The regional festival challenging preconceptions about the arts

Now in its 26th year, the Shepparton Festival returns in March for 17 days of interactive and immersive events across the arts spectrum.

‘I just feel elated to actually be able to produce the festival … everybody is hungry for that connection to arts and culture,’ said Jamie Lea, Creative Director of Shepparton Festival.

First staged in 1997 and held on Yorta Yorta Country, Shepparton Festival is one of the longest-running arts festivals in Victoria. For its 26th iteration, the festival welcomes an eclectic sweep of events, including performance, music, literature, food and visual arts.

After two years of pandemic woes, Lea said she is delighted to finally be able to program a full festival, which this year runs from 18 March to 3 April, adding that the struggles and resilience of 2020 – 2021 brought forth this year’s festival theme: Thrive.

‘It looks like we’re on pretty smooth sailing now to champion the region and the whole of the Goulburn Valley,’ she said. ‘I know that with collaboration and connection and a stronger community, truly, we can thrive.’

Throughout the 17 days of festivities, Lea said she and her creative team have ‘tried to create a program that inspires but also pushes those who attend. Whether it’s spiritually or emotionally, I want you to walk out of a performance or an exhibition or a show with a different feeling than what you had when you walked in.’

An inclusive program for all comers

Over its 26 years to date, the festival tagline, Lea noted, ‘has always been “unique events in unusual places” and the small curating committee has been keen to honour this motto.

With over 30 discrete offerings, the itinerary has been designed to be inclusive of age and artistic tastes across the cultural spectrum.

Festival goers can listen to lullabies from around the world, create a sticker from their silhouette, draw their own portrait to be included in an exhibition, and admire artworks (including murals, sculpture, light-based works and projections) by a group of Aboriginal artists.

Particularly for those unfamiliar with the Goulburn Valley, there’s a new feature within the Festival website that showcases local businesses and things to do while you’re travelling throughout the region.

During the Festival, visitors can also witness local LGBTIQA+ elders sharing their stories, check out some upcycled skateboards, learn how to mould clay sourced from the natural environment, and write a river-themed poem.

It’s a multicultural celebration, with food from around the globe on offer but also performers offering bite-size tasters of traditional song and dance – a reflection of Shepparton’s vibrant community, made up of over 30 nationalities who speak more than 50 languages.

‘There are many exhibitions, installations and outdoor artworks as well as the 30 programmed activities,’ said Lea, noting the importance of being adaptive to COVID times in terms of scheduling activities en plein air.

Festival highlights

Live music and a choir will open the Festival at the Shepparton Botanic Gardens, which is also home to the centrepiece installation, Reflection Room, an artwork nestled amid the greenery that Lea describes as being ‘an infinity mirror; it’s very much a space of reflection, where you can reflect on yourself, on the past and the future.’

Lea also recommends an event with Neil Morris. ‘He’s a Yorta Yorta musician, a spoken word artist into hip hop. He’ll be performing in a really old church in Shepparton. Usually it’s there for funerals and other religious gatherings, but we will put Neil in this space and completely flip it on its head,’ she explained. 

‘His work is so powerful and sometimes confronting; he’s one of the performers that is boundary pushing and potentially can makes his audience feel uncomfortable but maybe hopeful too.

‘And then there’s [Yorta Yorta visual artist] Troy Firebrace, who’ll be working with two other First Nations artists to give them a platform and an opportunity to contribute to our streetscape,’ she continued.

‘Troy is a really successful artist. When I initially spoke to him about being a commissioned artist, he was so humble and said, “You know, I always get offered these opportunities, and there’s heaps of other artists that are so talented. How can we make that happen?”

The ethos of Shepparton Festival, Lea reiterated, ‘is all about skill sharing and facilitating other people’s growth and development, and I’m really passionate about that myself.

‘The community perception when I was younger was that the arts was somewhat elitist. And I feel like not just locally, that that idea has changed, but collectively. We’ve really worked hard to make sure young, old, left and right – everybody knows that the arts are valued and important.’

The 2022 Shepparton Festival runs from 18 March to 3 April. Learn more about the program.

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She's the outgoing books editor of The Big issue. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press. Her next collection, Decadence, will be published in July 2022. Twitter: @thuy_on