By Jacqueline Muntz
People bring a world of culture to this festival, explore cultures from around the world through the festival in the form of art, music and food; and take away from the festival an appreciation of the cultural diversity of the Greater Shepparton region.
The Shepparton Festival is a cultural festival that aims to promote the ethnically and culturally diverse nature of the Shepparton region through the celebration of art, food and entertainment. With a focus on ‘grass roots engagement’, the festival organisers aim to provide an inclusive platform for arts and cultural group involvement. In doing so, this festival plays an important role in providing the many diverse cultural groups in the Shepparton region with community acceptance, tolerance, and a feeling of inclusivity. This in turn adds to the cultural richness of the Goulburn Valley.
The 2016 festival theme, ‘Be Consumed’, focused on the consummation of culture; in which participants become both consumers of, and become consumed by, aspects of cultural diversity. The festival acted as a world cultural exchange on a local level, where through community participation and involvement in the various festival activities, people gained first hand experience of other cultures through the exchange of food, music, dance and art. Through exploring the festival, patrons acquired valuable cultural knowledge in a friendly, welcoming and non-threatening environment. This has helped break down cultural barriers and enabled people to leave the festival with a greater appreciation of the diverse variety of cultures in the region, along with the benefits they offer to the general community.
In theorising festivals, Cori Stewart has made mention of the recognition of the many public spheres within culture. In the case of the Shepparton Festival, there are many cultures within the public sphere. Throughout the festival, cultural groups actively engage with festival attendees and foster a spirit of cooperation and willingness to share their culture with others. As part of the festival I attended the Mass Art Class in the Queen’s Gardens, added some sketches to the Shared Art Journals, and attended Converge on the Goulburn, the closing event of the festival.
The Mass Art Class and Shared Art Journals were both free events that encouraged members of the community to have a go at painting or drawing. The Mass Art Class attracted many members of the community, especially young families, who all participated in creating a small painting. The class was very informal and a lot of fun, with nobody taking themselves or their artwork too seriously. It is the light-hearted atmosphere of fun that makes attending these events an enjoyable experience, and encourages people to try things they might not normally try. Speaking to other art class attendees, I found that there was a mix of returning participants who had enjoyed the class previously, and many new participants who had heard it was a nice way to spend a Sunday morning and so had decided to give it a go. Children from different cultural backgrounds played and painted together, while the adults shared jokes and anecdotes about their (lack of) painting prowess. People from diverse backgrounds mixed freely, enjoying the day and brought together by their shared art activity. Here cultural interaction and inclusivity went hand in hand with art.
In contrast to this group activity, the Shared Art Journals were an individual activity. Blank sketchbooks were placed in various locations throughout the city, at meeting places such as coffee shops and restaurants, and patrons were encouraged to contribute a sketch or doodle to the journal. Anybody was welcome to make a contribution, but this was entirely voluntary. In this way the Shared Art Journals encouraged inclusivity by being open and available to all, no matter what background or ethnicity, and discriminated against no one. Flicking through the journals I could see contributions from adults, teenagers and children; the sketch artists were from places near and far. People had also included dedications, poetry and verse to their sketches. Some noted their age, or where they were from; some were signed and dated, while others remained anonymous. It was interesting to see the myriad of thoughts and musings on paper that accompanied the pictures. People, nature and food were common themes. The Shared Art Journals encouraged people to explore their own creativity in an informal setting, and in this, along with the Mass Art Class, the festival became ‘a mechanism for activating the creative capacities’  of members of the community. While partaking in the cultural ritual that consuming coffee with friends has become, those who contributed to the art journals became, in turn, a part of the cultural festival for others to consume when looking through the journals. This aligned perfectly with the festival theme of ‘Be Consumed’.
Converge on the Goulburn was the highlight of the festival. For me this family friendly event epitomised the tolerance, inclusivity and willingness to share, learn and participate that is synonymous with this festival and makes it a delight to attend. This event was a consummation of culture through visual spectacle and entertainment. The senses were treated to a veritable feast in the sights, smells and sounds of the event, which contributed to the enjoyment and enthusiastic participation of patrons and overall success of this event. Attendees of the event could indulge in traditional food from around the world. The food stalls represented many cultural groups in Shepparton and included an Indigenous BBQ, along with traditional cuisines from the Filipino, Congolese, Turkish, Malaysian, Polynesian and Indian communities. This allowed people to sample food from a variety of cultures at their own pace and inclination, and either try something new, indulge in an old favourite or discover a new one. Food has the capacity to bring people together, and along the stalls I could hear many conversations being had regarding food. People discussed recipes for certain dishes, the preparation involved, the cooking method, the ingredients contained, as well as helpful tips and tricks for success. From the animated conversations and smiling faces it was clear that the shared love of food created a common bond that crossed cultures and brought people together. And the smell of the cooking food was divine!
Along with the food were stalls showcasing different cultural groups in Shepparton that encouraged people to ‘come and try’ an aspect of a particular culture, or ask representatives of community groups a question in to become more informed about a culture. People could have their hair braided in traditional African braids, or have their head wrapped in a dastaar, the traditional Sikh turban, while at the same time learning of the spiritual significance and importance of the turban in the Sikh culture. There was a large line up for the Sikh turban stall with men, women and children willing to try the experience of wearing the traditional headwear, and listening intently to explanations of the importance of the turban.
A traditional Arabian lounge was on display for people to come and take a seat and enjoy a moment of rest. This was another popular stall, with many people eager to sample the middle-eastern customs of hospitality, and gain an insight into the customs and beliefs of another culture. The interactions between cultural groups within the festival, and the exchange of ideas and information in a welcoming and friendly manner promoted an atmosphere of respect, inclusivity and enthusiastic enjoyment.
Attendees of Converge On The Goulburn were entertained with music, song and dance from performers representing many of Shepparton’s cultural groups. The variety of music, languages and array of traditional dance on display was met with enthusiastic applause and encouragement from the audience. Members of the audience sang along with songs in a variety of languages, and joined in with belly dancing performers in a spirit of fun and enjoyment, and a colourful display of interactive entertainment.
The showing of the collected Shared Art Journals at the event connected Converge On The Goulburn to the wider Festival and also with a wider community. The ability of people to wander freely around the event and participate in activities at their own pace added to the informal, unhurried and spontaneous nature of the evening and gave the event an energy, vibrancy and vitality that was infectious.
The Shepparton Festival is now in its twentieth year, and has become an important part of the cultural identity of Shepparton. While festivals are a celebration, it is important to take stock and remember what it is that we celebrate in the festival, or what the object of our celebration may be. In the case of the Shepparton Festival, we celebrate the cultural diversity of the region, and the ability of the Shepparton community to welcome different groups with a spirit of acceptance and respect that only adds to the cultural richness of the region.
It is the people and their willingness to embrace all that was on offer that made this event so special. The smiles on the faces of those who attended or manned stalls were a testament to the success of this event. When events such as this encourage the open sharing of, and education about, different cultural practices in an informal, friendly and welcoming atmosphere, they break down cultural stereotypes and ignorance and foster a sense of harmony. This can only benefit our community and increase the richness that is found in our cultural diversity. In this event I found no sense of a ‘them’ or ‘us’: only a very clear feeling of a collective ‘we’. We, in all our cultural diversity, are Shepparton. For this Shepparton should be proud, and events like Converge On The Goulburn as a part of the Shepparton Festival should perhaps be looked at as an informal blueprint to provide a way of providing cultural and ethnic harmony and inclusivity from a grass roots level upward. Surely it cannot hurt.
Meehan, Michael, ‘The Word Made Flesh: Festival, Carnality and Literary Consumption’, TEXT Special Issue, 2005, 4.
Ommundsen, Wenche, ‘The Circus is in Town: Literary Festivals and the Mapping of Cultural Heritage’, Australian Writing and the City: Refereed Proceedings of the 1999 Conference, New South Wales Writers’ Centre, Sydney 2-6 July 1999, (Association of the Study of Australian Literature, Sydney, 2000), 173-179.
Shepparton Festival, Program Guide, Shepparton Festival: Unique Events in Unusual Places (Shepparton, Shepparton Festival, 2016).
Stewart, Cori, ‘We Call Upon the Author to Explain: Theorising Writers’ Festivals as Sites of Contemporary Public Culture’, Common Readers: Journal of the Association of the Study of Australian Literature Special Issue, 2010, 1-14.
 Shepparton Festival, Program Guide, Shepparton Festival: Unique Events in Unusual Places (Shepparton, Shepparton Festival, 2016), p4.
 Cori Stewart, ‘We Call Upon the Author to Explain: Theorising Writers’ Festivals as Sites of Contemporary Public Culture’, Common Readers: Journal of the Association of the Study of Australian Literature Special Issue, 2010, p2.
 Michael Meehan, ‘The Word Made Flesh: Festival, Carnality and Literary Consumption’, TEXT Special Issue 4, 2005, para. 10.
 Wenche Ommundsen, ‘The Circus is in Town: Literary Festivals and the Mapping of Cultural Heritage’, Australian Writing and the City: Refereed Proceedings of the 1999 Conference, New South Wales Writers’ Centre, Sydney 2-6 July 1999, (Association of the Study of Australian Literature, Sydney, 2000), 173.