|A nun shaves a child's head on arrival at a Residential School:|
Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan
|A nun shaves a child's head on arrival at a Residential School:|
Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan
You can find plenty of information about this year’s year-long ORIGINS Festival of First Nations – and about previous festivals – in the organising company’s website and in social media. The opening event on May 13th includes an online performance of the short play, Katharsis, by Yvette Nolan (Algonquin, Canada) – billed as “a digital love letter to a theatre left empty by the pandemic”. The festival continues with a series of talks by Indigenous writers (poets, environmentalists, and a horror novelist) addressing the three main themes of this year’s festival: Covid, Climate Change and Colonialism. As the festival continues throughout 2021 and into 2022, live, face-to-face performance-based interventions in public spaces are planned. Some will move beyond London, including a journey of a Totonac artist’s totem carving to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow this autumn.
In addition to contributing to dialogue with some of the Indigenous presenters and performers, my involvement with the festival involves research focused on dynamic interplays between ritual and performance, and celebration and decolonisation. The first of these seeming contrasts is a classic issue in the study of religions and related disciplines. Some scholars have insisted that theatrical performances are different from religious rituals in several ways. Rituals, it has been claimed, do not have audiences, only participants. They carry and convey serious meanings rather than offering entertainment. They do not encourage improvisation but should follow established traditions. Each of these (and other) comparisons have been challenged and the inadequacies of their underlying assumptions often rejected. More recent studies of both theatre and ritual have reflected deeply on their commonalities. This is improved understanding of and debate about the ways in which people improvise when they get involved in religious rituals, making them part of contemporary lives in one way or another. We might also play with phrases like “suspension of disbelief” and “make-believe”, sometimes used in relation to theatrical performance to think about what happens when people do ceremonies.
|Grupo Sotz’il in OXLAJUJ B’AQTUN – ORIGINS 2015 photo by John Cobb|
All of this is useful to students of religion in reconsidering some key terms and debates in our discipline. But what happens at the ORIGINS Festival suggests that another phrase might be more useful: “world making”. Performers, artists, film-makers and speakers raise important issues and proffer powerful suggestions about ways of tackling the contemporary challenges. In various ways, audiences are invited to set aside colonial and romantic perspectives and to reflect on how things might be different. They are challenged, explicitly or implicitly, to consider the legacy of European historical, cultural and religious processes, and especially to re-imagine communities that embrace rather than exclude Indigenous peoples and the larger-than-human world. There are, then, religious and political world-making projects braided in with the enjoyment of rich cultural events. If the world is, as many Indigenous people insist, made up of multi-species communities, then the solutions to pandemics, climate crises and colonialism have to involve the needs of all living beings. My research at ORIGINS and other Indigenous festivals leads me to think that we could expand our notions of religion and democracy to embrace many more participants than just us humans.
Graham Harvey is Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University
|Indigenous Enterprise Dancer|
2021 is going to see a series of online events under the ORIGINS banner, several in partnership with our friends at BEYOND THE SPECTACLE. One of these was a film presentation of dance styles and discussion with the Native American dance troupe INDIGENOUS ENTERPRISE, who had already started the year impressively through their participation in President Biden's virtual Inauguration Parade. Here are some of the ideas put forward by MC Prophecy as part of the discussion that followed the film.
As Chief Arvol Looking Horse says whenever he's called forward, any time you find Native people under attack, you will find that the land is under attack, because Native people are the stewards of the land. The recent resistance movements, for example Standing Rock, are environmental movements and they are also youth-led movements. That's why organisations like Indigenous Enterprise work with forms like hip-hop as well as more traditional music and dance - it's a way "to light the fire, to spark the flame".
The Covid-19 pandemic gives us an opportunity to see how Indigenous culture points towards social change. "Sit down, sit still, think about what's going on in the world." It's showing that we have to put the self aside for the good of the community and of the planet. His own moniker as MC Prophecy is taken from the 7 Fires Prophecy of a choice between two paths: one well-worn and scorched, the other new and green.
"We need to change. As a species on the planet, we need to change."
Like Standing Rock, the American Indian Movement of the 1970s started as an environmental movement, with the resistance to the drilling for uranium that broke a treaty with the Lakota people over control of the land. The drilling led to radioactive water: and Standing Rock also reflects an attack on water.
These youth-led movements complement the teachings of Elders. Mutual teaching and exchange is at the heart of Native culture. Even enemies should sit down and talk together before they resort to conflict. But isolating people on reservations doesn't allow for this kind of interaction. When there is real interaction, then there should be a proper exchange between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people: "we have to think about ourselves as a species." It's fine to be inspired by other cultures: he was himself inspired by a Japanese village that has managed to reach a point where it has no waste.
"But we have a group of people who can't think that way.... Are we going to live with the Earth, or try to be masters of it?"
|Seun Shote as Ato in THE DILEMMA OF A GHOST, with Shonel Jackson|
Everyone involved with Border Crossings will be deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Seun Shote, at the age of only 47. There is a very full and warm obituary in The Guardian, so this blog post is specifically about the time he worked with us, playing the leading role of Ato in our production of The Dilemma of a Ghost by Ama Ata Aidoo, back in 2007. Seun was at the centre of a rich and challenging casting mix, with four performers from the National Theatre of Ghana, and two young Black British women straight out of drama school. This meant he was the most experienced cast member with regard to UK theatre, and it was very beautiful to see how carefully and tactfully he took on a mentoring role towards Shonel Jackson and Anniwaa Buachie, without ever assuming any higher status. At the same time, he offered a cultural bridge for the Ghanaian performers, making their first foray into Europe: as a British man with Nigerian heritage, he was deeply sensitive to their West African culture and expectations. He made my job as director a whole lot easier.
Seun's warmth and good humour made the tour of that production the most joyful and carefree I can remember. Touring is exhausting, potentially stressful and often challenging - you need a cast who understand how to look after one another, and Seun did that in spades.
His performance as Ato drew off his understanding of African and Western cultures with great sensitivity. Ato is the "One Scholar" who has returned to Ghana after studying in the States, carrying the hopes and expectations of his family. Watching him negotiate the complexities of that dilemma was an object lesson in the complex performance of the globalised moment. He was also incredibly funny - the great scene in which Ato breaks to his family the news that he has married an American woman was guaranteed to set the audience roaring with laughter, as Seun sat with a huge forced grin on his face in response to the demonstrative expressions of horror erupting all around him.
He was a fine actor and a precious soul, whose unexpected death at such a young age is a cause for great sorrow. With the ancestors.
A donations page has been set up in Seun's memory, as he leaves a young family.
|Hivshu - Magnetic North - photo: Gayla Morell|
|Alastair Niven at ORIGINS 2015|
Until 2013, Border Crossings didn't even have a Chair of the Board. We rotated the role from meeting to meeting, with the aim of being egalitarian. When Alastair Niven became our first Chair, we soon discovered that leadership is not the opposite of equality: indeed, it can be the way to facilitate better equality, as a good Chair makes sure that every voice in the room is given equal weight and validation, encouraging the more reticent to speak up and politely silencing anyone who might attempt to dominate. I shouldn't have been surprised - these are, after all, the qualities needed of the director in rehearsals - but I will confess that it was an unexpected and very pleasing discovery.
During the time he has been Chair, Alastair has shown unstinting dedication to the mission and values of Border Crossings. He has done far more than run board meetings with characteristic tact and amiability. He has often spoken at our events: the photo above shows him taking on the role of our Elder, welcoming visiting Indigenous artists to the 2015 ORIGINS Festival. In the spirit of Indigenous cultures, Alastair has always understood the centrality of hospitality to any productive enterprise, and has several times hosted board dinners at his house in Kennington. He has even travelled with the company, joining us for an Erasmus + meeting in Malmo during 2019, where we managed to find an Italian restaurant that looked out across the sea, and a very fine bottle of Chianti.
Well connected and eloquent in his advocacy, Alastair has also been a terrific ambassador for the company, helping us to make many new connections and to forge new partnerships. He was only able to do this because he understands in such depth the field of interculturalism. As Director of the Africa Centre, as Literature Director of both the Arts Council and the British Council, and as Principal of Cumberland Lodge, Alastair spent his working life steeped in the diverse arts and cultures of the planet, and was crucial to the changes that have happened in recent decades, as the imperial and imperious monolith of "great art" has been dismantled, and a multiplicity of voices from "the margins" have started to be heard. It's very pleasing that Alastair saw his role at Border Crossings as a continuation of that journey.
His memoir, In Glad or Sorry Hours, has just been published, and is full of extraordinary insights and revelations. Alastair writes in the same way that he talks - so the memoir is very good company. Border Crossings has a brief but warm mention - appearing on page 245 of a 250 page book! We always knew that we were quite a small, though pleasingly significant, part of his story - but he has been a huge part of ours. Alastair chaired his last board meeting yesterday, passing on the role into the very capable, and doubtless very different hands of Jatinder Verma. We will miss his presence at our meetings, but we know he will still be coming to our events, and will always be a part of the Border Crossings family.
So this blog post isn't a goodbye - but it is a thank you.
Guest blog by Brian Woolland, who wrote THIS FLESH IS MINE, WHEN NOBODY RETURNS and DOUBLE TONGUE for Border Crossings. With Rib Davis, Brian runs the playwriting course WRITE THEATRE, held at the Cockpit in association with Border Crossings.