‘Brisbane has come of age’: the queer and migrant artists helping shed the city’s ‘cringe’

Artists who once endured racism and homophobia in Queensland are bringing exciting new works celebrating their stories to the 2022 Brisbane festival

It seemed every single person in Brisbane was on the banks of the Maiwar river on Saturday afternoon, settling in with beach chairs and eskies to get the best vantage point. It was Riverfire: a much-loved explosive display involving fireworks, fighter jets and helicopter acrobatics that several locals separately described to me as “the most Brisbane thing ever”.

But back down on the water, a smaller, quieter and newer spectacle was also pootling along the Maiwar: the Brisbane Art Boat (Northshore, until 24 September), an interactive artwork returning for a second time as part of the Brisbane festival.

Where last year’s Art Boat housed a cartoonish inflatable neon castle, this year’s artwork is almost the exact opposite: the Spheres is an elegant and ethereal stainless steel structure by Lindy Lee, the renowned sculptor and Brisbanite. It is incredibly striking – and just as appealing as last year’s colourful work, it seems, with Instagrammers competing with small children to crowd around it.

Children interact with The Spheres.
Children interact with The Spheres. Photograph: Atmosphere Photography

The Spheres is made of three large, perforated spheres enclosed in high, curved, perforated steel walls, through which light floods, emulating stars, sunrise and sunset. It is inspired by “the music of the spheres” – a theory developed by Pythagoras, who believed that, as the planets move, they generate a celestial hum.

“I owe everything to Pythagoras in this instance and I don’t mind admitting that,” Lee says – but the Spheres is deeply personal to her too. Lee was born in Brisbane in 1954, but now lives in the hinterlands of Byron Bay. She sees the work as a kind of homecoming.

“When I was growing up back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a bit shame about the river, and a bit of cultural cringe about Queensland – pretty much everyone who wanted a creative life had to leave,” she says. “It is magnificent that our attitude to the river and Brisbane itself has transformed. With the Southbank and [art gallery] QAGOMA on the river, to me, the Maiwar is emblematic of that turn.

“I want this to be a great celebration of Brisbane, and how it has wondrously and graciously stepped up to become a city with its own character.”

Lee’s family, who had fled communism in China, endured discrimination in Queensland; coming-of-age during Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s 20-year reign as state premier, Lee felt she “had to leave Brisbane because I felt diminished because of my cultural background, my ancestry – I had to find myself”.

“Somehow, coming back to Brisbane and giving it my heart and soul in this work, means I have come full circle,” she says. “It is really moving for me – I felt a lot of shame that I was Chinese when I was growing up, so being celebrated and embraced is a wonderful feeling. I am having a very deep reconciliation with my past.”

Lee is not the only artist exploring their relationship with Queensland at this year’s festival. Anna Yen’s show Slow Boat 緩舟 (Brisbane Powerhouse, until 10 September) has a fascinating true story at its heart.

Yen’s father, a playwright who fled his home after Japan invaded, was one of 580 Chinese indentured labourers who were evacuated from Nauru to Australia during the second world war, and eventually ended up in Brisbane. Yen discovered that the labourers held performances for each other on their nights off, so Slow Boat is a play within a play: five labourers putting on an amateur show as part of celebrations marking the end of the war.

Tasking actors to play bad actors is a risky move, and Slow Boat is a bit too long and doesn’t always work.. But the story itself is fascinating, and the live music, performed by a small band in-character, is gorgeously rich.

Conor Leach and Shannon Molloy.
Conor Leach, who plays Shannon Molloy in Fourteen, with Molloy. Photograph: Morgan Roberts

There is also Fourteen (QPAC, until 17 September), a stage adaptation of Shannon Molloy’s bestselling memoir about surviving homophobic bullying in the small Queensland town of Yeppoon. Conor Leach is remarkable as 14-year-old Molloy, who seeks sanctuary in his mother’s hair salon and his small group of female friends as a way of escaping his classmates at his all-boys Catholic school, who have clocked he is gay before even he has.

References to Fruity Lexia and Impulse provoked knowing groans from the audience; the show’s portrayal of teen life in 1990s Australia is spot on. Perhaps less so is its balance of light and dark; the tonal shifts are sometimes too great, leaving everyone feeling qualmish and unsure whether to smile or wince.

Overall, the Brisbane festival feels remarkably queer this year – notable given Queensland is still shedding its reputation interstate for backwardness on that front. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in the state until 1990; Bjelke-Petersen famously believed “southern homosexuals” were conspiring to oust him and, as just one example of his many homophobic and racist policies, attempted to ban gay men from pubs and clubs.

But on Friday, all the northern homosexuals gathered in the Tivoli to celebrate Bowerytopia, a vibrant dance party and fashion show that paid homage to the late queer performance artist Leigh Bowery.

Members of The House of Alexander
Members of The House of Alexander, who are celebrating Brisbane’s ballroom culture among Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, Asian and Pasifika LGBTQ people. Photograph: Jax Oliver

Headline LGBTQ shows Fourteen and Holding Achilles (QPAC, until 10 September) are ongoing, but there is more still to come: Considerable Sexual License (Brisbane Powerhouse, 15-17 September), a history of Australia’s sexual mores in dance and cabaret; The Alexander Ball (the Tivoli, 24 September), a ballroom scene event celebrating Brisbane’s LGBTQ people of colour; and associated event The House (BOQ Festival Garden, 13-15 September), which will explain the links between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, south-east Asia and Pasifika LGBTQ people, with queer liberation in New York’s underground ballroom scene.

It says something that, even when shows unpicking Queensland’s history of racism and homophobia were competing with helicopters and fireworks, the audiences were packed. “This could not have happened 20 years ago,” Lee says, of the festival’s overt celebration of diversity. “We’ve matured and grown, and stepped into something that was always there. Brisbane has come of age.”


Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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