Flight from despair to hope, opportunity and creative engagement

UNHCR - RefugeesAccording to a report released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) last month, wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since UNHCR records began more than 65 years ago. The report, entitled Global Trends, found a total 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015, compared to 59.5 million just 12 months earlier.

Large numbers of people have fled Afghanistan and Somalia in recent decades and more recently, countries like Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine and Central America. Settlement solutions are becoming harder to find as countries close borders against an influx of distressed people and there is little sign of regional cooperation between countries that might receive refugees. Worldwide, Turkey is the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosts more refugees compared to its population than any other country. In 2015 children made up 51 per cent of the world’s refugees. Many were separated from their parents or travelling alone.

Blog - PPM book coverAll too often fear is the constant companion of refugees until they find respite. Now, with increasing frequency, fear has taken hold of people in countries that might offer protection – fear of terrorism, fear of losing jobs to refugees, fear of strained health, housing and education resources, a loss of law and order. Australia swings between cycles of fear and cycles of generosity. Our constitution for the founding of Australia as a federation of states in 1901 was influenced by fear of foreigners and totally ignored Aboriginal people. It still has the racist statement that the Commonwealth has the power “to regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races . . .” Two years later, the White Australia Policy was a direct outcome. By contrast, multiculturalism as a concept was introduced during the years of the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s. Under the following government of Malcolm Fraser, Australia opened its doors to Vietnamese refugees and asylum seekers, including those who arrived by boat. Associated stories appear in my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney and in this blog. They demonstrate repeatedly just how many migrants and refugees have gone on to become outstanding arts practitioners and community leaders. Research also shows that the economic costs of accepting migrants and refugees is far outweighed by the value of their ultimate contribution to society.

Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (CPAC) is conducting a two day forum on Friday and Saturday, August 19 and 20 to explore the relationship between refugees and the arts. “Open to artists, performers, art therapists, educators, researchers, art workers and creative producers, the Arts and Refugees Forum also welcomes humanitarian and community development workers to share their experiences and discuss various aspects of artistic practice by, with and about refugees.” It is a free event that will provide a platform for greater networking and development opportunities. The forum will take place against a background of photo-media and video works made by local Sydney-based artists who are former refugees, current asylum seekers and first generation Australians whose families fled war to settle here.

CPAC - refugees - curiousworksBeyond Refuge: Citizens has been assembled by CuriousWorks, which describes it as “an exhibition that asserts the beautiful and fundamental rights of every human being to freedom and peace. It is also a cry to those who have lost their freedom, through the structures and exertions of power.” Image above: Soheil Ettehadolhagh, “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens”  –  Báha’u’lláh universal peace, 2016. Photograph.

Both the forum and the exhibition take place in the context of a major exhibition, Refugees which brings together works by 22 world-renowned artists who share a refugee background. Important works by these high profile artists have never before been seen in western Sydney. The artists are Khadim Ali, Frank Auerbach, Christian Boltanski, Yosl Bergner, Judy Cassab, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Lucian Freud, Mona Hatoum, Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, Guo Jian, Anish Kapoor, Inge King, Dinh Q. Lê, Nalini Malani, Helmut Newton, Yoko Ono, Aida Tomescu, Danila Vassilieff, Ai Wei Wei, Ah Xian and Anne Zahalka.

CPAC is located in one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in Australia, with 40% of the population born overseas and over 150 languages spoken. The arts centre sees the exhibition as an opportunity for advocacy and empowerment of refugees in the local area, as a key to creating social change.

In the meantime, a yoHelen Boris - shards-life-poems-ung woman who arrived as a displaced person from Ukraine in 1949 and later settled with her husband in Seven Hills, is about to launch her first commercially published book. Helen Boris had her university studies in Kiev interrupted by the Soviet occupation and the Second World War and was never able to complete them. Despite the upheavals of terror under dictatorship and the death of family and friends, Helen never lost her love for literature and writing and her interest in sharing it with others. From her earliest days in Australia, she wrote poetry in English and her native Ukrainian. She became active in local chapters of organisations like the Fellowship of Australian Writers, conducted workshops with others like Ann Stewart Galwey to support local writers and helped their community publication. Next Saturday, at the age of 96, in frail health, but of very clear mind and with the support of the Ukrainian ambassador, she will launch her book of poems Shards of Life. You are invited to join them at the Ukrainian Hall, 59 – 63 Joseph St, Lidcombe, at 1pm. Shards of Life is a selection of Helen’s English language verse, through which she shares some fragments of her story, the “shards of her life”.

And thenSyd Sacred Music Fest 16 - Worlds Collide there’s Sydney Sacred Music Festival, now in its sixth year under the leadership of founder and director, Richard Petkovic. This year it begins on Friday, September 2 and continues across locations from Mona Vale to Campbelltown, Sydney CBD to the Blue Mountains, until Sunday, September 18. In the course of two decades, Richard has identified and come to know an extraordinary range of highly professional musicians, from many different cultures and faiths. Many were living in western Sydney following their escape from war torn countries. They have been working together with wonderfully enriching results.

This year, they will present a live multimedia performance of contemporary world and electronic dance music at Wentworth Street carpark in Parramatta’s CBD, on Saturday night, September 3 – Worlds Collide – Eight Storeys High, Seven Cultures, One Amazing New Sound. The rooftop, they say, “will be transformed into an artistic wonderland, featuring art installations by Khaled Sabasabi, Marian Abood and Ghasan Saaid, video projections, interactive dance workshops and the world premiere of the Arts NSW funded, Worlds Collide ensemble. Worlds Collide brings together the best world musicians in Sydney, photo above, and fuses the South Asian Underground beats of Coco Varma’s ‘Sitar Funk’, the acoustic world fusion of the Shohrat Tursun Trio; Latin music legend Victor Valdes; soaring vocals of Blue Mary’s Maria Mitar and the hip hop rhymes of Mt Druitt’s Esky the Emcee, all under the direction of music producer and composer Richard Petkovic (Cultural Arts Collective).”

Program details and bookings.


International conflict, turmoil and displacement impact on local communities

1-George Gittoes - I WitnessSeveral arts projects are exploring international conflicts and their impact globally and on communities of western Sydney. On Saturday, May 28, at 3pm, Penrith Regional Gallery and Lewers Bequest launches its Winter Suite of Exhibitions, which all explore themes of conflict, turmoil and displacement. The centrepiece is a touring exhibition developed by Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre. I Witness is the first major survey in Australia of the work of leading Australian artist and filmmaker George Gittoes, above. I Witness presents a chronological journey through Gittoes’ career beginning in 1970 when he co-founded the Yellow House in Potts Point. There are more than 90 works: paintings, drawings, printmaking, and artist diaries from the fields of war, as well as installation and film.

George Gittoes - a work from No Exit AfghanistanGeorge Gittoes will open the exhibition and says, “I believe in art so much that I am prepared to risk my life to do it. I physically go to these places. I also believe an artist can actually see and show things about what’s going on that a paid professional journalist can’t and won’t do, and can show a level of humanity and complexity that they wouldn’t cover on TV”. Conflict zones where he has worked include Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a special concern for speaking to young people about war and conflict through the medium of film. On Sundays in July, George Gittoes’ documentary films will be shown at 2pm. Above is a work from his 2011 exhibition No Exit from Afghanistan.

Complementing the main exhibition will be a display of works by Norman Hetherington, the creator of television’s Mr Squiggle. Norman Hetherington was a soldier in an entertainment unit during World War II. His daughter Rebecca has curated Heth, an exhibition including some of his pen and ink drawings of the life of a soldier produced while on duty in Northern Australia, New Guinea and the Pacific.

Penrith R Gallery - ZwolowaAlso opening at the gallery on Saturday, May 28, is Zwolowa – A Celebration of Lofa culture and community.  Members of the Western Sydney Liberian Lofa community, Mamre House and visual arts students from Caroline Chisholm College have worked together to create this exhibition revealing the life of Lofa refugees in Australia and celebrating the continuity of their culture. On Sunday, June 5, there will be a special Liberian Beat and Market Day, from 11am to 2pm. Everyone is welcome to all the exhibitions and events and admission is free. The gallery is set in beautiful gardens at 86 River Rd, Emu Plains, where the Winter Suite continues to August 21.

Education is a vital part of this series and of the overall work of Penrith Regional Gallery. The gallery recently announced the recipient of its new 12 month paid education internship program. Penrith is the only gallery in Sydney to offer such an internship and Christine Ghali is the first recipient. She majored in ceramics at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW and completed a Masters of Arts Administration course. Christine’s research paper Is There A Place for Art Education in Western Sydney? An Investigation on Its Importance for the Development of Children and At Risk Youth, is of great interest for the gallery’s education program, where she will be mentored by Naomi McCarthy, the gallery’s education manager.

Penrith R Gallery - Christine GhaliChristine’s own art practice is informed by her cultural heritage as a Coptic Christian and the conflict and persecution they have experienced in their homeland of Egypt. Left is a figure from her  ceramic work Hear No Evil, See No Evil, 2011, which she describes as representative of the suffering of people living in situations of religious, political and cultural intolerance. The hand built ceramics of Buff Raku Trachyte are bandaged with earthen ware slip and partly glazed. She says “Many of the figures have dates of recent attacks inscribed into them as well as the words ‘Lord Have Mercy’ in Arabic, Coptic and English script.”

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, will be on display in Penrith Library throughout the period of the Winter Suite of Exhibitions at the Penrith Regional Gallery. At the same time, Christine Ghali will be developing and delivering a regional youth project in response to the gallery’s winter exhibition suite.

Coming up on June 10, as part of Vivid Ideas 2016 is Pop Culture, Migration and Revolution – Transnational Responses to Injustice. Part conversation, part performance, party and revolution, the event brings together “some of the most exciting artists from the transnational Australian underground hip hop scene, to perform and share conversation with the audience.” Organised by Fairfield’s Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT), Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) and the Religion, State & Society Network (University of Sydney), the event is a lead up to the development of a new activist hip hop musical. To be produced by PYT and ATYP, WATAN will explore the lived experience of young migrant Australian poets and musicians from western Sydney.

Colony - KurinjiThen on June 22, you have the opportunity to experience the next stage of the multi-year, multi-artform project Colony, which is gathering stories across western Sydney and worldwide around the themes of climate change, social division and restricted social freedom. Riverside Theatres and Curiousworks will present an audio-visual concert by Kurinji (Aimee, above). Colony – When the Tide Comes In continues the story of Sam, a young woman living in a 22nd century Australia struggling under the impact of these changes. Colony draws on the largely unknown stories of western Sydney’s multicultural communities and moves across the region’s precolonial past and into its unfolding future. Bookings and information.

Ten years on, western Sydney inspires two great leaps in story telling

Not just one, but two professional artistic companies spawned by western Sydney experience are taking a great leap forward after 10 years of development. The first is CuriousWorks and the second is Sport for Jove.

CuriousWorks - ColonyIn a cavernous space at Carriageworks in Redfern, CuriousWorks launched the first stage of its ambitious story telling project Colony, on Tuesday, March 8, with a live audiovisual concert. Artistic director, multimedia artist and musician, S Shakthidharan supported the haunting vocals of fellow artist Aimee Falzon as they introduced Colony. “You can stand on a street corner in western Sydney and see the whole world go by,” Shakti said. This experience was the starting point for an epic narrative Shakti was given the chance to develop when he became artistic associate at Carriageworks in 2013. Colony will gather stories from world wide, beginning with the links across generations of people who have migrated to western Sydney. Much of the communication will be through image, movement and sound to transcend the barriers of language. The project will grow during the next few years as a response to mass migrations occurring throughout the world and an exploration of ways to synthesise traditional wisdom with contemporary culture. Western Sydney is also home to a significant population of indigenous Australians and their stories will form a vital component of the whole project.

NT of P S. ShakthidharanShakti, right has spent the last decade since graduation assembling a team of talented people who share his philosophy and commitment to provide communities with the tools to tell their own stories “powerfully and sustainably”. It is a commitment that has taken them to work with marginalised communities north of Melbourne, in western Sydney and in remote Western Australia. Individually and collectively they work with professional artists in local and international settings, challenging and extending their own skills and work. Simultaneously, they work respectfully with community groups over long periods of time until they are sufficiently trained and equipped to operate independently to produce and tell their own stories and generate their own financial support.. CuriousWorks combines art, education and technology to deliver communities the ability to create unique, acclaimed artistic product that celebrates their cultures.

Their goals seem to correspond with the opinion of Aboriginal lawyer, academic, writer and filmmaker Larissa Behrendt in her new book Finding Eliza – Power and Colonial Storytelling – “History, then, is no longer just one romanticised story – it becomes a series of competing narratives, brought to life by different groups whose experiences are diverse and often challenge the dominant story that a country seeks to tell itself about its history.”

In the course of their community work in western Sydney in the past few years CuriousWorks has developed a team of young creatives, whose interest and commitment has turned them into leaders training and supporting the next round of story tellers. Among them is Guido Gonzales, who co-directed the film Riz, which had its world premiere at last year’s Sydney Film Festival.

CuriousWorks - connecting to CountryShakti’s background is Hindu and for him there is a natural empathy with the spiritual world of Aboriginal or First Nations people. Among CuriousWorks’ current projects is Connecting to Country – a five-year collaboration established between CuriousWorks and Moogahlin Performing Arts guided by esteemed elders and community partnerships, such as FUNPARK based in Bidwill and the Mt Druitt Reconciliation Group. Beginning in January, they worked on their first filmmaking project, above. Next month, young people will take part in an 80km walk, from the lower Blue Mountains to Blacktown, known as NgAl Lo Wah Murrytula (Darug for ‘together we share and enjoy’). The walk has been initiated by elders Uncle Wes Marne (93 years old) and Aunty Edna Watson (75) as a means of sharing their historical, environmental and cultural knowledge of the western Sydney landscape.

The Colony “universe” is being created over eight days, from 8-15 March 2016, and begins with the epic themes of destruction and creation. The first three chapters of the first story – When The Tide Comes In – were shown at the launch, with more to be released during the current eight days. In an atmosphere of menace and apprehension, we find ourselves in a post climate change Sydney of the 22nd century. A young woman must carry out an unusual mission in order to learn the truth of her family history. As a result, the story will move to and fro between the future and precolonial times. It is a multifaceted project with global reach combining work to be created along the way while drawing together many components of stories already produced. There will be live performances at intervals in sites across western Sydney, Australia and internationally. Click here and stay tuned.

SfJ - Shakespeare Carnival logoAlthough very different in orientation, award winning company Sport for Jove also emerged from the diverse communities of western Sydney almost 10 years ago. Sport for Jove is now expanding into regional NSW. Their new Shakespeare Carnival is a NSW state-wide event that encourages students to get up and get active creating their own theatrical worlds by designing sets and costumes, composing music, choreographing dances and acting scenes that are inspired by the work of William Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Carnival, they say, is a great opportunity for students to challenge themselves, learn new ideas, gain confidence and social skills, and improve literacy as they bring Shakespeare’s inspiring characters to life. The annual event is open to all NSW high school students, and participating schools will be aided and supported by Sport For Jove to hold their own Shakespeare Carnival. Schools will then select representatives to join other schools’ selected students at a Regional Carnival, which will lead into
a State Carnival, to be held at the Seymour Centre in Sydney in June 2016, where the top
performers will be offered opportunities to develop their knowledge of Shakespeare and theatre skills working alongside trained professional theatre makers and compete for a range of prizes.

The Shakespeare Carnival is a continuation of Sport For Jove’s education program. Click here for more information.

Passion, purpose and meaning flourish despite unjust government decisions

Blog - PPM book coverPassion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney is the title of my book, which has spawned this blog. The book was inspired by 40 years of recording the creativity, enterprise and generosity of passionate individuals. These artists and advocates have generated critical change by creating opportunities for others in arts and cultural expression across the region. They have won the support of their local councils, which have then supported the development of local arts centres and programs. The most obvious, though subtle, change among the thousands who have experienced these programs is their growth in confidence, dignity, critical thinking and creative expression. Their numbers are growing all the time.

The recent Deloitte report discussed in an earlier post on this blog, highlighted the extreme arts funding imbalance, proportionate to population, which state and federal governments continue to maintain. The recent federal cuts to Australia Council funding are likely to impact particularly hard in western Sydney. We don’t have any of the flagship companies to be funded by Senator Brandis’s arts ministry. The full title of the Deloitte report is Building Western Sydney’s Cultural Arts Economy – a key to Sydney’s success (my underline). It looks like Sydney is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

Now further fears have been realised with the decision by the NSW government to convert the Old King’s School at Parramatta into a primary school, instead of the long advocated arts and cultural precinct. Any enterprising business or government would willingly pay to have the commitment, resourcefulness and skills that continue to produce so much in the region with so little encouragement.

1-IMG_3352One brilliant example of these attributes is Wagana Aboriginal Dancers, which has been quietly developing in the Blue Mountains under Jo Clancy’s direction for almost 10 years. ‘Wagana’ in Jo’s Wiradjuri language means ‘dance’.  Following a recent residency at Bankstown Arts Centre Jo, left, introduces her five young company members and her assistant Becky Chatfield to local elders and guests. The five girls aged from 11 to 13, with Jo and Becky, are off Denmark at on June 30, where they have been invited to participate in Dance and the Child International. The work they created and were performing at Bankstown is Sum of My Ancestors. It was inspired in part by questions from the audience when older company members performed at the Commonwealth Youth Dance Festival in Scotland last year.

1-IMG_3354Audiences asked why they were light skinned, what did their dance stories mean, how did they know them. Wagana dancers found keener interest in their culture abroad than they find at home. Many of the girls have been learning their ancestral stories from early childhood and through participation in Wagana Aboriginal Dancers. Their soundtrack begins with their voices retelling the stories as they portray them in movement. Sum of My Ancestors is just what it says and Jo has encouraged the girls to feel confident in answering question about themselves and their dance in public. Left above, the dancers perform the story of how the waratah flower became red

While the company is grateful for a grant from Arts NSW, the major fundraising for the tour has been done by the company, families and friends. They have raised thousands of dollars from street stalls, trivia nights, raffles, online campaigns, morning teas and events conducted by other community organisations. Their spirit is strong and morale is high. Jo is acutely aware that a company ranging in age from preschooler to adult doesn’t correspond to government funding guidelines. More importantly, however, she knows it is the natural and traditional way for children to absorb their culture and to grow up confident and at ease with their identity.

Riz - pre-screening musicAnother outstanding example of commitment, resourcefulness and enterprise is the recent feature film Riz, given its world premiere at Sydney Film Festival. Developed under the auspice of CuriousWorks and writer-directors Guido Gonzales and S. Shakthidharan the characters of Riz and his friends were based on the real life experiences of Guido. At the age of 18, in 1981, just as Giudo was leaving his Cabramatta high school, he and his friends were confronted with a divisive situation of hope, ambition, expectation, disappointment, social class and cultural difference which tore the group apart.

Guido has always felt regret and imagined there could have been a different outcome. Riz was his opportunity and the culturally diverse cast delivered a nuanced story of authenticity and conviction. Making their first feature film followed CuriousWorks‘ unique model of community collaboration, pairing industry professionals with a cast and crew largely comprised of young people from Sydney’s west. Shakthi and his long-time CuriousWorks collaborator Aimee Falzon created an original soundtrack for the film. In the photo, above, they perform before the screening of Riz at Casula Powerhouse, on Sunday, June 7, as part of the film festival.

Riz - Q&A with cast and crewTo be selected for the Sydney Film Festival was a tremendous achievement for a film shot in Cabramatta and Casula over nine days and at a cost of only $85,000. Garry Maddox wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Festival director Nashen Moodley says Riz depicts a multicultural Sydney he has not seen before on screen. ‘The film looks at the city and class divisions and a character who’s trying to exist in two worlds,’ he says. ‘They did a really good job and there’s a lot of talent there.”

In the photo above, cast and crew answer questions from their large and enthusiastic audience at Casula Powerhouse. They were still dazed with the excitement of their world premiere at a booked out screening at Dendy Opera Quays, the night before, and the Q&A that followed. The film was then to be shown at Dendy Newtown on Monday. Shakti says, “It’s a story about how different parts of Sydney have to find a way to reconcile and get on together.” Imagine the mutual benefit when that finally happens!

Footnote: By the time you read this, I will be in the Andes and then New York. Not sure yet, whether I’ll post again from there, but back July 8.