Saturday, December 13, 2008

Speaking in the House

Thanks to the help of the Quebec government and a friendly MP called Philip Davies, we were able to give a lunch in the House of Commons on Thursday, to bring together the various cultural diplomats and others involved with Origins. It was pretty exciting to be able to talk about this in the corridors of power! I made a speech... I tend to talk without many notes, so what's below is a rough approximation rather than the real thing - but I wanted some idea of what was said to be available on the blog, so other people involved in Origins, and especially the artists, can have a look at what we talked about.

"At the end of Shane Belcourt’s extraordinary film Tkaronto, which will be receiving its UK première at the Origins Festival in May, the central character, a First Nations Canadian, refers to a prophecy made in 1885 by the Métis leader Louis Riel: “Riel said our people would be asleep for a hundred years. Well, guess what? Time’s up. I’m done being asleep.”

With the wit characteristic of First Nations people across the globe, these lines are symptomatic of a phenomenon I’ve encountered constantly during my research and programming of the Origins Festival over the last couple of years - an assertion of the present moment as a time when the voices of these profound, rich and ancient cultures need to be heard loudly and clearly in the global space. In part, of course, this is to do with a need to overcome the colonial past and to negotiate ways of jointly inhabiting the lands to which these nations are indigenous, and, more broadly, jointly inhabiting the global space. The 21st century has already seen some incredibly important steps along this path of Truth and Reconciliation - not least Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ground-breaking apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia for the crime of the Stolen Generation. These steps have been greeted with an extraordinary generosity of spirit: when Prime Minister Rudd made that historic apology earlier this year, the crowd of indigenous people who were watching on huge screens outside the Parliament building in Canberra broke into spontaneous cheering. On one level, the Origins Festival of First Nations Theatre and Culture is about that same desire to heal wounds from the past - and that’s why it’s important that it should happen in this city, which was the centre of colonization, and why it’s so inspiring that today’s event should be held in the Houses of Parliament, demonstrating support for this crucial work right at the heart of the British democracy - so many thanks to you Philip for hosting us today. As you would expect, when I told them we were doing this, the First Nations artists we are working with, and who will be coming to London in May, responded with the online equivalent of that spontaneous cheering.

As you will all be aware, there remains much healing work to be done around the legacy of the past. There remain problems of poverty and deprivation in social, economic and educational terms. There remain issues around drug dependency and alcohol abuse. But by showing respect for these cultures, by validating them as equals in our own space, we can join with them to work together towards their empowerment.

For the sense that the time is ripe to listen to the voices of First Nations people is not only to do with the past; it is also very much about the present and the future. Because First Nations cultures are not museum cultures or anthropological curiosities. They are living, vibrant cultures of the present moment: indeed, in some ways they are more aware of the present, its meaning, its potential, than Western cultures; because they have a deep awareness of standing in an historical continuum, of having occupied a particular space in a particular way with an unbroken heritage spanning some two thousand generations - fifty thousand years. How many of us can claim so powerful a sense of presence, of relationship to space, of identity? And from such a knowledge - which reaches far back, mythologically, spiritually and culturally - comes an ability to look far forward with a sense of the longer term, to imagine and envision the future, to offer new possibilities for this chaotic, globalised world.

If we are honest, which we so rarely are – then surely we must acknowledge that we have not got everything sorted out. The crisis in the world economy hardly suggests a global system that is functioning perfectly. The increasingly frequent environmental disasters, the unrest and crime in our cities, the disaffection of our youth, the disintegration of our families – all of this suggests that perhaps we should be listening to people who think differently about these things. The Hopi nation have a word for our way of living – “Koyanisquatsi” – it means “life out of balance”. They have a word for it, and we don’t. That’s because they have thought about it, and we haven’t.

And so we should have the modesty and the courtesy to listen to the alternatives. There is so much that we can learn from these cultures, if we will only listen to what is being offered. They can teach us about our Elders - because in First Nations societies, the Elders are respected and cherished as the guardians of knowledge, not dismissed as "past it" or removed from the community. In First Nations cultures, people look forward to growing old - in marked contrast to our rather feeble attempts to deny the one thing about our lives which is inevitable. In Ngapartji Ngapartji, elders from the Northern Territory, many of whom have rarely travelled even within Australia, will bring their authority, their wisdom and their dignity to the London stage.

First Nations can teach us about our youth - because in First Nations cultures the energy and strength of the young is channelled into the community through sport, art and cultural ritual, rather than being allowed to turn into disaffection and anger. Several of the films we will be screening, for example Alanis Obomsawin's beautifully photographed Sigwan, and the Oneida nation's animated folktale Raccoon and Crawfish, bring an audience of children into this circle, and so will Robert Greygrass, the Lakota performer appearing in Salvage, who will also be storytelling.

They can teach us about the environment - because these nations feel a deep affinity for land, and have a real understanding of its needs and rhythms. At a time when the mismanagement of the world's resources is leading us into an ecological catastrophe which we are only just beginning to understand, we have an urgent need to listen to people who can offer other approaches to living, which respect, rather than destroy, our fragile planet. Many of the performances, films and talks we are presenting in Origins deal with the environmental agenda: the Inuit viewpoint on the melting of the icecap, the indigenous Australian view of nuclear testing in the deserts, the Native American response to industrial pollution of land and water.

They can teach us about democracy. Because the longest-lasting democratic tradition in the world is not housed in this building, or even in Athens, but in the tribal councils of North America. And unlike our democracies, which can sometimes seem so subject to financial and lobbying interests that they are in danger of themselves being commodified, these councils allow everybody to speak, and rest upon the finding of a true consensus - a consensus in which animals and plants also symbolically participate, with people being called to speak for them.

It is this egalitarian democratic dream which, more than anything, makes this Origins Festival so exciting, so inspiring, so necessary. Because this Festival is a coming together of many people who are working creatively around these issues, assembling from the countries which are represented here today (and others too), allowing them the sense that they are part of something very big and very important, which is a global movement for change. Many of the artists we are working with operate in conditions of quite extreme isolation - Yirra Yaakin is based in Perth, which is one of most isolated cities in the world. But when they come together, and realise that they have so much in common with other people who dare to dream, then we see the strength of the project, then we see the breadth and depth of the vision, as we learn from each other's presence - not online, but physically, vocally and emotionally in the same room - and they can go back to the Perth, back to the Central desert, back to the Great Plains, back to the Manitoulin Island Reserve, back to New Zealand’s South Island, nurtured and strengthened to move forward.

And that is why at the heart of the Festival there is the Quebec theatre company Ondinnok's workshop on the Theatre of Healing: a space which will allow artists to interact on the most intimate level, re-contacting their mythic and cultural roots, and discovering what those may offer, what they may mean in relation to one another, in a global context, in the context of a changing world, in the context of our own generation's responsibility to the planet, to the future, to our children.

It is only in an artistic and a cultural context that we can do this - and that's why it's so empowering to see so many cultural diplomats here today. Because it is only in the cultural space that we can truly meet as equals and have a fair and true exchange. Politically, economically, socially - there is no equality. But in the sacred and democratic space of theatre where everybody has a voice, there it is possible for us to come together with no distinctions, with no inequalities, and to begin.

What Louis Riel actually said in 1885 was: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back”. And for me, that has to be the motto of the Origins Festival.

After two years of work, we are now very close to making this Festival a reality - and this lunch is, in the tradition of First Nations hospitality, an extension of thanks to you all for the energy, goodwill and resources you and the agencies you represent have invested in this project. As you know, we are waiting on a number of funding decisions, both here and overseas, and I should like to thank those bodies in anticipation!

Last but by no means least, I want to thank the only First Nations person who is in the room today - Rosanna Raymond. Rosanna is an artist of Polynesian origin from Aotearoa / New Zealand, and she is working with us and with the small but vociferous Maori community in London to offer a traditional First Nations welcome to the artists when they arrive here in the spring. Those of you who attended the launch of Origins at Australia House last year will remember that we were given a traditional Aboriginal Welcome to Country by David Milroy and Trevor Jamieson. Today, we are very definitely on British land, and it is Philip Davies who has given us the British form of traditional welcome. But I would like to ask Rosanna if she could respond to that welcome in the manner of her culture, and so bring the more formal part of this lunch to a close."

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