Final Stop: Hong Kong

HK skyline

Our guest curator Bonnie Chan had already spoken with great respect of Mok Chiu Yu, the founder and director of the Hong Kong Center for Community Cultural development CCCD). Bonnie herself had been involved in FM Theatre Power, an arts organization that works with many theatre forms to make a difference in this gigantic metropolis. On July 16th, the day before I returned home to the Netherlands, I was fortunate to meet with Mok and Mo (Lay Yan Chi), the cheerful and energetic president of FMTP. Their office on the second floor of the Jockey Club Creative Arts Center, a converted factory building in the Shek Kip Mei area, was just two metro stops from where I was staying in Mong Kok, Kowloon. I spent the better part of two hours talking to Mok and Mo over tea about their histories, their current projects, and possible plans for ICAF.

Mo, Mok, Eus

Mok is a well-known actor and all-round theatre artist with a long-standing interest in people’s theatre. I had already heard about him through my friends from PETA in the Philippines, with whom he collaborated in the past. He is an undisputed stalwart of community arts in Hong Kong. Besides theatre, CCCD employs all kinds of art forms ranging from community music to visual arts and handicraft. Besides, CCCD is also connected to an international Arts Therapy Masters programme. Mok also told me about a colleague of his at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Oscar Ho (Hing Kay). Oscar is a respected curator and art critic who collected many art works that were created during the recent Umbrella Movement. I immediately became intrigued by the possibility to create a special exhibition of that ‘Umbrella’ art work at the upcoming ICAF to illustrate the connection between community art and activism. In the meantime, Oscar Ho has already sent me an optimistic message to communicate that as far as he is concerned such a thing is more than feasible.

Another equally likely Hong Kong-based programme item at the next ICAF might be a one-woman show performed by Mo. As part of FM Theatre Power’s activities, she and her colleagues have developed a new form of participatory theatre inspired by Forum and Playback. They call it Playforward Theatre and over the years they have gathered some amazing narratives in Hong Kong’s popular neighbourhoods. From this material, Mo has created a solo performance, which she has performed in community settings and in 4,000-seat auditoriums. The show is called Women in Red and with a bit of luck you’ll be able to witness it live at Zuidplein Theatre next March. At the next ICAF, we’ll also screen Mo’s feature film 1 + 1, which was based on community art processes in a traditional Hong Kong village that had to be demolished to make way for a new railroad route. Mok plays a major role in this film.

So, thanks to the enthusiastic cooperation of Mok, Mo, Oscar, CCCD and FMTP, at the next ICAF we’ll be able to uncover yet another fascinating example of powerful community art from a faraway corner in the world. This time from the Far East…

Digging into the Roots of Big hART in Tasmania

Between 6 and 10 July, I attended the 22nd Performance Studies International Conference at the university of Melbourne. It was weird to land in the middle of a southern Australian winter after the sauna that was Singapore. It was also good in many ways, because I caught up with some old friends and was able to meet up with our ICAF guest curator Tania Cañas, who took me around her city to visit the legendary Footscray Community Arts Center. Footscray is one of the undisputable pioneers of Australian community arts and in the basement of the building I spent a lovely couple of hours with South-Sudanese filmmaker Ez who works for Co-Health.

On July 10, I boarded a small propeller plane to fly south to a diminutive airport in northern Tasmania. It was here, in the town of Burnie, that in 1992 Scott Rankin and a friend founded Big hART, the multi-disciplinary arts organization that has caused furor in Australia ever since. With offices in Tasmania, Melblurne, and Sydney and several long-term projects in various stages of development at one time, Big hART is impressive in its ambitions to really make a difference through high quality participatory art. And it is unrivalled in its ability to attract funding for its work from beyond the arts circuit.

Footscray 3

During three days I had the privilege of digging into the roots of Big hART by studying a recent research report on three of its projects written by scholars from Murdoch University, Queensland Institute of Technology and Durham University in the UK. I was pleased to see that it employed a mix of research methodologies, including ethnography, which I have long believed to be a key to a balanced perspective on community arts. After reading in the mornings in a cozy beach cabin with a heavy storm raging outside I would spend the afternoon discussing it in depth with Scott Rankin. He drove me around to places where Big hART had worked in its early years and where the company continues to operate in what is arguably the poorest and most under-resourced region in Australia.

Saap prop plane

During our drives, we spoke about possible ways Big hART could be involved in our next ICAF. With six projects currently on the stove, we agreed to postpone a decision until September when access to resources would have become clearer. At the very least, ICAF will have the honour to present the European premiere of the Namatjira documentary and at best a complete live production. So stay tuned to find out what Big hART and ICAF are able to cook up between now and March 2017, the year of both Big hART’s and Rotterdams Wijktheater’s 25th anniversary.

ICAF in Singapore/Singapore in Rotterdam

On July 5th, during a stopover on my way to Melbourne, I met three feisty young Singaporean artists at Dakota metro station. They were Tay Jia Ying, the company manager of Drama Box. Koh Hui Ling, the group’s Associate Artistic Director. And Assistant Artistic Director Han Xuemei. Hui and Han had visited ICAF in 2014 and we had agreed to get back in touch once we would be sure what the next festival theme would be. ‘Movement’ seemed a perfect fit for Drama Box, an arts organization that has been around since 2000. It makes theatre that inspires dialogue, reflection and change by providing a platform for marginalized narratives and the communal contemplation of complex issues in this fascinating but quite rigidly organized city state. In this context, the work of Drama Box – which literally and figuratively ‘moves’ – is highly relevant, as I was able to see for myself later that evening.

One of the main reasons for visiting Drama Box was to see GoLi in action. GoLi, the Moving Theatre, is a remarkable inflatable arts space that can be set up in a mater of hours anywhere you like. It thus makes culture visible and tangible in the neighbourhoods where it is most needed. Between July 5 and 10, GoLi was erected in one of Singapore’s oldest public housing estates: Dakota Crescent. By December 2016, all the residents would have to move because their flats will be demolished to make place for more modern structures. During one and a half year and more intensively in the month of January 2016, Drama Box artists and a large group of volunteers worked with local people to create material for a roaming site-specific multi-media show. Its aim was to reveal the unique beauty of this place and its residents to both insiders and outsiders and to collectively explore ideas for the future. The result – entitled Ignor-Land of Its Loss – was a very pleasant and meaningful aesthetic experience that lasted more than two hours and which brought me as close to the local reality as anything. That is the power of community art at its best. And GoLi was a highly effective (and attractive) central icon in the event.

GoLi by night

I already look forward to bringing this remarkable inflatable venue to one of our popular neighbourhoods in Rotterdam next March. As I write this, Tai Jia Ying and her partners are working very hard to convince the Singaporean government to sponsor GoLi’s very first international appearance at ICAF-7.

expiry date

ICAF in Brazil: Escola da Dança Livre da Maré

From 22 April to 6 May 2016, ICAF artistic director Eugene van Erven and producer Anamaria Cruz travel around Brazil to scout community art projects that have links to the ‘Movement’ theme of ICAF 2017. This is their journey.

Anamaria and I have now been back in Holland for three days, both of us suffering from a major cold and a spectacular jetlag that is undoubtedly enhanced by the intense and inspiring experiences we had in Brazil. But we still owe you a report on a last-minute visit to a very special arts organization. Last Friday, on our way to the airport for our return flight to The Netherlands we stopped in the Maré Favela. The evening before, we had we met internationally renowned choreographer Lia Rodrigues and her dramaturg Silvia Soter in a café near the Botanical Gardens. It seemed like both they and us wanted to first check whether a visit to Maré would be worth the effort. On Thursday night, Silvia and Lia were exhausted after a long day of rehearsals with their professional dance company with another rehearsal scheduled for the next day. Anxious about their imminent tour to Germany, they could do without extra work. Over a cold glass of fresh orange juice (a Brazilian favourite) they told us about their company, their move to Maré in 2003 and how that decision changed their lives and the community they found there. And we told them about ICAF and how different our event is from conventional performing arts festivals. It must have intrigued them sufficiently to make the effort to organize an on-site visit the next day. For us it turned out to be very worthwhile indeed.

Silvia picked us up in her car to drive us down to the Nova Holanda [‘New Holland’!] section of Maré around 1 PM. We passed a group of crack addicts living on the sidewalk of the main thoroughfare leading into the favela. The centro de artes de Maré is located at the beginning of a block in one of the side streets. It is actually housed in a converted abandoned indoor shipyard with enormously high ceilings with fans and two connected hangar-size halls. On the left is an improvised reception, an exhibition area, a public library and a performance space with a few lights and a gradient of piled-up wooden pallets for people to sit on. On the right is a big rehearsal space where Lia works with her professional dancers. She and Silvia had organized for us to get a taste of daily life in Maré and to meet with Redes de desinvolvemento de Maré [‘the Maré Development Network’], a consortium of social agencies that tries to make a difference in this highly troubled neighborhood and that works closely with the dance company. Guided by Daniel, one of the art center volunteers, we walked through the crowded alleys of Maré to the headquarters of Redes.

10155679_863327213698833_7719253405354657963_nPhoto by ELDM

There, Patricia, a leading figure in the organization, told us about the many things they do, ranging from adult education and political lobbying to improving infrastructure, public security and counseling. Art and culture constitute a major aspect of their work and she particularly emphasizes the positive impact the Escola de dança libre de Maré [the free dance school of Maré] has had. Just imagine a major, internationally renowned contemporary dance company suddenly settling in one of Rio’s most violent areas. Needless to say, it immediately provoked curiosity from the locals to come watch open rehearsals followed very soon by requests for free dance workshops. The rest, as they say, is history. The Lia Rodrigues Dance Company has by now become fully accepted by the Maré residents, including the four competing gangs that operate there in different sub-divisions. The professional artists perform for their neighbors, but there is now also a company of highly talented aspiring dancers that have come up through the workshops that cater to a sheer endless pool of novices.

In 2007, the dance company decided to combine its community outreach work under the new name of the Maré Arts Center. Collaborating closely with Redes, this center coordinates the free dance classes, cultural education activities, community festivals, talks and lectures, film screenings, and photo and other visual arts exhibits. The dance classes themselves annually cater to more than 300 children, teenagers and adults from all over the Maré (which has a total of 150,000 inhabitants). A handful of these have now become professional dancers, but the impact of the dance company and the arts centers can be felt throughout the crowded and noisy streets of the Maré. In 2014, Lia Rodrigues was deservedly awarded the Prince Claus Award for her bold move and vision to challenge her own work and the professionals she works with to explore the genuine social relevance of contemporary dance right in the midst of the messy, complicated and ever-changing but oh so inspiring and vital context of Maré.

Escola Livre de Dança da Maré Website | Facebook

ICAF in Brazil: Carroça de Mamulengos in São Paulo

From 22 April to 6 May 2016, ICAF artistic director Eugene van Erven and producer Anamaria Cruz travel around Brazil to scout community art projects that have links to the ‘Movement’ theme of ICAF 2017. This is their journey.

On Thursday May 4 we had a lovely meeting with Maria Gomide. She had flown especially from Belo Horizonte to São Paulo to talk about her company, Carroça de Mamulengos. The name means something like ‘charriot of puppetry’. But the organization is much more than that. It sees itself in a long line of medieval minstrels and commedia dell’arte performers – and like them it moves constantly around, from place to place.

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Carroça de Mamulengos was founded in 1977 by Maria’s father. Since then they have never stopped travelling around Brazil, always establishing profound relations with local communities wherever they happen to stop. The company is very much a family enterprise and today encompasses three generations and many different performance disciplines. These include puppetry, music, clowning, storytelling, and a variety of arts and crafts. Carroça contains many characteristics of a family circus. The company travels around in a bus, but also frequently settles in a place for a while, sometimes even for several months or, as is the case now, a couple of years. Through workshops and easily accessible interactive arts activities for people who have little or no access to the arts, it constructs reciprocal relations with the communities it visits. In these places, it explores Brazilian cultural traditions, which can have indigenous, Afro-Brazilian, or European roots. It regards these very much as living traditions, which constantly adapt to current realities and local circumstances.

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Particularly through the workshops it offers, Carroça can easily be considered an itinerant community arts company, as well as an unusual community in itself. Maria’s father firmly believed that it is possible to develop art through interaction with the popular classes of Brazilian society by activating their cultural memories. Brazilian cultural imagination is the sum total of all these indigenous, diasporic and migratory roots. They form the inspiration for the participatory art that Carroça de Mamulengos creates. It’s a deeply humane and dynamic art that can be performed on the street, in a square, in a theatre building or in a circus – and for any kind of audience: young, old, poor, or rich. Carroça prefers not to speak of workshops but of ‘living experiences’. You learn, not by being instructed, but by doing, by experimenting, by creating toys, music, dance, puppets (including giant ones), food, natural pigments for painting. In the video, Maria demonstrates some of the products she and her relatives make together with participants (after 2m30).


Carroça
‘s connection with parades
In Brazil whenever a circus came to small towns, it would announce its presence with boisterous parades. The people of Carroça also love to create parades – and to create them in a participatory, modular manner through dance, music, giant puppet, and stilt walking workshops. They can create these festive events in a few days’ time if needs be. Often, clowns play a major role in these parades, which are then called ‘payasiatas‘ or clownesque parades. It’s all about creating something together and to celebrate life in the process. “That’s the essence of what we want to achieve”, Maria explains: “gathering as many people as possible and through collective participation in art strengthen our humanity. After all, being an artist is simply a special way of looking at the world. And we believe everyone can be an artist, anyone can play something: they can sing, dance and find a moment to express themselves creatively to celebrate life after a long day of working and worrying about how to pay the bills.”

Carroça de Mamulengos Website | Facebook

 

ICAF in Brazil: Ilú Obá de-min in São Paulo

From 22 April to 6 May 2016, ICAF artistic director Eugene van Erven and producer Anamaria Cruz travel around Brazil to scout community art projects that have links to the ‘Movement’ theme of ICAF 2017. This is their journey.

On Monday May 2 we met with Baby Amorim. She is the friendly, energetic and talkative producer of an Afro-Brazilian women’s collective called Ilú Obá de-min. This name is composed of three Yoruba words meaning: ‘drum’, Xangó’ (a Yoruban King/God), and ‘women’s hands’. These words capture the very essence of the group’s work: to reclaim the place of Afro-Brazilian women in society and public space by means of percussive music, song and dance. Through its performances and arts education projects Ilú Obá de-min fights against machismo and racism and at the same time keeps the Afro-Brazilian culture alive. The group was founded in 2004 and has grown exponentially in importance and size since then. Most of the members have other jobs during the day, but they meet in the evenings and weekends to rehearse and to train newcomers. The coordination and management of the group is fully in the hands of Afro-Brazilian women, although women from other cultural backgrounds (and men) are welcome to join. The age of the members ranges from 4 to 70+. Ilú Obá de-min frequently performs in all manner of gigs, usually (but not exclusively) in the streets.


According to Baby, the choice to perform in public space is political: “After all, we pay taxes and therefore shouldn’t have to ask for permission of the authorities to perform outdoors, certainly not with something beautiful and meaningful as what we offer. It’s not called public space for nothing; it belongs to the public.” In our video clip she introduces the group and explains the motivation why the group exclusively works with women. Traditionally, drumming is a male-dominated activity, both culturally and in the religious practices of Candomblé. Through their activities, Ilú Obá de-min wants to break through this undesirable status-quo. Ilú Obá de-min is most spectacularly visible in São Paulo’s annual carnaval. Each year, the group honours a special Afro-Brazilian artist. In 2016 they paid homage to Elza Soares, a famous Samba singer.

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On the façade of the building where the group has its headquarters, in the Elysian Fields area of downtown São Paulo, is an image of Carolina de Jesus (1914-1977). She is an autodidact Afro-Brazilian literary artist whose work has been translated into 13 foreign languages but who is virtually unknown in Brazil itself. Thus, Ilú Obá de-min continues to celebrate with loud, cheerful, colorful and moving expressions the important but often invisible contributions to Brazilian culture by black women.

Ilú Obá de-min Website | Facebook

ICAF in Brazil: Pombas Urbanas in São Paulo

From 22 April to 6 May 2016, ICAF artistic director Eugene van Erven and producer Anamaria Cruz travel around Brazil to scout community art projects that have links to the ‘Movement’ theme of ICAF 2017. This is their journey.

On Saturday April 30, we visited another impressive community arts organization: Pombas Urbanas. Literally the name means ‘urban pigeons’, which refers both to the symbol of peace and to the irritating pest pigeons can be. Pombas Urbanas is not going away. The group was founded in 1989 by a Peruvian artist named Lino Rojas. Through him, the company is directly linked to the fascinating history of Latin American popular theatre and collective creation that goes back to the 1950s and ’60s. After working in several different locations for a number of years, in 2002 Pombas decided to return to the eastern suburbs where most of the members were born. Just like Estopô Balaio, their parents have roots in Northeastern Brazil. They found an abandoned warehouse in a neighbourhood called Cidade Tiradentes, which is located 40 kilometers from downtown São Paulo.

Schermafbeelding 2016-05-02 om 13.16.13

They turned this place into a community cultural center they call ‘art under construction’. It’s an amazing place. It has offices, studios, two performance spaces, a kitchen where everybody eats together and an impressive history that we will write about in the near future. On Saturday, we spoke at length with Adriano and Marcelo, two of the co-founders of the collective, but we need time to translate their words so we can subtitle their amazing stories. They were 13 and 18 years old, respectively, when they participated in the very first workshops that Lino Rojas conducted back in 1989. They now run the company together with 6 colleagues and cater to scores of youngsters from the neighbourhood.

 

On Saturday afternoon, Anamaria and I witnessed the premiere of a short circus theatre piece co-created by one of the youth groups from the neighbourhood. It is intended to become part of a larger show later in the year. Even for such a short piece of 15 minutes the community came out in droves, filling the main auditorium of the Pombas Urbanas cultural center. One of the most touching moments was when all the young performers stepped forward after the show to acknowledge their mothers, fathers, grandparents and boyfriends and girlfriends. In the film clip, Marcelo introduces the show. This is what he says: “Hello, I am Marcelo Palmares, co-founder of Pombas Urbanas. Here we are in our cultural center ‘Art Under Construction’. You’re going to see images of the premiere of a short piece we created together with youngsters from Cidade Tiradentes. Every week we have free cultural events and activities for the community. As our founder Lino Rojas used to say: ‘we have to get Cidade Tiradentes out of the police reports and into the cultural pages. Knowledge must be shared with the people so ideas can fly…'”

Pombas Urbanas Website | Facebook