That one of Australia’s capital cities should stage an Indigenous Arts Festival of world standing every two or four years, to honor and celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and indigenous cultures from around the world, as a major new visitor attraction.
In a country in which indigenous culture has such a distinguished place, it is ironic that is took the Olympic Games coming to town in 2000 for Australia to stage the nation’s first — and only – “blockbuster” celebration of indigenous art and culture, the Festival of the Dreaming in 1997. Australia should not have needed the prompting.
But having done it once, this then should have been a legacy from the Games. Australia should have gone on to create the world’s greatest Indigenous Arts Festival as a must-see, two or four yearly, item on the world cultural calendar, honoring indigenous culture and drawing tourists from around the world.
We can still do so.
What country has more need of this, as Australia continues to grapple with the deep challenges of bringing indigenous people fully into Australian society? And what country is better placed to do it, given our two big competitive advantages – we are home to possibly the world’s longest enduring culture, and we are second to none in organizing major events.
At the time of the Olympics, we had the template, the organizational structure, the people, the plan, and most importantly the support and enthusiastic engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Festival of the Dreaming was run out of SOCOG, nurtured by people distinguished in arts management like Leo Schofield and Craig Hassell, and directed by one of Australia’s best-known and most successful indigenous figures, Rhoda Roberts. It would not have taken a huge effort to roll this forward every four years.
The good news is that Australia could still grasp this legacy. We would be updating rather than starting from scratch.
It might be said that Australia already includes indigenous art in a range of festivals, museums, galleries and so on around the country. But this would be a lazy response. It entirely misses the point.
What was special about the Festival of the Dreaming is the same thing which is special about the Olympic Games, and why it has such remarkable pulling power. The magic of the Olympics is precisely that it compresses into one place and one time a tremendous variety of sports, all performed to a standard of excellence, so that the whole becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Likewise, the Festival of the Dreaming was a unique draw card because it compressed into one time and one place an unprecedented critical mass of visual and performing arts.
In four weeks, the public could enjoy indigenous art ranging from the highly popular Mimi stiltwalkers which drew mums, dads and kids to Centennial Park, through to the leading-edge dance of Bangarra at the Opera House. This single cultural showcase gave voice to more than 700 indigenous artists from Australia and around the world. Every state and territory of Australia was represented. There were works from urban, remote and rural areas.
There were also indigenous contributions from New Zealand, Canada, Greenland, the United States, Korea and the countries of Oceania.
The day-to-day exhibiting and honoring of indigenous art around Australia is obviously vital. But so too is the big impact event. It is not an “either-or” situation.
One reason we should do this is a moral imperative. For all the obvious historical reasons, the Australian community as a whole has a special obligation towards the first inhabitants of this continent. The proposal is fully in line with the philosophy of reconciliation.
Moreover, there may be widely differing views and political positions on chronic problems of aboriginal disadvantage in Australia but respect for indigenous art transcends these debates. Like sport, the arts provide a field in which indigenous and non-indigenous Australians easily come together. It is part of a potential cement for our society.
Would an Indigenous Arts Festival fix the deep-seated problems of disadvantage in aboriginal communities? Obviously not. But would it help, in a small way, over time, to create a better climate for fixing them? Very probably.
And it would, not unimportantly, polish Australia’s international reputation and counter the negative caricatures that are sometimes still around.
But there is another reason as well; a hard-nosed business reason.
Instead of focusing so much attention on bidding for major international events which already exist, and where the decisions are (to put it politely) sometimes fickle, we should shift the balance towards creating events ourselves. This should be an important part of a wider agenda of creating much-needed new tourism product in Australia.
We should get the world knocking a bit more at our door in major events, rather than the other way around.
Again, of course, it is not either-or. We should fight to host events like the Football World Cup. But we have more control of our own fate in the competitive worldwide major events industry if we invent our own. We reportedly spent $50 million and wound up with one vote from FIFA. It would take a great deal less than that to seed the funding for a world best Indigenous Arts Festival and we would be taking out destiny into our own — extremely cable — hands.
My proposition is not an annual festival. I think that this risks the event becoming merely routine. There is also the question of cost. I propose a four yearly or two yearly event. The “Biennale” is an established concept in the arts world, and being the world’s Indigenous Arts Biennale would instantly have a lot of cachet. (It could perhaps alternate with the very successful Sydney Biennale, which currently happens in the even numbered years. This is what happens in Venice, where the arts Biennale alternates with the architecture one. But this is a suggestion rather than an essential feature of the proposal.)
An indigenous arts festival could circulate between capital cities, but I favor one location so that the event becomes identified internationally with one place — a powerful marketing device. We want the Cannes Film Festival of world indigenous art and culture. Sydney would make a good deal of sense, because of the Olympic legacy and Sydney’s major drawing power for tourists.
I recognize the need to look before we leap.
But, at the very least, surely this proposal deserves close, serious and positive consideration by government with the full engagement of indigenous people and the major event and tourism promotion authorities in Australia.