Lessons from the Sydney Festival boycott for grassroots activism
The recent success of the 2022 Sydney Festival boycott reveals not only the power of BDS, but also how solidarity and community building are still necessary for victory, writes Randa Abdel-Fattah.
People hold banners and Palestinian flags during a pro-Palestinian protest against the Israel Film Festival in Sydney in 2014. [Getty]
The cultural boycott of one of Australia’s major annual cultural events, the 2022 Sydney Festival, is being described in international circles as the most effective, impactful and creative since the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement was founded. (BDS) in 2005.
The boycott was launched in December 2022 because the Sydney Festival refused calls from artists and the community to divest itself of its requested sponsorship from the State of Israel for the Sydney Dance Company’s production of the choreographer’s Decadence Israeli Ohad Naharin.
The response to the boycott call has been unprecedented. More than a thousand people have signed our Artist Statement calling on artists, workers, organizations and affiliates to withdraw their participation in the Sydney Festival for its partnership with an apartheid regime.
In just three weeks, more than 100 artists, creatives and businesses pulled out in solidarity, with many patrons canceling tickets. Publicly, there was an outpouring of support on social media platforms and extensive national media coverage.
“From the outset, the campaign was based on grassroots organizing and transnational movement building, all underpinned by an anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance praxis among allies”
The Palestinians of Gaza who were literally bombarded by Israel when the Sydney Festival board made the sponsorship agreement in May 2021followed the campaign on social networks and sent photographs brandishing messages of solidarity.
An anonymous artist painted a fresco depicting the festival’s logo on a wall in Gaza, the word “complex” painted above as an ironic gesture in the face of the rhetorical avoidance displayed by so many. First Nations artists, arts organizations and communities standing in solidarity with Palestinians in a truly intergenerational and intersectional coalition were among the first to boycott and produced the most compelling arguments for accountability of cultural institutions.
Literally two days after the Festival closed, on February 1, Amnesty International released its landmark report: “Israel’s Apartheid Against the Palestinians, a Cruel System of Domination and a Crime Against Humanity”. The Sydney Festival board had tried ‘both sides’ and ‘it’s complex’, and had doubled down on its partnership with an apartheid state.
While there are many, especially in the “progressive except Palestine” camp, who confidently reject Palestinian voices, few would dare to reject Amnesty International, a recognized human rights agency that enjoys mainstream support. dominant liberal.
2/3 @sydney_festival has officially crossed the human rights picket line and Palestinian civil society and its allies are therefore calling on artists, organizations and festival-goers to withdraw their support for the 2022 Sydney Festival and join the cultural boycott. pic.twitter.com/9LeNxayPib
— Arab Theater Studio (@ArabiStudio) December 21, 2021
From the start, the campaign was based on organizing from below and building a transnational movement, all underpinned by a practice of anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance between allies who did not need an Amnesty report. to remind them of what Palestinians had been through and document for decades.
The boycott is a stark example of how activists negotiating multiple and inseparable identities on sovereign Indigenous lands work together to articulate political demands and build transnational alliances in the service of justice.
Praxis is the key here. Transnational social movements share an intellectual and political language, but language is not limited to the mastery of vocabulary.
Many scholars, artists and self-proclaimed progressives repeat the vocabulary of social justice activism: “decolonial”, “intersectionality”, “anti-racism”, “solidarity”. But if “solidarity is a verb”, the language of justice is practice. It is an intellectual work forged in a concrete struggle. There is a difference between those who appropriate knowledge and theory, and those who produce it through action and experience, not mere academic citations or blue ticks.
Language as praxis, even if it draws on the rich lexicons of global transnational struggles, will only make sense if it operates through local grammars. It was essential for us. Arab, Palestinian and non-Indigenous artists, organizers and scholars understood that we were campaigning as racialized minorities of settlers on stolen land.
It is not a question of romanticizing solidarity work. It is impossible to square the circle of the struggle against colonialism because we live here in a permanent colony of settlers.
Supporting a project of decolonization in Palestine means confronting settler colonialism and the task of decolonization on this continent and holding ourselves accountable to a fundamental principle: dismantling oppressive local and global power structures by pursuing transformative justice that centers indigenous sovereignty. .
In our communications and meetings with the Sydney Festival Board of Directors, we have been unequivocal in calling the Festival’s performative co-option of contemporary language ‘recognition of country’ and ‘indigenous sovereignty’.
“Withdrawing from the Sydney Festival – after two years of a global pandemic and arts funding cuts – has come at a significant and painful cost to artists and arts companies”
The Festival insisted on doing business with an apartheid regime, even as it applauded programming by indigenous artists and featured a solemn acknowledgment of the country on its website. Rejecting calls to divest from the partnership, the board claimed it was an “apolitical” organisation.
In the artist’s statement calling for a boycott call, released as a result, such a claim was quickly exposed: “Existing on stolen land is political. Making art is political. Accepting the financing of an apartheid colonial regime is political”. Exposing the council’s obvious cynical performativity was not the point.
It was about reclaiming the political, decolonial, and intersectional approach of progressives who treat these words as platitudes rather than embodied practices. “Solidarity”, proclaimed the call for a boycott, “is a permanent practice and commitment”.
The key to this commitment is the ethics and practice of care. Withdrawing from the Sydney Festival – after two years of a global pandemic and cuts to arts funding – has come at a significant and painful cost for artists and arts companies whose withdrawal meant losing publicity, reviews and exposure that accompany participation in a major festival.
Solidarity as a practice consisted of supporting artists who had withdrawn their shows from the festival but were performing in other venues: using social networks and word of mouth to publicize alternative shows, organizing ticket donations for enticing people to attend, arranging tickets for critics to attend shows, writing and publishing reviews.
Arab Theater Studio (ATS), a Sydney-based theater company and the first arts organization to withdraw from the Festival, practice an ethic of care both in the visible ways and behind the scenes of work. An example of this embodied empowerment was organizing a group of First Nations elders, First Nations artists and refugee claimants to see the famous cross-cultural Indigenous dance company World premiere of Jurrungu Ngan-ga by Marrugeku.
As an extension of this sense of caring and togetherness, a group of poets of color publicly offered to support companies and artists who boycotted performances by buying tickets. So, through interconnected networks of activist artists, ATS was able to invite Indigenous elders, artists, friends and allies to Marrugeku’s jaw-dropping performance that was now run independently outside the festival.
“While the boycott campaign is officially over, solidarity and community building are still ongoing because, in the words of Toni Morrison, ‘If we serve, we endure'”
ATS arranged transport to travel around Sydney and, in true Arabian style, hosted a pre- and post-performance charcoal chicken banquet lunch at one of Sydney’s renowned Lebanese restaurants for guests, allies and the artists and the team of Marrugeku.
Social movements based on relationships and commitments will always share a language that is real, embodied and impactful. Recently, Arab Theater Studio, joined by organizers and allies, hosted a picnic to celebrate bonds forged and relationships renewed. While the boycott campaign is officially over, solidarity and community building are still ongoing because, in the words of Toni Morrison, “If we serve, we endure.”
The community is the alter-space, the place where we go to imagine and dream; renew our intentions, reflect on our practices. It offers us the why of what we are doing, and will continue to do, until we achieve justice and the liberation of Gaza in Gadigal.
Randa Abdel-Fattah is a DECRA Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University studying the generational impact of the War on Terror on young people after 9/11 and the award-winning author of over 11 novels.
Follow her on Twitter: @RandaAFattah
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The views expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or its staff.