Monday, 25 March 2013

The beginning and the ending of a b&w week in Vienna

Angelo Soliman (Image taken from

I arrive in Vienna on a Friday night. The taxi driver´s face tells me that his country of origin might be somewhere in the Middle East. He doesn´t speak english, so we can´t talk. A few minutes later he answers a phone call. I hear him speaking turkish. “So, you are from Turkey?”, I ask, when he hangs up. He looks at me surprised through his mirror and asks me (probably): “You understand turkish?”. I tell him “Yunanistan” (Greece, in turkish). He looks at me even more surprised and says: “You?! Yunanistan?!”. And he continues in english: “Me, you, no problem, no problem!”. I smile: “No problem”, I tell him. When we arrive at the hotel, I thank him in turkish. He seems pleased.


I am in Vienna for a workshop on “Racism and Cultural awareness”, funded by Grundtvig, the European Union programme for lifelong learning. The main trainer is a black woman who seems to be dynamic and very self-confident. The participants come from Bulgaria, Romania, the Czekh Republic, Poland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, UK, Spain and Turkey. Black and white people – or kind of black and kind of white  - many originating from countries other than the one they´re presently residing in, people of different ages and backgrounds, gathered in Vienna to discuss racism

We are asked to talk about our expectations from this workshop. I tell them I expect my views on racism to be challenged, my thinking to go a bit further, because I know that none of us considers him/herself to be racist, yet, we might be surprised.

Later on, we´re given by the trainer a definition of racism: “Racism is discrimination with power in a white dominated society.” I am not comfortable with this definition.

-  “Do you see racism today as something that just white people do to black people?”, I ask.
-  “It´s not me saying it”, the trainer answers, “this is how it´s been defined.”

And at that moment, with this kind of answer, I know that the week ahead of us will be more complicated and less interesting than I had anticipated. But challenging, nevertheless.

There are a number of reasons why this experience left me deeply concerned and disappointed, apart from uncomfortable.

First of all, along the week, we were bombarded with statements (some, actually, being serious historical inaccuracies), rarely, or rather never, referring to any kind of bibliographic source and not supposed to be further discussed: so, we were told that we should forget about the ancient Greek philosophers and their contribution to european and world culture, because they had been seen studying in Egypt (just this, “they had been seen”); that Herodotus described Cleoparta as someone with african traits (how did he do that, if he lived five centuries before her?); that Alexander the Great burnt the library of Timbuktu (actually, I think he went the other way); that doctors today are taking an oath written by an egyptian doctor (mmm... would that be Hippocrates?).

Secondly, there was a determination to hush anyone, white or black, who might attempt to put racism into a contemporary, broader perspective. We were either told that this was not the subject of the workshop or our comments and questions were met with ironic laughs or agressive responses, as our wish for debate was seen as an attempt to minimize the seriousness of white racism against blacks in order to deal with our “white guilt”. The arguments to support this kept coming. In a tour around the city (called “Black Vienna” in the workshop programme), a young black woman - living in Austria since the age of two and an Austrian citizen today – shared her story of entering a play by Tennesse Williams as the maid (typical role reserved for black actors, she said). She felt uncomfortable with the use of the word “nigger” in Williams´s text. She wanted it to be changed (Let´s see: she would be happy to change a text written in the 50s and presenting a story in the american south, where a white - probably racist - character wishing to depreciate a black would maybe use the term ‘african american’ instead of ‘nigger’? And maybe the maid should be interpreted by a white actress? Seriously, is this the way to fight racism?). After this, continuing our city tour, we were also taken to the city park, to be shown the spot where a black youth was seriously beaten by the police (presumably for being black), with the ambulance taking ages to come, the attack resulting in the youth´s death (two weeks before a very similar incident had taken place in Salonika, Greece, where the police didn´t like much the “anarchist” looks of a – white – youth...).

An apparent inability of the black community in Vienna to get organized in order to pursue their rights and widely share their concerns with the viennese society, was equally worrying and rather surprising too. We were told the story of Angelo Soliman, a black man who arrived in Vienna in the 18th century, was greatly respected by the local society and a companion to the emperor himself for his intelligence and vast knowledge and even got married to a white woman... only to be embalmed and displayed at the Natural History Museum after his death. An exhibition about him at the Vienna Museum a few years ago was heavily criticised by our city tour guide, for the way it was depicting african people, but, apparently, there was no official reaction from the black community (read about the exhibition here). Later on, when we asked what kind of association they had to represent them in the Austrian society and in their dealings with the Austrian State, we were told that such kind of association was difficult, as the biggest community comes from Nigeria and they belong to different, and in the past rival,  tribes... How can it be that they are all one (“black” or “african”) when attacked or discriminated, but tribes are getting on the way when they should be getting organized?

Finally, one more reason of concern: the obvious anger and equally obvious inability (or lack of willingness) to put things in perspective. When the case of Zimbabwe was referred, in what concerns the treatment white farmers got from Mugabe´s government, we were told that this was justice. Black people had always lived there, whereas white people arrived much later, so, even if they are being born and raised on that piece of land for decades now, they are not allowed to call it “home”... On the other hand, young people who are officially today (black) Austrians – after having lived in the country for a number of years -, rage against austrian racism and discrimination. They are convinced (or prefer to think, in order to continue nurturing their anger) that whatever happens to black people is because they´re black.

I am not denying this kind of racism – on the contrary, if I did, I wouldn´t be there –, but in their repeated attempts to make us see a black victim, some of us would just see a victim: a poor person, a woman, a gay, a Roma... I was particularly impressed when a Senegalese participant, living in Barcelona, told us that, when a Senegalese boy was killed by Romas (shouting “kill the nigger”...), the community refused to see this as a racial crime and concentrated on the crime itself, the murder that had to be punished. It was a conscious choice to avoid turning one community against the other. The murder was seen as a murder.

And I feel that this might be the way forward. Considering that there is only one race, the human race, racism for me today can only have a metaphorical sense. It is discrimination with power (regardless of the colour of the discriminated or the powerful). In an interview with Mike Wallace, Morgan Freeman considered Black History Month to be “ridiculous”, refusing to see his history resumed in a month. When asked “So, how are we gonna get rid of racism”, he simply answered: “Stop talking about it. I´ll stop calling you a white man and you stop calling me a black man. I am Morgan Freeman to you and you´re Mike Wallace to me.”


By the end of the week, waiting for our flights at the airport – four of us, blacks and whites of different origins – we discuss travelling and eventually low cost companies and their services. One of us, black, shares the story of her aunt, who was coming to Europe with Easyjet, and was told to wait somewhere for the check-in, being on purpose “forgotten” and having to purchase another ticket. “This is what they do to Africans, you see.”

Further readings

Diane Ragsdale, Are we overdue to amend our defaultcultural policy? (very interesting post on the impact of the 'white racial frame' in the cultural sector)

Molefi Kenti Asante, An african origin of philosophy: myth or reality?

ABC 2020 editorial, Is the ‘n-word’ going mainstream?

Melinda Ozongwu, Half cast: On the idea that mixed-race Africans are “diluted” Africans

Lauren Frohne, Looking past the poverty: Life on Roma ghettos

Jenny Barchfield, In Brazil, a mix of racial openness and exclusion

Monday, 18 March 2013

Guest post: "Festival of festivals", by Gustavo Gordillo (Colombia)

Last summer at the Kennedy Center we heard the very interesting story of Fanny Mikey, an Argentinian-born Colombian actress who was one of those people who could move mountains in order to get what she wanted. And one of the things she wanted was to promote the arts in Colombia. One of her greatest achievements was the creation and organization of the Bogotá Iberoamerican Theatre Festival. Fanny Mikey died in 2008, but those who worked with her are determined to keep the biggest theatre festival in the world going. Our colleague Gustavo Gordillo is the creative director and he agreed to share with us his insight on a festival that has changed both the cultural and social scene of Colombia. mv 

Sara Says, Teatro Petra, Colombia. (Photo: Juan Antonio Monsalve)
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear about Colombia? If you still consider the disgraceful violence or the drug trafficking cartels that made so much damage to the country, you might as well reconsider. Truth is that in the last ten years the country has made a shift and is now considered as one of the four countries in the world with the highest economical growth, being also a country with a very stable economy.  Those difficult times, where everyone thought that Colombians were a menace to society and that nothing would change in the country, are left behind. Yet, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Colombia, a country with a strategic location in the south american continent, has reduced the major social problems and has begun to reveal breakthroughs in artistic fields such as film, music, literature, design, technology and theater.

Bogota, the capital, a city of 9,000,000 inhabitants, is where most of this change has been implemented. It has developed a social culture (practically nonexistent before) and citizens´s attitudes are in a constant process of transformation. A reflection of this process is perhaps the most important cultural institution in recent times: the Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota.

And no wonder, because since its conception 28 years ago, there have been 13 festivals. More than 2,000 theater companies from 60 countries have been invited; around 3,000,000 people have attended each year theaters and street events in the capital, and there have been about 7,000 theater venues. Around 20,000 students have attended educational events and nearly 30,000 artists have trod the boards of the theaters of the city. These numbers were achieved after much effort and hard work. The founder of the festival  invented this cultural event in a city located at an altitude of 2600 meters, a city remembered for being cold and boring, that had nothing to celebrate.

Fanny Mikey, the festival´s founder and director, managed to change the minds of the people, taking them out of their homes at a difficult time for the city and the country, where violence, fear and impunity were taking to the streets. Since the first festival, the black hand of violence threatened its existence by exploding a bomb in the middle of a venue in the most representative theater. The incident occurred in 1988, during the most tragic and difficult times of the recent history of Colombia. With no deaths, but with much fear, the festival was intended to close its doors, but the public responded by facing fear, opposing illegality and massively attending all venues and events. Culture overcame as the right weapon to oppose the scourge of violence... and the festival moved forward.

Inaugural parade. (Photo: Juan Antonio Monsalve)
The audience of Bogota took over the festival assuming it as a property and from that time until today, people wait with anxiety for the next edition of the festival, held every two years, and attend massively the different performances, celebrating with different artists from around the world the biggest festival of the performing arts.

The Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota became the biggest festival in the world. Artists and directors come from all places, feeling as if they got to an oasis of culture where there is an audience thirsty to meet other cultures. The festival became a prestigious stage for actors and directors, and they usually continue visiting the festival without interruption. This is why today, after 13 editions, the sense of pride of the inhabitants of the city in this event remains intact.

The festival develops programming for the whole family and also has in mind all sectors of the population. It starts with a massive parade, where the audience of the city welcomes the participating countries, which takes place along the main street of the city, ending up at the central square. There, a big concert welcomes more than 40,000 attendees to the first free event. After that and for 17 days, the 40 most representative theaters in the capital welcome stage settings from every continent. At the same time, the best of street theater is presented for free in popular parks, busy streets and shopping centers.

Educational events are of great importance, as most of the invited artists become mentors and teachers, carrying out workshops and seminars for more than 1,500 students interested in learning about the arts from within. There is also a market which brings together producers from all over the world, making room for any kind of scenic and creative projects.

Players of Light, Groupe, France. (Photo: Juan Antonio Monsalve)
At the end of each day, all festival participants share their experiences in a place where everybody speaks the same language: music. Different bands play live music and party every night. Trying to decentralize the festival, around 4,500,000 people in the country´s different regions become part of the event, watching live on an exclusive public television channel what they cannot attend in person.

At the end of 17 days full of unforgettable experiences, the event culminates with an unprecedented mass meeting, where about 300,000 people enjoy a riot of fireworks, music, joy and already feel some nostalgia, since they´ll have to wait two more years for the next edition.

In comparative terms, similar festivals in other developed countries raise only 10% of the total cost of the event at the box office, leaving the remaining 90% to sponsorships, donors and government grants. In the Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota, the figure from the box office is almost 70%, while the sponsors are at 20% and government subsidies and foreign embassies only 10%. This makes it a highly risky festival, but, at the same time, immensely grateful to an audience interested in culture, performing arts and commited to show the world the best face of Colombia: culture, art, and celebration.

Twenty six years later, the Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota is more alive than ever, sheltered under the vision that the Colombian audience took as a motto: 'An Act of Faith in Colombia'. From April 4 to April 20, 2014, you may be part of the live audience that will assist the fourteenth edition of the festival, with the theme that was created for the first festival: 'The Best Theater of the World in Colombia, the Best of Colombia for the World '.

Gustavo Gordillo is the creative director of the Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota. He co-founded the first production company in Colombia that specializes in culture. This company has associated with the National Theater Foundation and with the Iberoamerican Theater Festival of Bogota, which has 13 continuous versions and has become the largest theater festival in the world. He has studied marketing and film production and previously had a career as a director and screenwriter for commercials, videos, soap operas, live events and documentaries. Gustavo also founded a renowned music band in Colombia which has recorded five albums.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Three years, 130 posts and a book

Biodiversity, according to the dictionary, is the degree of variation of life forms within a given species, ecosystem, biome or an entire planet, and it is considered to be absolutely essential to their health.

‘Musing on Culture’, the blog, was born three years ago, with the aim to contribute towards the maintenance of ‘voice biodiversity’ in the cultural sector; a right, but also an obligation, for all of us who chose to ‘live’ and work in this sector and believe in its potential to transform people’s lives and even societies as a whole. It came about thanks to the digital technologies, social media in particular, which nowadays give us the opportunity to create our own space of expression, where we can share, debate and put to the test our thoughts, convictions and ideas, trying to push things a little further each time.

It was particularly gratifying for me to see that ‘Musing on Culture’, which started as a project of self-expression, has become useful to others as well. It has developed into a sort of library, where friends and colleagues may find not only my views, but also numerous other links to news, reports, books and videos related to the subjects that are being discussed. The fact that it is bilingual opens it up to the world and a number of foreign colleagues have already contributed with guest posts, enriching its contents and helping us to keep in touch, learning from each one’s different circumstances and, at the same time, allowing us to define goals and directions that are common to us all.

So, this week, which marks the blog´s third anniversary, I would like to thank my friend Cecília Folgado, official reviser of my Portuguese and on whose critical judgment of my writings I can always count; my friend Rui Belo, for designing the blog´s beautiful header; all my friends and colleagues who have written guest posts, generously sharing their views and experiences with us; and, last but not least, all the blog´s readers and commentators, who make this experience even richer.

As some of you already know, there´s something more in this anniversary week: a book. A book that was born in the mind of Gaëlle Marques and Álvaro Seiça (Bypass Editions) and which brings together, out of the variety of dispersed posts, a selection of texts that help to better identify the major areas of particular interest and concern for me, as well as my developing thinking process with regards to cultural management, communications, our relationship with people. We wish it may be useful to culture professionals, it may be informative for all those interested in the issues it raises, it may provoke further thinking and debate. It will be launched next Thursday, at 6.30pm, at Bulhosa bookshop in Lisbon. We hope you can join us to find out more about its contents, the process of making it and the people who worked – with inspiration, dedication, enthusiasm and talent – to make it happen. We also hope you can join us and participate in the debate. We´ll be in very good company...

Monday, 4 March 2013

Guest post: "Santo André Cultura Viva Movement - society seeks dialogue", by Simone Zárate (Brazil)

Do you remember Santo André? The city where the unimaginable - for us – took place, when the population questioned the Secretary of Culture on his cultural policies and demanded participation? This case really intrigued me and it was a very happy coincidence that Simone Zárate and I have a common friend, André Fonseca, who put us in touch. Simone had been Secretary of Cultural herself, in that same city of Santo André, and she helps us understand how this came about. It´s a long and continuous process, the result of vision, hard work, determination. And it is good to know it´s possible. mv

Citizenship and Culture seminar, 1993. (Photo: Cibele Aragão)
“For the creation of a municipal library and a conference hall.” This was one of the proposals of the candidates of the Social Labour Party in the 1947 municipal elections in Santo André (Brazil). The candidates (prefect and MPs) won the election, but, due to political problemas at a national level, they were not able to carry out their mandate. The municipal library was created seven years later, in 1954.

The story of the struggles for cultural action of the public authorities goes back a long time in Santo André. In the course of time, it got to know different actors and proposals. Santo André is one of the cities of so-called Greater ABC region (A for Santo André; B for São Bernardo; C for São Caetano), located in the Greater São Paulo area; a region which was developed thanks to the industry; a region of labour and social struggles, but also of artistic and cultural movements.

Since 1954, the prefecture of Santo André intervenes in the city´s cultural development. For better and for worse. But it was in the early 90s of the last century that an incisive action of the municipal political power became evident in the cultural sector. I am referring to the Labour Party´s the first term in the city: creation of new venues and programmes, decentralization of services and of the power of decision, inducing social participation in the building of public policies (with adjustments and the mistakes that are natural for every innovative project). This was not a privilege just for Santo André, but for many other cities administered by a political party which spread the debate on the importance of cultural policies at a national level. Cultural policies that would say ‘no’ to cronyism (individual or corporate) and would promote reflection and critical citizenship.

Many of those who participate today in the Santo André Cultura Viva Movement formed also part of that historical period of public action in the city´s culture, as well as of other movements. As users of cultural services, as artists, as critics, as workers, as militants. In 1993, when times were quite different from now, the Permanent Forum of Cultural Debates collected thousands of signatures against the “cultural dismantling” that resulted from the change in the municipal administration and it organized the Citizenship and Culture Seminar; in 2009, the Free Movement SA organized a public event in order to raise awareness with the recently elected prefect regarding the “importance  of the cultural sector for the city”. In 2013, they claim involvement in the building of cultural policies.

Culture Fair at a community center in Santo André, 1991. (Photo: Jason Brito Pessoa)
The participation of the population in the building of cultural policies is a joint and lengthy learning  process in all areas, nevertheless, in the cultural area there as always some issues that end up permeating the debate: the population does not express a desire for culture; culture is not among the priorities – neither of the governments nor of the citizens; the interest regarding cultural policies is related to personal and/or corporate interests.  It´s in part true: for a long time (and still today) we´ve been bearing witness to umbilical claims, for “my own backyard”, for the funding of my artistic segment. In the meantime, though, these corporate claims have gradually been giving way in the last years to concerns regarding the collective, to concerns regarding cultural policy directives not only in relation to specific segments, but in relation to the city.  

In Brazil, the occurence of the change is certainly associated to the federal government policy, specifically that of the Ministry of Culture, which from 2003 onwards, among other audacities, has put into practice an enlargement of the concept of cultural in government policy, has stimulated social participation through conferences, seminars, forums, etc. And has implanted the Cultura Viva Programme, with the aim to allow for the empowerement, protagonism and autonomy of culture agents from all over the country. Culture beyond the arts and heritage, culture made by the people and the State as instigator. We may add to this the transformations in the social relations due to the internet, especially the social media and the free sofware movements: horizontality and colaborative processes.

An elected government has always got some kind of programme, as well as responsibilties and legal and budget limitations, though such limitations are not obstacles to the promotion of dialogue. No matter how illuminated and well intended, a cabinet cultural policy will not reflect reality, the wishes, dynamics and needs of the population. This observation alone should generate the need to build together, the result of the summing up of information, possibilities and limitations of the government and society translated into programmes and actions, but also a space of clarification and consensual and transparent resolution of legitimate and necessary conflicts.    

A meeting of the Santp André Cultura Viva Movement, 2013. (Photo: Marcello Vitorino)
The Santo André Cultura Viva Movement - according to my observations, as well as according to the letter given to the prefect and all elected city counsellors – does not mean to form an opposition and is not corporate. On the contrary, it aims to promote dialogue, collective building, autonomy, decentralization of power and leadership, cultural policies for the city which provide the right for effective citizenship. It wishes to participate politically, in the sense of discussin the polis, and thus to become stronger.

As Mercedes Sosa used to sing, “todo cambia” (everything changes). “Cambia lo superficial, cambia también lo profundo, cambia el modo de pensar, cambia todo en este mundo” (the superficial changes, as well as the profound, the way of thinking changes, everything changes in this world). As defined by the word itself, Movements also change, the y come and go, some times they fall asleep, other times they are on permanent alert. Cultural, poetic and critical accumulation, though, are redefinitions and remain present. Hopefully!

Simone Zárate has na MA in Culture and Information for the University of São Paulo. She has been working in the cultural sector since 1991, as a culture agent, as Secretary of Culture, Sports and Leisure in the Prefecture of Santo André, as well as Coordinator of Social Development in the Greater ABC Intermunicipal Consortium. She is an independent researcher and consultant in culural management and cultural policies and director of IFOC – Observatórioa & Formação Cultural (Culture Observatory and Training).