Challenging perceptions

By Daniel Connell
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Tutti artists come together to perform Standing Up, Standing Out, which highlights the courage of the Sikh community

In 1699 at the time of the Vaisakhi harvest festival in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab, India, Guru Gobind Singh the tenth and last of the Sikh Gurus in human form, used the festival moment to gather people together and ignite a new spirit of courage and commitment to human rights. The people gathered had been worn to despair by continuous conflict over who would control the strategic and fertile area of Punjab (the land of the five rivers) and beyond. Persecution and enforced social inequality, invasions and horrifying bloodshed had wracked the population of North India, for centuries. A stand had to be taken. The Sikh philosophy or Sikhi, had emerged as one which championed people and all life, as sovereign entities united by a common universal force. Successive oppressive regimes had denied rights to religious minorities, lower caste and women. Sikhi was a movement which challenged this and this moment in history was a flash point.

Guru Gobind Singh installed the wearing of the Sikh Turban (Dastaar / Puggaree) as an outward sign of identity for Sikhs: men, women and children equally were invited to stand up and stand out by wearing one, to defy the divisive ruling that only nobility could wear a turban; to defy the divisive ruling that only one form of religion could be practiced and to defy the crippling practices of caste discrimination.

The Sikh Turban was intended from its birth to be worn as a symbol of defiance against caste, race, gender and religious discrimination; standing up and standing out.

Every time a Sikh man or woman ties a turban and steps into the streets of Adelaide, or anywhere else around the world, they make a conscious choice to honour this right not only of Sikhs but all life, to stand out in a crowd, come what may. This is an act of resistance to those who would try to prescribe a standard way of being.

Social normative behaviours are drilled into the average member of society in the unforgettable years of exclusion and judgment we call the teen years. They taught us well: conform or suffer. For those whose appearance or actions, in gesture or word, breach the well patrolled boundaries of normalised attraction and the ‘desirable’, life can be fraught with painful exclusion and scarring harassment.

A Sikh friend who works for a large Federal Government department in Sydney, was as recently as last year transferred to a new office in Western Sydney, his colleague assigned to sit next to him complained loudly that he didn’t want to ‘sit next to a terrorist’. A woman friend who is smaller in stature than most, has had her head patted one too many times: ‘I don’t forgive them, no,’ she said. ‘It is not ok and they need to know that.’

What we are talking of here is how human communities respond to encountering the unfamiliar—the Other. Persecution, inclusion, exclusion, rebellion is what Standing Up, Standing Out is foregrounding. It is the response of two different communities who stand out.

Tutti Arts has for 20 years challenged the categorisation of the ‘community arts’ sector as being a poor cousin to mainstream art, by being an arts industry innovator across all genres. Tutti Artists are at home, performing and exhibiting in the stages and galleries of the highest calibre.

This project Standing Up, Standing Out, is a clear example of the innovative initiatives of Tutti. Growing from a meeting with Hip Hop singers L-FRESH The LION and Mirrah, the seed was planted in the fertile garden of Tutti to create a project which brought these obviously and not so obviously aligned communities together: the Sikh community who choose to stand out and people living with an idiosyncrasy or two, which gives them no choice but to stand out. The turban became the mediating object; the textile, tactile woven fabric binding individuals and communities in solidarity, as it was intended. It was suggested early that the skills of Tutti Visual Artists could be the wordless expression of exchange and solidarity.

Tutti was founded in 1997 by award winning South Australia playwright and composer Pat Rix and over 21 years has grown a unique multi arts environment where self-identified disabled artists create visual art, music theatre, film, new media and installation art works for a growing local and international audience. Governed by a strong board with key appointments from business, marketing, the arts, and disability, Tutti is led by a high calibre artistic team supported by strong disability and arts management.

Tutti comes from the musical term ‘tutti’ which when written on a score invites the whole choir to sing, or orchestra to play. It means ‘everyone’ and Tutti’s philosophy has always been about working together, celebrating difference and not leaving anyone behind, or out. The Sikh faith carries a commitment to being different—to ‘standing out and standing up’. This project began with an idea about engaging two communities who both know what it is to stand up and stand out, and to provide a space where they could stand together. To create this body of work the Sikhs gave over one of their sacred objects, the turban, to the Tutti artists. In return, the artists gave back what is sacred to them, their art. The artists started with white turbans and used inks, paint, pens and thread to transform them into the colourful works that now hang in Nexus.

Key people involved in this project are South Australian visual artist Daniel Connell who has assisted with community liaison with the Sikh community and worked alongside Tutti Visual Artists, Curator Ellen Schlobohm and Program Coordinator Patricia Wozniak to create the beautiful exhibition at Nexus Arts that is the outcome of this collaboration and exchange. Photographer Emmaline Zanelli is responsible for the stunning portraits of Tutti artists and Sikh community members featured in the exhibition.

“What is really important to say is that the work of Tutti (and I’m sure others) is resulting in fantastic opportunities to present work by disabled artists that is different, daring, exciting, intriguing and beautiful and Standing Up Standing Out is a fantastic example of what can happen when artists get together and run with a great idea,” says Rix. “This hasn’t happened overnight, these projects are the culmination of many years of hard work and investment in projects and talented disabled artists and I believe the work we are seeing in both Standing Up, Standing Out exhibitions is evidence of the exciting artistic relationships and ways of working that will continue to inspire the relationship between Tutti and the Sikh community to grow.”


More information at www.tutti.org.au

 

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