The Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival came to Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre last weekend with a typically eclectic mix of events: music, theatrical performances, art, and panel discussions sparked by matters of social and political frustration.
Founded in 2011, Women of the World is a global network of festivals that ‘celebrates women and girls and looks at the obstacles that stop them from achieving their potential. It was International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Sunday 25th and the programme reflected this, with discussions around sexual exploitation, domestic abuse and compassion filling the roster. However, one thing that instantly struck me as I arrived at Chapter on Sunday morning was that attendees could easily separate themselves off into two camps – either spend the day celebrating, or delve into the serious social and political conversation. With a heavy programme of overlapping events, you could effortlessly avoid all the hard and (at times) pessimistic explorations of women’s inequality and instead simply enjoy performances by female artists and musicians, oblivious to the difficult conversations happening just down the hall. This sense of duality persisted throughout the festival – the stark analyses of women’s emotional labour, unequal pay and domestic violence seemed contradictory when sitting next to exclamations and examples of women’s innovation and power. And yet, isn’t that what it is to be a woman? In a society where we often struggle to be heard, this display of talent – musical, artistic, linguistic, performative – made the calls for support, recognition and equality all the more poignant.
One such rallying event was ‘Views on the News’ – a panel discussion on the weekend’s headlines featuring festival Director Jude Kelly, Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe, Christine Kinsey (artist, and one of Chapter’s founders) and Charlotte Church. In the ample time given over to introductions, we learnt about the Chapter’s history and evolving artistic aims, and the motivations of the other speakers. When talk turned to the recent headlines, it was a somewhat overwhelming slide into the depressing (and sometimes dangerous) issues we women face daily – the meagre budgets given to women’s sport, the disproportionately low wages, the legal vulnerability of women trying to gain independence from controlling and abusive partners. Squeezing in such an onslaught of issues left little room for constructive debate, and the event fell short of achieving the festival’s stated aim of stimulating conversation and collaboration.
Charlotte Church returned for a conversation with Jude Kelly on the subject of education, and again the event was heavy with criticism – Church detailed her exhaustive and unsuccessful search for a school for her children, and revealed it has inspired her most recent project: the opening of a school in Cardiff, its ethos influenced by alternative institutions like the democratic Sands school in Devon. Church’s idealism was challenged by difficult audience questions and she conceded that she is approaching the issue of education from a place of privilege and inexperience – there would be a ‘steep learning curve’, she admitted, and the strength of her commitment remains to be seen.
‘A Woman’s Work: Emotional Labour’ brought together Selma James (founder of the International Wages for Housework campaign) and local community organisers Chantelle Williams and Beverley White in a discussion of the impoverishment of women through countless hours spent caring for others, emotionally and physically. There were passionate calls for this labour to be acknowledged and paid for, and sharp criticisms of current laws that disadvantage mothers. All in all, it was a sobering event. Though what compounded matters were the statements that women are naturally more caring – a biological certainty, it seemed, for which we are socially and economically punished. No one seemed willing to accept that men, too, have nurturing instincts – or that these might be discouraged by society. The female-focused narrative left no room for comments on how we might readdress the balance of caregiving – surely a missed opportunity.
HMS Morris’ immersive music was a welcome interlude between these grave talks. The Welsh three-piece band have a trippy, psychedelic sound: high angelic vocals from both lead singer Heledd Watkins and Sam Roberts mix with Wil Roberts’ drums and a brilliant cacophony of synths and unexpected sounds. The excellently off-kilter ‘Cyrff’ was one of several highlights – artful pop meets folk, rock, and a sea of other influences.
Another high note was LayFullStop, at the close of Sunday’s programme. Effortlessly cool and soulful, the sweetness of her vocals softened the blow of hard-hitting lyrics, her songs uncompromising portrayals of insecurity, anxiety, desire and rage. Supported by DJ Woddy Green, she delivered a nostalgic and powerful mix of hip-hop, jazz and soul.
Women of the World delivered on several fronts: there was a brilliant artistic variety to the performances, and the busy programme created an atmosphere of buzzing, fast-paced excitement throughout. The heavy political aims, however, fell short: the emotionally-charged talks tended to re-hash well-worn conversations rather than covering new ground, and any sense of progression I might have felt inevitably floundered. A stimulating day out, certainly, but not a perception-altering success.
The Women of the World Festival is a popular Southbank Centre favourite which is visiting the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff.
Rosie Johns has written a variety of content for Wales Arts Review.