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Australia Council Forum – Lena Nalhous, ICE

Speeches and Opinions
Oct 31, 2007

I would like to start by acknowledging the Indigenous owners of the land, the Eora people of the Gadigal nation, on which we meet tonight.

For those of you who don’t know, Information & Cultural Exchange is an arts, cultural and digital media organisation based in Granville in the Parramatta area, which (for those of you who don’t know) is the centre of Sydney.

ICE works on arts, cultural and technology projects across the Greater Western Sydney Region. I’m a passionate advocate for this region.

As long ago as 1991, the Australia Council recognised that Western Sydney had a comparative disadvantage in terms of support for and participation in the arts. We sometimes get chastised when we advocate and promote the distinctive features and needs of this region, but I always want to explain this because a lot of people don’t really understand the scale and complexity of this place, which is serviced by a much small number of infrastructures and agencies when compared with other urban areas.

This is compounded even further when one considers work in digital media, multi-artform and multimedia, because the region has such a comparative disadvantage in terms of access to and skills in technology as well.

So just a few stats –

One in five people who live in Australia live in this beautiful city of Sydney. One in 10 live in Western Sydney.

The region is home to some of Australia’s greatest cultural diversity, including:

– Australia’s largest urban Indigenous population

– The most languages spoken

– Suburbs where almost two thirds of the population were either born overseas or their parents were born overseas

– The arrival destination for the largest segment of new arrivals under both the humanitarian program as well as general migration program with low English proficiency. For instance, 74% of all African arrivals to NSW over the last five years to 2005/06 have settled in just eight local government areas – all of them in Western Sydney. These new arrivals are concentrated in areas of the region that registers among the highest in terms of urban social and economic disadvantage in Australia.

This might paint you a picture of the challenges that an arts organisation servicing and working creatively with these diverse communities on arts and digital media might face. But for me the region is also the beating heart of creativity in this country. The sheer diversity and the unlikely interactions facilitated by the diversity of your neighbourhood are critical conditions for organic creativity.

There are dancers who are fusing traditional Indian and modern dance, Korean hip-hop artists, Indigenous storytellers, performance artists and highly respected visual, media and performance artists. New artforms, techniques and creative practices are being developed as the region’s diverse artists bring their stories, perspectives and practices to bear on their encounter with ‘art’ and expression in their new homeland.

In 2006, the first bilingual anthology of Dobaiti literature was published in Australia by Bankstown Area Multicultural Network, and was supported by the Australia Council for the Arts. Dobaiti is a poetic narrative form used primarily by women in Afghanistan, and the publication was also the result of a community cultural development project that enabled women from the Afghan community to resituate themselves and their cultural and creative capital in their new context, as well as to bring this literary form to bear on their experiences of displacement, migration and loss, some of the most burning questions of our time.

These questions were also taken up in a project led by ICE in partnership with the Musuem of Contemporary Art and the Campbelltown Arts Centre, culminating exhibition just closing this week which has been showing at CAC since May. Dis/Place worked with artists who had established bodies of work as artists but who faced barriers in terms of situating and continuing to practice in Australia.

I would like to mention at this point that about half of the support from the Ozco for Western Sydney arts and cultural initiatives up until last year came through the community cultural development program. It’s for this reason that ICE, along with many of the region’s cultural and arts organizations participated actively in the restructuring and redevelopment of the Community Partnerships section. (They made us work hard for it!).

Because of the diversity of the place, and because of a range of converging policies and coincidences that have currently created an increased interest across many sectors the arts and culture of the region, this investment in community cultural development processes is beginning to pay dividends.

You can see it in the expertise and innovative approaches to practice that are being undertaken by some of the region’s leading artists and entities. You can see it in the willingness and interest among the inner-city-based organizations to soak up and engage with the energy and diversity of the region.

Don’t get me wrong, ICE has long advocated that the major cultural institutions have a responsibility to engage with the region – we facilitated one of the first Western Sydney event for the Sydney Writers’ Festival about five years ago, for instance, and we’ve seen their program and audiences grow. And it’s been good to see that the Writer’s Festival has been willing to engage with the region not only as a passive ground for audience development, but also as a hot-bed of literary production.

Some of the other cultural institutions might benefit from further consideration of the creative possibilities of this approach. Come and see ICE. But not for another couple of weeks.

But you can see that the investment in cultural infrastructures that has occurred is now just beginning to pay dividends. We were very proud to see the Urban Theatre Projects performance ‘Back Home’ featured in the Sydney Festival. Without the many years of groundwork and investment in creative projects and community cultural development over the last decade, as well as in risk-taking ventures like UTP, this production could never have happened in the way it did – which is what gave it its power.

Which brings me to my wishlist for the next Decade. In ten years time, I would like to see a continuing flourishing and an increase in active participation in the arts in Western Sydney, and in Australia as a whole, with strong support from the Australia Council for the Arts.

I would like to see this flourishing translate to a wider awareness, interest and engagement with some of the artforms and artistic practices that are marginalized and not properly recognized by the mainstream.

I’d also like to see the stories and experiences of these diverse communities more frequently reflected in Australian narrative and documentary cinema, and in major theatrical and artistic works. I would like to see the artistic interpretations of these diverse cultures performed, enacted, directed and produced by artists who are genuinely connected to their cultural context.

Don’t get me wrong, it is important for artists from Anglo-Australian backgrounds to reflect on and engage with these themes and questions in their works, but we need to support and make space, platforms, stages, walls, screens and airplay for artists who can speak to these questions from the genuine experience of encountering Australian culture as a stranger in one’s country — whether Indigenous or migrant.

I’d also like to see the positive impact of the investments that are and could more effectively be made to support young people in artistic and cultural participation, not only in schools and in formal training and skills development. There are still big gaps in some of the marginal forms engaged by young people in everyday expression urban and youth-generated artistic and cultural expression – including hip-hop, graff-art, design and urban culture. And I’d like to see young people whose lives have been transformed by their participation in these cultural movements having found pathways into training, employment and the industry, and to see support for amplifying their cultures and artforms.

I’d like to see these artforms and their artists gain institutional recognition by the mainstream arts communities.

And I’d like to see a thriving, diverse and inclusive arts community that is loved and consumed by the full spectrum of the Australian public and which has a broad and generous foundation of funding and support. I’d love to see that this has made an impact on how we think about what it means to produce, consume and participate in the arts here. And I’d like to see that it has transformed who we are.