Cultural democracy

A festival in Sydney is generating momentum by creating a new Australian sound.
Cultural democracy

Photo: Cultural Arts Collective. Worlds Collide Ensemble.

The vital need for greater diversity in the arts industry takes on new urgency when hearing from someone like Richard Petkovic. Listening to him speak, you’re reminded of the importance of building capacity through diverse cultural programming. 

‘I created the Sacred Music Festival as a positive vehicle for multiculturalism, for interfaith dialogue and to showcase diverse artists,’ he said.

Petkovic is Festival Director of Sydney Sacred Music Festival, which programs a compelling mix of music, ceremony and art in order to create a conversation between different cultures and art forms. 

The festival, which began in 2011, stems from Petkovic’s personal interest in creating new work and meeting new people and from growing up and living in the culturally diverse Western Sydney. Over successive years, the growing festival has empowered participants to make their own connections.

‘A lot of our artists are in their own specific ethnic music circles or art circles, and my thinking is, how can we take that to the world? It is an ambitious idea, but by bringing these diverse cultures together we can actually create interesting and meaningful collaboration, an inclusive “new Australia,”’ said Petkovic.

‘I always bang on about creating a “Sydney sound”. If I was investing in the arts I would invest all our money in cultural diversity and ways we can work together to create something new that actually identifies as Australia now in 2017. In the United States, they had the Seattle Sound in the nineties, and the Manchester Sound in England — we could have the Western Sydney Sound and could export it around the world.’ 

Petkovic said multiculturalism in Western Sydney in particular has created a space for this kind of cultural innovation. 44% of Sydney’s population lives in Western Sydney, and approximately 33% speak another language at home.

View the 2017 program here

Last year’s festival included Worlds Collide, a live multimedia performance of contemporary world and electronic dance music held on the rooftop of a carpark in Parramatta. Western Sydney artists were also commissioned to create video art installations.

‘It is all about creating great art in interesting spaces and supporting these wonderful communities. These are the three pillars of the Festival – creating new work, showcasing diversity, and creating events in interesting places.’

This September the new work Building 20 will be performed in the decommissioned ammunition chambers at Sydney Olympic Park. Musicians will perform within the structure, with its unique acoustics resulting in a unique site specific performance for Sydney audiences. 

‘There are these amazing reverberant concrete tunnels,  we will have three separate artists in each tunnel and the audience can move from one to the other,’ said Petkovic.

‘It is featuring the building — the building is the star — and we have these interesting and musically diverse artists activating the space.’

Creating pathways for musicians

Importantly, the Sydney Sacred Music Festival helps build capacity for musicians and artists who don’t often have opportunities to perform and collaborate. 

‘A larger festival might approach an artist and say we love your act, do it here. Whereas I’ll have a conversation with them and ask them if they would like to work in different ways or try something else. I see all artists and communities as collaborators and catalysts for change and by engaging with them openly, we diversify their representation in the civic narrative and public sphere.said Petkovic. 

‘I’m working with Auburn Mosque now and asked them “What do you want to do?” and, after we talked about it, we decided to put on a cross-cultural Sufi ensemble towards next year’s festival … It is about creating a dialogue with these artists and communities around what they want to create but also giving them the confidence to push things a bit more.’ 

In the process, this collaborative approach is creating new pathways for musicians in Western Sydney. In the early years of the festival, a Sufi ensemble from Lakemba had their first gig in Parramatta Mall. A few years later, the same group held their first performance at a theatre in Bankstown. ‘It’s about creating that pathway for them, and for different groups as well,’ concluded Petkovic.

Sydney Sacred Music Festival runs from 2-17 September. Visit for program details.

Brooke Boland

Friday 18 August, 2017

About the author

Brooke Boland is a freelance writer based on the South Coast of NSW.