River is an uplifting gift offering healing and hope

“All these rivers we must cross. Together we will get to the other side. . . . We’ll be forced to grow.” This is the theme of River, a haunting new video by the Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra. It is an inspiring sound and visual experience of the Australia we are becoming, all woven together by the movement and grace of Gambirra Illume, Yolngu performer and cultural educator from Australia’s north east Arnhem Land. River is a song of sadness and despair uplifted by the hope and optimism that emerges from sharing the journey towards resolution. Look at the warmth and laughter of the participants as they near the end of their street performance.  Watch the video River. It is now available from all digital retailers.

In January this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that at least half of Australia’s special intake of 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees would be settled in Fairfield in western Sydney, within 12 months. In the previous year, Fairfield City Council had already welcomed 3000 humanitarian arrivals from the two war-torn countries. It was the continuation of a pattern of accepting migrants and refugees displaced by war and economic upheaval, which had grown since World War I. This concentration of cultural diversity gave Fairfield a special relevance as the setting for River, Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra‘s first single released last month. The photo below records the warmth and excitement that surrounded the orchestra following their inaugural concert at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, in November 2014, when they performed the remarkable three stages of love and death. The words and music of River are developed from an extract of this work. Please take the time to click on all the links and listen to the music recorded.

It would be true to say that years of preparation have gone into the launch of River. Some of the first threads were drawn together long before Richard Petkovic created the Cultural Arts Collective in 2007 with Maria Mitar. Even so, they say it took three years of working with fellow musicians to create, record and release River. Through Cultural Arts Collective they showcase the future of Australian music by combining Australia’s many cultures into music that “touches the spirit”. It is a generous vision that has driven Richard for a very long time – unearthing the musical talents and mastery that have remained unrecognised outside the bounds of individual cultural communities and gathering them into making music that draws on tradition to create inspirational contemporary work – anything from driving rock rhythms to hypnotic spiritual chants.

Through Cultural Arts Collective, Richard launched the first Sydney Sacred Music Festival in 2011 after working with migrant and refugee communities in western Sydney for more than 10 years. After operating on a shoestring, it is now an established non-profit organisation, with a measure of government and private financial support. The program extends right across metropolitan Sydney, linking together a whole range of music organisations.

Death and personal loss were the immediate inspiration behind the creation of River. It offers a message of hope for those struggling with grief and profound loss. Eleven musicians performed in the streets of Fairfield, where they were filmed with the willing support of locals. They were world renowned Uyghur bard Shohrat Tursun – vocals, dutar (two string lute), Yaw Derkyi – African percussion and vocals, Richard Petkovic – guitar and vocals, Maria Mitar and Gambirra Illume – vocals, Nicholas Ng – urhu (Chinese two stringed fiddle),  Bukhu Ganburged – Mongolian horse fiddle, Salar Hs – violin, Rudi Upright Valdez – double bass, Victor Valdes – Mexican harp, and Ngoc-Tuan Hoang – guitar.

Many of these artists have been playing together for several years now and it shows in their ease of improvisation and collaboration and their quiet mutual respect. Cultural Arts Collective produces and composes music, and creates ensembles to support artists previously hidden from the mainstream. Already firmly established is the Shohrat Tursun Trio, comprising Shohrat himself, in right of photo, Yaw Derkyi, centre, and Richard Petkovic. CAC manages artists, produces festivals and events and distributes new music.

Richard’s perseverance in changing the focus of Australian music making and performance has led to contracts with Musica Viva to re-imagine their regional touring program and Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority to work with several community festivals to improve their artistic direction. They are great steps forward on a deeply enriching path.

Counter vilification and stereotype by getting to know the individual

1-khaled-sabsabi-majority-minorityWhat can we as individuals do if we don’t accept the torrent of vitriol, racial abuse and false information currently swirling around us? Quite a lot, really, if we are prepared to be steadfast, patient and respectful. Artists and arts activists in western Sydney have been travelling this path for many years. Through their art forms they have offered insights into what it’s like to belong to one or several different cultures and how that may find individual expression through their personal experience. As artists reveal aspects of their lives, we witness vulnerability, a search for the infinite, for meaning and understanding. Insights may challenge assumptions about each other and leave audiences and participants more open to new ideas and understandings.

Khaled Sabsabi is a western Sydney artist, who was awarded the inaugural Western Sydney Arts Fellowship in 2016.  He migrated from Lebanon with his parents as a 12 year old in 1978 as a result of civil war, and settled in western Sydney. His personal experiences of conflict and dislocation in Lebanon and then in his adopted homeland of Australia, led him into deep social engagement. Independent curator and editor of Artist Profile, Kon Gouriotis wrote in 2014, “As a young artist, Sabsabi began experimenting with sound and poetry within the hip‐hop group COD (Count on Damage) in Granville NSW. He gradually moved to sound tracks for short and feature films, his last work was for Cedar Boys (2009). Yet it was to be media that eventually connected his sound and images . . .”

khaled-sabsabi-majority-minority-with-carmel-and-konFairfield City Museum and Gallery is currently hosting a solo exhibition of Khaled’s work, Majority/Minority, which Kon  officially opened in January. It encompasses three works which reflect on the complexities of migrant experience in western Sydney and the way in which minorities have gradually become the majority in areas like Fairfield. Kon, centre above, with gallery coordinator Carmel Aiello and Khaled Sabsadi. Top, is a still from Khaled’s two channel video Wonderland (2014), one of the three works in Majority/Minority.

In 2003 Khaled returned to Lebanon for the first time. He was profoundly affected by his exposure to the origins of his Islamic Sufi lineage. Kon considers that some of the Sufi teachings would have resonated deeply with Khaled, “especially an individual’s right to imagine the infinite”. It is generally understood that Sufism predates Islam and was connected to Zoroastrianism. Khaled uses the online name of peacefender and has worked extensively in detention centres, schools, prisons, refugeee and settlement camps. Among many awards, Khaled is a recipient of the Blake Art Prize, Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship and an Australia Council for the Arts Community Cultural Development Fellowship.

In the last year alone he has participated in group exhibitions in Yinchuan City, China; Blacktown Arts Centre, NSW; Artspace, New Zealand; and at Bait Al Shamsi, Sharjah, UAE.  Next Saturday, February 25, from 1pm to 3pm, Kon will be in conversation with Khaled at Fairfield Museum and Gallery. They will discuss Khaled’s exhibition Majority/Minority and some of his recent practice and reflect on the broader role of the arts and cultural sector in western Sydney. You are invited to attend and to participate with questions and discussion. RSVP to museumgallery@fairfieldcity.nsw.gov.au or call 9725 0190 by Thursday 23 February. Complimentary refreshments will be provided.

You don’t havejason-wing-within-arms-reach to look far in western Sydney for other examples of thought provoking work by artists of sometimes demonised minorities. Within Arms Reach was the poignant and haunting work, right, created by Jason Wing for The Native Institute, a 2013 exhibition at Blacktown Arts Centre. Jason is an artist of Aboriginal and Chinese descent, who was evoking the anguish of Aboriginal parents who camped outside the 19th century institute fence in the hope of catching a glimpse of their captive children.

wagana-woodford-academy-with-n-trust-0117Wagana Aboriginal Dancers from Katoomba, under the leadership of Wiradjuri descendant Jo Clancy, continue to explore traditional culture and create contemporary dance works. They are developing cultural knowledge and confidence among their young members and sharing their understanding with local and international audiences. Here they are at their first performance for 2017 at Woodford Academy, managed by the National Trust. Later this year, they will perform at the World Indigenous People’s Conference in Toronto, Canada.

The politically-charged marriage equality debate is the subject of a new dance performance at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. In Difference is a production of Form Dance Projects and Riverside in which leading dance artist Craig Bary in-difference-preparationhas drawn together a gifted artistic team. Here they are working on ideas and choreography, right, in preparation for a brief season, March 2 to 4, at 8pm.

“Marriage equality is a real issue for real people so we are making this work for them, and hope to make a significant contribution to the debate in the most creative and inspiring way,’ says Bary. ‘We will also bring the real life of the performers on stage to create a compelling, vulnerable and open environment for the audiences to connect with.”

We all have a need of connectedness, of belonging. Is there really any difference between the needs of a same sex couple and a heterosexual couple? In Difference promises a penetrating and poignant demonstration that dance can communicate important issues and make a social and political impact.

sydney-world-music-chamber-orchestra-rehearsalOther examples of work that defy the stereotypes and demonstrate the riches that come with experience of individual stories abound in western Sydney. Sydney Sacred Music Festival, now in its seventh year, is under the direction of musician Richard Petkovic. Over time, he has gradually assembled a whole range of highly trained musicians from many cultural and religious backgrounds, who are also frequently refugees. Their explorations of contemporary expressions of ancient traditions is continuous, where they share the transformative power of the sacred as distinct from the potential divisiveness of the religious.

1-dth-media-releaseWestern Sydney Literacy Movement – Sweatshop based at Western Sydney University, will launch associate director Peter Polites’ first novel, on March 5. Down the Hume is queer-ethnic Western Sydney noir, the first of its kind, and is published by Hachette, one of the biggest publishing companies in Australia.

Check out Natalie Wadwell’s latest blog post where she reflects on Resilience, it’s a cultural thing and promotes Jon Hawkes’ argument that culture should be the fourth pillar of sustainability. He proposed in 2001 that culture is not an additional policy or a strategy, but a framework through which we assess social, environmental and economic strategies. Natalie links this to her recent experience of a Resilient Sydney workshop.

National Theatre of Parramatta is just one more of many fine examples of companies that seek to defy stereotypes by presenting stories from diverse cultural communities. Still only in its second year, it has already met with great success.

Community advocacy confronts the challenges of heritage conservation

A dedicated communprag-first-rally-0215nity activist needs the characteristics of a fine actor – the sensitivity of a butterfly and the hide of a rhinoceros. Oh, and the wisdom of Solomon and the stamina of a marathon runner. It has been a headlong rush for the management committee and membership to learn and respond since the founding of North Parramatta Residents Action Group two years ago. (Locals assemble for the first rally above.) Some have no prior experience of community organisations. Passion for their cause is deep and emotions run high. More than a year ago, a general meeting of members affirmed the right of the management committee to take action on their behalf, without first consulting the membership. Action is often required quickly in response to government decisions.

Ratstudio-gl-ugnsw-overviewher than simply object to state government proposals to sell off most of one of the nation’s most important heritage sites for the development of nearly 3000 new apartments, left, North Parramatta Residents Action Group has been committed to developing an alternative vision, below left. Surveys of local residents and members since the group’s studio-gl-nprag-concept-overviewfounding two years ago, a symposium in 2015, which attracted a wide range of planning expertise and community experience all produced ideas and opinions, which have helped shape their vision.

NPRAG was spurred into life when UrbanGrowth NSW claimed in 2014 that extensive NPRAG rally crowdcommunity consultation had shaped their draft masterplan for the sale and development of what is now the Cumberland Hospital site. Most local residents had never heard of the proposals and those who had, at the protest rally left, were bitterly opposed to the high rise apartment blocks comprising the bulk of the plan. Within weeks, a constitution had been drawn up and membership established. They were determined to protect and enhance the historic buildings and sites of the Parramatta local government area, especially those of national and World Heritage significance; oppose the over-development of Cumberland Hospital and Parramatta Park precincts; and support retention and public ownership of existing active and passive recreation sites, including Parramatta pool. The pool and the stadium occupy designated Parramatta Park land.

Council amalgamations forced by the former Baird Government from mid 2016, don’t allow for local government elections until September this year, so the usual democratic channels are not available to citizens. The result has been frustration and fears of a deliberate state government campaign to exclude community protest and participation.

nprag-pool-protest-1216Under the dynamic leadership of president Suzette Meade, the committee has raised thousands of dollars towards their cause. Most recently they commissioned architects Studio GL to draw artists impressions of the developments proposed by UGNSW from plans available on the government website. Studio GL then created a second set of artists impressions of NPRAG’s alternative proposals for the same sites – a cultural/arts precinct free of any residential development. The drawings were displayed at a December protest, above, about the demolition of Parramatta pool to accommodate the stadium’s expansion, and then at Australia Day celebrations in Parramatta Park. Some of those drawings illustrate this post.

The Australia Day stall was a joint effort of NPRAG and Parramatta Female Factory Friends, who established a formal memorandum of understanding between them in early 2016. Working in partnership with other groups like the National Trust, Parramatta Female Factory Friends, Parramatta Female Factory Precinct: Memory Project and Parramatta Chamber of Commerce has been NPRAG’s practice from the start. Members are keen to learn from those with a history of advocating heritage preservation, while engaging the community in new ways of thinking about their past and planning their future together.

“Click advocacy is now possible through digital activism,” Suzette says, “and community activism is inevitably political.” The state government has been insisting that the only way they can fund the preservation of heritage is by selling most of the surrounding site to developers. NPRAG is determined to demonstrate alternative solutions. An arts and cultural precinct can have a multiplier effect, NPRAG believes, with economic benefits including domestic and international tourism and the physical and mental wellbeing of residents

Everyone wnprag-pfff-australia-day-1orking on the Australia Day stall, left, near Old Government House in Parramatta Park was surprised by the size of the crowd and the numbers who had still never heard of the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. Two hundred years of colonial history and evidence of thousands of years of Aboriginal custodianship are encompassed by the 30 hectare site. Old hands and recent arrivals from India, China and south east Asian nprag-1630_n_parramatta_fshp_artistimpressionsonly_161115_3-300x212countries were fascinated by the stories and eager for more information.

As Suzette later wrote: “As you can see from the picture (top), NPRAG’s Alternative Vision drawings displayed on easels, brought the crowds to the stall and helped direct hundreds of signatures to the PFFF petition (for National Heritage listing nprag-1630_n_parramatta_fshp_artistimpressionsonly_161115_4-300x212of the convict Parramatta Female Factory) and to NPRAG’s Save our Heritage and Pool petition to the state government. We also welcomed 44 new NPRAG members.” NPRAG now has several hundred members and 3500 active followers on social media. One of the challenges is to convert social media followers into a politically acknowledged advocacy voice.

The upper drawing is an artist’s impression of the state government plan to privatise public land for a suburb. Below, is NPRAG’s vision for the same site surrounding the old cricket pavilion open to the public for cultural, mental and physical health benefits.

Suzette, whose background includes project management in the construction industry, summarises NPRAG’s vision for the future, “Over a decade we could develop – affordably – a hub for creative minds with rehearsal spaces, artist studios, community centres with a world class art gallery and museum of NSW celebrating our migration history together with the first centre of indigenous reconciliation and excellence, surrounded by an interactive-family focused sculpture park among renewed colonial botanical plantings. There would be an outdoor performance space and indoor auditoria, with practice and smaller presentation rooms. There would be a connection with Parramatta Park via a foot bridge to link the government lands and the cultural ribbon along the river. All keeping this green public space accessible for the expanding population of Parramatta to both recreate and create in.”

suzette-meade-0117Passions run high among those who are fighting for a better future for the Fleet Street Heritage Precinct, also known as the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. It’s not always easy for determination and respectful discussion to go hand in hand and Suzette is acutely conscious that her role is to allow all voices to be heard. She says, “Maybe if UGNSW worked with the community and residents genuinely from the outset better outcomes would have progressed. Why is it up to the community to make sure the right thing is done to our green space and heritage?”

parramatta-ch-c-michael_mekhitarianPresident of Parramatta Chamber of Commerce Michael Mekhitarian believes there is merit in NPRAG’s proposals, though he considers there may be a need for a greater mix of heritage, commercial, arts/cultural and residential in the precinct. He urges UrbanGrowth and NPRAG to sit down together and have a conversation. “We want the best outcome for the people of Parramatta. We need to be able to attract the best and brightest. Think of the residents if nothing else.” NPRAG has certainly tried to do this with UGNSW.

If you can spare 30 minutes, go to this link (http://bit.ly/2hBF94H). Overcoming Challenges in Community Advocacy was Suzette Meade’s speech to the Royal Australian Historical Society Annual Conference in October 2016. It not only outlines NPRAG’s operations and achievements, but offers valuable advice for many community organisations advocating change.

Arts, sport and pushing back against fear

1-hakawati-team-and-ntopI could kick myself that I’m too late to get a seat for Hakawati, right, National Theatre of Parramatta’s show currently part of Sydney Festival. On the other hand who could begrudge NTofP‘s sold-out success at El Phoenician Restaurant-Bar and the enthusiastic reviews? Hakawati draws on ancient Arabic traditions of entertaining through story telling while sharing a meal, at the same time offering insight into contemporary issues with a powerful western Sydney twist. The show has proved so popular that a return season is planned for later in the year. Click on this link for notification of dates when they are advised..

I was more successful in booking for Champions, at Carriageworks, this week, where the skills of contemporary dance and soccer collide. Directed by Martin del Amo, assisted by Miranda Wheen, Champions tells the story of an all female soccer team and their preparation and performance in a drama filled match. Blurring the boundaries between the elite skills of 1-1-champions-form-dance-projects-photo-by-heidrun-l_hr-webdance and sport, the team worked with coaches and athletes from Western Sydney Wanderers. Channel Seven sports presenter Mel McLaughlin provides analysis and commentary in the show. If Champions, left, has anything like the qualities of previous Form Dance Project productions, including the linked Dance Makers Collective’s Dads, last November, it will be enthralling, thought provoking and highly entertaining.

Providing background to my thoughts about these and many other productions engaging western Sydney artists are the heartfelt observations of two such creatives shortly before Christmas. The first is Aanisa Vylet (below right preparing for Daisy Moon Was Born This Way to be produced by The Q at The Joan, Penrith in 2017, photo by Alana Dimou) – gifted actor, director, adventurous and generous spirit. That’s also Aanisa in the bottom right hand corner of the Hakawati photo above, where she has been dramaturge to the production. On December 21, she posted on her blog Secrets : From one artist to another. Do read it.

aanisa-daisy-moon-q-2017-photo-alana-dimou“I feel like we are living in a very unpredictable and frightening political landscape. I have had this idea sitting in my chest: to write a blog of secrets and tips that I would whisper to a fellow artist…to offer support. So these are some values and strategies that have kept me going as an actress, artist and outsider for the last 11 years . . .”

I’ll leave you to read the 10 points for yourself, but her final note is illuminating. “I will share one last secret…at the beginning of this year, I told myself – “Ok, so this is your last chance to be an actress/artist, you need to give it your best shot and if you don’t land something and if your play turns to shit – you need to find another career and accept it. This is your last shot. NO HOLDING BACK.

“I have not had the time to write a blog this year because I have been overwhelmed by the abundance of what I have experienced. I still had moments where I was  afraid, mistrustful of myself and of the the world at large. What if I eliminate all fear?”

1-natalie-dec-2016On a related theme are the writings of passionate community activist and creative entrepreneur, Natalie Wadwell, left. Natalie is concerned that the arts are not valued in the community in the same way as sport and yet their contributions to physical and mental skills, imagination, social cohesion and much more have many features in common. She wants to see more artists of all disciplines engage directly with communities, take courage in forging their own pathways and enlarge our understandings of our shared humanity.

She is continually putting her words into action. With her colleague Lucinda Davison, they have established a website State of the Arts. It has a big vision – “It aims to bring together creatives, art writers, performers, musicians and art organisations to investigate, engage and promote the diversity of creative initiatives and cultures. From the northern plains to the southern basin of NSW, including Greater Western Sydney and the ACT, State of the Arts will be a guide from country to coast.” Now they are advertising for help in developing their website.

natalie-web-developerState of the Arts web developer [PAID OPPORTUNITY]
Help State of the Arts refine our platform and shape new features to be launched in April 2017. Live, work or playing across Western Sydney or Regional NSW is not essential, but desirable (we want to support local).
If you or a mate you would highly recommend is interested send us an email with the subject line ‘I can web, mate,’ and three samples of recent work.”

Like so many others, Aanisa and Natalie are determined to push back agains the clouds of fear constantly under discussion in mainstream and social media. Working collaboratively, talking openly and honestly about concerns and sharing explorations towards better understanding are just some of their tools. Fear can engender more fear which just ends in paralysis. I love the Bernard Shaw line famously only half quoted by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in the 1970s, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy . . .  my child, but take courage: it can be delightful.”

Yes, this blog does have a future – building on each other’s achievements!

Well, hello again! It’s more than two months since my last post. In that time, I have been sorting and culling files, books and other records and generally downsizing. Many were used in the writing of my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney, published in 2013 and in the subsequent publication of this blog Western Sydney Frontier – beginning in 2014. Simultaneously, it has meant a chance to reflect on the last 45 years of arts and cultural development I have witnessed and the monumental changes that have occurred across the region.

1-bsa-collective_blank-slate

In the midst of this period, I was honoured to open the first exhibition of the recently formed Blacktown Studio Artists Collective, Blank Slate. It is a perfect illustration of what has happened in that 45 years. Distance and isolation remain facts of life, but population growth, cultural diversification, growth in social infrastructure like education and the arts and the determined advocacy of hundreds of passionate individuals has produced  extraordinary change.

Above is Blacktown Sun’s photo of the exhibiting artists, Jan Cleveringa, left, Nazanin Masharian, Suzannah Williams, Rosalind Stanley and Alex Cyreszko. Nazanin says “Blank Slate is a metaphor for the collective; we’re not sure what we’re going to be yet. We’re open to the energy of the group and what comes up,” They are all well educated, widely experienced and willing to explore their own histories in a context of local and global issues like displacement by war and colonisation, the impact of changing technologies, and climate change. They came together under the auspice of Blacktown Arts Centre and are also committed to Blacktown and its future.

ian-zammitThen last week I had the immense pleasure of an evening of conversation over dinner with two inspirational people, Ian Zammit, left, and Natalie Wadwell, right below. Our evening resulted from both of them contacting me after I questioned whether this blog has a future. Having reached the age of 75, I am increasingly reminded of my own mortality and the need for me to pass on the baton of networking, support and promotion. Both Ian and Natalie grew up in western Sydney. Each was creative and imaginative, but frustrated by the limited opportunities available locally. Ian grew up in Emu Heights, pursued music and theatre studies and completed an honours degree at Middlesex University in the UK, in 2006. He returned to live in Penrith and for five years worked at Carriageworks arts centre in Redfern. Then he took a gamble on working full time to develop Emu Heights Theatre Company with a group of local artists, teachers and business people and the support of his wife Michelle. The company survived five years of successful productions and work with local schools, but decided to close last year when facing unending struggles for money and resources.

Far from giving up, Ian recognised the need for more collaboration and mutual support among theatre people and established Theatre Links in the West, which meets monthly and shares theatre information through its Facebook page. His track record is leading to increasing professional employment opportunities for him in Penrith and Liverpool performing artsNatalie Wadwell - ARI forum.

Similarly, Natalie has been confronting the frustrations and challenges for young people in her local area and continually investigates, analyses and instigates creative solutions. With an appetite for learning, strategic thinking and a commitment to improved opportunities, she established an online presence with Wadwell Initiatives, giving her own background as a writer and creative instigator and a summary of her projects, writings, ideas and vulnerabilities. She has a Bachelor Art Theory/History (First Class Honours), UNSW Art and Design (2012-2015).

Earlier this year, she graduated with 16 other young people from the inaugural accelerator program conducted by the School of Social Entrepreneurs for young people wanting to drive social change in Western Sydney. Now, she is working with Lucinda Davison, founder and editor of the online publication State of the Arts to develop the site as an online platform promoting a more inclusive arts and culture conversation across New South Wales. “It aims to bring together creatives, art writers, performers, musicians and art organisations to investigate, engage and promote the diversity of creative initiatives and cultures. From the northern plains to the southern basin of NSW, including Greater Western Sydney and the ACT, State of the Arts will be a guide from country to coast.

State of the Arts brings together the broad experiences of art and culture “out there” to take art off its pedestal, because culture is everywhere.” Natalie is determined to ensure that western Sydney is well represented and the platform provides scope for lots of participation. Do check it out and consider contributing. State of the Arts is a more than worthy successor to Western Sydney Frontier and for the time being, we can gladly cross promote each other’s posts. In the meantime, those people who left generous comments supporting the continuation of my blog can feel pleased.

wagana-becky-chatfield-and-jo-clancy-2016While most of the arts and cultural achievements in western Sydney are the result of sustained collaborative effort and many disappointments, some require even more commitment than most. For Becky Chatfield, above left with Jo Clancy of Wagana Aboriginal Dancers in the Blue Mountains, there are daily encounters with casual racism and denial of her own deep sense of identity. Statements like “Aboriginality is just unnecessary. It’s not really in the best interests of Aboriginal people. It’s not good for Aborigines to remain Aborigines.”

A week ago on Facebook, she posted “I tossed up whether or not to watch First Contact last night but decided I had to, the issue is too important. So many people saying ‘ignore it, don’t worry about it, give it no energy’. But unfortunately, I feel that I must indeed give energy to it and I believe we all should, because David Oldfield is not the only one with these sickening views, Australia has many people who think the way he does and I can’t close my eyes to it. I have a responsibility to my daughter and to all of our children to at least try. I will continue to spread the beauty of our culture, and I will call out the bullshit.
I want change and it won’t come unless we actively tackle the situation together.”

Then out of the blue came a contact from Anton Arets, an artist I hadn’t seen for 30 years. It was followed by a completely unsolicited response to my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney  – one that reflects the views of Ian and Natalie. “I have Blog - PPM book coverjust finished reading it. It is such an excellent, well researched and insightful publIcation . . . This book will help everyone contemplating a career in any of the many art forms and cultural support networks, to appreciate that its not an easy road, that there will be challenges, disappointments, limited budgets, rejections, lack of community support and opportunities – just to mention a few.. But they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They need to build on the foundation set by the many dedicated artists and artisans before them, and capitalise on every opportunity that presents itself or is even self created, regardless of how small it appears on the surface. Effort always pays dividends.

“Just thinking….. What the book highlighted in my mind, amongst other things, was how the Aboriginal community and also the European/Asian Migrant population, the New Australians, were basically told to bury their identity or ‘shut up and fit in..’  Art gave them their voice back, and helped them research and regain their identity as individuals worthy of dignity and respect. Its a voice we cannot afford to lose.

“As the powers-that-be continually implement and endorse the time tested quality of not listening to the general populace, this may end up being the only voice we have.”

In officially launching Blacktown Studio Artists Collective exhibition Blank Slate, I gave each of the artists a copy of Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney to thank them for their inspiration to the rest of us and to let them see themselves as part of a rich continuum of creative arts development in western Sydney. They work in a wide range of media to give expression to their ideas. Blank Slate continues at Blacktown Visitor Information and Heritage Centre in the original Blacktown Primary School, Civic Plaza, Flushcombe Rd, Blacktown, (across from Blacktown Library), until January 28, 2017. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 3pm.

It’s a pleasure to know that Ian Zammit and Natalie Wadwell are looking forward as much as I am to getting together again early next year. All good wishes in the meantime.

“Living Traces” offers an international vision for North Parramatta heritage site

1-living-traces-griefThanks to the vision and passionate commitment of artist Bonney Djuric, the current exhibition Living Traces – a Parragirls artist book and print exhibition – is giving us a glimpse of possibilities both poignant and beautiful. The possibilities are implicit in her proposed International Site of Conscience embracing the convict Parramatta Female Factory and the Parramatta Girls Home. Both lie in the Parramatta North Heritage Precinct, a key site of Sydney’s colonial history from 1792 and part of the land of the Burramatta clan of the Darug people for at least 20,000 years.

This core of Australia’s national history is now threatened with subdivision and development by the NSW Government through its agency UrbanGrowth. The girls home is currently under investigation as part of the Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse and former individual male staff members are the subject of criminal investigations.

living-traces-workshop-bonney-djuricBonney, left, and the late Christina Green were the co-founders of Parragirls in 2006. Both had been institutionalised in the Parramatta Girls Home under a punitive welfare model  in the 1970s, though like most of the residents, neither had committed any crime. Both had struggled in adulthood to understand the harshness of their experiences and to find healing from the consequences. Parragirls was founded to assist other former residents to find similar recovery. As part of this process, following a chance meeting with artist Lily Hibberd, Bonney initiated the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct – Memory Project with Lily as creative director in 2012. There was little or no money. The early stages involved bringing to light through photography, history documentation, artworks, multimedia presentations and installations, a record of the abuses and punishments of life in the institution. A theatre production, a symposium conducted in partnership with UTS Shopfront and quiet meetings with former girls returning to face their past were all part of the process. They began to reach a wider public totally unaware of the history.

living-traces-workshop-gypsie-hayesAs Bonney explains in the Living Traces catalogue, “Important to both of us was coming up with a new model of ethical practice to engage with and interpret institutional sites of confinement that would place former occupants at the centre of the process rather than at the periphery as subjects, footnotes. . . . Slowly we have built community interest in the site, connections to arts, history and the museum sector, and are rekindling its early Indigenous history. Most importantly we’re exploring new ideas on how these sites can be used, and who should be involved in the process.” There are no similar models to guide the process. Aboriginal artist and Parragirl Gypsie Hayes, above, in a Living Traces workshop.

living-traces-workshop-jenny-mcnallyFor those of us who grew up outside Sydney and NSW, it it difficult to comprehend the fear and shame associated with the girls home. Although originally intended to provide safety and education in life skills for disadvantaged girls from the 1880s, instead it became a focus for brutality, moral judgements and the abuse of power, especially by male officers. As Bonney says in a video interview in Living Traces, “we were told we would never amount to anything.” Civic leaders and the media echoed these judgements, and until the home was forcibly closed in 1986, teenage girls were commonly threatened with the girls home if they didn’t behave. It was a mode of control and punishment, including shaved heads and solitary confinement, that had its origins in British naval practice in earlier centuries. Although Bonney and Christina Green (aka Riley) were each treated very differently in the home – Christina’s Aboriginality compounded her punishments – both buried their experiences until painful memory triggers became inescapable. For almost every former resident who survived the ordeal, this was the pattern – profound shame, guilt and burying memories of the past. Parragirl Jenny McNally, above, and her Living Traces collagraph, below.

living-traces-jenny-mcnallyLiving Traces, a Parragirls artist book and print exhibition has been a year long project with funding assistance from Arts NSW. Among the traces of the brutal and demeaning history perpetrated in the 19th century buildings of the Girls Home are names, initials and statements scratched into doors and window frames by girls locked in solitary confinement. So many records have been lost or destroyed by the state welfare authorities, and others not yet found, that sometimes the scratchings are the only evidence that a girl was ever there. Professional artists Gwen Harrison and Sue Anderson conducted 16 workshops with 12 former Parragirls to create delicate multilayered collagraphs incorporating traces of these scratchings and others in which they respond to those marks on their own lives. The results are printed on exquisite German etching paper, displayed individually throughout the exhibition and gathered into collective artist books.

living-traces-bethel-its-time-for-transparencyThe exhibition is laid out in Bethel, left as seen at the launch of Living Traces, the children’s hospital built in 1862 for the adjacent Roman Catholic Orphanage opened in 1844. Both buildings were subsequently part of the Girls Home. A catalogue and information sheet guide visitors through rooms upstairs and downstairs, where sound recordings, videos, and installations create an atmospheric context for the stories being told. Upstairs in particular the sight of stripped back walls and scratchings on doors bear grim witness to the girls’ experiences. With the official opening on Saturday, September 24, performance artist Zsuzsi Soboslay, presented the verbatim story of Jenny McNally’s struggle against shame and hiding her past from her family. As she spoke, she quietly wiped a window clean to reveal the words – It’s time for transparency. Her strength and dignity were almost palpable and her audience was deeply moved.

1-living-traces-its-time-for-transparencyArt is transforming a terrible history into a transcending experience uniquely personal and universally relevant, from which we can all learn and draw inspiration. Lily says, “Living Traces offers rare insight into the continuous history of a justice system that criminalises, incarcerates and punishes vulnerable children to this day.” For Bonney it is “opening up new ways of understanding ourselves as a nation who never questioned the rule of authority when it came to the fate of those who were placed in institutional care.” The goal is a Memory Museum for Women and Children for which they have already amassed a huge archive.

But there is an elephant in the room potentially threatening the future of the project, other than from the NSW Government. Without a unified voice, the government could easily ignore alternative proposals to their plans. In the last two years, government proposals for the site have led to the rise of the North Parramatta Residents Action Group, which has been instrumental in mounting a widespread inclusive campaign to save the 30 hectare heritage precinct. With the National Trust and Parramatta Chamber of Commerce, among others, they envisage a world class cultural, educational and tourist precinct that is economically viable and remains in public ownership. They have tried to engage Bonney and the Memory Project in the process. Last October they conducted a symposium about the future of the precinct drawing on a broad range of expert opinion and continue to garner support and commission alternative concepts to those of UrbanGrowth.

living-traces-bonney-djuricPrevious experience has taught Bonney to be deeply distrustful of heritage organisations, which “domesticate” or sentimentalise colonial history and fail to see the continuing impact on contemporary society. It is only her highly strategic and total commitment which has brought the project this far and won global recognition as the first Australian member of the 200 strong International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Bonney’s Living Traces collagraph, left.

About the Parramatta Memory Project Lily explains, “The Site of Conscience founding ethos is to bring ‘Memory to Action’ past and present experiences of women and children who have been in state welfare institutions. It is place of recognition for women and children who have been subjected to terrible injustice, cruelty and punishment in welfare and juvenile justice systems. Parramatta Female Factory and Parramatta Girls Home are conjoined as the mother and child of this system from its colonial origins and legacies from the 20th century to the present day.

living-traces-gypsie-hayes“The Memory Museum for Women and Children will make the physical and emotional link between the Female Factory and Parramatta Girls Home and the intergenerational and contemporary issues for all those who have similar experiences. This is a museum of inclusion: a home for otherwise disparate and vulnerable people: Forgotten Australians, Stolen Generations and many others who have been treated unjustly and abandoned by the state and their carers.” International Sites of Conscience generate huge visitor numbers, she says, and strong economic returns. Gypsie Hayes’ Living Traces collagraph, left.

It’s time to talk. In the meantime, UrbanGrowth has just announced –

Sprout

Growing ideas for the Parramatta North heritage precinct

Two days of panel discussions, working sessions, inspirational presentations, site tours and displays to help us grow ideas for the Parramatta North heritage precinct. Thursday and Friday, November 10 and 11. The Chapel, Norma Parker Centre,
1 Fleet Street, North Parramatta NSW 2145.
Sprout
is free to attend. Pre-registration is required, as we have limited space. Register

I regret that I shall be unable to attend, but you can still make a contribution by phoning  Sara Wilson on 0419 815 087 or emailing parramattanorth@urbangrowth.nsw.gov.au

Living Traces continues only from Friday September 30 to next Sunday, October 2, 2 – 6pm, 1 Fleet St, Parramatta North.

Workshop images – Lucy Parakhina; Collagraph images – Lily Hibberd; Other images – Suzette Meade

Creative artists present nuanced views of conflict, causes and consequences

ntop-qanonAward wining film director George Miller says, “. . . art is at its best when it allows catharsis through story telling and a nation is at its best when it provides a refuge for humanity to heal and flourish.” It seems that this observation is relevant to three arts events due to launch across western Sydney, where negotiating multiculturalism and difference is a daily  experience.

The first is Diaspora-Making Machines opening at Blacktown Arts Centre, on Thursday, September 29. The second is a public dialogue between writers Ellen van Neerven and Michael Mohammed Ahmad under the provocative title Black and Lebo. The third is The Cartographer’s Curse, a new production created by National Theatre of Parramatta, which explores the complexities of political and social divisions within the Middle East. Above is an image of the qanun, a Middle Eastern instrument featured in The Cartographer’s Curse. Director Paula Abood explains qanun is the origin of the English word canon, encompassing the lore and law of a society.

In Diaspora-Making Machines eight artists of diverse cultural backgrounds explore some of “the systemic devices (the machines) that generate movement and the dispersal of communities (the diaspora).” From the earliest days of the colony, Blacktown has been a scene of continuous waves of migration. Some were forced, like the Aboriginal and Maori children sent to be “reformed” at the 1823 Blacktown Native Institution, and others like migrants and refugees who made new homes there by choice.

1-blak-douglas-bac-for-diaspora-making-machinesOffering an Aboriginal perspective on the exhibition’s theme of Blacktown’s historic place as a centre of migration, attitudes to newcomers, and notions of belonging and assimilation is Blak Douglas, who grew up in the area. His work, left, Pipe Dreams (Part A), suggests a challenge to the role of the church as a systemic device in the dispersal of Aboriginal communities. Another of the artists is Mehwish Iqbal, who grew up in a small town in Pakistan where art wasn’t even taught in the local school. Nonetheless, she defied traditional expectations to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the National College of Arts and then moved to Dubai. In 2006, she moved to Australia with her family where she completed a Masters degree at the College of Fine Arts UNSW. Mehwish has undertaken international artists residencies and has a keen interest in themes of integration, assimilation and separation experienced by migrants living in Australia and issues faced by under privileged children in developing countries.

The other artists are Jumaadi, Nerine Martini, Susannah Williams and Warren Armstrong, Luping Zeng and his son Cheng Zeng. Diaspora Making Machines will continue at Blacktown until Saturday, November 5.

ellen-van-nervanBlack and Lebo promises a lively discussion between two award winning young writers, Aboriginal author Ellen van Neerven, right, and Michael Mohammed Ahmad, below, left. Ellen won the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize, among other awards, and has just published a new book Comfort Food, a collection of poetry. Michael is the director of Sweatshop – Western Sydney Literacy Movement, a talented actor, and a doctoral candidate at the Western Sydney University Writing and Society Research Centre. He has won several awards for his work and for his debut novel The Tribe. His second novel The Lebs will be published early next year.

Ellen and Michael Mohammed.AhmadMichael will discuss the intersections between race, faith, class, gender and sexuality in contemporary Australian literature, give performances from their latest works and take questions and comments from their audience. Black and Lebo takes place on Friday, September 30, at Western Sydney University, Bankstown campus, Building 3, Room G 55. The event is free with lunch provided and everyone is welcome, but RSVP is essential.

Prof Ghassan HageFrench and British colonialism of the early 20th century in the Middle East is the starting point for The Cartographer’s Curse. Invasion, colonialism and conflict have been common experiences for centuries among people in this region, where borders have undergone frequent change, according to who holds the power. A century ago, it was the British and French who drew lines on a map to divide the area according to their own interests. The consequences continue to reverberate and have led many people to seek refuge elsewhere in the world. Under the guidance of Paula Abood, history is imagined through spoken word poetry and prose, parkour movements and qanunic music. Among the characters are the cartographer, the wandering professor, the poet, the resistance, the merchant and the master of the qanun. The professor is played by Ghassan Hage, above right, an actual Future Generation Professor of global stature.

1-ntop-cartog-curse-thistle“This ensemble captures the very best of Arab Australian artistry in all its different expression,” Paula says. “Each performer in The Cartographer’s Curse brings a particular prowess and this makes for an exciting performance.” The coupling of the melodic quality of the qanun with the edginess of Parkour movement, she describes as “artistically very exhilarating.” The thistle, left, grows throughout the landscape of the Middle East and could easily be perceived as a metaphor for resilience and survival. The Cartographer’s Curse opens at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, on Thursday, October 5 and continues only until October 8.