The Australian arts industry is increasingly aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion. This is a positive and timely shift. The powers that be (funders, policy makers, mainstream producers and companies) are deeply conscious of the changing nature of both arts production and consumption. New media, markets and demographics are all having an impact on the way we make art and inscribe culture in our society.
Despite these changes, there are many organisations in the Australian arts sector comfortable with (or perhaps only currently capable of) what I think of as the “Benneton Basics” approach to race, ethnicity and culture.
Like the complex United Colours of Benneton campaigns of yore, many organisations strive for a kind of diverse involvement that is focused primarily on the “optics of participation”, assuming that if there is enough variety in the individuals featured in marketing collateral or event documentation, then this will demonstrate that the organisation and its activities are “diverse” and “inclusive”.
With just a few well-framed images of people of colour in the crowd or a tiny proportion of programming choices, organisations that have previously (inadvertently or deliberately) excluded large sections of the community can demonstrate they are “woke“, which will automatically address more systemic kinds of discrimination, racism or inequality. Suffice to say, I believe this to be false logic, even as I am inclined to say this is better than nothing, better than blindly continuing with the status quo.
Let me temper my comments by acknowledging that this limited approach to addressing inequality is certainly not limited to the arts. We see window dressing and tokenism in business, politics, education, sport and the community sectors, to name but a few. Australia is a wonderful place, with much to be proud of in terms of its culture and society, but its systems and institutions remain predominantly patriarchal, colonial, heteronormative, ableist and capitalist in their framing. Addressing these systems of power is arduous work, and it is perhaps not surprising that progress remains depressingly slow. It is hard, as Maya Angelou exhorts us to do, to face the wrenching pain of history with courage, in order that we not relive it.
Australia in general remains deeply uncomfortable when talking about race. At best, organisations are bemused and at worst belligerently oblivious as to what is to be done about racial, ethnic and cultural difference and inequality in the arts.
All of which seems a very long run up to this post and its point, which aims to recognise and celebrate the long term partnership and collaboration between Peril Magazine and the Queensland Poetry Festival.
Since approximately 2011, under its previous Director, Sarah Gory, the Queensland Poetry Festival has partnered with Peril on a range of projects and activities from joint editions, programming and cultural advice, event co-hosting and performance presentations.
Now, as its most recent Co-Directors, Annie Te Whiu and David Stavanger, pass the baton to Lucy Nelson (most recently of Noted Writers Festival in Canberra) after three years at the helm, it seems a fitting time to recognise this partnership publicly, and to encourage Peril readers to explore some of the incredible artists that have featured at the most recent festivals.
Peril partners with a range of organisations, like the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus, Contemporary Asian Australian Performance, Asian Australian Studies Research Network, WriCE or Photodust, with whom we share a similar sense of energy and politics. We hope that you, our readers, feel that we respect the work these organisations do, share a similar but not identical approach to the questions of Asian Australian “life”, and are proud of our affiliation with them. This is perhaps not surprising, however, given that each of these organisations explicitly foregrounds an appreciation of Australia in relation to Asia, and race/ethnicity in relation to culture.
The questions at the core of these organisations are similar to our own: what does it mean to be Asian Australian in this country, now, and how are the stories, narratives and arts that we create a fundamental part of that experience?
What is less common is to share the same quality of partnership with an organisation that does not primarily name questions of Asian Australian participation, equality or diversity as a part of its mission.
Mainstream organisations may find partnering with an organisation like Peril an expedient fit. Many large organisations look to smaller, community-based or “interest-focused” organisations to co-produce or program specialist streams of work within broader programs. There are a number of practical, creative and community-development reasons for these types of approaches. In some instances, however, disparity of size, power, financial wherewithal, marketing capability or brand recognition can lead organisations to asymmetrical partnerships that reinforce, rather than redress, existing power dynamics.
These sorts of partnerships are less about a shared vision and accountability for a more inclusive arts culture, and more about outsourcing discrete elements of diversity to specialist groups — “subcontractors of inclusion”, so to speak. The outcomes of asymmetrical partnerships can be a sense of tokenism, peripheral programming for niche audiences, and a guilty sense of orientalism or exoticisation. At its best, arts programming like this is a “nice try”, a hopeful first step. At its laziest, it is the arts equivalent of putting sweet chilli sauce on a meat pie and calling it “fusion cuisine”.
So how did this partnership come about? And why is it different?
In the first instance, like all relationships, it began with a conversation. In this case, a formal Q&A with former director, Sarah Gory, worth a read for its frank self-awareness and willingness to acknowledge critiques of the festival, particularly in relation to the participation of Indigenous artists in previous programs.
What followed from there was a series of informal conversations about what each organisation cared about: why we do what we do and how. Over time this led to a more developed collaboration in the Queensland Poetry Festival special edition 18. From there, Peril was invited to participate in successive festival programming committees and advisory groups, including two years where I was a member of the management committee during the directorship of Annie Te Whiu and David Stavanger. Along the way, Peril was enabled to jointly program multiple events at successive festivals that considered the way poetry intersects with identify through issues of place, culture, migration and language. We’ve hosted our own events within the festival and been able to feature incredible writers such as Adam Aiken, Michelle Cahill, Michelle Law and Eileen Chong, to name but a few.
Naturally, this process of sounding each other out took time. While not guided by formal process or agenda, an openness to collaboration led organically to a strong sense of mutual respect, a complementarity of purpose and an ability to communicate. More practically, it has also always come with an understanding of our respective organisations’ size and capacity, and fair consideration/remuneration for work done by artists.
What marks these activities as special in our mind, and warrants the above discussion, is the way that this relationship reflects a sense of shared values, mutual respect, alignment of vision, positive ways of working and accountability — work done in genuine partnership, in a context where lip service and tokenism are regrettably common.
You might think, from this glowing commendation, that as a result of our collaboration we have seen a high-representation of Asian Australian artists in successive years of Queensland Poetry Festival programming, and that this is our measure of success. More Asians = Happy Peril, right?
Well, yes and no.
Recent years of the festival have indeed featured strong representation from Asian Australian artists and other writers/artists of colour, particularly First Nations artists from Australia, New Zealand and Canada. However, and this might seem counter-intuitive at first, what is more gratifying has been the opportunity to contribute to multiple years of programming that have grappled with a diversity of ideas, themes, styles, formats and audiences — festivals that have showcased work that is complex, contemporary and nuanced, through curation that is deliberate and thoughtful.
More profound than mere participation, is fostering a dialogic space to engage with issues of race, migration, belonging, place, colonialism and activism, all through the prism of poetry – in ways that contextualise the whole festival as relevant to a broader Australian audience. Diversity of participants has lead to a diversity of expressions where the art, the conversation held by that art, and the audience that is a part of that conversation are enriched by the many voices that have been enabled to speak.
For this, we are humbled and grateful. Many sincere thanks and farewell to Annie Te Whiu and David Stavanger, and a warm welcome to Lucy Nelson. Having established itself over the past two decades as Australia’s premier poetry festival, we can’t wait to see what is to come.
For those who missed the three most recent festivals, it is worth checking out the festival programs to uncover a reading list that would soothe even the hungriest poetry lover:
- Language is a Virus, QPF 2015: Experimental and wild, this festival celebrated the avant garde, unusual and downright kooky of poetic language. Within this dialogue of wordweird, Omar Musa, Lionel Fogarty, Luka Haralampou, Uncle Des Sandy, Quan Yeomans, Natalie Catalan and Elisa Biagini held their own unique spaces, particularly against the conceptual play of digital performance artist, Kate Durbin, that year’s Arts Queensland Poet in Residence.
- Lost Language Found, QPF 2016 : This year focused heavily on First Nations writers from around the globe, with some incredibly raw and transformative sessions. If your reading list is #sowhite, consider the works of Sam Wagan Watson (the inaugural Indigenous Arts Queensland Poet in Residence), Ellen van Neervan, Melissa Lucashenko, Theresa Creed, Tishani Doshi, Jeet Thayil, Tracy K. Smith, Janet Rogers, Moe Clark, Joanne Arnott, Ben Brown, Grace Taylor, or Pooja Nansi, to name but a few of the artists who moved audiences in 2016.
- Distant Voices 2017: Featuring voices from the margins – of society, of geography, of poetry – this festival embraced writers those from afar. From queer backgrounds, those living with mental or chronic illness, from migrant, refugee and disapora backgrounds, this was a festival of equal parts elation and grief, featuring Writing Through Fences, Andy Jackson, Tony Birch, Bella Li, Ali Alizadeh, Hani Abdile, Eileen Chong, Janet Galbraith, Mohsen Soltany Zand, Saba Vasefi, as well as our Sudeep Lingameni, Nithya Iyer, Luna McNamara and Mindy Gill in our mini-Peril program “I can’t speak to you”.