Questioning the Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe

This year a performance was removed from Melbourne Fringe Festival amid cries of cultural appropriation and 'yellowface'. Natasha Jynel offers another perspective.
Questioning the Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe Questions of cultural appropriation surround a recent Melbourne Fringe show. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Natasha Jynel

Monday 30 September, 2019

On August 21, 2019 a group of artists, industry workers and academics signed an Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe. The letter, signed by 150 people in total, called for the cancelation of Kate Hanley Corley’s one woman show Aisha the Aussie Geisha claiming that the show was racist and borderline yellowface.

Although the Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe states that ‘freedom of expression is an important value in any society’ it uses race and identity politics to persecute an artist and justify the censorship of work they deem to negatively represent Japan. The 105 signatures represent only 0.002% of Melbourne’s population. However, it asserts that by appearing on stage dressed as a Geisha Corley’s show is ‘harmful and insulting to Asian and Asian-Australian people’. In March of 2019, Corley presented her show Fanny Bouffante - Scandals at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Corley was allowed to perform this show, which included culturally based stereotypes of French women, without incident. The subject of the letter is Corley’s show. The target is Corley’s perceived Anglo-Celtic background and its implied ‘white privilege’.  

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As an artist I have always been an advocate for freedom of speech; primarily because artistic freedom is a necessity for a creative industry to remain competitive on a global scale. I have refrained from making public comment on the issue of ‘culturalism’ and the rise of race and identity politics within the Australian arts industry for some time. With the publication of the Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe, I feel a growing concern that particular political agendas are being used in the Australian arts industry to justify the persecution of individuals for their work and enforce guidelines for censorship which are not in-line with the freedoms inherent to a democratic society.

At no point does the Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe indicate that anyone saw Corley’s work before signing. Only a 2014 review of Corley’s work, by Colin Mockett, is used in the letter as evidence that Corely’s performance ‘revolves around the belittling … depiction of Asian peoples for cheap humour’. The letter contains no additional information on the review or its writer. So, let’s say a bit more about him now.

Colin Mockett is an editor for Entertainment Geelong who has worked with community arts organisations in the Geelong area for a number of years. He ‘has published four joke books and edited four books of Geelong senior citizens memories collected during past Seniors Festivals’. In his 2014 review he writes that the simple plot line in Corley’s show allows her to use cultural stereotypes as well as ‘poke fun at … poorly translated Asian-English signs and propose the theory that Australian girls can only sing like Japanese Geishas if they have a carrot anally inserted’. Following the letter, Melbourne Fringe decided not to run Corley’s show.

Signees of the Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe include: development executive for Screen Australia Jenevieve Chang, international market adviser for Australia Council for the Arts Nithya Nagarajan, associate professor of Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales Tanja Dreher and Rosemary Overell who is the co-editor of Orienting Feminism: Media, Activism and Cultural Representation. These individuals occupy positions of influence within Australia’s cultural industry and have been entrusted to ensure that practices within this industry uphold Australia’s democratic values.

It is, in the words of the Open Letter to Melbourne Fringe, ‘an egregious and irresponsible contribution to a dangerous cultural movement’ for people in this position to support an action which is, at its core, antithetical to the values of democracy. It calls the motivations for those signing the letter into question and jeopardises the validity of past research supporting the use of race and identity politics in the Australian arts industry. It is an indication that this research has been ‘hampered by both methodological and conceptual weaknesses [and conducted by] people too close to funding bodies [or political agendas] to make … objective assessments’.

The Open Letter to the Melbourne Fringe demonstrates the need for continued review of cultural policy development, separate to political agendas, and emphasises ‘the danger of aligning … with the Anglosphere [narrative which] distorts the complexity of the greater world and aligns us with policies that are neither in our national [or global] interest’. What we need to ask ourselves is what kind of future we want to have as a society, what values we want to protect and how we intent to hold people in positions of trust accountable to defend the protection of these values within our arts and cultural industry.

About the author

Natasha Jynel is an artist and producer living in Melbourne. She recently completed her Masters in Arts and Cultural Management. She is currently undergoing physical therapy following the sudden onset of a functional neurological disorder.