Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Arts, Politics and Brisbane Festival

Politics and the arts are family. Both are concerned with the affairs of the people. Whenever anyone questions an accepted reality, it becomes a political act – and many people do that most days, whether they think of themselves as artists or political or not. Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and vocal critic of his government, goes further: “Everything is art. Everything is politics."

It’s easiest to see this in the extreme. The success of any revolution depends on a rupture with the past. In February this year, ISIS burned 100,000 books in the central library of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. UNESCO called it “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history."

Look at any revolution – French, Boshevik, Chinese and so on – and you’ll find a similar pattern. As Orwell reminded us, “he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

Wars against a people always go hand in hand with a war against culture.

The CIA believed that the arts could win a war. During the Cold War, it financed and assured the success of the American abstract expressionist movement as a weapon against the Soviet Union. Its Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in 35 countries, published around 30 prestige magazines, and held large exhibitions and international conferences. Its mission was to encourage the intelligentsia of Western Europe away from a lingering fascination with Communism. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko were held up as exponents of what Rockefeller called ‘free enterprise painting’.

The Brisbane Festival is not attempting to win a war, but it does have a political energy this year, one that tries to help us make some sense of how the world is – a natural role of art. It’s possible to follow themes of race, colonialism and discrimination through the three weeks of the festival, and to discover things we might not have known.


The West has a big blind spot when it comes to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When King Leopold II of Belgium made this country his private property between 1885 and 1908, ten million people were killed, perhaps half the population. Largely forgotten. In the recent civil wars, around six million lives have been lost: the deadliest conflict since World War II. Largely ignored.

You know that smart phone in your pocket? It couldn’t work without a mineral called Coltan. 80% of the world's supply is in the Congo. Your phone might have blood on it.

This nation, the size of Western Europe, in the very heart of Africa, in the cradle of all humanity, should be front-page news. 

We’ve gathered four spirited productions – all exclusive to Brisbane – and we hope that they will help open our eyes to the power, politics and, perhaps above all, the vivacious personality of this utterly unique nation.

Do black lives matter? #BlackLivesMatter is all over Twitter in the United States. From Ferguson to Baltimore, police killings of unarmed black men in questionable circumstances have sparked widespread social revolt. The story is not going away. Race is America’s weeping sore.

In such circumstances, sometimes new languages are required. FLEXN unveils a brand new dance form – flex. This show features 15 African American dancers from Brooklyn – the pioneers of flex. It’s a jaw-dropping show, developed late last year just as juries decided not to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, and made with the collaboration of perhaps the greatest living American theatre and opera director, Peter Sellars.


It should be clear that the story of FLEXN resonates deeply with the Australian story. Indigenous Australians represent just 3% of the total population, yet make up more than 28% of the prison population. We have our own weeping sore. 

Beautiful One Day takes us to Queensland’s Palm Island where Cameron Doomadgee died in dubious circumstances while in police custody. Riots ensued and the Premier declared a state of emergency. This story is also not going away – a class action is due to be brought by the residents of Palm Island against the State of Queensland in the Federal Court this September. 

Beautiful One Day is a gripping account of what happened, and what didn’t. Three of its performers are Palm Islanders, including Doomadgee’s niece. In the week before it plays at Brisbane Festival it will play for the first time on Palm Island itself. It will arrive to us charged, and will play side by side with FLEXN – a profoundly powerful double.

While the Congo is one of the largest and poorest nations in the world Singapore is one of the smallest and richest. We’ve made a collection of five or six shows that offer snapshots of a neighbour nation which this year marked the death of Lee Kuan Yew and celebrates 50 years of independence.

One of those shows is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s produced by what Lonely Planet called Singapore’s sexiest theatre company – W!LD RICE. This is an all-male production – though NOT in drag – and through endless laughter it manages to call up questions of identity and sexuality – particularly potent questions in a nation where homosexuality remains illegal. It’s the same law, inherited from the English, under which Wilde was famously gaoled.

The Importance of Being Earnest

I enjoy the way things connect and accumulate in this festival. I think it’s what an international arts festival can do best. If you look closely, you’ll even see shapes in the fun stuff. For me, there’s not much distinction between the meaty and the merry.

At each of the almost 500 performances of almost 80 shows, springing from five continents, I hope that the boundaries between artists and audience will dissolve, and that together we will see that questions can have more than one answer and that neither words nor numbers can exhaust what we can know. I hope that spirits and appetites will be lifted beyond the drum and dust of daily life. I hope that these shows will both brighten and enlighten.

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