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.

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