Can art change the world?

The Southbank Centre’s “Festival of the World” says yes.

There were all sorts of flags flying from the paramount of the Southbank this weekend. Jubilee bunting along the waterfront promenade, specially commissioned Festival Flags that blend the banners of myriad countries together in one “world community” standard; even a choreographed dance of red and yellow semaphores to send a message to the maritime-savvy royal flotilla: Happy Diamond Jubilee Queen Elizabeth, We Heart You.  

But more than just the usual fanfare regalia, from 1 June the Southbank Centre has flying another, more symbolic kind of flag. Let’s call it the Flag for Art. And it won’t be just polite, gallery-bound art. Think bold declarations and noisy celebrations: music, sculpture, cabaret, food, installations, blossoming gardens and over 4,000 artists, poets, writers, and performers from 195 countries coming together to stage three month's worth of performances. It’s The Festival of the World, an out-and-out global flavoured fete.

“Can Art Change the World?” is the gallant tagline of the festival. Idealistic as it may sound, if any institution is positioned to prove it right, it would be the Southbank. As Europe’s largest arts centre and a staple London attraction, the festival is well placed to receive, and engage, millions of visitors this summer. Last year’s Festival of Britain had 11 million bypasses. Nearly 3 million paused to actively participate. 

As the Southbank's artistic director Jude Kelly put it at the launch, the Southbank Centre is an “iconic” space of “continual transformation”.

“Our festival champions the idea that art holds the key to unlocking the collective imagination,” she beamed.

Kelly also points towards the institution's longstanding core ideals of engaging society through art. “One of the most important things we have inherited is the idealism founded by the [first] Festival of Britain.” First staged 1951, the festival marked the inception of the Southbank Centre; a “tonic for the nation” that brought frivolity back to a post-war England, reinvigorating sentiments of optimism and progress through art. In this century London is an infinitely more diverse place, though perhaps no less in need of a rejuvenating kick. Will Festival of the World do the trick?

With the 4,000-plus artists due to add their voice to the festival’s programme, the roster of events is simultaneously overwhelming and exhilarating. An interactive outdoor landscape chock-a-block with installations makes up the heart of the festival. The projects are numerate and a touch disparate. There’s sculptural columns built by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa - from florid green household baskets, large scale figures made of reconstituted woods scraps scaling the Hayward Gallery - a sound installation broadcasting poems from around the world read in their native language, a fifteen foot Baobab tree built from “global” fabrics, a luminous landscape of plastic milk bottles and much more. But assortment is well held together by the connective tissue of cultural celebration, internationalism and creativity innovation.

Several large-scale events are slated to headline the festival. Poetry Parnassus (26 June – 1 July) is a “world record breaking” gathering of poets from across the globe, while Africa Utopia (3 – 28 July) sees an extraordinary breadth of African music, dance, literature and debates take centre stage. The Hayward Galley will be transformed into Wide Open School, a visual arts summer school “devised and fuelled by the imaginations of leading artist from around the world”. The London Wonderground features top calibre comedy and cabaret in the sprawling Spiegeltent, one of only two dozen-odd mirrored circus tabernacles left over from the 1920s vaudevillian heyday. 

Perhaps the sturdiest pillar in the Southbank’s agenda to “champion the idea that art…can be a powerful agent for social change” is their continual highlighting of international project that shape lives through art. Dotted throughout the site are information placards drawing attention to programs such as Shelanu - a Birmingham based craft enterprise assisting refugee women - or AfroReggae, a dance-based social mobility scheme in Rio di Janiero. The Royal Festival Hall is also home to the Festival of the World Museum, a series of interactive environments honouring an ethos of “art as change”. One commemorates arts education visionaries such as Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, another captures the transformative power of music, a third allows visitors to apply to become “citizens of the world” (blue passport with your own photo included).

If there’s one thing that binds the projects in this festival together, it’s their collective multiculturalism.  “This summer, as London welcomes the world,” Jude Kelly says. “Festival of the World asks a timely and crucial question: How can we understand each other’s cultures better and help make the world a better place?”

The festival’s feel is rightfully democratic; its installations accessible to all and encouraging interaction. It’s sure to be a soiree of mass appeal – adults, children, gallery gurus and art rookies alike won’t feel out of place. So hit the newly opened roof garden atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall, sip a gin fizz, and take a moment to contemplate all that art can accomplish. Can it change the world? “Well possibly,” Jude Kelley admits. “We have to give it a go.”

Festival of the World is on at the Southbank Centre, SE1: 1 June – 9 September.

(Festival of the World Illustration: created by Antoine Corbineau. Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

 

(Under the Baobab: created by Pirate Technics. Photo: Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

 

(Everything is beautiful when you don't look down: created by Robots>>>>. Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

 

(Wastescape: created by Gayle Chong Kwan. Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

"Perspectives", a canopy of oversized children's blocks that reveals hidden messages, is one of many installations at Festival of the World (Photo: Linda Nylind/Southbank Centre)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.