Being an Artist in 2020

Small Giants’ artist-in-residence Bobby Alu on creativity in a pandemic

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Bobby Alu
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For centuries, artists have been a catalyst for shaping culture and bringing people together. Art subliminally helps us express emotion. We contemplate an abstract painting, smile during a feel-good movie, dance to a beat like no one's watching, scream the lyrics of a heavy song and cry reading a short story. And yet, increasingly over the years, opportunities for artists to actually make the art we need for society have diminished. I could write pages reciting the struggles and triumphs of artists in recent times, but the current day presents a particularly extraordinary situation worth exploring.

The Australian arts sector is a huge industry. Just think of all the theatres, cinemas, venues, pubs, galleries and cafes that are out there. In April this year, just a month after lockdown, there was a reported loss of $330 million in live show sales. Having a 12-year touring career as a musician, my world was turned on its head – and continues to be to this day. This year is the first since 2008 that I haven’t travelled overseas to share my music. I’ve also performed the least number of live shows since I started out. And I am just one tiny voice in a sea of performers and arts workers.

Ironically, right now there is so much need for art to help humanity navigate this challenging time, yet our usual ways of being able to do this have gone. The entire industry has had to re-invent itself.    

Re-invent is exactly what some artists are doing, and hopefully more will continue to do so with the support of our communities. There have been online streaming shows. Touring bands have focussed on selling albums and merchandise online. In some areas where lockdowns are relaxed, there are house concerts for 10 people. Just this week I’ve played drums for a local dance class of 20, created a meditation album (shameless plug – look up ‘Here With Bob’ on Spotify), performed for a company team meeting via Zoom, written a radio show theme song and mowed my neighbour’s lawn. I was also a part of the Small Giants’ Artist in Residence program, where they invite an artist to attend meetings and interact with their team for a week. Sure, I’ve lost so much, but when I take the time to look, I am also gaining so many new skills, inspiration and creativity.

Perhaps that’s a big takeaway for artists at the moment. When your garden is full, there is no space for new seeds. Only when something is literally ripped away, room for growth appears.

As audiences, when we see a performer raw and real, we are affected. Something inside our body and soul is triggered and it leaves us moved and inspired. For creatives, being on the edge of discomfort is where so much of that magic lies. Similar to the last set of exercises at the gym where you push your body to go further than you thought possible, or putting in extra hours at the office to nail a deal, the riches often come in the final moment where all sense of comfort and normalcy is gone. We are all on the edge right now and sure it can feel terrible, but perhaps it is here where we might just make some magic.

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