UK and Australia to collaborate on cultural exchange season

Arts programme entitled Who We Are Now will take place in both countries and aims to revise old assumptions

Forget Tim Tams, Vegemite and moderately cheaper Jacob’s Creek wine, the UK and Australia are to collaborate on the biggest cultural exchange programme there has ever been between the two countries.

Early details of an ambitious UK-Australia season were announced on Thursday, with events taking place in both countries from September and encompassing visual arts, theatre, film, dance, design and literature.

Preparations for the season began in early 2019, long before the newly signed post-Brexit free-trade deal which last week culminated in Boris Johnson and the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, being photographed exchanging British Penguin biscuits and Australian Tim Tams.

The trade deal is “a happy, remarkable coincidence” rather than a motivating factor, said Michael Napthali, who is leading the artistic programme from the Australian end.

The season is a collaboration between the Australian government and the British Council, which regularly organises cultural exchange seasons with other nations. But never Australia.

“It’s pretty obvious why,” said Napthali. “There’s a certain degree of assumption between countries who regard themselves as close friends, who know each other pretty well.”

The season, titled Who Are We Now, is an opportunity to push back all the “presumptions, assumptions and misapprehensions” which “accrue over years in any relationship – personal, familial, friends, mates, countries …”

Highlights in the UK will be a landmark exhibition first staged at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra in 2017-18. The show, titled Songlines, features more than 300 paintings and objects by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. It will open in October at the Box in Plymouth, the city from where James Cook first set out on the Endeavour to the south Pacific in 1768.

One of the more crazy projects is a circus in a giant inflatable bouncy castle. Bounce by Circa invites audiences to take off their shoes, leave behind loose change, and enter – in bubbles – a bouncing circus tent designed by the London-based architects AL_A. When acrobats tumble and leap, so might the audience.

“It is about having a bit of fun,” said Napthali. “We’re all entitled to some fun after the year we’ve endured.”

Other projects include a digital collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) in Sydney and Ikon in Birmingham. The Fijian-Australian artist Salote Tawale and the British-Afghan artist and fashion designer Osman Yousefzada will explore questions of identity and belonging through two video artworks.

Among the projects going from the UK to Australia will be a BFI-curated season of contemporary British films at ACMI, Australia’s national museum of screen culture. The centrepiece will be one of the most thrillingly strange films of recent years, Mark Jenkin’s Bait, which tells the story of tourists ruining Cornwall. The Observer’s Mark Kermode described it as a “genuine modern masterpiece.”

Other UK organisations involved in the programme include the British Museum, the Design Museum, Royal Opera House, Wales Millennium Centre and Belfast International arts festival.

The season will run in Australia until 22 March and in the UK until December 2022. As well as cultural events, the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade), will, say organisers, “deliver a tailored business programme promoting bilateral trade and investment in key regions throughout the UK”.

George Brandis, the Australian high commissioner to the UK, said the season was “the most ambitious cultural exchange between the UK and Australia.

“It comes at a time of great change and opportunity for both our countries, as we forge even closer ties. The season gives both nations the opportunity to look at ourselves, and at one another, through fresh eyes.”

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