Sunday, September 10, 2017

Gauri Lankesh


Some twenty years ago - in what now seems a more innocent, humane, compassionate time - I spent several months in the Southern Indian city of Bangalore, directing THE TEMPEST for Mahesh Dattani's Playpen company.  It was a life-changing experience for me, leading to the creation of Border Crossings as a company committed to intercultural work; and I believe it was also an important production for the cultural environment in which it took place.  One of the great pleasures of that time was to be surrounded by an extraordinary group of creative, committed and questioning young Indians - actors, writers, artists, film-makers and journalists. Young people who cared about what was happening in the world, who understood the historical forces that had shaped and were shaping their country, who longed for justice and who believed they could make a difference.  For a short time, I felt as if I was one of them - and that sense of hope has remained with me ever since.  From time to time I have seen or exchanged emails with many of them.  I still do. We have all retained some sense of the young people we once were and have clung to the dreams we once dreamed.

Central to that inspiring group of people was the journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was murdered last week.  The three men who shot her as she arrived home from work have not been traced, and there is no definite proof of who they may have been - but those who knew her well are convinced that her death must have been related to her fierce and honest journalism; and to her activist stance against the power of Hindu nationalism, against the racist ideology of the BJP and its vigilante offshoots, in support of equal rights for the Dalits and the Muslims.  Mari Marcel Thekaekara's Guardian piece deals with the politics very well.  The Hindu right has been given free rein to enact its own idea of justice, and Narendra Modi preserves an ominous, acquiescent silence.  In what claims to be the world's largest democracy, mob rule is permitted.  Have we any idea of just how dangerous our world is becoming?  We stand on the edge of an abyss.

I remember Gauri as a young woman - energetic, attractive, full of wicked humour.  She liked to be in the thick of controversy: the piece she wrote about me in the magazine SUNDAY responded to the way that THE TEMPEST had divided opinion so deeply, with some people embracing its Indian setting and the post-colonial resonances, while others steadfastly refused the connections.  It wasn't a pre-publicity piece: Gauri sought me out after she had seen the piece, precisely because she wanted to engage with the anger it had provoked from conservative voices.  I don't think any of us realised that this cultural controversy was symptomatic of something so much more dangerous, so much more vindictive, something that would become so bloody and so tragic.

Gauri was killed because she dared to speak the truth, and her death makes it all the more incumbent on the survivors to continue that moral quest.  The voice of justice must not be silenced.  It must not.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Festivals and Healing

Remembering Pocahontas
It was very sad that we had to cancel PASIFIKA.  It would have been the second ORIGINS event to be held at Emslie Horniman's Pleasance, after the amazing Voladores da Papantla and Grupo Sotz'il in 2015.  Those performances and ceremonies had created a real bond between the Festival and the very vibrant communities of North Kensington - a bond that we were building on in this year's celebration of Pacific cultures.  But then Grenfell Tower happened - and the Council, I suppose rightly, felt that they couldn't do anything "fun" in the area.  It might look like fiddling as Rome burned.

At the same time, the Festival's presence might have helped build some bridges and heal some wounds.  It may, of course, be too soon - we should probably be content to wait for 2019 before we return to the area, at which time we can work with the community to do something affirmative.  There were many who felt the Ariana Grande commemorative concert in Manchester came too soon after the event - and that was in a place where the community had been united by the tragedy.  In North Kensington, there is great anger.

For all that - there is a genuine role for Festivals in healing wounds and building bridges.  On Monday, Marcia Langton talked about this aspect of indigenous festivals in Australia as part of her ORIGINS Lecture - and last week we saw it in action at our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS event at Syon House.  The visit of Pocahontas to the London home of the Percy family was a full 400 years ago, of course, and was a diplomatic mission, not a catastrophic inferno.  But the arrival of three Native American women to commemorate a Native American woman was still a highly significant moment, precisely because they have been so shut out from history. As Graham Harvey said at our AFTERNOON OF TALKS, the Pocahontas 400 events so far have concentrated not on where she lived but where she died, not on her indigenous but her Christian identity.  A ceremony of smudge, drum and dance felt like a redressing of the balance, an invitation to bring previously excluded voices to the centre.

I hope we will be able to go back to North Kensington soon, and to offer a contribution to that community's healing.

Sierra Tasi Baker, Gabe Hughes, Stephanie Pratt

Monday, June 05, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 4: Indigenous Women

Sierra Tasi Baker
Since ORIGINS was first established a decade ago, it's been really striking how many of the most important indigenous artists and thinkers we have featured have been women - and this year's Festival is no exception.  There has always been an energy and a power in indigenous women: and the challenges of the contemporary world are focussing that energy into creative and artistic responses, political activism, and a particular kind of feminist thought.
Prof. Marcia Langton
As with all indigenous ideas, indigenous feminism stands outside the mainstream, and offers balances and correctives to more "established" approaches.  This year's ORIGINS LECTURE is being given by Prof. Marcia Langton, the newly appointed Vice-Provost of Melbourne University, and probably the world's most distinguished indigenous academic.  A few years ago, Marcia famously took on the white Australian feminist icon Germaine Greer, in a widely publicised spat over Greer's essay Whitefella Jump Up.  So don't expect Greer-style feminism from her.  As well as her lecture, Marcia will be taking part in the TALKS programme over the first weekend, including a panel on INDIGENOUS WOMEN TODAY.
The 7 Stages of Grieving
Also from Australia comes the "Indigenous Everywoman" play THE SEVEN STAGES OF GRIEVING, in a powerhouse performance from Chenoa Deemal.  Here's an interview Chenoa did about the production, shortly before performing it at Sydney Opera House last month.  We're also delighted to be welcoming visual artist JULIE GOUGH, whose powerful re-readings of Australian colonial history have recently been acclaimed at the National Gallery of Australia's remarkable exhibition Defying Empire: the Legacy of 1967, which marks the 50th anniversary of the referendum making indigenous Australians citizens in their own country.
Tanya Tagaq
From the opposite side of the globe, but sharing many of the same colonial experiences, Inuk throat singer TANYA TAGAQ is our last-night star at ORIGINS.  Her music often deals with directly feminist themes, including all forms of rape — of women, of the land — while demanding justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as Indigenous peoples who’ve had their land and rights removed over centuries of abuse.  Her approach to feminism embraces the indigenous movement and its allies across the world.  "The act of feminism, it's not a female thing, it's a human thing," she says.  Tanya's feminism and activism are complemented by her friend Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, director of ANGRY INUK - an activist film par excellence, dealing with the seal hunt controversy, in which Tanya has been a very vocal participant.  When Alethea was nominated as Samara's Everyday Political Citizen, Juror Margaret Atwood said: "I nominate Alethea Arnaquq-Baril for bravely opening the door to a conversation that needs to happen."
White Lies
New Zealand and Pacific women aren't neglected either, with the UK premiere of WHITE LIES - a Māori film built around three very different women, and featuring a great performance from Whirimako Black.  The screening is followed by a Q&A with Dr. Ian Conrich, an expert in New Zealand film.
The New World
Behind it all lurks the elusive, semi-mythic figure of Pocahontas, who visited London a full 400 years ago.  ORIGINS marks the anniversary with a screening of Terrence Malick's visionary film about her life, THE NEW WORLD at Picturehouse Central.  The screening is followed by a Q&A with Stephanie Pratt, an art historian whose Dakota Sioux name approximates to Pocahontas, and whose life in some ways reflects her Powhatan predecessor's.  Stephanie will also be present at Syon House, the London home of the Dukes of Northumberland, where Pocahontas lived for a time, for our special commemoration REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS.  In the grounds where she once walked, three Native American women will commemorate and celebrate her.  Accompanying Stephanie will be Sierra Tasi Baker, of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, and our Indigenous Associate, Wampanoag scholar Gabe Hughes.

How wonderful to meet such an extraordinary group of modern indigenous women!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 3: Environment

Are We Stronger Than Winston?
"Where is the Environment?" asked Caroline Lucas yesterday.  She's quite right to challenge the major parties - neither of whom have said anything about this most crucial of issues during the current election campaign.  Across the Atlantic, it now seems that Donald Trump aims to withdraw from the Paris deal on climate change.  It's a scary moment, and no mistake.

This is the time when, more than ever, we need to be listening to the voices of indigenous people, who experience climate change at the front line on a daily basis.  Not only do they feel its effects particularly acutely - they also have long cultural traditions of living in close harmony with nature.  In indigenous cultures, you do not own the land but care for it - passing it on as a healthy inheritance to the future.  Now, more than ever, we need to be engaging with indigenous people as we try to find a way forward in our relationship with a damaged planet.
Reports from Standing Rock
ORIGINS 2017 has a range of inspiring and provocative events about indigenous ideas on the environment, beginning with REPORTS FROM STANDING ROCK on June 11 - a series of short films that show the realities of the protest and explore the depth of the Native American activists' passion to save their land and waters.  Trump's refusal to engage with indigenous protestors may yet prove to be his political undoing - his failure to engage with environmental issues is certainly very dangerous for us all.
Are We Stronger than Winston?
Just how dangerous is shown in ARE WE STRONGER THAN WINSTON? by VOU Dance Company from Fiji, performing at The Place on June 23 and 24.  Winston was the cyclone that hit Fiji in February 2016: the worst recorded tropical storm in the history of the South Pacific, killing 42 people and causing tens of thousands to flee their homes. In the words of the choreographer, Navitalai Waqavotuwale: "Soon the house that once sheltered us, now threatened our very lives as it collapsed in shreds around us. Soon the ocean that once fed us came pounding at our doors demanding our breath. Soon the wind that once rippled through our children's hair and carried their voices homeward, snatched them from our very arms and hauled them beyond the horizon where their voices were heard no more. And soon, mothers were burying their children, and children were burying their mothers."
Melissa Veszi as Poluknalai
A lighter but equally important take on climate change in the Pacific is offered in  Sani Muliaumaseali'i’s new musical for family audiences, BABA THE BAD BABOON.  In this version of a Polynesian folk tale, Baba is an experienced leader who assures the goddess Poluknalai, the supreme protector of animals and nature, that all will be well under his watch - leading to a dire loss of animals and ecology.
Angry Inuk
It's in the Arctic that the effects of climate change are probably most glaringly obvious, as the ice melts at astonishing speed.  Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's remarkable film ANGRY INUK, which has been winning audience awards at film festivals across the planet, is powered by fury at the world's failure to engage with the people who actually live in the Arctic - the Inuit themselves.  Their environmentally sustainable approach to seal hunting - using every part of a non-endangered species for food and clothing, and to give them traction in the global marketplace - is set in sharp contrast with the insanely wasteful approach of western interests in the Artic region.
Tanya Tagaq
So it seems only fitting that the last voice you will hear at ORIGINS this year is an Inuk voice - TANYA TAGAQ.  More than a traditional throat singer, Tanya seems to embody and to vocalise the Arctic landscape itself.  Her extraordinary improvised soundtrack to the silent "documentary" NANOOK OF THE NORTH is a staggering evocation of the beautiful and bare lands that sustain the planet - and that we are all too close to destroying.





Thursday, May 25, 2017

Pathways Through the Festival 2: Youth

Three Wise Cousins
Everyone knows the importance of Elders in indigenous cultures - but related to this is the huge emphasis placed on young people, and the passing on of culture to future generations.  ORIGINS 2017 has a whole string of stories to tell about young people growing to maturity in First Nations cultures, and what they learn along the way.  THREE WISE COUSINS is a coming of age comedy, about a young Samoan man living in New Zealand, who hears his potential love interest say that she wants a "Real Island Guy".  Cue the cultural education trip to Samoa...  

Johogoi Aiyy
Other films that treat the same sort of process in less comic way are SPEAR, which follows a young man's attempts to reconcile Aboriginal traditions with a contemporary urban world; and the extraordinary JOHOGOI AIYY (Johogoi God) from the Yakut people of Sakha in the Russian Arctic.  In this remarkable film, like no other, a young man travels to the annual midsummer festival — the Tuymada Ysekh - and we travel with him, learning as he learns about his culture, his spirituality and his destiny.
Huff
Youth is also central to our theatre programme, with Cliff Cardinal's HUFF casting an unflinching eye on some of the more horrific aspects of young lives on Native Reservations, where solvent abuse if rife and where the suicide rate is five times that in the rest of Canada.  Oddly enough, it manages to be very funny in the process.  There's light relief to follow with Joshua Warrior's Aboriginal stand-up ABORIGINAL GIGOLO, or hip-hop with the fabulous MAU POWER at the ORIGINS CONCERT.
Island Poké
Younger youth also have lots to look forward to - not least because of our Education programme, which will be taking over two primary schools through the festival, immersing over a thousand children in indigenous culture.  Some of them will be performing at PASIFIKA in Kensington, and that's going to be a great Family Day out on every level, with song and dance from a whole range of Pacific cultures, Maori martial arts, and Hawaiian food from our fabulous partners Island Poké.
Man of the Andes
On Sunday 25 June, there are two shows at Rich Mix aimed especially at young audiences.  MAN OF THE ANDES is José Navarro's puppet extravaganza, introducing children to Andean animals, Quechua music and the Scissor Dance, all without any language to get in the way!  BABA THE BAD BABOON is Sani Muliaumaseali'i’s new family musical, drawn from Samoan mythology, and taking in a few thoughts on climate change.

ORIGINS is a great place to be young....


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pathways through the Festival 1: History and Representation

The New World
As ORIGINS 2017 approaches, and people are getting keen to book their tickets, we thought it might be useful to outline a few possible Pathways Through the Festival - giving you the chance to work out what events sit together well by theme or "feel".  Our First Pathway is about History and Representation.

At the heart of these ideas sits the contested figure of Pocahontas.  2017 is the 400th anniversary of her time in England and untimely death at Gravesend, aged only 21.  Celebrations can be complex: and this anniversary hasn't been without its controversy. Writing in Indian Country Today, Lisa J. Ellwood attacks the way in which the commemorations have seemed to appropriate Pocahontas (or Matoaka, as she was properly known) as a "Great and Powerful English Feminist".  Ellwood cites the alternative oral traditions of the Powhatan, which we also explored in our HIDDEN HISTORIES film.  According to this tradition, Pocahontas was abducted, raped and eventually murdered: a very different tale.   [You can see HIDDEN HISTORIES as part of our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS event at Syon House on June 15, or in a pre-festival screening at Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham on May 27]  Our friend Graham Harvey (part of our TALKS programme) wrote a blog piece on the commemoration at Gravesend, which also problematises it in the light of colonial histories and post-colonial tensions.  As a Festival celebrating indigenous culture, ORIGINS can't enter this territory without an overt awareness of its being contested space.  So our REMEMBERING POCAHONTAS night will be a Native American ritual, not a Christian one, at a site where she lived, not where she died.  It will involve contemporary Native American women who have travelled to England locating their own stories in relation to hers - or what hers might have been.  And the film we are screening about her, THE NEW WORLD, is an attempt to move beyond contested histories and into the realm of the mythological - the imaginative space where the real potential for healing can be found.

Observance by Julie Gough 
You might want to compare THE NEW WORLD with Julie Gough's THE LOST WORLD.  Julie's art constantly questions the way in which Aboriginal lands and artefacts are owned or represented by the dominant culture.  Like many of the voices in ORIGINS, hers is raised to debate the continuing dispossession of indigenous peoples, not only from their lands but also from their histories.  The same issues are tackled in very different ways in the theatre piece THE 7 STAGES OF GRIEVING, in which Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman trace the indigenous Australian experience from first contact to the present day.  It's a great example of theatre and performance re-claiming history for the people on the receiving end of its more malign forces, superbly performed by the young Thitharr Warra woman Chenoa Deemal.  It's director, Jason Klarwein writes: "The language you hear in our version of this play is Chenoa’s language. The design elements of the show are based on the rainbow coloured sands of Elim Beach where Chenoa grew up, the artworks of the people there, and the tropical rainforests of Far North Queensland. We have taken the structure of this marvellously robust work and given it our experience. Our childhood and our pain. As well as the pain of generations of displaced First Peoples."
Tanya Tagaq
The question of History - who owns it, who controls it, who has the right to claim it - is perhaps most powerfully addressed by working with Museums.  ORIGINS first worked with the British Museum in 2015, and this year we're returning there, complementing their exhibition WHERE THE THUNDERBIRD LIVES with a screening of the extraordinary 1914 archive film IN THE LAND OF THE HEADHUNTERS, which opens the Festival on June 10.  A second archive film, NANOOK OF THE NORTH, marks our Closing Night at the National Maritime Museum on June 25 - but this time the film is gloriously re-appropriated by the culture on which it casts its colonial gaze.  The great Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq improvises a live soundtrack to the film - embodying its representation
of the Arctic landscape and undercutting its construction of the Inuit as primitive "Others".  In many ways, this performance is an answer to the colonial writings of history that have continually dogged indigenous peoples - an issue also presented at our other NMM screening, PASSAGE, which sees the slandering of the Inuit by Victorian moralists like Charles Dickens, and the beginnings of reconciliation in the present day.  That whole history of mis-representation, leading to self-representation on film is traced in the wonderful (and very funny) documentary REEL INJUN, and countered by the re-invention of indigenous language itself in Christian Thompson's video installation BERCEUSE.
Spirit of the Ancestors
Talking about Museums and indigenous peoples often leads to the discussion of re-patriation.  It's a complex issue, but one which has to be dealt with.  TE KUHANE O TE TUPUNA (The Spirit of the Ancestors), which screens at Arthouse Crouch End on June 14, does just that.  It's a film from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, about the search for the the lost Moai Hoa Haka Nanaia, a statue of significant cultural importance.  That statue currently sits in pride of place in the British Museum.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Brexit the Stage

Intercultural Laboratory - participants from UK, Romania and Greece
Last time we ran our Intercultural Play-Making Laboratory, I had the impossible task of welcoming visitors from Europe on the day of the referendum result.  This time there wasn't quite such an element of shock - but Brexit inevitably hung over the week's work, as we dialogued with participants from Greece, Romania, Estonia, Portugal, Germany and the UK.  We actually started by inviting everybody to the V&A's symposium Brexit the Stage: if there's an elephant in the room, it's best to take notice.

The symposium was characterised by a tone of resignation.  Even David Lan, whose speech struck a more powerful moral tone than most, didn't dare to suggest that Brexit could possibly be resisted.  What seemed to me most striking and most disturbing about the day was the sense that Britain really was different from the rest of Europe, and that the difference consisted of a more mercenary approach, even to culture.  Mark Ball talked about British participants in the international theatre circuit being more transactional in their approach than Europeans (or anybody else, except Americans).  Christopher Balme, who has always had a global view of such things, looked at the UK's gradual policy shift away from an integral to an instrumental view of the value of culture; and suggested that the corresponding move in European cultural policy, from Culture 2000's belief in the inherent worth of intercultural dialogue to Creative Europe's emphasis on culture as a means to economic and social regeneration, was a reflection of British influence.  So at least we managed to mess Europe up before leaving it....

I retain a few little strands of hope as to what may happen in the negotiating process.  If, as seems virtually certain, Theresa May is re-elected with an enhanced majority, she will take that same transactional, indeed confrontational approach to the negotiation.  Her recent run-in with Jean-Claude Juncker shows just how alien this is to the European approach to policy: on the continent there is far less adversarial politics, far more consensus and coalition building.  The thought that the Brexit talks might be about "the best deal we can get" is itself anathema to the Commission.  The British government cares not a jot for culture or education - the most recent instructions from the DCMS to the Arts Council suggest that the latter should be transformed into a business development agency, a bit like UKTI.  But culture and education do still matter to the European Union, and they value the contributions that British educators, researchers and (yes) artists can make to their projects. It may just be that the EU manages to salvage our involvement in the programmes as a trade-off for some concession on tariffs or the like.  I'm inclined to direct the lobbying efforts towards Brussels rather than Westminster.

Turbulent times produce good art, though - and, fully aware of the irony, I can report that this Laboratory was the best we have done.  At our Evaluation session, and since, participants spoke about the freedom they had found in our approach, the way the workshop had enabled them to follow their creativity and emotional paths, to overcome fear, to re-frame their own roles as artists or educators.  One young man from Romania, who may or may not have known that he was arguing the case for Europe, said:  "It made me feel how travelling and communicating can help you grow...  If you put people together, it's better for everyone".

Simple really, isn't it?