Sunday, August 19, 2018

Multicultural Montréal

Présence Autochtone
I've just spent a week in Montréal, thanks to a grant from the British Council and the Québec Government, who are looking to build artistic and cultural collaborations.  It's a fascinating space for anyone working in intercultural and multicultural performance.  The Francophone Québecois, fiercely proud of their identity, clearly regard themselves as a minority with a drum to bang within the predominantly Anglophone Canada.  The Anglophones in Québec, in turn, are officially classed as a minority.  So that means the two dominant cultural groups are both minorities.  Which doesn't leave all that much room for the minority minorities.

I'd been to the city several times before, particularly to research indigenous work for ORIGINS, and the First People's Festival, Présence Autochtone, is a longstanding ally.  This year the Festival took advantage of my trip, and made me one of two visiting professionals to talk about our work (the other was Jerker Bexelius from the Southern Sámi Cultural Centre in Sweden).  As so often, there was some bemusement, even suspicion, from the indigenous audience as to why a British organisation should want to curate a Festival of indigenous cultures in London - a suspicion that soon disappears when they hear about the healing agenda in what we do, and the positive value constantly placed on the global indigenous movement.

As I spoke about the real need we have in the UK for the positive models that indigenous culture can offer, the Festival Director André Dudemaine remarked that this was like something Jean-Paul Sartre had said during the Algerian War: that the Algerians were not only fighting to free themselves from colonisation - but that they would also liberate the French.  A people cannot be free while it continues to oppress others.  It was a characteristically astute observation, and it also made me realise that, while many First Nations are quite resistant to the Québecois agenda, indigenous Francophones like André inevitably read their position in relation to a French discourse. Until then, I had always thought of the Festival's name as a simple statement of "We're still here" - but I now realise that it relates to a whole tradition of resistance to colonialism.  Présence Africaine, to which I now realise the name alludes, is a pan-African magazine, published in Paris since 1947.  As an exhibition at Montréal's Musée des Beaux Arts reminds me, it was crucial to the development of Négritude, and Picasso provided illustrations, working alongside Aimée Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor.  Sartre and Camus contributed too - even négritude was not separatist, and embraced its allies.

There are allies for the First Nations in Montréal too.  I got to meet Rahul Varma, a playwright and producer who runs Teesri Duniya Theatre (it means "Third World" in Hindi), and who set up the fascinating magazine alt.theatre.  Rahul's company produces a wide range of plays, characterised by a global perspective that links specific communities in Québec with the international.  That has included First Nations, as well as refugees, Palestinians, and people involved in both the Rwandan and Armenian genocides.  I met Johanna Nutter, who is working with First Nations visual artist Nadia Myre as a way to develop artistic practice and cultural reach for both of them.  I met Michael Toppings, whose organisation MAI offers space and support for a whole range of diverse artists.

And yet....   It feels like there's a very long way to go.  When André and Rahul talk about the very low levels of funding and press coverage they are able to access, it doesn't sound like sour grapes - it sounds real.  When the agenda of the provincial government is to promote what it regards as a minority (the Francophones), then it's much less likely to open up to other minorities.  There's no doubt that Montréal is a global, intercultural city - but its arts funding structure and its press don't really reflect that as yet.

I had a wonderful evening with Yves Sioui Durand and Catherine Joncas, the founding Artistic Directors of Ondinnok, who came to the very first ORIGINS Festival in 2009 to lead a workshop around their Theatre of Healing work.  Yves cooked salmon and wild mushrooms, and we talked about their astonishing work.  But they were also clearly under a cloud - and it was a cloud cast by two great Francophone theatre-makers who they had regarded as their allies and friends. They are also two theatre-makers whom I admire immensely, and have been privileged to meet and talk with over the years. Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage had decided to work together to create a piece called Kanata, in which the story of Canada's First Nations would be told.  The only thing was - there were no First Nations people involved, either on stage or in consulting roles.  There was, of course, a protest, and the production has now been cancelled.

For Yves and Catherine, it feels very personal.  Yves worked closely with Robert on his previous production about Edmund Kean and First Nations, Alanienouidet.  Yves and Catherine worked twice with Ariane at the Cartoucherie, helping her company in rehearsals, for example on Le Dernier Caravansérail.  I find it difficult to understand how two such creative and aware people, who already know First Nations artists of this calibre, could not have realised that people would be upset by their decisions.  I do not believe in essentialism - in the theatre or anywhere else: it is nonsense to say that only Chinese people can talk about China or African people about Africa.  But globalised, multicultural, post-colonial spaces require globalised, multicultural, post-colonial dialogues and collaborations in order to achieve the complex art that can reflect their kaleidoscopic realities.  It isn't enough for those of us from the former colonial powers and the settler communities who see ourselves as allies of the colonised to represent them and to tell their stories on our stages.  They will still be our stages, and the action of representation so comes to reinforce rather than undermine the imbalances of power.  Our stages, like our cities and our politics, have to be shared.

[Research trip supported by the British Council]

Monday, July 09, 2018

MORE THAN WORDS: Silence, presence and secret languages

Guest blog by Marieke Schippert
MORE THAN WORDS - London workshop
In March, my 9 year old son and I flew to London for a training in an international setting. It was named MORE THAN WORDS and was about finding ways of communicating with people without words, for example with people with whom we don’t share the same language. Some of the tasks were meant to be done in the city: listening to the sound of different districts and neighbourhoods, observing the body language of people there, and determining ways of communication without sharing the same language.

Silence

As a single mom, I had to bring my son to the training in London, and we performed the tasks in the city together. The first tour brought us to Tottenham. First of all, the buildings there spoke to us. They said, that the people there didn't have too much money, and not so much space. Many of them were drying their clothes out of their windows. The shops there said, that many people there were immigrants, who wanted to preserve parts of their lifestyle in their new home: we saw lots of shops that made us feel like being in African or Asian countries.

Soon after arriving in Tottenham, my son purposefully directed me to one of the centres of communication without words: the playground and sports area in the park.  In that park, there were different public sports facilities: a football field, a basketball court and some fitness devices. Two young adults were playing football, without talking to each other. My son wanted to play as well, so he moved closer and closer to them, until one of them kicked the ball in his direction, inviting him to play. They communicated perfectly without words.

Another young man was shooting hoops on the basketball court. He was very good at it. Some admirers stood by and watched him play. They as well communicated very well without words - he knew, that they admired him, and they knew, that he appreciated them watching.

In the fitness area, there were several different people using the fitness equipment. Very diverse people of different ages, from very young to quite old, different skin colors, singles and couples, men and women. Together, they performed an act of ballet: Without talking, they freed the fitness devices and changed from one to another in perfect harmony, sensing the wishes of the others. Specially two people, a couple, seemed to know each other for a very long time - they were in perfect harmony and matched perfectly. They had a routine they performed without talking at all. They always changed the devices at the same time, did the exercises in the same rhythm. The communication between these people was just like a dance routine.

No wonder people, who work with refugees, often use sports as a means of coming together, getting into contact and achieving something together. Sport is one of the best, most efficient ways of communicating without words.

Presence

While we were in the park, school finished, and the pupils came out of a school nearby. Many of them crossed the park to go to the subway or to catch a bus. The girls were walking two by two, close together, talking quitly with one another. The boys were walking two by two as well - but talking very loudly, shouting all over the place, sometimes walking with great distance between them, expanding their conversation over half of the park.

Even if I couldn't understand their words, I could still read their body-language. And that language is gendered, influenced by gender roles. The girls were saying: "We better stick together and don't take up too much space!" and "We‘d better not attract too much attention on us!", while the boys were saying "I/We own this place!".

Their behaviour told me a lot about the society they live in. I understood, that men and women are not equal, that men are allowed to take up way more space than women, and that they are taught from a very young age on, that they rule the world. Girls are taught to hold back, to be pleasant and to admire the boys. The society they live in must be fundamentally gender biased.

Another presence that marked my son and me very much was the presence of Black people in London. Coming from Berlin/Germany, we were in awe. My son is Black, I am White. In Germany, even in Berlin, we are very often stared at. People keep asking themselves how we are related. My son gets stared at, touched without even asking and asked a lot about his Blackness. He was overwhelmed when we were in Brixton, waiting outside the subway for a friend. He was amazed by the great number of Black people that came out of the subway – they were the majority! That is an experience that he never makes in public German spaces (only in empowerment settings). He loved seeing so many Black people in the subway in general, and also finding them in very different professions in London. Their presence was very empowering to him.

The presence of Black people in London versus their presence in Berlin tells a lot about racism and postcolonial relations. For us foreigners, the situation in London seemed a bit better than in Berlin, but many housing areas still seemed quite segregated, which shows how both societies are still fundamentally structured by racism.

Secret Languages

In Tottenham, we went into a little café. Inside, there were two men speaking an african language, two men speaking french, and two men speaking a slavic language. As they all spoke different languages at their tables, they were able to have a very intimate ambience while talking. My son and I spoke German, which seemed to be unusual to the others, since they looked quite a lot at us. But we, as well, had our intimate language. It still matters a lot, what language you speak - the reactions vary very much depending on what counts as "normal" in that area, and what prejudices people have about people speaking your language. In general, speaking French for instance provokes other reactions than speaking an African language in a public space. These reactions are racially biased. These biased reactions are a very powerful way of communicating without words – most of the micro-aggressions linked to racism and other forms of discrimination are exercised without saying a single word. Looks and body language are more than enough to be very clear about what a person thinks about someone else. As we get more an more conscious about racism and discrimination in general, people often start taking care about the things they are saying – but we should focus as much on our general expression and body language. They are way more unconscious and direct ways of communicating and reflect what we really think, even if we don’t say it.

Body language and the tone of the voice are secret languages that also told me al lot about the people in that café in Tottenham. Even if I couldn’t understand what these pairs were saying, I still got to know a lot about them. First of all, that they had some relation to a country in which a different language was spoken. Their way of speaking, their voice, and their attitude, told me a lot about them : How they were feeling, a little about their character, and something about the relationship between them and their counterpart. I could also get some information about what kind of topics they were discussing, or at least, what the topic meant to them emotionally. For example, it was easy to tell, if they were discussing work topics, private topics, leisure topics or if they were fighting. It got very clear, if the topic was serious and very important to the person, if it was emotionally charged, or if it was a light topic.

Without words, we can understand very important things: emotions, relation and intentions. What’s lacking, is the concrete theoretical content. We maybe can’t discuss very theoretical issues without a common language. But we can use emotions, relation an our intentions to communicate in a very profound way. That means, that we need to get involved in a different way that what we mainly see as a professional relationship when we work with refugees for example. We need to go into a relation with them, show and share our emotions, and be clear in our intentions. On that basis, understanding will be easy. We also need to reflect the basis of our work and be very self-aware and self-scrutinizing about our own biases and prejudices. That is the foundation for going into an open, un-biased and true relation and communication.

Marieke Schippert works with NARUD - an African community organisation in Berlin.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Controlling the Narrative

The Town Hall Affair
In the week that saw Robert Lepage's new production SLĀV closed in the face of accusations of racism, I want to explore some of the underlying issues which may be leading to the wave of protests sweeping over intercultural performances recently.  SLĀV is far from the first production by a white male director to be condemned in this way.  Think of The Orphan of Zhao,  In the Depths of Deep Love, and Exhibit B.  In most of these cases, the question of casting to race (or not) has been central -  but Exhibit B had an entirely black cast, and was still widely (and in my view very unfairly) denounced as the racist work of a white director.  The question seems to me not only who performs a role, but, perhaps more crucially, who controls the narrative.

The question has been at the heart of three very remarkable productions I've seen over the last few weeks.  In The Town Hall Affair, the Wooster Group reproduce the famous 1971 “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation”, chaired by the pugnacious novelist Norman Mailer.  Or rather, they reproduce the documentary film called Town Bloody Hall, produced by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and released in 1979.  In the play, excerpts from this film (and from Mailer's own vanity movie, starring himself as a film director running for President) are played on screen, while the actors synchronise the dialogue, right down to the ers, ums and coughs.  The effect is at once very funny and deeply disconcerting.  It points up that, just as Mailer, Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston battled for control of the evening through the use (or subversion) of the conventional structures of a panel discussion (and the production redresses the balance by allowing Johnston the last word that Mailer had not admitted); so the filmed record, just by being a mediated record, has itself become the narrative.  By reproducing the dialogue of the film, the Wooster Group dispute its absolute authority.  As Theodor Adorno argued, in mimesis there is a kind of doubling - a hint that the "reality" of the "real" (or here, of the accepted narrative, which is perhaps the closest we can come to the "real") is not absolute.  By exposing the performed nature of the "real", they suggest the potential for alternatives - other ways of doing things.

Lady Eats Apple
Back to Back Theatre's Lady Eats Apple also disrupts and disputes a received narrative - in this case, the book of Genesis.  There are two gods - one played by a learning disabled actor, one not.  The god played by the learning disabled actor creates a man and a woman - also played by learning disabled actors.  He says that they are perfect.  He also says that they are not very intelligent.  In the play's final act, this Adam and Eve, expelled from Eden to become cleaners in the vast space of the Barbican auditorium, take tentative, delicate steps towards an intimate relationship.  They also try to revive the god played by the neuro-normative actor: but he is dead.  Of course he is.  We can't rely on the old myths any more - we have to re-create ourselves in our own image.

Fatherland
In Fatherland, another superb LIFT show at the Lyric Hammersmith, these questions are applied to our own country, and to personal relations between fathers and sons.  Subtitled Songs and stories from a forgotten England, the play endeavours, through staging verbatim interviews, to find a theatrical space for working-class men from the North of England.  These are voices we rarely hear on our stages - "I've never even been in an effing theatre before" says one interviewee - and have rarely heard in our political spaces either.  Until, of course, the Brexit referendum, which another character calls "an opportunity to kick Westminster in the bollocks."  The tensions between the men portrayed in the play and the men who made it are palpable - and deliberately not resolved.  If theatre aims to "give voice", does that not suggest that somehow "voice" is something in the gift of theatre-makers?  Does our control of "voice" and "narrative" not undermine our intention to disturb and challenge?  Are we not every bit as much part of the status quo as the political system we think we are battling?  As one of the characters in Fatherland says to the author and directors: "You're going on a little daytrip to get ideas and make it seem like you really care about what life is like here for people like me....    and you don't.  You just don't."


Monday, June 04, 2018

Imperious spaces

Hellerau
A couple of weeks ago, I was in Germany for a meeting on our MORE THAN WORDS project, and took the opportunity to pop down to Dresden, where Avatâra Ayuso was showing her extraordinary new dance piece UKI - a collaboration with Ink elder Naulaq Ledrew.  I'll probably have more to say about the performance at a future time - today I want to write a bit about the theatre itself, and some thoughts it stirred around space, history and culture.

Hellerau is on the outskirts of Dresden.  Travelling there does not feel like a journey to a major European arts space: the suburb sits within a forest, and is deliberately not "urban".  It was built in the early 20th century, as Eastern Germany's version of the Garden City movement - with the vast Festival Theatre incongruously surrounded by rather twee, Hansel-and-Gretel style workers cottages. The theatre site, on the other hand, is vast and imposing.  It reminded me of the Cartoucherie in Paris - partly because of its sheer scale and the resonance of workmanlike celebration in the spaces, and partly because, like that disused ammunition factory, it carries a military history.  That's good for a theatre - these are spaces where explosions should happen...  

In the case of Hellerau, however, engaging with the history remains a challenge, to say the least.  The theatre's website coyly remarks: "in the 1930s it served as a military camp; later the Soviet army used it as their barracks."  The 1930s were, of course, the Nazi era - and it's clear how the combination of the theatre's austere and imposing facade and its folksy surroundings made it deeply appealing to deranged nationalism.  The open space in front of the theatre used to be called "Adolf Hitler Platz".  Of course, that name no longer features on any map, but the space has never been re-named, and so suffers from an uneasy anonymity.

Has Germany really come to terms with its past?  These days, the discourse around Nazism is deafening in its silence.  It was an attempt to confront that past that led to the Baader- Meinhof Gang, and (more productively) to much of the disturbing power in the drama of Heiner Müller and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  Gerhard Richter (himself from Dresden) uses his art to tackle the deliberate suppression of memory in German culture.  Otherwise, all you see are a few ghosts - the little bronze plaques that mark the last sightings of German Jews in the streets of Berlin, the Jewish Museum, bizarre survivors like the Olympic Stadium.  Hellerau is full of ghosts - and to my mind it would be a much more powerful and evocative arts space if it were to embrace that, rather than rebuilding everything to a de-historicised, virginal blankness.  I would love to see it preserve the military "look", the imposing vastness of the square that threatens to become a car park, the peeling plaster on the outer walls of the former barracks walls.  In such a space of memory the wonderful progressive initiatives of the theatre - its Refugee Arts Centre, its Intercultural Garden - would acquire deeper meaning and resonance, being located in a continuum with history.  I can see it is uncomfortable to maintain that past - but it is actually what gives energy and hope to the present and the future.

Translations
I was still mulling these thoughts when I went to see Brian Friel's great play Translations at the National Theatre.  The reviews for this production have been adulatory, and justifiably so.  Translations remains one of the greatest plays about the process of colonisation - the way in which systems of oppression are established in the minds of the oppressed, partly by a discourse of superiority, but also by a wiping out of language, of history, and so of identity.  In my mind, it sat with Hellerau in a ying and yang relation - if oppression is made through the obliteration of folk memory, then might not that process be just as dangerous when applied to the oppressor?

The National's decision to present the play is laudable for precisely that reason.  It is the second time in recent years that a great post-colonial play, a theatre piece striking back against our country's imperial history, has been staged in the Olivier Theatre (the first was Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman).  I can see the reasoning - and yet somehow the vastness of the Olivier space, its sheer imperial bombast, its architecture of national arrogance, militated against the play's attitude of delicate resistance on a human scale.  Translations is set in a hedge school - a space that is theatrically powerful in relation to the invading army precisely because it is small and poor.  And the most effective response to the army does not come from anger or (offstage) violence, but through the cultural engagement followed by the schoolmaster Hugh and the emotional engagement of the "peasant" Máire.  It's one of the play's many provocative ironies that Máire views the English language, and her burgeoning love for the English Lieutenant Yolland as a means of potential escape into a "modern" world; while Yolland responds to the "authentic" and "natural" world that Ireland and Máire seem to present to him.  Their great scene of mutual comprehension and incomprehension - when Máire the "uneducated" switches from Irish to Latin in an attempt to communicate and the "educated" colonist doesn't even realise she has done so - is played with great delicacy and warmth; but I couldn't help feeling that its point was intimacy and physical proximity, and that the scale of the theatre was expressing almost exactly the political opposite of the play.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

With Teatro dell'Argine in Bologna


It was Friday afternoon in Bologna’s Contemporary Art Museum, MAMbo.  We were clustered around a pair of huge photographs – an artwork by the Albanian migrant artist Adrian Paci, who now lives in Italy.   Francesca, the facilitator, was asking us to describe what we saw.  Some people commented on the huge effort the artist (whose photographic artwork is a self-portrait) was making to carry the inverted roof on his back.  Some mentioned the pain that must result from the rope that tied it around him.  Others mentioned the strange coldness of the studio space which held him, and others again his near-nudity.  “He’s wearing a diaper,” commented Ann Birot-Salsbury, with a characteristic combination of American directness and European irony.  Slowly we began to reach towards more nuanced and informed, but also more subjective responses.  Wasn’t Bologna full of images in which near naked, bearded men in “diapers” were shown as suffering?  Was the shape of the inverted roof like the wings of an angel?  Or of Icarus?  If this was Icarus, in what sense might he be flying too near to the sun?  Were the photographs perhaps an allegory of the refugee situation in Italy – a man carries his home on his back, tied to him like cultural baggage – and flies too close to a perceived source of light and energy.  None of these responses was “right” or “wrong” – and they said as much about the people making them as they did about the artwork.

This approach, Francesca explained, was the way she engaged groups of learners - whether those were schoolchildren, students, migrants or refugees – with the museum’s collections.  She then led us into the next stage of her workshop process, asking each of us to create through drawing and writing a “suitcase” that we would carry with us on a metaphorical journey – a case that contained an object, a memory, a place, a person and a meal.  Given that we had been thinking about and talking to refugees all week, the exercise proved astonishingly challenging and moving.  It was not simply an exercise in constructing a personal or cultural self, a sense of identity: it was also an exercise about loss.  In choosing what (or who) to take on a voyage, you are forced to contemplate how much you will leave behind.

This brilliant and simple workshop, based on visual art, exemplified what for me is emerging as the strongest element in THE PROMISED LAND project – the need to develop a pedagogy that recognises and embraces subjectivity and viewpoint as necessary and productive attributes of cultural difference; and so celebrates learning as a creative process, which unlocks and reveals new ideas beyond the existing knowledge of either the learner or the facilitator.  This approach was not only seen in Francesca’s workshop, but also through the working practice of our host organisation in Bologna, Teatro dell’Argine, whose development of drama through games and improvisation ran as a constant thread through the training week.  I particularly responded to a game in which the participants were given a hoop, which was used as a mobile window: the person holding the hoop at any moment “seeing” something through it, and responding to it with words, movements and sounds that are followed by the rest of the group in chorus.  On the Thursday evening, we were able to see the developing outcomes of such practice, when we attended a rehearsal of a new production based on the myth of the Tower of Babel, performed by Argine’s ESODI group of young people, which includes a high proportion of refugees and migrants.  The extraordinary levels of openness and trust which the company had unlocked in these insecure and potentially traumatised young people was a joy to behold: the sense of welcome and safety in the room extended to us, as a group of outsiders, accepted into their warm-up games with eye contact, physical contact and deep emotional warmth.  This combination of playfulness and trust was the key to the creative energy we witnessed and experienced that evening.

These thoughts were given focus through the brilliant framing talk we were given by Simona Bodo.  Developing the ideas behind the MAMbo workshop (which she attended with us as a participant), Simona suggested an antithesis between a culture of CONSERVATION and one of CONVERSATION – with the implication that European cultural and educational institutions need to respond to the changing demographics of the populations they serve by making a shift away from a paradigm that privileges the preservation and passing on of existing knowledge and towards one that uses culture as a resource for creative interaction.  HERITAGE, she suggested, needs to be questioned as a concept: it suggests that history and culture are somehow owned by virtue of birth, whereas the current moment of post-coloniality, cosmopolitanism and mass migrations suggests a need to engage in the global interconnectivity of cultural production, of the art and artefacts held in museums, of the texts and myths that become contested spaces in the dynamic theatre of the 21st century.  If we discard HERITAGE and embrace HISTORY as narrative, process and conversation, then we are opening ourselves to learning, to dynamism and to democracy in its fullest sense.

Simona Bodo’s talk also drew off the work of Naomi Klein in relation to the rhetoric of crisis.  To portray something as a crisis, argues Klein, permits the holders of the narrative (particularly governments) to ignore underlying and ongoing causalities, to suspend legal and moral obligations, and to generate a climate of fear and hatred.  This echoed the words of Chiara De Carlo, who works with the refugees living at Opera Padre Marella (OPM).   In Italy, she told us, the rhetoric of a “refugee crisis” has been employed to shift policy and undermine legal process, effectively denying refugees their human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration 1948, and (specifically to refugees) the Geneva Convention 1951.  That sounds very abstract and legalistic – but when talking to Paul (name changed to protect identity), a young man from Nigeria living at OPM, it became a flesh and blood reality.  Paul had been a professional football player in his home country, but had fled after a violent event, possibly involving the deaths of his parents, had traumatised him (1).  He crossed the Sahara, and came to Italy on an over-crowded boat.  In a way he was one of the lucky ones – he was housed in a caring and nurturing home at OPM, and had the chance to act with ESODI and to play football.  But he had also experienced racism and violence around the game, and, after two years, he is no further down the path of acquiring refugee status or knowing whether he will be able to remain in Europe. 

Paul is being held in a limbo outside social narrative or cultural engagement.  
He is being objectified – not empowered. 
Conserved – not conversed with.  
He is not a statistic in a crisis, but a young man who has experienced deep suffering and loss.
He is also resilient, determined and moral.  
Our European societies can only benefit from honouring the contribution he can make.  
*
I wrote this piece as a report for our steering group on THE PROMISED LAND - and there will be more about the week on the project blog soon, from the viewpoint of one of our German partners.  But I felt I needed to publish this today, in the light of the news from Italy.  The President may have prevented the populist parties from appointing a Finance Minister who wants to leave the Euro - he has not intervened to stop the appointment of an Interior Minister who wants to deport asylum seekers and migrants.  Matteo Salvini's declared intention to deport 500,000 "illegal" migrants presents an immediate threat to people like Paul, whose cases have not been decided, and whose well-being, safety, possibly even lives, are in great danger if they are returned to what Salvini terms "home".  The policy is in clear breach of the Geneva Convention, and it is essential that the international community, particularly the EU, insist on the rule of law.  

(1) I should point out that this information was offered spontaneously by Paul in conversation with two of us, and was not elicited in any way.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Pocahontas and After



Two images, each showing two young women dressed to show their culture, their pride, their sense of self.  The first image dates from 1907, and shows The Misses Simeon, from the Stoney-Nakoda people of Western Canada, photographed by Byron Harmon.  The second was taken a couple of months ago by John Cobb in Marlborough School, West London, and shows a pupil of Iraqi heritage called Rose Al Saria, pictured with her sister.  It was Rose who chose the particular archive image as the basis for her self-portrait, and who conceptualised the way it would be configured and posed.

This pair of photos is just one example in Border Crossings' exhibition Pocahontas and After, currently on show at Syon House in Brentford, until at least June 2nd.  The exhibition - which people have been saying is as thought-provoking as it is visually stunning - represents the culmination of a sustained period of education and community work, beginning with the ORIGINS Festival last summer.  During the Festival, we not only held a ceremony for three indigenous women to commemorate Pocahontas at Syon, where she had stayed in the summer of 1616: we also brought indigenous artists into direct contact with the diverse communities around the House, in the two Primary Schools where they led workshops and study sessions, in the wonderful CARAS refugee group, and through our network of committed and energetic festival volunteers.  In the following months, a distilled group from each of these partners has been working closely with heritage experts from the archives, Native American cultural consultants, and our own artistic staff to explore the ways in which Native American people have been presented in the past.


Their journeys into the archives have been rich and challenging.  What we think of as "realistic" photographs of indigenous people often turn out to be nothing of the kind.  Edward Curtis, for example, apparently carried a chest of "authentic" costumes and props with him, which he used in his photographs to recreate the life of "the vanishing race" as he imagined it may have been in some pre-contact Romantic idyll.  In other words, the archive photos are often about the photographer and the viewer, far more than they are about the subject.


As our volunteers came to realise this, they became more and more assertive of the need for agency in contemporary portraiture.  Complex and fascinating decisions started to be made, placing the generation of meaning in the bodies of the people photographed.  One subject, Inés Achabal, showed her tattooed back, with its macaws symbolising her home city of Caracas, in response to Curtis's "bon savage archetype" in his 1909 image of an Arikara girl.  For an indigenous Samoan living in London, Sani Muliaumaseali'i, a 1914 image of a mask dancer from the Pacific North-West provided links to his own complex and multi-layered persona.

What I love about this exhibition is that the meaning generated does not reside in one image or the other within the pair - but is rather in the energising of the space between, the dialogue between past and present, between different cultures, between human beings portrayed in different ways.  It seems to me to be at once of way of honouring the indigenous subjects portrayed in the archive photographs, and of reinventing the form that was often too reductive in its attempts to categorise them.

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting this project.  Photos from the British Library and the Library of Congress.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Training Weeks

More Than Words - photo by Julia Slominska
The last two weeks have been spent in workshop rooms.  Not developing a new show.  Not engaging a community.  Not even training people for a specific artistic project.  It's just been a wonderful, open opportunity to exchange ways of working and the ideas behind our approach with like-minded people from across Europe.  What a great thing Erasmus + funding is.  How silly we would be to lose it....

Our first week was the Theatre Training for the MORE THAN WORDS project, so the room was filled with Italian clowns, Hungarian dance therapists, Polish performers, architects and photographers, German academics and community workers....  and so on!  The fact that not everybody starts from a performing arts viewpoint is challenging, of course - but also wonderfully liberating, in that theatre practice starts to be seen from different perspectives, including by ourselves as "trainers".  I found myself connecting a lot of the exercises we use for devising plays with ideas about architectural space, social space, and therapeutic needs.  Involving people from other sectors in a workshop helps to pull you out of the "theatre box" - to see theatre as a wider, socially responsible force.

MORE THAN WORDS emphasises non-verbal approaches, because it's to do with working across cultures, often when there is no common language.  Because this week was focussed on training the trainers, there needed to be some conversations and reflections - but the purest moments were the ones that moved away from this into movement, music and imagery.  As the first partner to offer this training, we had the tricky job of defining parameters - but I think that was done clearly enough for the subsequent work to build on what's been achieved so far.


Last week was also about Applied Theatre, with a group of Italian practitioners joining us to learn how theatre techniques can move into social spaces to empower communities.  Because that covers such a multitude of practices, we alternated the week between practical exercises drawn from our own cross-cultural work, and engaging with other artists who approach performance in different ways.  Hannah Conway led a workshop on music for Applied Theatre, and Kelly Hunter took the group through her extraordinary methods that use Shakespeare as a way to develop creativity with autistic children.  Dave Carey of Chickenshed showed the group some examples of how that theatre has made changes in the lives of disabled children, children in the care system, and young people at risk of offending.  It was incredibly affirming of the form and what it can achieve socially...

At the same time - I always worry about making a case for theatre that sounds too instrumental.  It's not because theatre can affect social good that it needs to exist - it's because it IS social good.  Just trying to make sure that remains at the forefront of all these discussions.