Art helps define what it means to be “intercultural” and “multicultural”

Performance of Pangea Arts create theatre productions that combine Asian and Western theatrical traditions. Photo by Pagea Arts

Performance of Pangea Arts create theatre productions that combine Asian and Western theatrical traditions. Photo by Pagea Arts

Art has many definitions, but it is fundamentally used as a means of communication, one that can even transcend cultural boundaries. The Community Arts Council of Vancouver (CACV) is a group that tries to connect people and create dialogue through arts-based community development projects.

“The process of engaging with people is as important as the artistic output,” says Mary Bennett, Program Consultant at CACV.

Through their dialogue series, one of the topics of discussion has been the role of community arts in promoting interculturalism.

Co-chair of the activities committee, Francis Heng, differentiates interculturalism from multiculturalism by analyzing the way that people in the community interact with each other.

“Multiculturalism, to me, means that people from different backgrounds and different cultures are given equal rights…but there’s no requirement for them to interact with each other. Interculturalism is where interaction becomes the missing link,” he says.

In his paper, Interculturalism or Multiculturalism? Quebec philosopher Charles Taylor argues that multiculturalism encourages the ghettoization of cultures, while interculturalism emphasizes integration.

Despite having many culture-themed events around the city, such as the Latin American Film Festival and the Powell Street Festival, Bennett and Heng point out that there are not many arts-based events that focus on integrating different cultures.

Pangaea Arts, a local independent theatre company, tries to fill that void by producing performances with an interdisciplinary and intercultural approach. Since being incorporated in 1998, they have produced theatre performances that have combined Asian and Western theatrical traditions to create shows that are accessible to everyone, including non-English speaking audiences.

“A lot of people can’t work in the theatre in Canada because it’s so English-centric,” says Heidi Specht, founder of Pangaea Arts. “I [tried] to create dialogue and bring artists together and see what we can create together by combining our traditional art forms.”

In Cultural Metaphors, the first show the theatre troupe produced, musical and theatrical traditions from India, Ireland and China were combined in a cultural fusion that was performed in Gaelic, Sanskrit and Mandarin, with English as the unifying language. But the piece wasn’t language-centred so the audience could follow the story.

For interculturalism to happen, Heng says that people from different cultures have to interact at some point. Heng believes that art can transcend cultural boundaries, so that people of different backgrounds can come together. Even for people who don’t share a common language, working on a project together allows them to overcome the difficulties of trying to connect through words, and instead they can engage with their hands or bodies, says Heng.

Members of cacv create a snake for Chinese New Year. Photo by Phoebe Yu

Members of CACV create a snake for Chinese New Year. Photo by Phoebe Yu

In Pangaea Arts productions, language barriers between the actors are overcome through the use of translators. When it comes to multi-lingual performances, Specht says that audiences don’t necessarily have to speak the languages used in the play; instead, nuances and meanings are understood through actions and context.

Bennet suggests that we use the right brain when making art, which is the less rational side, where emotions can play a bigger part in our interactions with people. In contrast, the left brain rationalizes and forms critical questions that are used to try to understand a different culture, he says.

As part of their goal to promote community and intercultural understanding through art, CACV is helping to organize volunteers and artists to work on a snake sculpture for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations that will welcome in the Year of the Snake.

Heng believes that art is a language that everybody is born with but not always exposed to. For Heng, an artist is someone who sees the world differently and is able to use art as a language with which to communicate.

In order to have more integration between cultures in the arts, Specht believes that training institutions need to change what’s being taught because there’s not much diversity – students are still primarily being trained in the British theatre tradition.

In the future, both Bennett and Heng hope that they can bring more people together to work on art projects, have meaningful dialogues and engage communities.