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Navigating the waters of culture, representation and the arts

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Corley's proposed performance has generated much controversy (image by Graka M via Pixabay).

As an artist, I have always been an advocate for freedom of speech; primarily because artistic freedom is a necessity for a creative industry to remain competitive on a global scale.

I have refrained from making public comment on the issue of "culturalism" and the rise of race and identity politics within the Australian arts industry for some time. With the publication of the 'Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe' by Liminal Magazine in August of 2019 I feel a growing concern that particular political agendas are being used in the Australian arts industry to justify the persecution of individuals for their work and enforce guidelines for censorship which are not in-line with the freedoms inherent to a democratic society.

On August 21, 2019 a group of artists, industry workers and academics (150 in total) signed the letter. It called for the cancellation of Kate Hanley Corley’s one-woman show 'Aisha the Aussie Geisha', claiming that the show was racist and borderline yellowface.

Although the 'Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe' states that 'freedom of expression is an important value in any society' it uses race and identity politics to persecute an artist and justify the censorship of work they deem to negatively represent Japan. The 105 signatures represent only 0.002% of Melbourne’s population.

However, it asserts that by appearing on stage dressed as a Geisha Corley’s show is 'harmful and insulting to Asian and Asian-Australian people'. In March of 2019, Corley presented her show 'Fanny Bouffante: Scandals' at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Corley was allowed to perform this show, which included culturally based stereotypes of French women, without incident. The subject of the letter is Corley’s show.

The target is Corley’s perceived Anglo-Celtic background and its implied "white privilege".  

The first name listed on the 'Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe' is Mama Alto. Alto is a Melbourne based singer whose awards include the 2016 Outstanding Access & Inclusion Award at Melbourne Fringe, and in 2019, the artist was one of the Creators recognised and supported by the Victorian Government through the Creative Victoria "Creators Fund". Alto’s artistic work, and aesthetic, centres around African-American torch singers; in particular Billie Holiday.

The Australian singer is of mixed ethnic background and identifies as a person of colour. However, based on their appearance, it is possible to argue that Alto is someone who benefits from "white privilege". As such (using the objections to Corley’s work in the 'Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe'): Alto’s work could be seen as a cultural appropriation of African-American culture.

According to the ideologies of race and identity politics which are being used to prescribe the guidelines for censorship in the arts: regardless of the artist’s intent the use of material from a cultural group they are not a member of is appropriation and inherently offensive to members of that group.

However, in an article by the Star Observer, Alto is described as:

'A genderqueer femme-identifying person of colour who sings with impressive range of love to battle the challenges of queer identity.'

Effectively, in the race and identity politics realm, queer identity trumps race. Unfortunately for Corley, racial identity trumps sexism. To clarify this, let’s take another look at the letter.

At no point does the 'Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe' indicate that anyone saw Corley’s work before signing. Only a 2014 review of Corley’s work, by Colin Mockett, is used in the letter as evidence that Corely’s performance 'revolves around the belittling … depiction of Asian peoples for cheap humour'. The letter contains no additional information on the review or its writer. So, let’s say a bit more about him now.

Colin Mockett is an editor for Entertainment Geelong who has worked with community arts organisations in the Geelong area for a number of years. He 'has published four joke books and edited four books of Geelong senior citizens memories collected during past Seniors Festivals'

In his 2014 review, he writes that the simple plotline in Corley’s show allows her to use cultural stereotypes.

It also

“Poke[s] fun at … poorly translated Asian-English signs and propose the theory that Australian girls can only sing like Japanese Geishas if they have a carrot anally inserted”. 

Following the letter, Melbourne Fringe decided not to run Corley’s show.

Signees of the 'Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe' include: development executive for Screen Australia Jenevieve Chang, international market adviser for Australia Council for the Arts Nithya Nagarajan, associate professor of Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales Tanja Dreher and Rosemary Overell who is the co-editor of Orienting Feminism: Media, Activism and Cultural Representation.

These individuals occupy positions of influence within Australia’s cultural industry and have been entrusted to ensure that practices within this industry uphold Australia’s democratic values. It is, in the words of the 'Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe', 'an egregious and irresponsible contribution to a dangerous cultural movement' for people in this position to support an action which is, at its core, antithetical to the values of democracy.

It calls the motivations for those signing the letter into question and jeopardises the validity of past research supporting the use of race and identity politics in the Australian arts industry.

It is an indication that this research has been:

'Hampered by both methodological and conceptual weaknesses [and conducted by] people too close to funding bodies [or political agendas] to make … objective assessments.'

The 'Open Letter to the Melbourne Fringe' demonstrates the need for continued review of cultural policy development, separate to political agendas, and emphasises:

'The danger of aligning … with the Anglosphere [narrative which] distorts the complexity of the greater world and aligns us with policies that are neither in our national [or global] interest.'

What we need to ask ourselves is what kind of future we want to have as a society, what values we want to protect and how we intend to hold people in positions of trust accountable to defend the protection of these values within our arts and cultural industry.

Natasha Jynel is a producer, writer, director, performer and arts educator.

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Navigating the waters of culture, representation and the arts

As an artist, I have always been an advocate for freedom of speech; primarily ...  
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