Wednesday, February 28, 2018

De-colonising the colony, de-colonising the market

The Stiff Gins
Last week saw me back in Brisbane, for the third (and last) edition of APAM to be held there.  It was, as in 2014 and 2016, an incredibly rich source of inspiration for the next ORIGINS.  For one thing, it was a wonderful chance to re-connect with many of the artists and companies who have been to the festival in the past, and friends whose advice has been useful along the way: Rachael Maza of Ilbijerri, Rachael Swain from Marrugeku, Merindah Donnelly from Blak Dance, Wesley Enoch, Rhoda Roberts, Amber Curreen, Ali Murphy-Oates, Jack Gray from Atamira, Andrea James, Jacob Boehme, Louise Potiki Bryant, Tanemahuta Gray from Taki Rua....   and no doubt many more in the blur of the week!  It's also very valuable to hear them say how important ORIGINS has been for them, and to learn from new people I've not met before how the festival's reputation has grown across the indigenous world.  It matters that we do this.

APAM's indigenous representation has grown dramatically during its time in Brisbane, and not only in terms of indigenous Australians.  This year, there was an entire First Nations Exchange, with people from New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, Mexico and Norway.  There is a clear sense of a global movement to de-colonise the arts, and to assert the value of indigenous culture.  It feels very important to be part of that.

At the same time, the week raised questions about just where we sit within the global indigenous movement.  In the wake of the Australia Day protests last month, there was a palpable sense of anger from some of the indigenous artists present - an anger that is entirely justified while their people remain so totally dispossessed of their lands and the wealth they contain.  It's one thing for the world to value indigenous arts - it is quite another for it to set right historic injustices.  Until there is a real move towards genuine equality - including economic and political equality - the anger will, quite rightly, remain.

And this has implications for the arts.  In his keynote talk, Jacob was very frank about the way in which enduring power structures continue to marginalise indigenous artists.  It was a speech that felt uncomfortable for any white person involved in presenting indigenous culture.  Including me.  We have to ask whether we are simply perpetuating an exoticisation of the "Other" - whether just by following the structures whereby we pay money to indigenous artists to perform, we may perhaps be complicit in neo-colonialism.  At APAM's closing event, Rachael Maza read out a declaration from the First Nations Exchange, stating that APAM should not continue to be a market, but should be re-configured to follow the preferred mode of operation in indigenous cultures - a model based on developing long-term collaborative relationships, rather than on cultural production being turned into a commodity that can be bought and sold.  At the same event, the young Canadian First Nations artist Moe Clark made an impassioned case to de-colonise the marketplace, stating that the songs and stories of indigenous people are the lifeblood of the culture, and cannot be bought and sold, reproduced and mass-produced.

They are, of course, quite right.

So ORIGINS also needs to ensure that its programming is not conducted on a colonial, commercial model.  We need to maintain the deep relationships we have developed with indigenous artists, companies and elders, and to cultivate new ones.  We need to ensure that the indigenous people themselves are full engaged with the question of why something should be programmed in London - what it will mean in that space, and how it will speak to that audience.  If we are sharing their cultural productions because we want to affect change in our own society, then we need them to share that desire.  If we bring them to London as an act of healing - then we need to know that they want that act to happen.

Perhaps we have always known this in some way.  But it matters to write it down.  To be clear about the equality at the base of what we are doing.  To recognise how programming puts our values into action, and cannot be watered down.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Promised Land - Adana. Guest Blog by Eleanor Brown (CARAS)

Lucy Dunkerley meets Syrian women in Adana 
After a week spent in Adana, Turkey, it’s time to distil some thoughts. It was the beginning of a two year Erasmus + project led by the remarkable theatre company, Border Crossings. CARAS has had a long-term partnership with them, sharing skills, experience and enthusiasm for working with people from all over the world. During January, I went with them as a volunteer, exploring the situation for Syrian refugees who have crossed the Turkish border, and considering ways to place that within a wider context.

Adana is a beautiful place - a golden yellow train station standing in a square surrounded by fluttering flags strung between lampposts and date palms, orange trees heavy with fruit lining every street, poinsettias grown to glorious shrubs showing off their deep red foliage and putting Christmas window-sill versions to shame; streets that fill with the smell of grilled aubergine and kebap as night falls, hookah cafes with apple scented tobacco smoke on the air; and mosques dating back to the 1500s, calls to prayer rolling and echoing between Turkish delight shops, market stalls, and clouds of swooping pigeons. There are shops with stacks of functional, everyday pottery; baskets of herbs; furniture makers; and street cats galore. There’s a great, turquoise river that curves through it all, and a back drop of snow-capped mountains towering in the near distance. It feels like the sort of place that gets on with things without much fuss.

We were a group of academics, business people, theatre practitioners, educators, writers, students and NGO workers, all sharing our understanding and experience of the current refugee crisis. During our time together we began to understand the specific legal context of Turkey, the migration routes of refugees to Turkey and beyond, and to think deeply about how we each respond to the opportunities and challenges this brings.

Finding shared ground with refugees wasn’t hard: swapping plant names with Kurdish park gardeners (poinsettia is ‘Attaturk çiçeği’, orange is ‘portakal’, and crocus is ‘çiğdem’); talking to Bushra, a young Syrian woman striving to learn Turkish to pass the entrance exam to university, who declared a love of Shakespeare; and meeting Fatima, a shy three-year-old who liked counting and loved her dad. These are the ordinary, exceptional people who become refugees, bounced between systems that are confusingly complex and disempowering, navigating an unplanned new path, and hoping for home.

In the NGOs ‘Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants’ and ‘Support to Life’ we heard stories about the current situation: informal tent settlements dotted throughout the city, the challenges of supporting a transient population making a meagre living through migrant agricultural labour, tension between local and new populations and concern about rising costs of living for all, and the challenges of supporting children traumatised by spending their early years in a war. Amongst workers, there were familiar narratives of resilience and hope finding their way through a context of limited resources and restricted options, and a drive to raise awareness and bring about change with compassion, hard work, and front-line action.

Coming back to London and life at CARAS helps to create a wider context. In Turkey, we were with people at the start of one of the world’s huge forced migration routes. Many Syrians will remain in Turkey under temporary protection, and some might seek citizenship eventually, but for others their migration will continue. Some will be granted third-country resettlement in EU nations, some will ultimately consider it safe enough to return home, and others will make their own way via informal networks through Europe to reach a place that feels safe to them; others still will achieve their ambitions, gaining well paid employment and opening up opportunities again: Abdullah wants to continue his medical studies and be a heart surgeon, Burhan is an engineer, and Roshan is aiming to continue her career as a researcher in biochemistry.

Crossing the vast distance that is Turkey by air, seeing snowing mountains and plains, patchworked fields, a blue expanse of coast dotted with islands, rivers and power-stations, hilltop wind-farms, tiny villages and the great metropolis that is Istanbul brought home just how far people flee in order to feel safe. It’s not just Syrians crossing into neighbouring countries, but Afghans embarking on enormous overland journeys, sub-Saharan Africans crossing the harsh expanses of desert and the treacherous Mediterranean sea, everyone driven by fear and nurturing an aspiration to reach a place that allows them to live freely and safely.

People we meet in London are sometimes at the end of their journey, although some will have applications refused and will continue to be moved. The context in the UK is very different too- we are not experiencing a mass humanitarian crisis on the scale that Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Italy and Greece are. But we are working with the same human needs for connection, advice, access to support, and recognition of trauma and the ongoing impacts of forced migration. We face similar myths and stigma about asylum seekers being given better support than others (have a look at these for some myth-busting: asylum accomdation and asylum support payment report), and an ‘othering’ of refugees that prevents people meeting connecting on a human level.

As this project continues, there will be time to consider alternative responses, how we work together across sectors and throughout the EU, and to deepen our understanding of a whole host of human experiences. Stay with us. Follow the story. Next stop: Bologna.

Read more on the dedicated PROMISED LAND blog.