Aussie Invasion


From Cate to’Culture Warriors,’ Down Under Takes Over

The Australians are among us, and what a delicious, eye-opening experience for Washington culture mavens it will be as the thunder from down under brings its best and brightest to the nation’s capital

The welcome Aussie artistic invasion begins with an awesome bang: The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the American classic by Tennessee Williams, which headlines the Kennedy Center this month. But the real headlines are that mega-talented Australian actress and elegant diva Cate Blanchett will star as the supremely troubled and tragic Blanche DuBois under the direction of Liv Ullmann, herself a film icon.

Meanwhile, at the American University’s Katzen Arts Center, there’s a massive, impressive exhibition called “Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors” from the National Gallery of Australia. This inventive show by 30 leading indigenous artists from every Australian state and territory is at every turn a rebuke to popularly held views and clichés about Australia’s indigenous presence — and marks the first time the collection has left its home museum.

In addition, there is a second, unrelated exhibition of Australian aboriginal painting called “Lands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Painting” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which recalls the museum’s larger exhibition several years ago, “Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Painters.”

Both the Katzen exhibit and the Kennedy Center production — along with highly lauded performances by the idiosyncratic Australian Chamber Orchestra in September — are here under the umbrella program of “Australia Presents,” promoted with considerable enthusiasm by Dennis Richardson, the Australian ambassador to the United States.

Of course, Australian cultural incursions into the United States, and in Washington, D.C., are nothing new. There was a major Australian performance festival in the 1990s at the Kennedy Center that included dance, music and theater, with some of the major artistic institutions in Australia participating. “We’ve been trying to mount another festival for some time now,” said Alicia Adams, vice president for international programming at the Kennedy Center. “But the times didn’t allow it. Ambassador Richardson then suggested if we might not like to have the Sidney Theatre Company here, along with the chamber orchestra. Naturally, we thought that was a terrific idea”

The Oscar-winning Blanchett not only stars in “Streetcar,” but she and husband Andrew Upton are the artistic directors of the Sidney Theatre Company. “Tickets,” Adams said, “are selling very well. It’s an event that says a lot about her, about Australian theater, and about continued interest in Tennessee Williams.”

But most of all, it undeniably says a lot about Blanchett’s appeal.

Love of Both Lands

“I said kiddingly that the reason we wanted to bring this production to the States is to show that Cate really is an Australian,” Richardson told The Washington Diplomat. “It should be very interesting, actually.”

Since becoming ambassador in 2005, Richardson has worked to bring Aussie culture to the Beltway, laying the groundwork for the current showcase several years ago. He sees a lot of affinities between the United States and Australia — and both the Katzen exhibition and the “Streetcar” production in some ways highlight those similarities as well as the differences.

Richardson is what you might call a straight talker, not so much blunt or brusque as honest. Introducing the “Culture Warriors” exhibition at the Katzen Center, he said by way of describing some of the content in the exhibition that “I often hear the two countries compared because of race…. That’s not it at all. The correct comparison is how both countries have dealt with their indigenous populations, for better or worse. This is what ‘Culture Warriors’ is about — it’s a broad, varied, diverse and big exhibition by and often about Australia’s very diverse indigenous population, and what part they play in the contemporary cultural landscape,” he explained.

“We’ve come a long way,” Richardson added. “‘Culture Warriors’ is the first Australian Indigenous Art Triennial, and when it opened at the National Gallery of Australia, it marked not only the 25th anniversary of the gallery, but also the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum in which over 90 percent of the non-indigenous Australians voted to include indigenous Australians on the census as citizens.”

That anniversary was a clear impetus to stage the exhibition. The affinity between Americans and Australians was also an impetus to bring the exhibition to the United States and specifically to Washington. “This is the only venue outside of Australia for this exhibition,“ Richardson pointed out. “Some folks had talked about doing this effort in New York or Los Angeles. I thought Washington was the perfect place both for the performances and this exhibition. The Katzen, I thought, was an ideal site in many ways — the way the exhibition spaces are laid out, its size, that’s perfect for this show.”

Richardson knows and loves quite a bit about both this country and his homeland. “One of the things about both the Australians and Americans is that we’re relatively new, politically, structurally. We’re new on the scene so to speak, we’re big and unique,” he said. “My wife Betty and I have seen 48 of the states including Alaska. When we vacation we vacation in America.”

The ambassador also revels in the contrasts. “When you look at the center of the U.S. from the air, you see Kansas and Missouri, you see urban areas, big rivers, great mountain ranges, forests and vegetation. You do the same for Australia — it’s flat, no mountains, only streams. Most of the population is on the coasts; there are no great urban populations in the center. So the land is very old. It’s been ground down and shaped already, where America, geologically, is relatively new,” he said.

“But both our cultures are new, comparatively,” he added. “Europe, China, India, they’re cultures with a long historical tradition thick with achievement. We’re open to the new, both of us. Whenever one of our troupes — dance, music, theater — travels, they’re always described in critical terms as fresh, new, high energy, vibrant, in very physical terms, active.”

Streetcar from Sydney

In addition to the arts, Australian cinema seems to make up its own category of American fascination, namely thanks to stars such as Mel Gibson, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman (along with her country music star hubby Keith Urban), Russell Crowe as well as the late Heath Ledger.

And then there’s Cate, whose parents were actually American and Australian but whose appeal seems global.

She and her company will be closely watched in Washington for being either brave or foolhardy to stage a hallowed American theater classic on what amounts to the national stage of America.

And Tennessee Williams is a peculiarly American stage sage who led a legendary life — a Southern writer who was more or less openly gay when it wasn’t cool or safe to be so. Fame probably protected him, and his work did the rest because plays like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Sweet Bird of Youth” and lesser works continue to be performed and continue to challenge actors throughout the world.

Nowhere is that truer than with “Streetcar,” which made Williams one of the ranking playwrights of his time some 60 years ago. It also made a huge star out of Marlon Brando, playing Stanley Kowalski both on stage and in the movie, and gave Vivien Leigh an Oscar for her depiction of Blanche.

Most serious actresses worthy of the name have seen the part of Blanche as a daunting challenge, a kind of Everest among leading lady roles. Ann-Margret and Jessica Lange have tackled the role with mixed results.

Blanchett is one of the most hypnotic, gifted actresses of our time — and if anyone could inhabit Blanche’s haunted persona, this leading lady certainly fits the bill. She not only won an Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn, but also played Queen Elizabeth 1 to haunting effect and even, of all people, Bob Dylan.

That alone might entitle her to be called a “culture warrior.”

Warriors and Enchantment

But the real “Culture Warriors” can be found at the Katzen Arts Center, where a sprawling exhibition features the works of 30 artists from all over Australia who revel in the broad expanse of indigenous art.

The foremost aspect of this exhibition is that these are contemporary works by contemporary artists, all indigenous men and women. But within that scope is an infinite variety of art, not just in media — which ranges from sculpture, photographs and paintings to prints and craft — but also in its commentary on Australia, past and present. For many of the artists, the continent’s history is like a second skin to them, so naturally their work is not only about their indigenous traditions, but also what’s happened to those traditions and to their identity over that long history.

Some of the pieces, like Elaine Russell’s paintings of the Kamilaroi peoples, seem almost folkish, while others are sophisticated and telling, such as Christopher Pease’s satirical paintings in which Target logos and other contemporary signs cast shadowy commentaries on traditional historical landscapes.

Dennis Nona’s sculptures on the other hand take you back to the creation of creatures made when God wasn’t looking, standing in stark contrast to Danie Mellor’s fighting kangaroo figures. Devoid of any creatures is Ricky Maynard’s photograph of a stark black-and-white landscape that appears uninhabitable to some, but has been home to others for ages.

In a way, these works speak to the referendum, which marked the gradual re-emergence of native cultures reclaiming their silenced voices.

“Lands of Enchantment” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts can be seen as an addendum to the “Culture Warriors” exhibition — small yet astonishingly beautiful and often moving.

These aboriginal paintings, created largely by artists in the nation’s central desert region, speak to the nuanced expressions of aboriginal history and reinforce its significance in today’s world of art. They include works by some of Australia’s best-known painters, including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Dorothy Napangardi Robinson, Abie Loy Kemarre, Mitjili Napurrla, and Eubena Nampitjin.

The swirling, evocative patterns, striking colors and subtle power are a testament to Australian artists who have fought hard to embrace the here and now while preserving and paying respects to their past. It all makes for a promising future that Washingtonians are fortunate enough to get a glimpse of this fall, whether it’s in the form of a dreamy starlet or dreamy aboriginal masterworks.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.