall
- May 9-13, UnWrapped Festival at the Sydney Opera House
- May 31-June 26 across regional Victoria and Parramatta