Part Two: Reflections of the Fiji Fringe with Sharleen Ali
By Ben Wheeler
Sharleen Ali is dynamic.
She bristles with a creative energy that seems to produce so many thoughts a minute that if there was a way to convert them to electricity, her ideas could power a small village.
It is this potency that allowed her, just a few short months ago, to transform the lower end of Laucala Bay Road into the first Fiji Fringe Festival.
“I’m still in awe that I pulled it off!” she beams, and then instantly checks herself. “That maybe sounds too boastful.”
Bringing together 262 local artists and nearly 12,000 attendees, generating an astonishing FJD80,000 and feeding it directly back into Fiji’s creative industry, I reason, is no mean feat. She’s allowed to boast.
Still, she is at pains to make clear that none of this would have been possible without the help and encouragement of friends, family and community.
Special shoutouts go to Josh and Sharon, who gave many, many hours to head up and coordinate an unpaid team who ensured the smooth-running of the event, and Sharleen’s mother, Mrs Suman Ali, a “constant pillar of strength” to the young entrepreneur, who incredibly provided food every day for those volunteers.
The fact that a streak of humility underscores her self-assured approach to event management is refreshing.
She makes a noise that I assume is an emphatic acknowledgement of my point, but in fact she has just burnt her mouth on her coffee… for the second time.
Brimming with kinetic energy is not without its pitfalls, I think to myself.
“The artists want to do this, but they just can’t,” she laments of the current arts scene in Fiji. “They don’t have the money. They don’t have the resources. It’s very expensive to put on a standalone production.”
It is for exactly this reason that Fringe Festivals came into existence in Scotland, on the other side of the world, three quarters of a century ago. Thespians without a place to perform, but with much to say, turned up uninvited at the newly established Edinburgh International Festival demanding to be heard.
In allowing newcomers and more established performers to gather side-by-side, the Fiji Fringe Festival is continuing in that tradition. Artists have been given a platform to express themselves through media as varied as comedy, music, dance, poetry, theatre and paint: representing, celebrating and interrogating what it means to be Fijian in the 21st century.
Workshops teaching masi making, printing, pottery and weaving, as well as literary societies and poetry programmes also popped up so that attendees could learn these crafts between acts. For Ali, creating a space for connection with traditional Fijian culture in the city is a huge part of this whole process.
“Urbanisation has really affected our youth,” she explains. “Just looking at the workshops we hosted during the Fringe I can say they are not interested in learning about their own culture. We are slowly losing what it means to be Fijian.”
“It’s difficult for us to gauge, but we see it happening. Even me, as a Fijian of Indian descent… there’s a lot I don’t know about my own ancestors.”
Photography by Peter Yee
She explains that she wants to help create more events like the Fringe, throughout the year, building interest and excitement around these ideas, capturing the hearts and minds of young people, and sparking conversations she believes are necessary for Fiji to reach its full potential.
“The arts in general cultivate and develop creative thinking, discipline, and time management,” she suggests. “They make you a global thinker.”
“I’ve been a part of the arts and it’s taught me all of this. Now I’m an event planner, a person of logistics – I live around being organised.”
Her take is a far cry from how we treat our creative industries, as evidenced in the recent pandemic where governments around the world encouraged artists to get “real jobs”, while their populations turned increasingly to music, comedy, theatre, literature, poetry, television and film to ease their mental and emotional distress.
“Not everyone is academically inclined; everyone works differently,” she continues, suggesting the benefits inherent in expanding the narrow academic fields that Fiji prizes – engineering, accounting, medicine, and of course the rugby field – to include poets, novelists, dancers, comedians, dramaturgs and filmmakers.
“We need arts. We need arts education. This is going to help grow the economy, it’s going to help our future generations. When people realise the potential of this, the Fringe can be a cumulative annual event, a calendar feature, a pull for tourism!”
Her enthusiasm is both palpable and infectious.
Imagine a Fiji where visitors are drawn not merely to the promise of paradise, but with a rich and vibrant arts scene, properly cultivated and financed, expanding and diversifying that most vital aspect of the Fijian economy – the tourist dollar.
The value of creating a healthy creative space where people of all ages, ethnicities, classes and abilities gather and function as a cultural barometer, negotiating social challenges and identity politics through poetry slams, art installations, music and physical theatre, extends beyond basic economics.
It might seem idealistic, but it is not new, and has already begun.
It takes a village, as the old proverb says, and Ali is under no illusions of the need for collaboration with the community.
“The majority of people I know who are making waves in the country are pushing for the same thing,” she says, whilst acknowledging the competitiveness that arises when funds are scarce, isolating artists rather than bringing them together.
She recalls a profound realisation whilst attending the Adelaide Fringe earlier this year.
“People there are not in competition with each other. Everyone is like: let’s work together to make this the best and biggest festival in the southern hemisphere!
“And that’s what they’ve done: 1 million tickets sold; 4 million attendees.”
Realistically, Fiji could not work with the same numbers, but if Adelaide can bring in four times its population once a year through the creative industries cooperating to put on a festival packed with shows featuring local and global talent, then the success seen at the Fiji Fringe 2023 is just the tip of the iceberg.
Already Ali is making connections in Australia and the United States. She is planning to bring in more talent from those countries, and send winning performers from Fiji to represent the nation on the world stage.
“I’ve put my foot down with international artists,” she says. “I’ve told them they are welcome to come and perform, but they have to give back to the Fijian community, whether it be workshops, upskilling our performers, community outreach programmes with our kids.”
I can tell more ideas are simmering, even as we speak.
You’ve got to give to her – she has a plan.
It’s a plan that sees the gifted performers that make up Fiji’s creative industries in a space where they can learn and benefit from what they individually and collectively bring to the table.
It’s a plan that sees talanoa between original members of the Red Wave movement that grew up around figures like Epeli Hau’ofa and the tsunami of talent rising from a globally aware and tech-literate youth population, bridging generational gaps, and recontextualising the historical roots and contemporary shoots of Fijian artforms both at home and abroad.
Let’s hope those with control of the purse strings share the vision that is blossoming across the nation.
If they seize this opportunity – investing in Fiji’s future, allowing arts festivals to become nationally and internationally renowned – they could be responsible for bringing audiences to future Fringe Festivals not in their tens- but in their hundreds-of-thousands.
In which case Mrs Suman Ali may need a bigger kitchen.