NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 25th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 20 January 2023. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.
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The International Community Arts Festival, Refugee Journeys, and Art as an Antidote to Dehumanization
When we finished this podcast I told cohost François Matarasso that Jasmina Ibrahimovic “is a force of nature!” Everyone we’ve interviewed is committed, accomplished, dynamic, but Jasmina gets the blue ribbon! I can guarantee you will love listening to her.
Jasmina is Director of the Rotterdams Wijktheater (Rotterdam Neighbourhood Theatre) and also Programmer and Director of the triennial International Community Arts Festival (ICAF), the 9th edition of which begins on 27 March 2023.
When we asked for the story of her engagement in community-based theater, she connected the personal and political, beginning with being born in the former Yugoslavia and, when the war started, moving to Slovenia with her mother, and then coming to the Netherlands as war refugees in 1994.
“The reason why I got involved and believe in the power of community artists has its roots, of course, in my history. Even though I was a child of eight to 10 years, I was very, very aware of how the war started and why it started. It was a war caused by polarization, by dehumanization. I realized from a very early age that dehumanizing the other that might be even your neighbor is not so far away. This realization that I had when I was already 10, that people can suddenly go from neighbors being close to each other and become enemies, that realization has haunted me for the rest of my life.
“It made me try to grasp the psychology behind that, how it is possible. When I was in Slovenia, I used to have the same dream every night, that I gathered the political leaders of the different countries, that I would sit them down, and then first of all, make them become friends on a personal level. I would think, ‘but if they would just get to know each other, see each other as humans, then the rest of us wouldn’t have to suffer for this war.’ That’s of course a very naive way of looking at the politics of war. At the same time, maybe it’s a very clever way of looking at it. Since then, it was my goal to make people understand each other despite their differences.
“At the same time, I come from a very creative but also rebellious family. When I was four or five years old, my father used to make made plays with the Roma community, a very, very marginalized community in the former Yugoslavia. He many times ended up in jail for a day or a week, because the work was anti- the Communist regime. So on the one hand, trying to grasp how this dehumanization can happen and wanting to bridge the gap between people, and on the other hand, the history of my love for art and for making arts together, has brought me to community arts. Once I was in the Netherlands, the first thing I wanted to do—I knew that immediately—I had to go study theater. I wanted to change the world with theater.”
At Utrecht University, she “met a gentleman who was a professor for Community Arts, and also the former artistic director of ICAF—Eugene van Erven. He introduced me to community arts and the worldwide movement of community arts. I realized, “Okay, this is where I belong.” So I had my very first ICAF in 2011, and that was the first time since very, very long ago that I really felt at home.”
In the podcast you’ll hear about Rotterdams Wijktheater’s work creating original plays with marginalized communities in the suburbs of Rotterdam. François noted that “I’ve seen quite a lot of community theater in the Netherlands, and I’ve been very impressed by the standard and the commitment. In most other places where I’ve seen community theater, it happens where the community is, for lots of practical reasons—nonprofessional actors aren’t able to tour to perform in other places. So tell us a bit about how you’ve managed to solve that problem.”
“We would go travel with our plays to community centers,” Jasmina said, “that had social workers and a community of residents from that neighborhood that came to see the performance. But at the same time, we would have two people full-time working on what we call outreach. I think 95% of our PR budget goes to outreach, going outside of our office, connecting to communities, to groups of people and individuals that we think should see the performance. And then we offer the performance at a very low price and often even for free to those people.
“What is interesting about outreach is that it’s very relationship-based. One of our former colleagues was a very great outreach person. People would come to our shows saying, “I’m coming for her. We asked, ‘so you come to see the show?’ ‘No, no, I have an appointment with her.’ So for people, it was the relationship and the trust that they had in her inviting them to come to see something. That was more important for them than coming to see the theater performance. Because if people are not used to go into theater, if they don’t know what theater can do for them, or that it is fun or it can be enlightening, they don’t have the urgency to go outside of their homes, to see a performance, let alone pay for it. So we often even don’t even mention that it’s theater. It’s important that you come.”
This is a very rich conversation and I’ve barely touched on the first part. I’ll leave you with a bit about ICAF, which originated as an outgrowth of Rotterdam being designated European Capital of Culture in 2001, so by now, it’s a long story. The in-person festival was on pause during the pandemic, so this 9th edition is much-welcomed return. Here’s a little of what Jasmina told us about her first experience of the festival in 2011.
“I came in as a student with this background of longing to make a positive change in the world with community arts. I remember when I entered the headquarters of the festival, there were all these people at the entrance, rooting for you like they were they were joyful and they made sound and they sang. I remember feeling instantly happy because I thought, ‘Why are these people so happy? What are they doing? I felt happy because I felt that they were cheering me, that I was there. This was a very, very strange feeling because I was used to going into theaters that are that are more stiff. There’s this very conventional, more professional kind of attitude. And when I came to the front door of the headquarters of ICAF, there was this group of people cheering me. When I entered I saw the producer Anamaria Cruz, and she was so warm, she knew who I was. And I didn’t know how she knew. And I felt at home immediately.
“During the festival, I cried my eyes out. And I felt very much connected to all these people around the world that have the same intrinsic motivation to make the world a more beautiful place with art. I remember one performance of Big hART from Australia. It was about one of the indigenous communities in the center of Australia. It was one of the most beautiful performances that I’ve seen in my life. At the same time, I was so intrigued by how much thought went into creating the atmosphere of the festival. And so the festival was about community arts, but it was community art itself. And how it made me feel as a person was so so important. And I think that’s one of the most meaningful things, the strongest things of the festival. That makes it different than many other festivals.”
The 9th edition of ICAF will take place in Rotterdam 27 March through 2 April 2023. Find details on registering for ICAF here. Early bird prices are available through 30 January. Most of the miaaw.net team will be there (and I would be too if I didn’t have another commitment).