Visual and physical theatre artist Anna Masing invited her friend, a dancer from Malaysia, to collaborate and participate in a performance which would contribute to Masing’s PhD study. The dancer Maryline Semba Mani was detained, treated with suspicion of being an “exotic dancer” and deported back to Malaysia. She was not being paid a fee for this engagement, as the relationship was based on a close friendship with Masing. She was not informed by the UK consulate about the new Permitted Paid Engagement visitor route. In fact, the consulate couldn’t see a problem about her coming to the UK as a tourist on a general visitor visa. Yet again, this incident illustrates the mind-boggling position that artists and performers find themselves in where coming to visit in the UK means that you must agree not to be an artist. As I previously argued “It’s like being temporarily stripped of your identity until you return home.”
Maryline Semba Mani, Saturday 28 April 2012, on her experience at Heathrow Airport
“I took two planes, one from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur, then Kuala Lumpur to London. I got to immigration, and the man asked me why I’m in London and what the reason that make me stay in London for a long time… So I answer him the reasons I’m here cause I’m here to help my best friend and to visit her… So the man said that he doesn’t believe me. Then he send me to a room that they put a person, that is not a good person to them. I was too scared and had tension cause I don’t know why they don’t believe me… I just want to get out from that room and want to hug someone so I can cry.”
Testimonial from Anna Masing, Phd student, director and producer of visual and physical theatre:
I have been working on my PhD for the last two and half years. I’ve been looking at performing arts through the Iban women’s performance practices. This has involved me going back to Sarawak to work with women performers, in particular dancers from the Sarawak Cultural Village. On one trip I went back with three other performers (who are also good friends of mine). On that trip we worked with a group of women, including Maryline. Due to the nature of my work, which is about telling life stories, and the nature of performance and art, which is about sharing, collaborating and exchange of ideas and practice, we all grew to be very close, and became good friends.
The way my work continued meant that I used a lot of Maryline’s story within my research. I felt that is was very important that she continued to be part of my work, and therefore come over for the last workshops and final presentation performance.
Maryline is a single mother and doesn’t have the means to pay for a flight to London, so I found the funding to make it possible for her to be here. It was an exciting opportunity for her, and for me, but she does have other obligations, and, although I was covering her expenses I was not paying her, so four weeks in the UK was not a flippant decision, she was doing this also because of our friendship and the desire to help me with my work.
When she got to UK immigration, they didn’t believe her.
They called me and from the questions they asked me I got the impression that they thought a) she was an exotic dancer, therefore would not leave b) we could not possibly be friends.
Once they had gone down the road of judging a small, pretty, Southeast Asian women, with accented English, it was every hard to prove they were wrong in their suspicions. I had to prove my legality in the country, I had to justify my work, my whole credibility as a person was under question. The fact I spoke with excellent English (I used as many big words as possible to try and prove I was academic) and I had a New Zealand passport seemed to work.
If I felt judged, I can’t even imagine how Maryline felt!
This meant that they judged she was not here as a tourist, and that her primary reason for being in the UK was professional. This is not untrue, but they wouldn’t take into the account, or understand the friendship side of the situation.
I then spent hours trying to explain, prove and justify our friendship. I was even asked how often we chatted on Facebook (I don’t talk on Facebook very often, full stop!). They could not believe that a few weeks of workshops could lead to an in-depth friendship, where I would find funding to pay for her flight and expenses.
The immigration officers could not understand the complicated nature of art, performance and research, where people work with each other because they believe in the work and because of the friendship this mutual appreciation and respect creates.
I don’t understand why her entrance into the UK was such an issue. She was not going to be a burden to the state, cause social disruption, take away jobs or create a security problem.
The immigration office admitted that it was a grey area and he had to make a decision. I do not understand why he couldn’t make a decision that was based on believing/understanding our intentions of helping each other out and the lack of problem her presence would cause. He tried hard to understand, but just didn’t realise and recognise his own prejudices.
They promised me that they were not dealing with her as a criminal, but as you can see from her testimonial, that was not the case, they made her feel like she was not a good person. She did nothing wrong, UK Border Control are just narrow minded, unimaginative and judgemental.
Art is a grey area. Artists occupy grey areas. The very nature of art is to not fit into one box. Therefore, there has to be an understanding that artists need to be able to cross borders to exchange, collaborate, participate and engage. Their intentions are not nefarious. In fact, the presence of an artist can enrich, not cause harm.