“How many of you watched Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes last night?”

The question came from Mary Lou Aleskie – Chairperson of the International Society for Performing Arts (ISPA) – as she welcomed the 50+ ISPA Fellows from across the world. It was the morning of 9 January 2017 at the Asia Society, New York at the day-long Fellows seminar, which preceded the three-day mammoth 99th ISPA Congress at the Apollo Theatre and Times Centre. Two months earlier America had done the unthinkable in the presidential elections electing a man whose rhetoric is based on fear and hate mongering, and demonising every kind of ‘other’. In less than two weeks time this president-elect would be inaugurated into office amidst public protests the like of which America has not seen in a very long time. And at the Golden Globe Awards the previous evening, Meryl Streep – accepting the lifetime achievement award – had expressed shock and anger at the vitiated atmosphere being created. Making a passionate appeal for the act of empathy, she stated emphatically that an actor’s ONLY job is to enter the lives of people different from them and allow the audience to feel what that is like.

The theme for this ISPA congress – ‘Currents of Change: Arts, Power + Politics’ – had been arrived at much before the momentous global events that turned the world upside down in 2016. Before the Brexit vote, before the migrant crisis began to fissure Europe, and before the election of the 45th President of the United States of America. Looking back, the choice of topic could not be more prescient.

I had applied for the ISPA Global Fellowship in August 2016. I received the letter of invitation in the third week of October. On 11 November 2016, the email introducing the congress structure, content and participants began with the words “There is no doubt that we in the US and indeed around the world are shaken by the recent election result. The only word to describe New York yesterday was “subdued”. Given the result, it is ever more important that we gather as a community and our congress theme, Currents of Change: Arts, Power + Politics could not be timelier.”

I confess I was relieved and reassured by this unequivocal statement about what ISPA believes in as a body. The association is primarily for networking: making connections within the international community, setting up partnerships, finding presenters and collaborators for projects… it could so easily be a space that is mercilessly competitive and focussed on individual gain in an industry with rapidly depleting resources and support structures. However, it chooses to go forward as a community, and to have an equal focus on discourse, on debate, on introspection, on identifying, revisiting and reaffirming values and beliefs that form the bedrock of why the arts exist at all – the human act of empathy is such a potent and precious part of that.

Mary Lou Aleskie’s welcome reiterated the idea of an open community that welcomes both commonality and difference, laying the ground for the congress and what ISPA considers non-negotiable. It was a clear, honest, firm and determined statement of both belief and expectation.

Commonality and difference were both in evidence with the 56 Fellows present that morning: representatives from Egypt, Australia, Sweden, England, Denmark, Palestine, The Netherlands, USA, Mexico, India, Scotland, Columbia, Ecuador, Canada, Georgia, Zimbabwe, Turkey, Fiji, Malaysia, Brazil and Hong Kong. During the personal introductions, we were asked to identify one major concern we wanted to share. There was diversity, commonality and diametrically opposing views here as well in responses that spanned the personal, professional and political. Many of those from mainland Europe and the UK noted either Brexit or the on-going refugee crisis as something that deeply concerned them. And while Mohamed Elghawy from Cairo underlined the instability of Egypt as a major issue, Lene Bang Henningsen from Copenhagen was worried about Denmark being too stable! For Allison Kadin from the Brooklyn Academy of Music – the only Fellow from New York City itself – the personal met the professional and political: what does it mean, she asked, for an institution to remain silent in the face of a rapidly changing socio-political climate?

The day before the presidential inauguration – 19 January – the Brooklyn Academy of Music did not remain silent. It joined theatres and performance communities across the country in The Ghostlight Project, which in a simple, strong and beautiful statement was a simultaneous lighting of lamps outside venues at 5.30pm. Inspired by the tradition of leaving a ghost light on in a darkened theater, it was a pledge to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone “regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation”.

However, a belief and investment in diversity must also leave the door open to voices that do not fit an articulated ethos or view of the world. How do we otherwise prevent ourselves from becoming hermetically sealed, of constantly preaching to the converted? Should we not be talking to – at least – those who are on the fence?

When I was in London in June 2016 a week before the Brexit vote, no one I met was doubtful that the referendum would be defeated – narrowly, perhaps, but defeated nevertheless. At the closing session of the Fellows seminar at ISPA, Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambaksh (a Fellow from England, whose right to enter the USA in the future now stands in question due to her British-Iranian identity) talked about walking the corridors of the building she works out of in Newcastle on the eve of the vote. “Is anyone voting Leave, is anyone voting Leave? It was like an echo chamber,” she said. She found just one person in the entire building who was planning to vote Leave. Similarly, every poll in the lead up to the US elections would have us believe that the result would be blue, not red. It turned out to be not just red, but crimson. Never mind the number crunching analysis in hindsight talking about percentages that did not vote, the many possible reasons for voting against expectation, or archaic election systems that do not necessarily reflect the will of the majority. How disconnected from reality not to even suspect that both of these unimaginable and ridiculed scenarios (and so many more across the world) could come to be!

I recall India in May 2014. First, the desperate campaign to vote for the secular alternative in every constituency, born out the surety that the UPA was not coming back (and did not deserve to) and the hope of blunting the impact of a right-wing government. And then the despair as the results came in, arming the right wing with a complete majority that did not need a coalition to form the government, even though they had only a little more than 30% of the popular vote. I flew in to Delhi a few hours before our newly elected Prime Minister was due to arrive from Ahmedabad. I was greeted by festive drumbeats, celebrating crowds, and carloads of people who had come to catch a glimpse of the man they believed would deliver them from their troubles. I suddenly felt like a stranger in my own country. How could I not know?

“I’m hearing a strong ‘us’ and ‘them’ undertone in this conversation. So before we start talking to and at ‘them’, I think we need to take a good, strong look at ‘us’.” ISPA Fellow from Scotland Paul Fitzpatrick’s remark at the closing session of the Fellows seminar reflects the position articulated by the co-chairs of the ISPA congress (Jude Kelly of the South Bank Centre, London and Alicia Adams of the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, Washington) – “a desire to cast a candid and conscientious eye on the politics and power dynamics in the arts”.

“In a turbulent world where too many voices go unheard or unheeded, how do we make sure that we are not part of the problem in order to be part of the solution?
We need to be a catalyst for positive change in the world. But in order to do this we need to also examine our own habits, assumptions and privileges. How do we become more empowered partners and players at the table and how do we ensure that the table includes everyone?”

Indeed, it is foolhardy to assume that all the 561 delegates at the ISPA congress this year share the same views on politics, diversity, nationalism, identity, migration, refugees, climate change, race, religion and all the million other issues that we constantly deal with. That is perhaps a basic assumption to question – that we are all on the same page. Eugene Downes, Artistic Director and CEO of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, did just that as he introduced the panel on ‘New Audiences: Integrating Migration and Mobility’ on the last day of the congress. There was no reason to suppose a universal agreement or understanding between the delegates, he said, and an acknowledgement of that was the only way to invite and engage in difficult and challenging conversations.

The challenge came soon enough. A speaker on the panel – Marion Potts of the Australia Council for the Arts – referred to an incident in Australia that made her very hopeful about race relations from a purely human-to-human point of view. In the wake of a gunman holding people hostage in a Sydney café, Muslims all over Australia were fearful of an Islamophobic backlash. A white Australian woman observed a Muslim woman take off her hijab on a train and put it in her bag. She went to her and said, ‘put it back on, I’ll walk with you’. The catchphrase ‘I’ll walk/ride with you’ went viral in an outpouring of support for Muslims in Australia. These are the feel-good stories that bring hope to us … supposedly. While most of us were basking in the warm glow of this act of solidarity that is without a doubt to be held up as an example, we were offered a different perspective by ISPA Fellow from Egypt, Amany Abouzeid. “There’s a lot I need to get off my chest, so bear with me,” she began. As a Muslim woman who did not wear the hijab, who opposed it proactively living in an Islamic country that was becoming increasingly more conservative, every such act of ‘solidarity’ shown by the west, dealt a blow to the progressive voices within Islam. Such acts – while full of good intentions – neatly avoided the fact that there are very real problems within Islam today that need to be called out and faced. And pandering, for whatever reason, to what she from her point of view sees as a symbol of oppression, pulls the rug from under the feet of people like her who are fighting for equality and progressiveness within their contexts.

A spanner in the works: suddenly things were not so simple any more. It wasn’t so easy to feel good about oneself anymore. Things were complex, things were dirty, things were soiled with layers and layers of lived history. I think of the inexcusable abuses, threats and sneering contempt that is being heaped unchecked on those who subscribe to a liberal way of thinking in India today – a constant outpouring of mocking hate and bile from right wing trolls, activists, media and lay citizens. But this time, before I think of them, I turn my gaze – as Paul Fitzpatrick suggests – upon us. And a niggling doubt arises – is there a hint of truth somewhere in all the accusations being hurled at us? A truth, which is not about fact, but about evasion or appeasement or about subtly double standards that make us feel good about ourselves, but are double nevertheless? Are we ready to dig that out and face it? What will it reveal about ourselves and our prejudices? What will it reveal about positions of privilege?

Amany’s interjection opened a can of worms in the following long table session entitled Theatre of Empowerment. The initial speakers were from Canada, the UK, USA, South Africa and Palestine. Was it diverse enough? Apparently not, as the conversation shifted from empowerment to who holds power within the arts. Several speakers from the floor raised issues about representation in the arts. How are specific communities, countries and contexts represented? What does it mean to have a festival of Arab Arts or a Festival of India – what expectations does this set up and does one cater to or alter those perceptions? Who decides what kind of work fits these often arbitrary categories, and what happens to art and artists who are geographically in the ‘right’ region but producing the ‘wrong’ art by these definitions? Who sits in these positions of power and privilege within the arts world?

We had closed that first seminar-day involving only the 56 Fellows with a smaller version of a long table discussion, where the topic of the congress was introduced for the first time. Immediately, it came under scrutiny. How did one read it? Was it Art and then Power and Politics together? Were they three different things, or were we looking at the connections between all three? Why was there a comma after ‘Art’ and a + sign between Power and Politics? Splitting hairs perhaps, but how one articulates and how one reads lie at the heart of any attempt at conversation.

And alongside that was the issue of privilege. 56 Fellows from across the world sitting in the Asia Society preparing to go into an international congress. No question about it: we were and are in a position of privilege. And with that, strangely, comes a certain hesitancy on what we are allowed to say, what we can talk about, and who we can speak to.

Unlike the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York University (NYU) – definitely a place of privilege – chose to remain safe and silent by disallowing a discussion of the situation in the aftermath of the presidential elections. The reason stated was that – as a university – they were not supposed to be partisan. Elizabeth Bradley, a tenured professor at NYU’s famed Tisch School of Arts (and one of the ISPA coordinators for the Fellow’s seminar-day), was understandably furious. At the long table session that closed the day, she asked, when do you draw the line, when do you stand up and say enough is enough? Who takes on the right to speak?

Compare this to the current university scenario in India. Jawaharlal Nehru University, Hyderabad University, Jadavpur University, Film and Television Institute of India, Jai Narain Vyas University, Delhi University… all institutions of higher education attacked by right wing forces in the garb of strident nationalism for daring to actually do what they are supposed to – create an atmosphere of discourse and encourage a habit and spirit of critical questioning and thought.

At that last session on that first day in New York we were asked several questions about our backgrounds: was this our first time in NYC, which region of the world were we from, how many languages did we speak… All the questions were framed so that you stood up if it was relevant to you. The last one – how many of you feel that what you do matters? I looked around the room. For the first and only time, all 56 of us were standing. There was power there, there was politics, and there was privilege. And imbuing all three, yet standing apart in its own right was Art.

And Lene Bang Henningsen succinctly summed up the dilemma of privilege versus action: I am the right person to be in this room, but only if I bring other people in.

The one time I very briefly met Professor Nivedita Menon of Jawaharlal Nehru University (who is now at the receiving end of so much mud-slinging) she mentioned to her friend that you could only continue to be politically pure if you don’t act. Once you take action, your pristine ideology will necessarily be sullied by the complexities of reality.

With all our art, all our power, all our politics and all our privilege, are we prepared to act?

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