Difficult Conversations

Academics, human rights activists and artists will come together to discuss ongoing debates and controversial questions at Difficult Conversations – a symposium scheduled for 24 and 25 March, online and in Canberra.

From conversations about colonialism and First Nations rights to gender-based violence, homophobia and racism, Difficult Conversations explores the role of art and creativity in a polarised society.

Presenters include artists and academics from Northern Ireland and Australia such as 2021 Turner Prize winners Array Collective, acclaimed artist Willie Doherty, Barkindji writer and poet Dr Paul Collis, winner of the David Uniapon Award 2016 and ACT Book of the Year 2018, and University of Canberra Chancellor Tom Calma, social justice campaigner and former ACT Australian of the Year.

Presented by The University of Canberra, Ulster University and the British Council as part of the UK/Australia Season, the symposium marks the start of a longer-term partnership between the academic institutions spanning joint curriculum development, teaching and exchange of scholastic and technical materials; collaborative research and publications; and exchange of staff and students.

Difficult Conversations commences with a live-streamed panel discussion on 24 March exploring culture, creativity, human rights and representation of conflict, framed by a dialogue between artists and academics from Ulster and Canberra.

Dr Paul Collis will perform recent poetic works and Ulster Chancellor Dr Colin Davidson will present his work Silent Testimony – an exhibition of portrait paintings of individual experiences of loss through the Troubles, a turbulent 30-year period in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s onwards.

University of Canberra Chancellor Professor Tom Calma and Distinguished Professor Jen Webb will discuss art, poetry and creativity in the context of human rights. From Belfast, Dr Louise Wallace will reference Penumbra, a work that explores the underrepresented voice of female Irish painters through the lens of ‘Troubles Art’.

On 25 March at the University of Canberra a one-day in person symposium will present a series of live panel discussions alongside pre-recorded contributions from Ulster University.

These panels combine distinguished and emerging artists and researchers discussing their work in areas including child abuse, First Nations heritage and rights, creative interventions with veterans and first responders, art and collective activism, LGBTQ+ and womens’ rights.

At the University of Canberra the partnership has been fostered by Vice-Chancellor Professor Paddy Nixon – who in his last role was Vice-Chancellor of Ulster University.

“The partnership between the University of Canberra and my previous institution Ulster University is an exciting representation of the global opportunities available to us now that international borders have reopened,” said Nixon.

“The launch event and symposium will be a great way to showcase the knowledge, expertise and opportunities available as a result of the partnership.”

Ulster University’s Incoming Chancellor, the artist Dr Colin Davidson opened the symposium commenting: “The Difficult Conversations symposium is a fitting starting point for the new partnership between Ulster University and the University of Canberra,” said Davidson.

“We’re working in partnership with the British Council to open channels of conversation and encourage dialogue on the role of art and creativity in a polarised society.”

“Art of all mediums has a very powerful role to play in remembering and making sense of the past and although we are on different continents, I look forward to discussing our shared experiences and learnings,” said said Davidson.

“The theme of the UK/Australia Season is Who Are We Now?, bringing together artists and academics to explore our history and imagine who we might be in the future,” said Helen Salmon, Season Director and Director of the British Council in Australia.

“This is a complex question and key to its exploration are opportunities for deep listening, dialogue, and cultural exchange.”

“This symposium will draw from experiences in Northern Ireland and Australia of creativity as a means to explore challenging subject matter and deepen mutual understanding,” said Salmon.

Difficult Conversations takes place online on Thursday 24 March – 7.30pm, and in person in Canberra on Friday 25 March. The UK/Australia Season is a joint initiative by the British Council and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. For more information, visit: www.ukaustraliaseason.com for details.

Image: Dr Paul Collis – photo by Jen Dainer | State Library of Queensland