Biggest in the Southern Hemisphere or what?

There is a rumbling down-under. We are ‘turning the page’ with a new government, facing the challenge of a warming global agenda and considering a new place in the world of this young nation. What place might that be?

At Craft Victoria, we started to explore what we might have in common with countries of our region. Not the Asia-Pacific region to our north, but that other region, the Afro-Latin South at our end of the world. Over the last four years, the South Project has completed a cultural circuit: gatherings of artists in Melbourne, Wellington, Santiago and Johannesburg have shown a readiness to take off the blinkers and learn about the cultures sitting alongside each other. Buoyed by a generous hospitality, particularly from Indigenous peoples, we now have time to reflect on what’s been revealed.

For me, one particular moment endures. I was talking with a wire sculptor in Mpumalanga (previously South Africa’s Transvaal). Enoch Ngwenya is a self-taught artist who created his entire world from aluminium wire, not only sculptural works but also practical objects like wardrobes. After some small talk, he felt bold enough to ask me a burning question about Australia – ‘In your country, does the black man still bow down to the white man?’ I couldn’t say yes, that we had Apartheid, but I also couldn’t say no, that Australia is completely open to people of all colours. We are used to evaluating countries like South Africa in our terms of health and security. But how do we measure up in their eyes?

Sometimes, it seems almost an accident that we find ourselves in the South. It’s as though we were a respectable middle class family that lands on the other side of the tracks. Our place downunder is something we seek to rise above, evident in the common boast ‘biggest in the southern hemisphere’, which can apply to anything from Scottish Festivals to car parks. If you Google the phrase, you find there are more than 3,500 claims to this title. But how many if you search for ‘biggest in the northern hemisphere’? That there are only eight such claims (mostly icebergs) is hardly a sign that this hemisphere is lacking in distinction—precisely the opposite. Of course, anything of significance up there is likely to be the ‘biggest in the world’.

Is this southern aspirationalism a peculiarly Australian phenomenon? Identifying the claims by country (including Spanish and Portuguese versions of the phrase) reveals that Brazil (42%) has twice as many claims to ‘biggest in the Southern Hemisphere’ as Australia (21%). This is not surprising, given the scale of Brazil’s population and economy. But it’s a sober reminder that, despite images of hemispheric isolation such as ‘big pond’ and ‘great southern land’, we are not alone.

After focusing our gaze on the eastern hemisphere during the 20th century, it seems we are finally beginning a new chapter in the South. Many journals have recently published special issues on this theme, including Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, Artlink, Griffith Law Review and the Australian Humanities Review (out soon). A new book titled Southern Theory by Sydney sociologist Raewyn Connell identifies an alternative source of ideas in our region. Questions are being posed.

There is a broader context at play. As we well know, the Kyoto Protocols are based on the assumption that any solution to climate change must involve an equal contract between first and third worlds, particularly respecting the right of poorer countries to reduce the economic gap with the other half. In Bali last year, Australia conspired with Argentina to extend the talks for an extra day, finally bringing the USA to the table.

We seem well-positioned as a mediator between first and third worlds. Our position in the South, long seen as a ‘tyranny of distance’, may prove to be a godsend.

How can the arts be part of this? With globalisation has come increasing collaboration between artists from first and third worlds: the modernist potential of one is exchanged for the deep cultural content of the other. Already well-established in world music scene, there is ‘multilateral’ dialogue now occurring in theatre, visuals, craft and design.

World arts aspire to be sustainable, democratic and innovative. OK, the first two terms are givens, but innovation is especially important. Innovation is not just the mixing of modern form and traditional content, but also in developing the trust necessary for that to develop. Behind the scenes is a web of negotiations between artists from the first and third world about what can be made of mutual benefit. It’s not without misunderstandings and resentment. But it exercises the assumption that there can be activities that please both worlds—metrosexual and villager alike.

These worlds meet everyday. There are those who drive taxis, and those who take them. If you want to know the Global South, hail a cab. More than likely you’ll find yourself a fascinating conversation about Kenya, Somalia or Ethiopia. This works particularly well in Australia. Elsewhere in the world, it is usual custom for the passenger to take the back seat, leaving the driver alone in the front. Not so here. This relative disregard for hierarchy makes Australia an excellent incubator for world arts.

Will we always be happy with the Deputy Sheriff honour ‘biggest in the Southern Hemisphere’? Or might one day we aspire to be a ‘close cousin of the South’? All will be revealed when we ‘turn the page’.

This was originally published in Arts Hub, 2008