Festival in Focus | Europalia
Simon Mundy, in interview with Europalia’s General Manager Koen Clement
Since 1969 Europalia has been presenting the rest of the world to Belgium. It runs every two years, starting in October of the odd number and finishing four months later at the end of the January in the even numbered year. It is not confined to any particular venue or even country, following the theme to wherever logic or artistic imperative takes it. “We always work with the most important venues in Belgium first,” says Koen Clement, the General Manager, “and we try to start with the venue and see how our theme fits in with their ideas – we don't impose an event like a hiring promoter.”
The theme is not a philosophical nor an artistic one but a determined survey each time of the arts, heritage and culture of one particular country. Until 1987 these were always European, as the festival's title suggests. “Originally it was about demonstrating the ideals of the new European project,” just as the European Community started to expand beyond the original six countries and Brussels began to emerge seriously as its capital. Koen says, “it's still a great idea, especially now that it is under threat, and we will stress that in the next few editions.”
Once Europalia had surveyed Italy, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Germany, Belgium itself (in 1980), Greece, Spain and Austria the focus switched completely and in 1989 it looked around the globe to Japan – one of the most successful programmes which included nearly 600 events and attracted over one and a half million visits.
The 1990s broke all Europalia's usual patterns. For one thing it went annual (pulling in Portugal, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland), for another it had festivals celebrating Brussels itself for the millennium and, four years earlier, the work of the Belgian architect Victor Horta (who designed BOZAR amongst other iconic buildings). The biennial pattern was reverted to in 2003, when Italy became the only country to be repeated, and since then the festival has been mainly expeditionary, looking at Russia, China, India, Brazil and Turkey.
A festival so closely linked to the national interests of Belgium and of the union, inevitably a substantial vehicle for cultural diplomacy, could easily be accused of being a political tool – and of making some less savoury governments look more benign than they are. Europalia is well aware of the danger. “It is a great concern,” admits Koen, “so we take a lot of trouble to ensure that we are completely independent. While the cultural diplomacy side is important that will only work if people trust us to present all sides of a country's culture, not just its folkloric heritage and approved arts.” Some of the recent countries have presented clear political challenges from regimes particularly sensitive to criticism, whether from inside or outwith.
He believes the 2017-18 country in focus, Indonesia, is a good case in point. Over the 260 events, spread not only across Belgium but up to the Netherlands and across the Channel to London's Barbican Centre, Europalia has been careful to take a long look at the history and legacy of the old East Indies. “You cannot put on a festival about Indonesia in this part of Europe without looking at the impact of Dutch colonialism, neither can you do the country justice without showing the difficult years after independence.”
“On one side while working with Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs allows us to get into places, to borrow works and bring performers, that we wouldn't otherwise be able to, we have to balance that. On the other side we meticulously work with independent curators and we make sure we include the contemporary arts and critical artists, many of them already in Europe.”
“We have to look beyond the exotic folklore and the expected cliché of gamelan. So in BOZAR we have an exhibition showing Indonesia over the last two hundred years and we have asked twenty-one contemporary artists to reflect on it. They have given us some fascinating results.”
One of the problems of Europalia's formula is often the sheer size of the range of cultures it has to represent, even within a single country theme. China, Brazil and India have so many subcultures that the programme can at best glance at them. Indonesia, with its myriad islands and peoples, has stretched the imagination. “It is a widely held misconception that Europalia is only about the mainstream (and only takes place in Brussels). It is much more diverse than that and we try to show the experimental and marginal aspects of cultures, not just the expected ones,” Koen tells me. So the music programme includes not only gamelan and bamboo flutes but polyphonic song from Papua, a concert of western piano music influenced by Indonesia, progressive jazz and electronic music drawing on sounds of the jungle. The contemporary dance programme is even more fascinating.
To be a little less serious for a moment, though, I can't think of an event that brings together Belgium and Indonesia better than the workshops on chocolate making and the regional variations of cocoa bean across the wide expanse of Indonesia, supervised by choclatier Mi Joya. Who will fly me to Brussels for that?
Koen Clement acknowledges that the way Europalia presents countries has changed. “Thirty years ago, when we concentrated on Spain, we showed great treasures from the Prado. Now the Prado is only a Ryanair flight away and is part of many people's ordinary experience. Even with Indonesia there are many for whom going to Bali is normal. We have to find new ways.”
For 2019 Europalia will come back to Europe for its theme, concentrating on Romania, a country which Koen believes has been unfairly ignored and tarnished by the years of poverty. “Romania is not a 'B' list culture,” he says, “and here it is not widely realised that Romanians are the second largest community of settlers in Brussels. It is very important that we showcase the modern Romania which is full of talent.”
Further Information on EUROPALIA
EUROPALIA has been organising arts biennales, each focusing on a different guest country, since 1969. Its four-month multidisciplinary programme comprises hundreds of events throughout Belgium and in other European countries. EUROPALIA enthrals a broad European audience not only with exhibitions, but also the performing arts, music, literature, conferences and film in order to deeply understand and value the culture of the guest country as a whole. It turns the spotlight not only on big names, but also on talented newcomers. Heritage plays a significant part, but the contemporary scene is also generously covered; new creations and interaction between artists from the guest country and from Europe receive particular attention. The informative services offered to the public, with an especial accent on the young, tries to provide insights that avoid Eurocentrism and acknowledge the influence of other cultures in our own. It stimulates open dialogue between cultures in an atmosphere of trust. EUROPALIA’s festivals bring about enduring cooperation between artistic partners. The projects travel both in and beyond Europe by means of an international network. The philosophy behind? Art connects people.