In the last four days, Thomas Fonua has worked across Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide. He’s performed as his drag queen persona Kween Kong, worked as a choreographer and completed his first day of rehearsal for Windmill Theatre Company’s upcoming show RELLA.
Back in 2013, when he relocated to Adelaide from Sydney, Fonua was leading a substantially different artistic life, working full-time as a contemporary dancer.
“When I first moved to Adelaide, I saw my first Fringe show, and it was Briefs Factory, where I was introduced to the incredible Fez Faanana, who actually was, for me, one of my biggest inspirations to start drag,” he says.
“For my community, the Pacific community… there aren’t many examples of queer Pacific excellence. So, seeing this big, bearded, immigrant drag queen from Ipswich… it really spoke to me, and I went ‘oh my god, that’s what I want to do’.
Fonua began making big changes in his career. In 2015, he choreographed his first independent contemporary dance work. MALAGA dealt with Europe’s dark history of forcing Indigenous peoples to appear in human zoos, a practice that directly affected Fonua’s ancestors.
Around the same time, he also made his first appearances as Kween Kong. Very quickly, he realised that these new strands of work were the missing piece of his artistic puzzle.
“I was successful as a dancer for sure, but I got really sick of being a cog in a bigger machine, making things that weren’t necessarily true to my narrative or perspective as a South Pacific artist,” he says.
“Once I started doing drag … I was really liberated. As a queer Pacific male, I think Kween Kong has taught me a lot of things and she has given me the bravery to unpack some things that are not necessarily easy to digest about my personality and my background and where I come from.
“It was about understanding my own gender and my own sexuality and being comfortable with my identity.”
Fonua now balances work as a contemporary dancer with Kween Kong’s performance gigs, and the creation and touring of his own original shows – sometimes as a solo choreographer and creator, and sometimes in collaboration with Haus of Kong, a collective he founded to support artists from the local community.
Like most independent artists, Thomas also manages the production side of his independent work – handling everything from organising international tours for ensembles of performers, to venue logistics.
“Obviously as an artist, it’s important to know how to create and craft your work and know what it’s about,” he says, “but I think there’s such a business to the arts.
“You need to be able to articulate and put onto paper what your vision is and why it’s important for the government and for the arts institutions to support your vision.”
In developing these practical skills, Thomas had a head start. With an undergraduate degree in economics and a masters in business leadership, he had the theory covered. But for practical learning, connecting with other artists – through experiences like that seminal early moment at Adelaide Fringe – has been essential.
“Working in the industry, you’re around lots of people that know how to help you facilitate and market your work,” he says. “Especially as a person of colour and an artist of colour, you have to be really careful about how the work is portrayed.”
Adelaide Fringe has also been instrumental in providing Fonua with a financial foundation for his creativity.
In 2022, he presented four new works at Adelaide Fringe, which were supported not only by the ticket sales they generated but also grant funding from the festival.
“I wouldn’t have been able to make my works if they didn’t put those [grants] down on the table,” Fonua says. “The beautiful thing about the Adelaide Fringe is the money they’re receiving from the Government they’re trying to pour straight into the artists.
“They’re very conscious that there would be no festival and no economic bump if they didn’t have work made, so they’re very adamant about sharing that money and pouring it into the artists and enabling artists to take control of not only creating the shows, but also producing and receiving all of the benefits that go with that.”
The funding, like Fonua’s work, has a deeper and longer-lasting effect than casual observers might assume.
Fonua is an artist that tells stories of identity and he is purposeful in involving community. When he receives financial support, it finds its way into many pockets, while also validating the importance of these narratives in Australian culture.
“I think, as a queen of colour… what I bring is my value system,” Fonua says. “There’s a base level of responsibility and sharing – nothing is ever mine and the day that it becomes about me is the day that I need to retire.
“It’s been refreshing as an artist as well as an emerging leader to try and facilitate things that I believe in, as well… be a part of a community of people that are like-minded and want to work towards the same vision.
“It’s been really nice to work with Fringe and know that the work that we’re making is important and there’s value there.”
The Business of Art is an InReview series about the development of performing arts careers and opportunities from Adelaide. The series has been produced with the support of Adelaide Fringe.
Read more of the series here.
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