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Perth Festival asks a big political question: where do we belong?

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Australian audiences love a major public art event focused on large-scale projections. Every time Sydney has Vivid, or Melbourne has White Night, Instagram feeds and Facebook pages are saturated with photos of landmarks lit up in a whimsical fashion.

Perth International Arts Festival opened this weekend with Boorna Waanginy (pictured above)a stunning but somber celebration of the land on which the Festival takes place, and the connection between the land and the Noongar people who call it home.

The million-dollar sound, light and projection installation took place in Kings Park across three nights, over a 1.2km walk-through trail, and proved mercifully difficult to photograph. That meant, unlike most similar events, attendees spent most of their time actually watching and listening, rather than waiting for that perfect Instagram-able moment.

Directed by Nigel Jamieson, working in collaboration with local Indigenous artists and communities, the work is subtitled “The Trees Speak”, which gives you some idea of what to expect. Using projections, the trees which tower high above Kings Park were brought to life with artworks and stories spoken through speakers scattered up and down the track.

Some of the stories intersect western science with Indigenous knowledge, some look to the future and the role we have in protecting the land, while others look to destruction that’s taken place to fragile ecosystems since the time of colonisation.

And that was a recurring theme for many works in the first weekend of the festival: colonisation, and stories of outsiders disturbing a culture and taking something that isn’t theirs.

It’s certainly an interesting subject for an international arts festival in Western Australia, a place where Indigenous cultures and corporate and government interests have come into consistent conflict for the many decades.

The Festival reminds us that these stories aren’t unique to Australia.

South African choreographer and performer Gregory Maqoma’s Exit/Exist is a loose re-telling of the story of Chief Maqoma, a Xhosa chief who famously fought against British forces in the nation’s 19th century frontier wars. He was eventually imprisoned and died in unclear and suspicious circumstances.

Exit/Exist is both celebratory and an act of mourning, combining live music and dance to thrilling and vibrant effect.

It opens with Maqoma in a suit, back to the audience, performing jerking, repeated movements to a trance-like electronic soundscape, which grows in complexity as he goes on. Eventually the lights come up further upstage to reveal guitarist Giuliano Modarelli, who has been creating much of this soundtrack live with the help of looping pedals.

He’s then joined by a quartet of male singers, (Xolisile Bongwana, Anele Ndebele, Sizwe Nhlapo, and Siphiwe Nkabinde) who perform in tight, four-part harmony, with some glorious, full-throated solo moments.

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Like Maqoma’s movement, they meld together traditional African music with contemporary African and western influences.

Notions of land and ownership take on a central role to the performance — soil is moved about the stage, handed from one performer to another, signifying the transition of land.

It’s not always clear how the narrative is unfolding, but Maqoma’s performance evolves with clear and palpable feeling and drew a passionate standing ovation at the performance I saw. The response was so strong the quartet returned to the stage for a brief acapella encore.

Legendary Ghana-born British filmmaker John Akomfrah has been tackling post-colonialism around the world for most of his career, as well as the lives of African people living in Europe and America. Two of his most recent video works are being shown at the Festival.

His two-channel work Auto Da Fe deals with migration over the course of four centuries, from the Sephardic Jews flee from Brazil to resettle in Barbados in 1654, right up to stories of people being forced out of their homes by wars in Iraq and ISIS’s persecution of minorities.

The Festival is also showing his spectacular three-channel work Vertigo Sea, which premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Using newly shot footage and a treasure trove of film from the BBC Natural History film unit, Akomfrah sketches an extraordinary picture of the ocean in all its terror, violence, glory and power. Akomfrah uses not only the most revealing or action-filled footage, but the footage which shows the most surprising perspectives of the sea — showing the violent rolling of waves up close in one moment, before juxtaposing that footage with a peaceful wide-shot of the ocean looking almost like skin, pulled taut and peacefully across a large animal’s flesh.

What’s particularly striking in the work is the way that humans have interacted with the ocean and its inhabitants for hundreds of years, with references stretching back to Herman Melville’s iconic 1851 novel Moby-Dick.

We see humans wrangling huge creatures they were never meant to wrangle, and we see African slaves suffering below the decks of ships, taken from their homes and into servitude.

It’s a rich and constantly evolving piece of work, and I’d recommend putting aside enough time to see the full 48-minute film. Even then, you don’t get the full scope of what’s happening across the three screens.

Another installation featuring video is showing in the small MOANA gallery in the centre of Perth’s CBD. Joan Ross’s The Art of Trying to Control Flowers features wallpaper, sculpture and some wonderful hand-crafted animations, showing Australia’s landscape being transformed by colonisation in a colourful, Terry Gilliam-esque fashion.

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Of course, an international arts festival in Australia inevitably has works which come from dominant western cultures, such as The Dark Mirror — a production from London’s Barbican of Hans Zender’s ‘composed interpretation’ of Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle. Melodically and lyrically, the work is basically Schubert’s but there are some interesting harmonic and percussive ideas in Zender’s new orchestrations.

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Performed by English tenor Ian Bostridge with members of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, this production is undeniably visually arresting, with massive black and white projections conjuring up images of a cold and unforgiving landscape.

Bostridge’s performance is perfectly assured, and he’s a fantastic guide through this dark world, ringing with a deep and bitter sense of loss. Renowned opera director Netia Jones has found a wonderfully theatrical rendering of Schubert’s song cycle, which is in perfect step with Zender’s almost Brechtian take on the music.

But the notion of sensitive cultures being disturbed is explored even more explicitly in The Gabrielsa marathon theatre event from New York’s Public Theater, written and directed by Richard Nelson.

In the three plays — which all take place in one American family’s kitchen on three separate, significant nights in the 2016 US election — we see a family whose sanctuary is being disturbed.

Obviously it’s not the same thing as being colonised, but there’s a similar sense that something is lost that can never be regained as this middle-class family start to lose grip on their finances and their home.

Dodgy and unscrupulous lenders have taken advantage of this family’s matriarch, meaning they’ll soon have to part with all that they own, including the precious family piano, which every child learnt to play upon. The piano and the kitchen are part of this family, and the trauma of losing both, and having both invaded, rings clearly.

If the Festival is asking any central question, it’s about who belongs where, and who has the right to our most valued resources — cultural and otherwise.

The Festival might have a decidedly international outlook, but it’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate subject for a Western Australia’s most prominent arts festival.

[box]The Gabriels plays Subiaco Arts Centre until February 18
John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea and Auto Da Fe are at the John Curtin Gallery until April 30
Joan Ross’s The Art of Trying to Control Flowers is at MOANA Gallery Space until March 25

All images by Toni Wilkinson.[/box]

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