Thursday, November 15, 2018

Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive

Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive by Scott Rankin.  Platform Paper No 57, November 2018 (Currency House, Sydney)

Commentary by Frank McKone
November 15, 2018

“Culture, and therefore cultural rights, are not the gravy on the economic meat and potatoes. Culture is nutrition itself.”

If anyone can speak for community arts and cultural development (CACD), Scott Rankin can.

I first saw the work of BIG hART, with the Pitjantjatjara people, telling their story of Trevor Jamieson’s family history in Ngapartji Ngapartji.  It was shocking to see the effects on the country and the people, of invasion by horse and camel, of the World Wars and worst of all, as I wrote in the Canberra Times, January 17, 2008, “the explosion of nine major atomic bombs and many smaller bomb trials from 1953 to 1965 which killed and irradiated very many Pitjantjatjara and other Central Australian people.  Jamieson’s parents were orphans, refugees from their own country.” 

I knew then that Rankin would be a force to be reckoned with, and reading Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive now makes clear what was meant by the acknowledgement in that review “Written by Scott Rankin and co-creator Trevor Jamieson”.  At the time I imagined the two of them sitting down in a clay pan writing the script, but – to use my kind of terminology – they were enablers, finding the way with the whole community to express what needed to be told: firstly for themselves and ultimately for the rest of the world.

This is what Rankin calls “thinking big” and explains the title of what became the non-profit company BIG hART.

Before you read this Platform Paper – which is essential reading for theatre practitioners and critics – it would be good to know with whom you are dealing, to quote Pirate Jenny (of Threepenny Opera fame).  This requires a substantial quote from the January 2008 (ie a decade ago) annual Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture given by Scott Rankin at the Sydney Festival:

"The phrase, ‘Taken with a grain of salt’, means something like ‘to view something with a healthy dose of skepticism’.  Its original meaning, however, was far more onerous and dates back to the the rather imposing figure of Pliny the Elder who was born around 79AD and wrote the best selling tome, Naturalis Historia, in which he nominated salt as an important antidote for poisons.  In addressing [the title of the lecture] ‘DIY Virtuosity versus Professional Mediocrity’, I may inadvertently mention such things as:
 The process of creating new work with large groups of people;
 I may accidentally mention the word ‘community’;
 I may allude to the idea of ‘political’ work – both in terms of content of the theatre piece and the processes used to produce it;
 It may appear that I’m suggesting that the individual-messiah-genius-as-artist is not the only way to create theatre;
 You may even think I’m suggesting that governance should not be the main preoccupation for the boards of theatre companies; or that the pool of ex-Cranbrook, ex-Grammar, ex-Macquarie Bank Sydney business/legal/professionals is not necessarily the best pool from which to draw one’s board members for an arts company. 

"[These are] all dangerous, subversive and poisonous concepts I know, so pass the salt if need be.  From the other point of view, I may inadvertently use a dangerous word like virtuosity, or
 Somehow suggest I’m happy with the term ‘élite arts’ and that, God forbid, the term is useful;
 That there is a place for the individual vision of an artist, and that not every work has to be committed to the mediocrity inspired by creation through committee;
 You could misconstrue my words to suggest that somehow I think theatre is something more than just the nightly retail of small oblong pieces of printed cardboard, the hiring – for two hours – of an uncomfortable seat and the flogging of an overpriced glass of sponsored plonk and a wedge of cheap Cheddar cheese.

"In the current ‘either/or’ Arts climate, many of these concepts are of course poisonous,so, if I were you, to be on the safe side, I’d follow the advice of Pliny the Elder, and just quietly help yourself to some salt, should you be feeling a little queasy."
(Full text in Australasian Drama Studies No 52, April 2008)

So that was the background to the Ngapartji Ngapartji project, the whole Pitjantjatjara community work which, I think it’s fair to say, stunned the establishment from its inception at the 2005 Melbourne International Arts festival as a work in progress, through the production I saw at Belvoir, Sydney in 2008 to the 2011 International Community Arts Festival, Rotterdam, Netherlands (Ngapartji One). 

On the way it was seen in
2006 Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs (Developmental Showing)
2006 Melbourne International Arts Festival (World Premiere)
2006 Sydney Opera House (Language Show)
2007 Perth International Arts Festival
2007 The Dreaming Festival,(Language Show)
2007 Adelaide Cabaret Festival, (Language Show)
2008 Sydney Festival, Belvoir St Theatre
2008 Ernabella, (Open Air Community Showing)
2008 Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs
and finally (perhaps) in 2012 Canberra, Canberra Theatre Centre (Ngapartji One)

BIG hART and Rankin’s Platform Paper make it clear that this work is a ‘project’.  The next most well-known is the Namatjira project, which has wonderfully resulted in the copyright in Albert’s paintings only recently being returned by the Northern Territory Government to the family, with a compensation payment for that government’s wrongdoing in allowing their Public Trustee to sell the copyright to a private art-selling business.  The stage play was reviewed here on October 19, 2010 at Belvoir, Sydney; the movie documentary Namatjira Project appeared in October 2017.

In Canberra, we have been grateful to have hosted another huge BIG hART project, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters at the National Museum of Australia, originating with the Martu people of Roebourne, Western Australia – “Stories originally performed on country are shared in new ways, with artworks becoming portals to the deserts of the Martu, the Ngaanyatjarra and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara peoples.” 
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In his speech today, launching Platform Paper No 57 at the National Museum of Australia, Rankin – recently announced as the Australian of the Year for Tasmania (where his career began in Burnie, following the closure of the timber mill some 25 years ago) – pointed out two key issues concerning Australian Indigenous people.

The great preponderance of government funding goes to a relatively small number of Major Performing Arts Companies – only one of which, Bangarra, is Indigenous.  At the same time the huge preponderance of smaller companies receive between them barely one third of the MPC total funding.

And, he explained, cultural justice is about supporting all cultures within the overall Australian culture, with the Indigenous people not only having arguably the greatest need on socio-economic grounds, but especially because of the longstanding nature of their culture. 

While European culture has been here in Australia for some 10 generations, and the culture of Ancient Egypt began some 130 generations ago, Aboriginal Australia goes back an estimated 2,400 generations, and is still evolving.  BIG hART is engaged with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation who manage their 40,000 year-old rock art on the Burrup Peninsula, in the Dampier Archipelago near Karratha, Western Australia, as they make their claim for UN World Heritage Listing – for the art, the first in the world to depict human figures and faces; and for their continuing culture in which the art is a crucial element in educating each new generation.

When I reported on the Big Ideas recording about the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition, on this blog November 17, 2017 [broadcast on ABC Radio National, January 24, 2018], I was struck by Scott Rankin’s manner.  While the Indigenous women, the curator Margo Neale and designer Alison Page held the floor, where was the firebrand one imagines from that Rex Cramphorn lecture?  Here was a quiet, almost self-effacing participant, very much in keeping, I thought with the manner of the young Martu man, Curtis Taylor, whose film-making with his elders made the telling of the story so personal and engaging for the blockbuster crowds of all cultural backgrounds who visited the exhibition.

As you see the firebrand Rankin again in the section in the Platform Paper called Stat-chat: CACD funding 2017-2018 and his final chapter The Way Forward, the answer is to remember the quotation from Rex Cramphorn (who I have to admit taught me achingly briefly for an hour or two in a summer camp workshop and was a major influence on my own drama teaching). As an introduction to the annual Memorial Lecture given by Scott Rankin, Cramphorn’s words were:

I believed that my most important function was to establish an atmosphere in which the grace of creativity might fall on any member of the group, giving him or her the right to lead the work.
 Rex Cramphorn

When I reviewed a project from BIG hART’s Project Cosmopolitana and the resulting stage performance local to us in the Canberra region – Ghosts in the Scheme – about the community in Cooma who had built the Snowy Mountains Scheme in the mid-20th  Century, I felt that it had not “produced highly effective theatrical storytelling of great significance to the wider Australian community” as I had seen in Ngapartji Ngapartji and Namatjira. [September 2, 2015].

Now,with Cramphorn in mind, I can read Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive and come to understand how Scott Rankin could tell you as follows:

Firstly, in his launch speech today, that BIG hART’s is a ‘non-welfare approach’, and in the Paper itself: “There is never a perfect project and failure is always a critical part of the mix. Being a humble listener, rather than focusing on delivering ‘solutions’, is a vital skill for artists in these cultural rights settings.”

Ghosts in the Scheme was a case where the essential value of the project was in the process, rather than a conventionally staged product.  Even so, it did have strength in the songs and performances by Michael Simic and his Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen.  I had taught Michael and knew his father, who had come to Australia from Eastern Europe and worked on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Mikelangelo, of course, continues a successful career today.

At the launch today he performed songs developed from that show, in the presence of his parents – and confirmed in conversation with me the value of that project as cultural justice for the community; for the men who “Wake in the dark / Work in the dark/ Sleep in the dark” in the hope that some day “The sun will shine in”.

Biassed as I may be, I say read Scott Rankin and be glad for CACD (and fund it at its real value):

“Cultural policy must be rebuilt from the ground up to meet the urgencies of the twenty-first century. We need to stop encouraging debilitating clusters of cultural sameness, while robbing high-needs communities of their human right to culture. Robbery is what it is.”