A look at Summerhall's political arts programme

Through Summerhall's arts programme this August, there's an observable trend towards politicised or protest work, considering issues relating to the refugee crisis, indigenous cultures, as well as Brexit and Trump

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 01 Aug 2017

As the many festivities rage on, around and inside Summerhall they have planned for their programme a series of politically charged presentations to coincide with the busy festival month ahead. In advance of their Summerhall projects, we’ve caught up with the refugee advocacy and support organisation Imagine, artist Jane Frere and Article 11, who are touted as blurring the theatre/visual art boundary. Each represent very different kinds of politicised artistic and creative practices.

For their exhibition, Imagine present works made by those living in the Calais refugee camp. The organisation itself is led by Marthe Chabrol, Hari Reed and Lujza Richter. Speaking to Lujza Richter a few weeks before the show, she’s careful to delineate the ambition, intentions and place of herself and the organisation within the show.

Richter describes the beginning of the project as March 2016, when as a group Imagine travelled to Calais. “We developed art workshops and we went through the summer to Calais and did art classes every afternoon. They were very popular, and people would come day after day to draw with us. That was the project itself, and at the time we weren’t thinking of an exhibition at all.” However, Richter describes the upcoming display of some of the works in Summerhall as “the fulfilment of a silent promise that we made in the camp in those workshops.” For Richter, tacitly it was agreed that, “Although these are just drawings or a scribble on a piece of paper, these pieces of art are very important testimonies of the people that lived there... being ignored... in horrendous living conditions.”

For Richter, this was all the more urgent as the camp in Calais was dismantled. “Some of the people that were in our workshops, we have no idea where they are and what happened to them. In a way, then, it felt very very important to show these drawings… [and that they] could talk for themselves on some sort of platform. In a very basic way, that’s what this project is, [a way] to honour these voices and make them travel as far as possible, and to a public and audience that is as broad and eclectic as possible as well.”

On this front, the international setting that comes with Edinburgh in August is a necessarily diverse audience. “One thing that tends to happen in our refugee active world or the solidarity network, we create work and exhibitions that are aimed to advocate for human rights and refugee rights and talk about the crisis in such a way that only people that already know about the crisis or have been to the camps attend these events. … But we really wanted to get a platform that [included] people that come to the Fringe not to listen or hear about the refugee crisis.”

Artist Jane Frere in her #ProtestMaskProject also considers the opportunity of being able to present work to audiences that come to Summerhall without necessarily being aware of the exact exhibitions that are on, either as a casual art audience or to see some of the Fringe. Frere will present a large wall drawing and text work that references what she identifies as the most pressing political events currently.

“I’m doing two walls, in that main thoroughfare space in Summerhall which has a lot of people going through it in the day and the evening. In a sense, it’s like public theatre as it’s not a dedicated gallery space.” Thinking of the possibilities of this high footfall, she cites David Hockney who has been outspoken about his own frustration that people “use art of painting as a backdrop for their selfies. Now I’m actually hoping for that, as I’m hoping people will be using these walls to take selfies against.” With one wall themed on Trump and the other Brexit, emblazoned with the highest trending hashtags, Frere seeks to grab the attention of the passerby who will in turn tag the wall across social media platforms.

Also part of the politicised Summerhall programme this August, they will host Article 11 over the course of 7-25 August. This series of events is titled Rematriation, and organised by the multidisciplinary performers Tara Beagan and Andy Moro (who comprise Article 11). This most recent suite of performance, live art and dance forms part of their wider project Declaration. One of the key principles of Declaration is that it is “informed by place and [the] people of that place.” It is for this reason that they are not only hosting indigenous artists from Turtle Island (North America), but “are also connecting with Indigenous and marginalised artists who will be in Edinburgh for August. All will be collaborators, creating performative explorations of relevant issues such as repatriation of Indigenous remains and sacred/stolen items and the absurdity of monarchy.”

Realising that some of the audiences in Scotland might not be aware of the subject matter they discuss, they also bring to light a recent tragic instance of the violence against Indigenous peoples, and give a sense of what makes Rematriation for them a timely and important project. “Indigenous peoples continue to fight to have our humanity recognised. Recently an Indigenous woman named Barbara Kentner died of an injury she sustained from an attack in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She was walking with her sister when men drove by them, throwing a trailer hitch aimed at the women. Barbara was struck and the assaulting man shouted ‘I got one!’ After several months, she died of her injuries. The man has yet to be charged with her death. This is one insight into what is causing an epidemic number of Indigenous women and girls to go missing and get murdered in Canada. Currently there is an inquiry into this epidemic, yet the inquiry is not exploring the impact law enforcers have on this death toll. Yet, as recently as July 13 2017, two police officers were charged with the killing of Indigenous woman Debra Chrisjohn. DECLARATION: Rematriation is an act of survivance simply by existing.”

Coming from these urgent and present events, Rematriation has been programmed as a multidisciplinary range of performance events, as well as “an active, evolving, installation work.” Ticketed events include, for example, Hot Brown Honey who “are a hip-hop infused, politically vibrant, high concept cabaret group who shatter preconceptions in an explosion of colour and controversy.”

With the line-up also including poetry, dance and being steered by weekly conversation, it is the difference between each of the elements that they argue “make(s) for a strong weave. The collaborators are diverse, as are the hundreds of Indigenous nations in Turtle Island.” It is also important for them to reflect the multidisciplinarity that they have come to identify as characteristic of  the indigenous art practices they have experienced. Going further, they “believe this comes, in part, from a shared worldview that acknowledges how everything also holds its opposite. In creation is destruction. In grief lies the seed for rebirth. Inviting vastly different energies and artists means each person will push into sharper relief the strength in each of our unique ways of being.”

Through Aug, see summerhall.co.uk for full details of each event