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.
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.
Then 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 arts.
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.
While 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 just 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.