(An eye-witness account from your FANZA roving reporter)
Mary Beard riddled with guilt. Leanne Benjamin teetering. Julia Gillard disbelieving. Barry Humphries quelling his inner Sir Les. And Professor Chris Gosden delivering an immutable truth.
It could only have been the birth of the UK/Australia Season of Culture, the dazzlingly ambitious exploration and celebration of Australia’s relationship with the United Kingdom asking ‘Who we are Now?’ – launched on 1 September in the splendour of the British Museum’s Great Court, and running until March 2022 in Australia and for a glorious 15 months in the UK.
But first, Mary’s guilt. ‘I was a friend of Clive James, I’m still a friend of Germaine Greer – I’m happy to say that – but I’m 66 and I’ve never been to Australia. That is a terrible blot on my reputation and I’m intending to rectify it as soon as I can.’
The unstoppable Mary, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, had been transfixed by the discussion initiating the evening, chaired by a jubilant Julia Gillard who admitted she could hardly believe she was addressing a real live audience, sitting side by side in entirely consensual manner. Under discussion was the fate of Aboriginal artefacts held in museums across Britain. It’s the subject of a sumptuous new book, Ancestors, Artefacts, Empire: Indigenous Australia in British and Irish Museums ( https://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/ancestors-artefacts-empire.html ), mapping the whereabouts and provenance of indigenous Australian treasures held across the UK – from Matlock to Whitby, Nuneaton to Ilfracombe, and even Birchington-on-Sea. Moments into the discussion the Brit who accompanied me was stunned to see a photograph of the first ever Australian cricket team to tour England – the Aboriginal team of 1868. ‘And yet the centenary Test was in 1977,’ mused the Brit, dismayed that, till then, he’d never heard of the 1868 side. Neither, until recently, I consoled him, had most Australians.
The wise ones in the spotlight – Gaye Sculthorpe (one of the authors of Ancestors, Artefacts, Empire), and professors Chris Gosden and Nicholas Thomas, of Oxford and Cambridge respectively – responded with candour to Gillard’s artful inquisition about empire, imbalances of power, and the desire of some communities to reclaim their ancestors’ work.
Afterwards we spilled out into the Great Court for essential refuelling Australian-style – a Jansz sparkler, a Howard Park cab sav, a Wakefield chardonnay, Lamington canapés and a feast of conversation. Australian-Egyptian multi-instrumentalist and oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros – channelling the spirit of Christmas a few months early in a red jacket and glitter shoes – was preparing for the knockout show he delivered in West London a few days later. Mariama Attah re-focused my attention northwards – to Liverpool, where she’s curated Whose Land Is It? at the city’s Open Eye Gallery (https://spectrumphoto.co.uk/whose-land-is-it-at-open-eye-gallery until 19 Sept), exhibiting breath-taking work by Amanda Williams, Atong Atem and James Tylor.
Then there was the wonderful Leanne Benjamin. Perfectly poised, of course, but also teetering…on the point of publishing her autobiography, Built for Ballet (online in Australia on 1 Oct and in hardback in the UK on 25 Oct). ‘Framing my life into words, rather than movement, has been challenging,’ said Leanne, adding that she hoped that it would resonate with people ‘beyond the world of ballet’. It will. She’s radiantly inspirational. I pre-ordered the book while watching the guests socialising under the 3212 panes of glass which encase the Great Court – apparently, no two are the same. What better symbol for plurality of opinion and the diversity of Australian culture? And this brought me back to Professor Chris Gosden’s immutable truth. The UK and Australia, he reminded us, are ‘so similar – and so different’. What better way to explore that idea than by joining FANZA and diving into the Season?