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  • Festivalizing Down Under:Unsettling the Contact Zone
  • Ric Knowles (bio)

Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand are key contact zones between the Global North and South. Geographically located in the Southern Hemisphere, their dominant, settler populations are culturally of the North, and their major theatre festivals have been struggling with this fact in Australia since the repeal of the terra nullius policy in 1992, and in Aotearoa since the Treaty of Waitingi Act in 1975.1 Sarah Thomasson has argued that the Australian festival circuit has functioned as the country's de facto national theatre;2 Aotearoa's major festival is titled "The New Zealand Festival of the Arts," and together with the Auckland Festival plays a similar role there. Festivals in both countries, then, can be understood to play a constitutive role in the ongoing redefinition of their national subjectivities in ways that both reflect and shape cultural negotiations between their First and subsequent peoples.

I visited festivals in both countries in 2020 as a white settler Canadian interested in how these negotiations are playing themselves out in the twenty-first century. I focused on the festivals as meta-performances and on the shows that constituted the circuit as a circuit. What follows is a consideration of how, and how well, Australasia's destination festival circuit is managing to reconcile the conflicting narratives of reconciliation [End Page 487] (a social good) and festivalization (an economic one) in 2020.3 The former calls for collaboration, restoration, and cultural sensitivity; the latter calls primarily for spectacle and display before a consumerist or touristic festival gaze.

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The women of the MAU Wāhine opened the festival pouring buckets of blood onto the rock-strewn stage in Lemi Ponifasio's Chosen and Beloved.

(Photo: Courtesy of Sophie Spear, New Zealand Festival.)

The Indigenous populations of Australian and New Zealand have been represented at festivals through most of their histories, and it may be valuable to provide some context about the trajectory in which the 2020 festivals' grappling with issues of Indigenous representation, participation, and collaboration participated. Much of the early history of Indigenous representation consisted of exoticist spectacle, but Australia's 1997 Festival of the Dreaming, part of a series of festivals leading up to the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, has been seen as a turning point in the relationship between Aboriginal and settler Australians. Helen Gilbert and Jacqueline Lo have noted that "Indigenous involvement in the Olympics was susceptible to being incorporated into a narrative of reconciliation that would redeem the nation's vexed self-image and enact a 'national catharsis' of sorts."4 Nevertheless, the organizers of the Festival of the Dreaming did collaborate. In fact, the festival was curated by Koori director Rhoda Roberts (Bundjalung), who agreed to serve as festival director on condition that the event would remain under Indigenous control. And "there is much evidence," according [End Page 488] to Gilbert and Lo, "to suggest that the Festival of the Dreaming managed to fulfil its brief as an Olympic event while also serving the interests of Indigenous peoples."5 Roberts consciously used the festival to address ignorance about Aboriginal cultures, redress stereotypes, promote Indigenous languages, and create opportunities for Aboriginal people in the arts. The festival featured Indigenous performances ranging from Shakespeare and opera to street theatre, addressed social issues directly, and focused on diversity among Indigenous cultures.

Elsewhere in Australia, festivals since 1997 have indeed struggled even to include acknowledgments that they take place on Indigenous lands and displace Indigenous peoples, and when they have functioned productively as contact zones, it has been as a result of some degree of ceding leadership to Indigenous artists. The now annual Adelaide Festival in South Australia, "the nation's premiere arts event,"6 might serve as an example. The first sustained effort to engage fully with the festival's location on the land of the Kaurna peoples was undertaken by American director Peter Sellars when he was appointed artistic director in 2002. Sellars's curation was contentious, but in attempting to address three key festival themes—the "Right to Cultural Diversity," "Truth and Reconciliation," and "Ecological Sustainability"—he introduced a new programming model...


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pp. 487-500
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