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Let the Games begin

Posted on 24/01/2012
A performer during an Olympic ceremony.

Olympic Games provide unique, if controversial, platforms for indigenous peoples to express their cultural traditions in spectacular pageants prepared for a vast media audience. An academic at Royal Holloway, University of London is researching the history of Aboriginal and Native people’s participation in opening and closing ceremonies in Canada, Australia and the United States since the civil rights movements of the 1960s–70s.

Through this research, Professor Helen Gilbert, from the Department of Drama and Theatre,  seeks to understand the chief pleasures and contradictions embedded in the circulation of ‘ethnic’ performances as global commodities made available for ‘reading’ across cultures. She also probes the tensions built into international spectacles constructed out of emphatically local material.

"The Olympic 'spirit' promotes utopian notions of a 'common humanity' that asks us to put personal and political tensions aside", Professor Gilbert says. “Amid this celebration of global communitas, ridgid formulas for Games ceremonies govern what can be said and shown. Nevertheless, key issues in the cultural politics of host nations are often writ large on the global stage during Games ceremonies, and they are certainly under tremendous scrutiny”.

In the countries at issue in Professor Gilbert’s research, indigenous people’s performances in Olympic pageants have spoken to particular national concerns of the moment – reconciliation, healing, sovereignty – but not in any direct way. By charting the histories attached to specific Olympic performances, she aims to foreground issues at stake in such spectacles, for both the host nation and its minority peoples.

This work constitutes one segment of a large transnational and interdisciplinary project that Professor Gilbert is currently leading, focused on ‘Indigeneity in the Contemporary World’. Funded by the European Research Council’s prestigious Advanced Grant Scheme, the project brings together seven full-time early career-researchers to study contemporary indigenous performance practices across the Americas, the Pacific Islands, Australia and Southern Africa.

"We are showing how evolving concepts of indigeneity may contribute to broader understandings of heritage, belonging, social cohesion and mobility in multicultural societies, and how cultural values and practices are transmitted, through performance, across place and time," explains Professor Gilbert.

As part of Royal Holloway’s engagement with the London Olympics programme, Professor Gilbert will give a public lecture, entitled ‘Let the Games Begin: Indigenous Performances and Global Spectacle, 1976–2010’, on Tuesday 7 February at 6.15pm in the College’s Windsor Auditorium. 


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