Peril’s Nithya Iyer sits down with Angharad Wynne-Jones to discuss the recent program of works exploring identity, belonging, and decolonisation.
What inspired the recent program of works regarding belonging and identity at the Arts House?
My perception is that discussions around race, and gender, and all sorts of identities, are really fiery right now. That feels like a very exciting, energetic space. Combined with a sense of ‘what it is to be alive in the world right now’, the global politics and the environmental disasters that await us, there is an increasing urgency that I’m seeing in artists work that is not just questioning or positioning identity, but challenging power in a really direct way.
At Arts House, in most of the work that we program, the artists are interrogating and creating a politic or politics. But sometimes the intention of that work is different. It might be that an artist finds a politic through form, or finds a form through politic. In this framing of the works happening in July, it is more evident that the works are political driven.
I think drivers can change for the artist within each work, and sometimes from work to work, and where they are in their lives, and what’s resonating for them. It feels quite a mutable space.
We’ve been talking about place and displacement, and that came through the work that was being proposed to us by artists, but it also came through discussions in our creative team. Naomi Velaphi, one of producers, is extremely knowledgeable in creative practice both within the visual arts world and performing arts world. She has African heritage herself, and naturally drew on artists with similar cultural backgrounds who she knew, and knew had been underrepresented in programs at Arts House. So the program evolved through a whole number of coincidences and confluences around the place and displaced premise.
Some of the artists in the July program are living in Europe, and some in South Africa, and their work explores the race politics in those countries. Maybe it’s because they’re not living here that they are able to reveal, really clearly, a global nature of white supremacist project that is at work here in Australia.
We could recognise our own situation and the colonised experience here in Australia.
An exuberance and diversity of form is evident within the works and differences in where and how the work is being positioned by the artists from epic to intimate, from rage to vulnerability. Yirramboi was a really fantastic exposition of that – an exuberance of form and difference and Indigenous cultural practice. Jacob Boehme (Creative Director of Yirramboi -First Nations Arts Festival) shifted both the creation and the reception of the work away from the Western culture setup, which is so often reduced to a consumer-based model. That’s happening with Praia’s work, and other POC artists as well, collectives like Still Nomads – everywhere that you look in Melbourne – there is some sort of reclamation of form and intention happening. People are doing it on their own terms, for themselves and their communities, in the first instance and not conforming to some Western arts school hierarchy, or playing with it, or engaging with it in some theoretical way, but being in charge of it. That is really exciting to be around.
Is Arts House taking on decolonisation as a project or a theme for its season?
Hopefully both. This season programmatically engages with those issues and with those topics through the work of the artists, through the community of artists that we work with, and the audiences.
Arts House is part of The City of Melbourne, which, as an employer and an institution, has necessary ambitions in terms of diversity in its work force and sense of understanding the people of this city.
One of the things we talk about at Arts House (as a predominantly white organisation), is how we – as a creative team – can get out of the way of people of colour and other non-dominant identities, so that those voices and experiences can be expressed and heard.
Getting out of the way is also about letting go. You can be pushed aside or you can make space if you have the power.
For me, personally, letting go of power challenges is – to my own ego and my anxiety as a middle-aged woman – about how I sustain my working life. I also want to share the power, or let go, in a way that is productive and supportive to the people that will eventually replace me, and regenerate the structures. We’re in the long decolonisation project to make Arts House as malleable, flexible, and permeable as possible, so that it has the best chance of supporting someone’s radical vision, leadership, and creative practice.
How do you see the project of decolonisation in its impact on yourself?
In so many ways. For me, my observation, my classification of ‘this is a formal approach and this isn’t’, feels redundant – even as I’m making it. And the parameters of how I’ve seen work, and how I’ve seen myself in relationship to it, is shifting.
I attended a course led by the amazing Genevieve Grieves at Footscray Community Arts Centre on working with First Nations people, and some of the readings and the guests that were brought in completely disrupted my thinking in a really brilliant way. Challenging it deeply. I think that how that plays out then within the Arts House program, and within the Arts House structure, is both a matter of being really pragmatic, and also making sure that there are people there in the workforce making decision with budgets getting to do the things they want to do – which is about getting out of the way.
At the moment, the very notion of an artistic director as, the one person who makes the choice – the choice mistress or master, is really questionable. Having said that, I also feel like I’ve had an experience of making massive and swift changes in an organisation that was quite detrimental to its audience. What makes sense in a smaller group of people who are passionate, and working on the same journey together, can take you to a place where you look back and you’ve left people behind, or been turned away and don’t have a place there. I feel that in my role as programmer, curator, I need to have my eyes on the audience as I do on the artists that are making the work.
It’s a delicate balance of walking towards these energetic ideas that are necessary and urgent, and at the same time a desire for the community of artists and audiences that understand work in a particular framework to get excited about it as well, and feel that they have a place in the room and a place at the table.
Do you think the program is at risk of excluding mainstream audiences by focussing on these issues?
One of the things we talk about at Arts House is the risk of not taking risks. So, in that way, maybe we do take more risks than we should with audiences. We’ve done lots of what would seem to be contentious, controversial, political work at Arts House as long it’s been around. It’s known for its experimentation, so that gives us, in some sense, permission to take on these agendas.
Some of the learning that I’m experiencing as a white woman – in the context of understanding my position of power – is to surface that. To state it, rather than subliminally assume it. I think there’s an element of: unless it is spoken and it is articulated, it is the elephant in the room, and then I don’t have a relationship to it, I’m just working with the power that’s been assigned to me.
That feels quite a critical part of moving on and moving through to get somewhere else. It would be a shame if it stayed in that place. I think there are some really clear inequalities in the arts world – in who has the power and who has access to the voice. To being heard, to the resources, and that is a discussion that we should have. It is about being uncomfortable as a white person and feeling like ‘Oh, I’m working really hard, I’ve earned my place and why should I be displaced?’. It’s as important to interrogate my own power and privilege, and even in the asking of the question, it has the potential to shift and disrupt something in an interesting way.
The displacing whiteness forum is the most popular event of the season so far so I think people are up for it, because of course, it is ultimately in everyone’s best interest to live in a just and beautifully equal society.
Has there been any push back from peers or other institutions in discussing these themes in programming?
There’s something extraordinary about The City of Melbourne supporting a place like Arts House , that consistently throws up difficult questions and feels really hopeful that we might make a robust and just democracy, even though at other times democratic structures and processes can feel fragile and ineffective.
The arts sector is the least cultural diverse sector in Australia. That’s a track to redundancy. How can we possibly be telling meaningful cultural narratives of any sort unless that changes? I can’t imagine that that’s not evident to mainstream cultural institutions. Asiatopa at Arts Centre Melbourne is a response to that. It radically shifted the demographic of arts audiences attending. And that is a political act.
Do you think there is an increasing momentum for change?
I feel like it’s there. It’s always been there. There are amazing artists making work across this city and this country. They might not have been presenting it consistently in the major arts companies, but they have been at Footscray Community Arts Centre, increasingly at Arts House, and many other venues across Melbourne, and in the outer suburbs where the diverse communities around the organisations need to see themselves represented, they demand a voice, too. I think there’s loads going on.
In some ways, within the visual arts world there’s been a stronger sense of connection and support, and more artists of colour and diversity, and more Indigenous artists maybe than within the theatre and performing arts.
Why do you think that is?
The performing arts and theatre have held up this tenet of the universal story as part of offer to engage with audiences, and I’m not so sure that that has been helpful, or true. Whereas in the visual arts world, complexity and specificity is the texture of the offer.
In performing arts there’s a striving to hold a narrative of ‘every man’, but that has been developed in relation to the white Anglo-Saxon population which has narrowed the diversity of the stories.
At this point in time, the specifics of how people are responding, and the nuances of intersectionality of how part of your identity speaks to another, and where you position yourself in relation to someone else, is the churn we’re all in. We’re trying to figure it out and need to, urgently, because we’ve got some big projects to undertake. Climate change for one.
What is the role of intersectionality in these debates? Do you foresee Arts House facilitating that space?
We’ve got to attempt to do everything all the time really. And that’s one of the biggest challenges – that the capacity to have those conversations meaningfully currently rests in really poorly resourced organisations. Arts House is comparatively well-funded, so the ambition is to keep many conversations happening. That may mean making more room at the table, bringing up more chairs, and occasionally being pragmatic and prioritising what we can do best.
Was that part of the thinking of not juxtaposing the works in this program with local intersectional views?
We didn’t want to try to place everyone in the conversation for the sake of it, which felt reductive of complexity, although it is a fine line between that and being exclusionary.
Naomi [Velaphi ] and I have spoken a lot about the balance of the program, and several of the projects expand the idea of Place and Displacement in different ways, and encourage intersectional discussions.
Role of Arts House in the decolonisation debate?
I feel like its central to the practice of the artists that we work with, and increasingly it feels really important that there are spaces where specific cultural experiences are shared and understood for specific audiences. At the same time, it also feels really important to mix it up, to connect, to play.
My fantasy would be that we are able to support a team of culturally diverse curators, a first nations elders network that can help us create work in this space, and make sure we’re ready to address some of the really urgent social problems that we face.
We are living in a giant city that’s growing faster – in the top ten cities of the world – we have a role to play in inviting artists into those really significant discussions and supporting and strengthening our civic role. I’d love to see more artists stand as local counsellors.