South of my days
South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country…
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.
Judith Wright (1915 – 2000)
While strongly connecting to the Southern Hemisphere the idea of South goes beyond geography and includes all who seek to extend the intellectual, social and geographic boundaries of contemporary art through dialogue, collaboration and exchange.
The first time I remember thinking about South as an encompassing term was when I read the 1980 Brandt Report by the Independent Commission on International Development Issues, the report was also called North South: A Program for Survival. In the report South is synonymous with poverty. The Commission advocated a large scale transfer of resources from the wealthy North to the South and a restructuring of the global economy.
The film Bamako (2006) by Abderrahmane Sissako (France/Mali) shown at the 2007 Adelaide Film Festival took up these issues in an allegory in which the North in the form of the IMF and the World Bank is on trial by the South. Bamako is the capital of Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world. The film counterposes the courtroom with daily life. Both take place in the open-air courtyard of a house, a place also used for eating, washing and dying great skeins of cloth. The bringing together of daily life and work with the court has the effect of both humanising and humorising the message of the film and the serious issues of inhumanity it addresses.
My subsequent early thinking about South was connected to Bernard Smith’s great book European Vision and the South Pacific and its descriptions of cultural dialogues between north and south, old worlds and new worlds. In preparing the South Issue of Artlink I interviewed the ninety-year old Smith in Melbourne and found out how he came to write the book, the title of which I like so much because, in my interpretation anyway, vision means both what we see and what we dream. Over a cup of tea and a Spanish biscuit the spry Smith pronounced, in reference to the names of the influential art publishers Thames & Hudson, that there are other rivers in the world, and that we are all the other.
The South Project, initially devised as an alternative to a Melbourne International Biennale, has been managed by Craft Victoria as a four year journey; it organizes forums, residencies, exhibitions and acts as a catalyst for bringing people together. One recurrent feature of the South Project is paying attention to Indigenous peoples’ cultures, their ideas and ways of being. One of the incentives for me to attend the first South Project Forum in Melbourne in 2004 was because there were people attending from one of the strangest and most faraway places in the world Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and speaking in their own language! The question of translation is another recurring feature of the South Project, not simply translation to understand what someone is saying but to multiply ideas and to widen the potential range of possible meanings. That first forum was followed by the 2005 South Project Forum in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. In 2006 I went to Santiago in Chile for the third South Project Forum; the fourth is to be in October 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Many of the people I met or heard about in Santiago are present in this Artlink in articles and images. Some were not able to be included. Like artist Francisco Brugnoli the lively director of the Museo Art Contemporaneo in Santiago, a building he brought back from ruin to the magnificent contemporary art museum it is today. He spoke eloquently about being in exile at home. Then there was artist Jesus Macarena, a co-founder in 1996 of POLVO an artist-run space in Chicago working with the Immigrant Rights Movement. While the South Forum was on in Santiago new legislation came through in Paraguay protecting the cultural rights of indigenous people there. Ticio Escobar who has been working with those people for thirty years spoke about the Museo del Barro (Museum of Mud) which includes Indigenous art, contemporary art and popular art. He spoke about culture as a tool for survival for each of us.
And then there were those people I never met but have found on the internet like Australian filmmaker Tiger Brown in New York who sent me his DVD Los Chamacocos Bravos, a film about Paraguayan Indigenous people that he made with Aristide Escobar, brother of Ticio. One of the most inspiring art projects that I came across and was not able to include is New York-based artist Pablo Helguera’s School of Panamerican Unrest, a 2006 public art project in which he took a large installation in the form of a schoolhouse to thirty cities from one end of America to the other, Anchorage in Alaska to Ushuiaia in Patagonia, meeting people and talking about what connects nationality and culture. He wrote:
‘Art has an enormous potential to be relevant outside the art world, but for that to happen, we need to use the tools of art to create understanding instead of simply promoting the understanding of art.’
Another significant film shown at the Adelaide Film Festival this year was Darratt (Dry Season) by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Chad), one of Peter Sellars’ commissioned New Crowned Hope films. The complexity of revenge and of justice is brought home in the film and as with viewing Bamako it is seeing the most ordinary aspects of daily life in another country which bring home the humanity of those sometimes called the ‘others’.
While the great art markets, the fairs and the gatekeepers, the power to write history and to determine still tend to be based in the Northern Hemisphere, there are many other rivers, purposes, histories and agendas of and for art and there is success that is not measured in money.
Editorial for The South Issue of Artlink, 2007.