India field school spotlights intergenerational theatre

University of Victoria – India Intergenerational Theatre for Development Field School from Matthew Gusul on Vimeo.

The buildings may have been repaired, but two key segments of the population in the southeastern coastal region of India are still struggling to overcome the effects of the 2006 tsunami: seniors and rural youth. Now, a new UVic field school hopes to bring a sense of joy to these marginalized people by creating India’s first intergenerational theatre company.

Matthew Gusul (centre) during a field trip to the region last year

Matthew Gusul (centre) during a field trip to the region last year

Led by PhD candidate Matthew Gusul, 13 Department of Theatre students will be traveling to Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, India, to participate in the two-month field school. Gusul, an applied theatre practitioner who has done similar fieldwork in Mexico and Guatemala, has been working with the 80 people in Tamil Nadu’s Tamaraikulam Elders’ Village (TEV) for the past two years.

By positively highlighting the life experiences of TEV residents and the 750 young students of the Isha Vidhya Matriculation School—both of which were created after the 2006 tsunami to address issues of displacement and vulnerability—Gusul will work with a team of Indian directors to encourage these seniors and rural youth to perform their own stories, develop strong community relations and create new lines of dialogue across generations.

Matthew Gusl_India8_smMany of the seniors at TEV were alive at the time of India’s independence in 1947 and offer rare opportunities for living history. But the idea of meeting the needs of seniors is still relatively new in India; in 1947, life expectancy was about 42 years, while today it’s closer to 64.

“India has a new population they don’t know how to deal with—they don’t have old age pensions or facilities for seniors,” says Gusul. “And when disasters happen, seniors are the last in the pecking order of importance. Often seniors tend to get put off to the side in what are commonly referred to as ‘granny dumps.’”

Intergenerational Theatre for Development is one example of the kind of community-engaged research happening at UVic, where undergraduates have the opportunity to take dynamic hands-on learning experiences beyond the traditional classroom and into communities around the world.

Matthew Gusl_India4_sm“Our students are there to bear witness to the process of getting this company up and running and creating the first performance,” says Gusul. He is working with the NGO HelpAge India, which will act as the organizational home for the theatre company. Once Gusul and his students arrive, the company will begin rehearsing with intergenerational theatre techniques used by the GeriActors and Friends in Edmonton, and Roots and Branches in New York City. The first performance will be on November 27, 2014.

Matthew Gusl_India3_sm“I really want to look at how the community is affected by this process—the performance and process leading up to it should be absolutely wonderful, filled with fun and joy and laughter,” says Gusul. “We really use the idea of intergenerational playfulness. You see it on the bus all the time: a young person will sit next to an old person, and the first thing the old person does is make a joke, then they start laughing together. It’s the same with seniors and their grandchildren. That’s what the company works with.”

Following the field school, the company’s Indian directors—Pondicherry University’s Dr. Bala Pazani and Sugantha Lakshmi, along with Dean of Performing Arts Dr. K.A. Gunasekaran as Creative and Cultural Consultant—will take what they learned from UVic’s theatre artists and adapt the model to be culturally appropriate for India.“Even though we have this desire to help, there have been a lot of projects with the exact same motivations that have really gone awry,” says Gusul. “Often times theatre projects with NGOs and in development situations can almost become tools for teaching or message giving—and you can see that in India right now. But we view theatre as more of a process, more about the celebratory nature.”

Matthew Gusl_India2_smKey to the whole project is its ability to survive and grow after Gusul and his students return to UVic in December. “Part of what I’m trying to do is make sure we’re as little involved as possible with the actual theatre work,” he says. “We’re there to support the idea getting generated and going; then it’s about the India community taking it on. Ultimately, it’s up to them—I can’t be too much of a cook in their kitchen.”

While Gusul notes success can be difficult to measure when it comes to theatre for development (“it’s a struggle for our entire discipline,” he admits), he’ll know the field school will have done well by the smiles on the participants faces. “The most important thing is to have one of the best days TEV has ever had, where the entire community is laughing and sharing a generational experience.”

Experiences of migrant youth explored in new play

How can theatre activate the experiences of migrant youth, while at the same time providing a window into the experiences they face while assimilating into a new culture, new society and new city? Questions like this are at the heart of a new Applied Theatre performance directed and devised by Theatre PhD candidate Taiwo Okunola Afolabi.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps welcomes the cast on June 20

Commissioned for World Refugee Day 2017 and created in partnership with the Victoria Immigrant & Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) and the Applied Theatre program in UVic’s acclaimed Theatre department, the live interactive play Journeys of Arriving, Belonging and Becoming was first performed to a packed house of 65 people at Victoria’s City Hall on June 20 — including Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, City Councillor Jeremy Loveday, Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS) director David Lau, and Michael Shamata, Artistic Director of the Belfry Theatre. It was also remounted as a free outdoor theatre performance on June 29 in the #UVic quad.

“The performance explores complexities that surround refugees and migrant movements, which can be overwhelming — especially when we don’t have a clear way to actively engage with the issues and individual experiences,” explains Afolabi.

Director Taiwo Afolabi during the audience talkback session

Afolabi is a graduate fellow with UVic’s Centre for Global Studies and a Queen Elizabeth Scholar with UVic’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives. He arrived in Canada two years ago, and his research focuses on artistic practices among internally displaced persons.

The powerful 50-minute show features a mix of drama, dance, music and spoken word, all aimed at exploring the very real process of relocation, resilience, settlement and integration. It showcases common experiences like choosing an English name, learning a new language, and the difficulties that come with navigating everyday situations like ordering coffee, finding a job or dealing with the donation of unwanted goods from well-intentioned but thoughtless people.

The cast of “Journeys of Arriving, Belonging and Becoming”

But more than just presenting these difficulties, Journeys of Arriving also provides a creative platform for a cast with a truly global background: Syria, Israel, Russia, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Nigeria and Canada.

Most of the eight-person cast are Department of Theatre students — including Annie Konstantinova, Jasmine Li, Megan Chandler, Olivia Wheeler, Thiptawan Uchai and Victoria Stark — with the addition of UVic student Tianxu Zhao, and community member Samer Alkhateb.

“Actors’ experiences and stories from refugees, immigrants and newcomers in Victoria inspired the performance,” says the Nigerian-born Afolabi. “We asked ourselves challenging questions around identity, language, assimilation, psychological needs and the other experiences that refugees and immigrants face.”

The cast performing on campus on June 29

VIRCS youth program coordinator Jasmindra Jawanda says the seed of the idea began about a year ago when she first met Afolabi.

“We both discussed the possibility of working together on a youth theatre play . . . as we both felt youth were often left in the shadows. They are the forgotten ones, standing on the margins of society wanting to fit into Canadian culture but because of the many barriers and challenges that they face, they struggle to integrate into their new communities. We wanted to shine a light onto their stories and truths.”

For his part, Afolabi says he wanted “a storytelling approach” to the material — thus the inclusion of monologues, dialogue and action with music — and occasional moments of humor and comedy allow the cast to address highly emotional and socially sensitive issues. “I worked with an amazing, passionate and dedicated team. Each person volunteered almost 50 hours to devise this performance.”

Applied Theatre is the use of theatre and drama skills for the purposes of teaching, bringing about social change and building a sense of community. UVic’s program is recognized around the world for its innovative applied theatre projects, including a field school in India and exchange programs in Thailand.

Applied Theatre offers hope to many

Most people likely see theatre as a form of entertainment, but for anyone working with global refugees and internally displaced persons, theatre can also offer a sense of hope and community.

Consider the global impact of the work of UVic applied theatre PhD student Taiwo O. Afolabi. A graduate fellow with UVic’s Centre for Global Studies and a Queen Elizabeth Scholar with UVic’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives, Afolabi arrived in Canada two years ago. His research focuses on artistic practices among internally displaced persons (IDPs) in IDP communities or camps to create awareness for the plight of displaced persons.

Applied theatre PhD candidate Taiwo Afolabi

“Theatre can raise consciousness,” says Afolabi. “Coming to one workshop might change someone’s perspective, whereas I can write five articles that might never be read.”

The Nigerian-born scholar had already travelled to the likes of Burkina Faso, China, Denmark, Iran and the USA and before choosing to pursue doctoral studies in UVic’s Theatre department; indeed, he came to UVic specifically to study with renowned Department of Theatre professor Warwick Dobson.

“For me, applied theatre is all about relationships and interactions,” he explains. “Relationships are powerful because they involve us, and those interactions make us responsible and actionable. Once we start understanding peoples’ reality, it brings us closer to their experience — not just theory, but their actual experience. We can start living it.”

The applied theatre program in the Department of Theatre is no stranger to international projects: consider the recent field school to India led by PhD candidate Matthew Gusul, or the efforts of Theatre professor Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta, who has led projects in Brazil, Cambodia, Nicaragua and The Netherlands.

Locally, Afolabi has been working with both the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society and the Intercultural Association of Greater Victoria, and will be participating in a World Refugee Day performance at Victoria City Hall on June 20.

Following completion of his PhD, Afolabi hopes to travel to throughout Africa — specifically to Eastern, Southern and Western Africa — to map and document what local people are doing to preserve their culture. “Moving from different countries gives you a broader perspective on the world and practices,” he says.

In this article from UVic’s Ring, Afolabi discusses his artistic practices around internally displaced persons or communities. He talks about how a “lived experience” – through the audience’s firsthand experience of culturally specific activities and performances, ranging from dance and music to drumming and magician acts – “has the capacity to make it personal, beyond theory.” This kind of empathy, he says, generates “a profound response.”

“So much memory and knowledge resides in the body and in theatre we can bring it out,” he explains. “And sometimes people give solutions that don’t work for a complex issue because we are distanced from it. With the ‘lived experience’ [of theatre], even if it’s only for a second, you can come to that point. It can give you something that you won’t forget.”

Afolabi is participating in a panel about migration and refugee performances as part of Forgotten Corridors: Global Displacement and the Politics of Engagement — the 10th annual conference of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Running May 15 to 18 and hosted by UVic’s Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives (CAPI), this is the first time the conference has been held on the west coast of Canada.

Afolabi was interviewed for this TC story

“We’re building community and building relationships between refugees from different cultural backgrounds,” Afolabi said in this Times Colonist article about the Forgotten Corridors conference.

Afolabi explains that he uses dance, music and drama to give displaced people a sense of empowerment and allow them to engage in “self-celebration, self-expression and self-documentation,” rather than simply being treated like victims.

Forgotten Corridors seeks to expand the examination of global displacement by looking beyond the world media focus on the Mediterranean: are other displaced groups being left out of the discussion? How do financially strapped countries such as India and Kenya accommodate thousands of guests for protracted periods of time? What can theatre teach us about the experiences of internally displaced persons? What do Australia’s offshore detention camps reveal about personal impacts of sending those in search of a safe home to languish in limbo?

By bringing together more than 200 activists, scholars, policy makers and other experts from all corners of the world to share knowledge, experiences and strategies as they relate to global displacement, Forgotten Corridors also dovetails with UVic’s new International Plan, launched in the fall of 2016. It is also one of four signature series events by UVic to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary.

For his part, Afolabi hopes to start conversations at Forgotten Corridors that will act as “sparks” for people to then take home with them.

“When we start understanding the reality, it brings us closer to the experience,” he says. “Applied theatre has the capacity and potential to bring these issues closer to us. We can start living it.”

“Our women have always carved”

Carolyn Butler Palmer with one of Ellen Neel’s masks in the Legacy Gallery exhibit

The newest exhibit at UVic’s Legacy Gallery Downtown seeks to correct gendered colonial myths with works by Ellen Neel, a woman carver of the Northwest Coast.

Ellen Newman Neel (Kwagiulth, Kwickwasutaineuk and ‘Namgis) is often described as the first Northwest Coast woman carver. A prolific artist, she was only 49 years old when she passed away in the 1960s. But her defiance of gender barriers and federal law carries deep resonance for all Canadians to this day—and now within the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s calls to action—and her legendary impact and artistic legacies live on in the work of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The first exhibition of Neel’s work in more than 50 years is showing at UVic’s Legacy Art Gallery Downtown until April 1.

Exhibit co-curator and Art History and Visual Studies professor Carolyn Butler Palmer was assisted throughout the process by two advising curators, David A. Neel (Neel’s grandson and the son of David Lyle Neel) and Lou-ann Ika’wega Neel (her granddaughter and the daughter of Neel’s son Ted). The exhibit includes artwork from six generations of the Neel family, including David’s two children.

The Globe and Mail recently featured a story on Neel and the exhibit in its national arts section. Lou-ann was interviewed by The Globe. She said that it’s “‘really a colonial idea that our women didn’t carve. Our women have always carved. I’ve already heard a few people say, “Well, you know, our grandmother was also a carver.” Good, I want to hear about her. Let’s talk about her, too. Because all of our communities need these role models to come from the last couple of generations and encourage our young girls and women to pursue the arts, too.’”

The exhibit was also covered in these articles by both the Times Colonist and Oak Bay News.

Mary Jo Hughes (left) and Butler Palmer at the exhibit opening (Photo: Corina Fischer)

Born in Alert Bay in 1916, Neel learned during the 1920s to carve from her grandfather—the eminent master carver Yakuglas/Charlie James—at a time when the Indigenous art of carving was banned in Canada under the Indian Act. She then launched her artistic career in the 1940s during the potlatch prohibition when carving was rare and the idea of a woman carver was even rarer still.

Butler Palmer, also UVic’s Williams Legacy Chair, worked for 15 years on research in support of the exhibit at UVic’s downtown public art gallery and a book project. “Ellen Neel was a remarkable woman,” she says. “Seven decades before the TRC published its findings, Neel graciously and very publically supported the rights of Indigenous people, to fish, to fair wages, to an education and to make art. Neel was also an important role model and mentor for young artists such as Bill Reid, Art Thompson and Robert Davidson. It is hard to imagine the Northwest Coast art world today without the foundation laid by Neel in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.”

Director of UVic Legacy Art Galleries Mary Jo Hughes adds, “We are honoured to be able to facilitate this exhibition and be able to mobilize the important research by Dr. Butler Palmer and the Neel family. This project brings to public notice Ellen Neel who, perhaps unbeknownst to many of our gallery visitors, played such a pivotal role in the art of the northwest.”

Ellen Neel’s family attending the exhibit’s opening (Photo: Corina Fischer)

In 1947, with the ban still in place, Neel established her own carving business. She opened a retail outlet in Stanley Park, The Totem Arts Shop, in 1951 where she taught her children to make art. They carved hundreds of items destined for the tourist market. She also produced monumental and miniature memorial poles, including The Wonderbird Pole of 1953 for White Spot Restaurants, as well as an extensive collection including masks, hand puppets, textiles, jewelry and totemware ceramics.

Neel designed the famous Totemland Pole too, which was a commission from a tourism organization with hundreds of the miniature poles gifted to visiting dignitaries, as well as other people beyond BC including Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn.

As she told a UBC audience during a keynote address in 1948: “Were it not for the interest created by the tourist trade, the universities and the museums, we would no longer have any of our people capable of producing this art. I have strived in all my work, to retain the authentic, but I find it difficult to obtain a portion of the price necessary to do a really fine piece of work. Only when there is an adequate response to efforts to retain the best of our art will it be possible to train the younger generation to appreciate their own cultural achievements.”

—Written by Tara Sharpe. This piece originally ran in UVic’s Ring newspaper

Where are the Indigenous women in Canadian art history?

What is the role of Indigenous women in Canadian art history? That’s the issue under discussion at UVic’s latest Distinguished Women Scholar Lecture.

Presented by the Department of Art History & Visual Studies, the 2017 Distinguished Women Scholar Lecture features professor, artist and curator Dr. Sherry Farrell Racette. Her free public lecture — “I Want to Call Their Names in Resistance”: Claiming Space for Indigenous Women in Canadian Art History — runs from 5 to 6pm Wednesday, Feb 22 at UVic’s Legacy Gallery, 630 Yates Street

Dr Sherry Farrell Racette

One of only five Indigenous women art historians to hold an academic appointment in Canada, Dr. Farrell Racette is an interdisciplinary scholar with an active arts practice — including beadwork, painting and multi-media textile works. She has also illustrated children’s books by noted authors Maria Campbell, Freda Ahnenakew and Ruby Slipperjack and currently teaches at the University of Manitoba in the departments of Native Studies and Women and Gender Studies.

An exceptional scholar who has mentored many women academics—including other Indigenous women academics—in the fall of 2017, Dr. Farrell Racette will also become the first recipient of the Distinguished Indigenous Scholar at the Jackman Humanities Institute, in conjunction with the University of Toronto’s Massey College where she is currently a Visiting Resident Scholar.

Her research interests are diverse indeed — including, but not limited to, First Nations and Metis women’s history, art history and educational history; Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy; contemporary First Nations art, photography and museum collections; First Nations and Metis traditional arts; and issues of representation and self-representation. “I love drifting through the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives — or any archive for that matter — and opening random drawers in museum collections,” she explains. “Stories are my principal focus, stories of people, stories that objects tell, painting stories, telling stories and finding stories.”

While at UVic, Dr. Farrell Racette will visit undergraduate students in a number of classes, including the Art History & Visual Studies course “Contemporary Indigenous Art” to be held at First Peoples House, as well as Creative Being, the signature Fine Arts 101 class, where she will hold a beading and storytelling circle with students.

Farrell Racette’s 1990 painting “Ancestral Women Taking Back Their Dresses”

While Indigenous art and art history is gaining currency, Indigenous women artists and scholars remain under-­recognized in comparison to their male counterparts. As such, her keynote address is nicely timed to coincide with the exhibit Ellen Neel: The First Woman Totem Pole Carver, currently on view at the Legacy Gallery. Not only does this exhibition celebrate the career of Kwagiulth (Kwakwaka’wakw) carver Ellen Neel (1916-1966), the first woman carver of monumental totem poles, but it also acknowledges her contribution towards the recognition of what she called “Indian Art” and the role of women Indigenous artists.

Farrell Racette’s recent academic publications include Returning Fire, Pointing the Canon: Aboriginal Photography as Resistance, In The Cultural Work of Photography in Canada (McGill-Queens University Press, 2011), “Nimble Fingers, Strong Backs: First Nations and Metis Women in Fur Trade and Rural Economies,” in Indigenous Women and Work: Transnational Perspectives (University of Illinois Press, 2011), and “‘I Want to Call Their Names in Resistance’: Writing Aboriginal Women into Canadian Art History,” in Rethinking Professionalism: Essays on Women and Art in Canada, 1850-1970 (McGill-Queens University Press, 2011).

Recent curatorial and artistic projects include Resistance/ Resilience: Métis Art, 1860-2011 (Batoche Heritage Centre, 2011), We Are Not Birds (Canadian Museum for Human Rights, 2014) and From Here: Story Gatherings from the Qu’Appelle Valley (2015), a public installation of paintings based on memories of Métis elders.

The Distinguished Women Scholars Lecture series was established by the Vice-President Academic and Provost to bring distinguished women scholars to the University of Victoria.