Glasgow 2014: Scots artists take on Commonwealth

Boomerang, appearing at the Empire Cafe during Glasgow 2014. Picture: Contributed
Boomerang, appearing at the Empire Cafe during Glasgow 2014. Picture: Contributed
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WITH Glasgow 2014’s opening just days away, a year of art celebrating and questioning Scotland and its Commonwealth past reaches a crescendo.

YEARS in the planning, the cultural programme which accompanies the Commonwealth Games will stretch well into the autumn, showcasing homegrown talent as well as international projects in a scale unheard of in the city since the Year of Culture in 1990. From large-scale performances with casts of hundreds to a show staged by three people in an ice cream van, the events in Festival 2014 range from supersize to intimate, from celebratory to provocative. Many of the larger projects open up, like Chinese boxes, into further series of events.

As hip hop artists from Malawi and dancers from the South Pacific descend on Glasgow to mingle with Sufi musicians from Pakistan and fiddlers from the Western Isles, the city prepares to host a celebration of Commonwealth culture. But what does that mean in the 21st century, carrying, as it does, all the baggage of empire? And what does it mean to consider these issues in Scotland this year, when the country is trying to work out its own place in Britain and the world?

“All of that was very much part of our thinking as we planned the programme,” says Leonie Bell, director of arts and engagement at Creative Scotland, who has been working on elements of the Glasgow 2014 programme since 2008. “It was important for all of us that the programme felt like a genuine response to these things. It’s a programme which is incredibly rich with thought, a powerful programme with a lot of real intelligence in it.

“We tried to encourage artists and organisations to think about the political context, the social context, the international context, the historical context. We hoped that there could be some stuff that was fun and celebratory, but also that there was the opportunity for artists to enquire and challenge and probe and to do quite a lot of reflection. I think that’s where that range comes through; there are a number of projects which tackle quite difficult subjects.”

And many do both. Take, for example, Boomerang, a show which has travelled from Scotland to New Zealand and back, and comes to Glasgow via Sydney Opera House and the HebCelt Festival in the Western Isles. Celtic musicians Breabach have come together with Maori and Aboriginal musicians and dancers to make a show that combines bagpipes and haka, didgeridoo and Gaelic song. Their collaboration is built on common ground: a shared fight for the survival of indigenous cultures on opposite sides of the world.

Many shows draw out the theme of the journey, from Tam Dean Burn’s Marathon Storytelling Cycle Challenge, which sees the actor cycling into Glasgow after a Scotland-wide tour, reading aloud the works of best-selling children’s author Julia Donaldson, to the crew of The Pokey Hat, who create their portable show inside a working ice cream van. They contrast with ambitious large-scale shows which aminate undiscovered spaces, such as National Theatre of Scotland’s The Tin Forest, based at the South Rotunda, and Cryptic’s “night-time nautical extravaganza” Sound To Sea, at the Canting Basin.

“There are shows which really push at the boundaries of a normal project,” says Bell. “And they are awesome, but also I think you can sometimes get your most meaningful moments in something quite small. We felt it was important to have that range in the programme.” So, after the initial open call for organisations to bid for six-figure sums, the organisers launched a fund supporting 20 projects with £14,000 each, including Drew Taylor’s 44 Stories, which raised awareness of the fact that 44 of the countries in the Games still regard homosexuality as illegal, and Endurance, directed by Catrin Evans, which collects the stories of women athletes from across the Commonwealth.

Jean Cameron, a senior arts officer at Glasgow Life, has been working on Festival 2014 as international producer since January last year. When I spoke to her, she was halfway between sorting out a visa for a musician in Lesotho and attending a production meeting for Children Of The Smoke, Jim Sutherland’s “epic journey into the world of the Gael”. Her enthusiasm is catching as she talks about the opportunities for collaboration: hip hop artists from Malawi working with Scottish band Stanley Odd; visual artists from five countries showing work together at David Dale Gallery; young orchestral musicians from Scotland, Kenya and India performing in the Scokendia Ensemble.

She has also worked hard to engage people from Commonwealth cultures who have made Glasgow their home. Emancipation Acts, a site-specific promenade performance in Merchant City written and directed by Alan McKendrick, which commemorates the abolition of slavery in the British empire, has attracted a keen response from the African and Caribbean communities. “Glasgow has a rich history in abolition as well as its involvement in the slave trade,” Cameron says. “This is very much an acknowledgement of our history, and a real desire for people to explore where we are now.”

The Empire Café, brainchild of novelist Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber, explores that history and its legacy in a week-long programme of events at the Briggait which includes discussions, exhibitions, Jackie Kay’s slavery drama The Lamplighter, a specially commissioned book of poetry and a café run by artist and food activist Clementine Sandison.

Academics such as Stephen Mullen (author of It Wisnae Us, an examination of Glasgow’s involvement in the North Atlantic slave trade) and Tom Devine will be joined by writers such as James Robertson and artists such as Graham Fagen, selected to represent Scotland in next year’s Venice Biennale, who is presenting a new film about the Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the First World War. The project takes a good-humoured, discursive approach to examining a difficult history; the knowledge that Glasgow’s wealth was built on sugar and tobacco, industries made possible by the slave trade.

Welsh says: “It ties in to many histories we can be proud of, the part Glasgow played in abolitionism, the shipbuilding, Red Clydeside. But we’d only be telling half the story if we didn’t say that the Clyde was widened and dredged in order to bring in ships carrying the products of empire that were bought through the triangular trade. History doesn’t stay in the past, it affects who we are now. We should explore it, discuss it, recognise it, look at how it impacts us today.”

The Empire Café’s final discussion, “Scotland: Colonised Or Colonisers?”, seems to encapsulate the debate for many in Scotland this summer as we try to work out our own relationship to the Commonwealth, past and future. “People say, ‘If you look at Scotland, we’ve always been on the right side of history, we would never exploit anyone’,” Welsh says. “That’s just not true. We need to recognise that, rather than be complacent about what might be going on under our noses. For me, the question is not why we should look at this, but why would we not?”