A Review of the 2016 Sydney International Women’s Poetry & Arts Festival
by Michele Seminara
One of the major feminist festivals in Sydney, the third annual International Women’s Poetry and Arts Festival took place at NSW Parliament House on March 16.
The international event strove to honour subaltern writing and multicultural cohesion, supporting female poets, writers and artists from across a wide range of artistic expressions, cultures, sexual orientations and languages. It promoted seventeen female poets, writers and artists whose work explored feminism, gender equality, social justice, discrimination, creative transformation and intercultural understanding.
The festival showcased the work of Indigenous, refugee, migrant, LGBTI and Muslim as well as Australian feminists, and aimed to foster discussions about decolonising arts and literature, the role of the arts in feminism, ending violence against women, and overcoming marginalisation. The festival was founded on the shared conviction that arts and literature are essential to the vibrancy of our communities, with a focus on supporting change by building coalitions based on solidarity, inclusion and diversity, and replacing discrimination with empathy.
The event was hosted by the Green’s Member of Parliament Dr Mehreen Faruqi, a finalist in the 2015 Daily Life Woman of the Year Award for leading the way in positive social change. It was directed by Saba Vasefi, a respected voice of the transnational feminism movement who was a recipient of the Edna Ryan award for making a significant contribution to feminism, and also a Premier’s Multicultural Medal for Arts and Culture. The night was emceed by outspoken hip hop artist Kween G, producer of the news feature for Alchemy’s ‘Stolen Generation’ special, which was awarded a silver medal in the United Nations category.
The festival was launched by poet, prominent activist and winner of the National Indigenous Human Rights Award, Jenny Munro, who read a powerful selection of her personal and political poetry to a rapt audience. Saba Vasefi performed a poem which was inspired by her own childhood experience of the war between Iran and Iraq, and which addressed the issue of compulsory hijab for female students in Iran. She also launched Engraft, the first collection by poet, critic and editor Michele Seminara, stating:
‘Engraft charts the darker waters of the human psyche, exploring themes of abuse, loss, family dynamics and the role of women as mothers, lovers, artists and spiritual beings. It is Michele’s fierce commitment to witness with clear eyes the challenging and joyous experiences that unite us as women which give the poems of Engraft their power.’
Acclaimed poet Judith Beveridge, recipient of the Dame Mary Gilmore Award, the NSW Premier’s Poetry Prize and the Christopher Brennan Award for her outstanding contribution to Australian poetry, read a moving selection of her poems, and Sarah Connor, independent female hip hop artist, writer and poet, gave an exciting performance, summing up her creative motivation in the lyric: ‘I don’t aim to speak for anyone / but to document our times /so that when we’re dead, the next can still visualise / the stories that we live through, akin to, a world view / something bigger than me, and bigger then you!’
Dr Kate Lilley, queer feminist poet and Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney, read poetry based on her experiences as a young woman in Sydney, and Eleanor Jackson, Filipino-Australian poet and two-time winner of the Midsummer Poetry Out Loud Slam and a National Poetry Slam finalist wowed the audience with her spoken word performance.
Yarrie Bangura, a writer, public speaker, textile designer and visual and performing artist born in Sierra Leone, who was forced to flee her country due to civil war, gave a powerful performance, and Indian choreographer Aruna Gandhi presented a stunning traditional Indian dance solo.
Prominent writers, commentators, artists and scholars — such as author, novelist, commentator and award-winning advertising writer Jane Caro; commentator, activist and Adjunct Prof. Eva Cox; and researcher, public speaker and educator Dr Leslie Cannold — took part in a lively panel discussion on the future of feminism, chaired by Dr Mehreen Faruqi. The panel debated the importance of transnational versus international feminism, questioning whether a focus on gender issues went far enough, or if the feminist movement needed to address multilayered discrimination —such as discrimination based on race, social status or sexual orientation — in order to move forward.
Gabrielle Journey Jones, Co-Founder and CEO (Creativity Encouragement Officer) of Creative Womyn Down Under, performed and spoke about her experience of being from both Maori and African American backgrounds, while Hawraa Kash Hawraa’s performance was inspired by the experiences of herself and her loved ones during war in Lebanon, and her lifelong struggle to fit into a society which imposes its traditional social constructs on women.
Poet Zainab Kadhim drew creative inspiration from her Iraqi father and Thai mother, addressing themes of identity and performing a poem about her migrant father’s experiences since leaving Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war. And performance poet Gloria Demillo recited work which addressed the challenges all young women face in patriarchal society.
The festival supported, and was supported by, the Full Stop Foundation. The Full Stop Foundation’s focus is stopping sexual assault and domestic violence – full stop. They work to expand trauma counselling services for those who have experienced sexual assault and domestic violence, and to change the attitudes and behaviours that allow violence against women and children to occur.
The Festival was partnered by distinguished academic, human rights and feminist organisations such as Daily Life, Sydney Peace Foundation, Sydney University, Amnesty International, Asylum Seekers Centre, Settlement Services International and Peril Magazine.
The event was advertised in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Chinese and English. Twenty complimentary tickets were offered to those from Indigenous, refugee and asylum-seeker backgrounds. The Sydney International Women’s Poetry and Arts Festival also joined with the Women Poets International Movement (MPI) for the third year in row to bring this inspiring human chain festival, celebrated in over 50 countries worldwide since 2011, to Sydney.
Michele Seminara is a poet, critic and managing editor of Verity La. She blogs at TheEverydayStrange and is on Twitter @SeminaraMichele.