On the evening of September 19th at the State Library of Victoria a heart-warming and inspiring event was revealed to the Melbourne public – the Common Ground 2015 series outcome presented by Multicultural Arts Victoria. This event was a unique and special experience to witness as an audience member and to participant in as a performer. Unique because of the astounding cultural diversity representing various faith and multilingual members of our community, and special because of the authentic expression, and if authenticity is a measure for grading art, this event overflowed with waves of sweet raw unfiltered heart felt authentic expression – highly esteemed artistic expressions.
Common Ground workshop participants shared with their audience the struggles and joys of living in Australia, and origin countries which are sometimes felt so distant: “I never knew it would be this hard to be Muslim,” Anam Javed. Participants recited personal expressions on stage from writing developed during the Common Ground nine week project series. This series has run annually since 2013, fulfilling the objective of promoting cultural cohesion and exchanging interfaith dialogue between individuals of various religions and cultural backgrounds. The program involved community liaison representatives who successfully reach out to their community and brought together an ensemble of individuals. I personally participated in the workshops and performance series this year and last year, there were many other return participants who have made the incredible effort to attend 2013, 2014 and 2015 sessions working around professional and family obligations. This willingness for people to be involved in the program proves the success of Common Ground, one participant even testified: “As a weekly ritual Common Ground completes my life.”
Common Ground participants come from Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Christian and Buddhist faith backgrounds. All participants shared values of tolerance, respect and interest in each other’s personal views, how do we reconcile conflicting attitudes we are exposed to and the contradictions we live as adults? Reflection and writing assisted in this process of dealing with our struggles, of places and people we have lost or are separated from by geographic distance and of daily experiences of racism and religious prejudice. Participants were grateful for Common Ground creating a safe communal space, an opportunity for everyone to share personal experiences, feelings and views and write about their response to the discussion, key development for everyone’s performance outcome.
As an Australian who has never experienced war, I do not know the anguish and fear of living in a country that forces one to flee for safety. I can’t know it, but I can learn something of the feelings and experience when I hear it spoken and articulated in words prepared for performance.
Hearing the Common Ground performances allowed me to understand the similarities of experience lived by a young Lebanese boy and a Hazara mother, each needing to leave their countries for safety; I learned my Indian Sikh and Pakistani Muslim friends experience similar forms of racism based on appearance and ignorance of their faith practice; and I witnessed how my Druze colleague has become empowered through writing, developing a writing ritual and practice akin to a form of spirituality, an expressive outlet matched by our female Colombian participant who spoke of animal spirits we all carry and can still access while living our urban realities “soar like an eagle” while treading concrete.
Our Common Ground facilitators Abdul Hammoud, Ebony Moncrief and Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa each have an interest in social justice and representing minority voices. Discussion of experiences of discrimination were a source for a writing exercise – replace the name of a stigmatised subject with a transformative word – “as a child I was told not to speak to my neighbour” becomes “as a child I was told not to speak to butterflies.” Writing activities like this taught participants how poetry is able to assist in reassessing negative dialogue we may be exposed to.
Workshop activities taught us the power of spoken word, its role in exposing the many cultural and religious assumptions we make based on appearance and dress. Questions were asked, “How do people respond to my headscarf?” “Why do people assume only women of Muslim faith wear headscarves?” Participants in our group were Christian African-American, Catholic Latin-American, also Sikh and Hindu cultural groups who practice the headscarf tradition. These questions become the basis and inspiration for writing and performance pieces as individuals addressed their exposure to these assumptions and its impacts on their identity, compromising their sense of self – the spoken word performance allowed an opportunity to talk back to the false assumptions.
Listening to the personal expressions of participants in the Common Ground space had the profound effect of nurturing community consciousness, this unique opportunity to come together and share feelings developed understandings of each other’s varied life experience. This opportunity to openly share about vulnerable subjects created a deeply cherished sacred space often not found outside of our intimate friendship or family circles. An opportunity such as this cannot be underrated; many of us lead high paced lives which allow little time to reflect on our own personal moral and spiritual conflicts, let alone to have time to hear the struggles of people outside of our social group. Great art should act as a vehicle for reflection on the deeper meaning of our existence. The additional value of Common Ground allows us is to reflect on ourselves and our role in our greater community.
The opportunity to discuss sensitive cultural and religious issues, resulted in a feeling of peace and connectedness for all attending, as equally listening to the performance outcomes created this feeling for audience members on the evening of September 19th. Each attendee of the Common Ground performance I am sure went home feeling a closer to their fellow community members by having gained a deeper understanding of another individual’s life journey, the intimacies which formed this journey, many we can all relate to through the universality of humanity and overcome our cultural and religious differences.
Words: Suzana Jacmenovic
Photography: courtesy of John Englezos
Suzana Jacmenovic is a Multicultural Arts Victoria Intern. She is a writer who advocates for social justice and representation of minority voices. Suzana is a Right Now Inc. columnist and a member of West Writers Group based at Footscray Community Arts Centre.
The new works from Common Ground 2015 will be launched with new soundscapes and beats by SO.CRATES at Multicultural Arts Victoria's State of Culture 2015 showcase on Thursday 26 November at John Curtin Hotel.