Ethnic Arts in the Capital

With Belfast Mela taking place in Botanic Gardens on August 24, Jane Hardy finds Belfast's ethnic arts scene in rude health

Never have we needed the power of art to heal social and racial divisions more than now. In the month militant Islamic factions attempted to stop festival goers dancing at a Birmingham event to mark the end of Ramadan waving 'No Music' banners, the need for an all-embracing aesthetic is clear.

Belfast, and Northern Ireland generally, is lucky in this respect. We not only have Belfast's well-established Mela – which on August 24 will mix around 25 different cultures in a day-long celebration of unity, with yes, dancing and music and food in Belfast's Botanic Gardens – we also have a number of initiatives and other arts events that draw the line under knee jerk prejudice.

From September 29 to October 3, a celebration of the Durga Puja, the Indian equivalent of Easter, will take place in Belfast's Olympia Community Centre, a religious and artistic event organised by Sharobona Bhattacharya. Shrobona says she set up the event it to help her children maintain their heritage, but finds that Northern Irish families now come along to experience an element of her Hindu culture.

Belfast Mela, however, is undoubtedly the largest, most popular multicultural arts event of the summer in Belfast. The term Mela, appropriately enough, comes from the Sanskrit word for meeting. Nisha Tandon, a graduate of the National School of Dance in India, explains why she set up the Mela in 2007.

'The idea behind Belfast Mela, which attracted 9,000 people in the first year, was to showcase the work of the ethnic artists with whom we do outreach programmes and development all year round. We wanted to have a party and meet the migrants arriving from different parts of the world to Northern Ireland, to meet and greet and embrace everybody.'

In 2014, an estimated 20,000 people will experience the power of multi-culturalism in gardens created by the Victorian travellers who themselves imported new ideas from their trips abroad, such as the popular Tropical Ravine. There will a Bollywood theme with a commissioned dance work, 'Fusion Dreams', grooving to some high octane Sub-continental music provided by Rafaqat Ali Khan and a Bollywood brass band.

A dance company from Birmingham will be performing Jugni, a narrative dance which means 'female firefly', and there will be contributions from the Irish Discovery gospel choir and dance company run by Sonia Sahni, an internationally recognised Muslim choreographer who works in the classical kaghak dance tradition.

As Tandon explains, Mela confounds expectations. 'Initially, everybody thought it would be more Indian, but it's not just an Indian experience, it shows what Northern Ireland is about today. There will be African rhythm from Son Yambu, work from Poland, Russia, the Ukraine and elsewhere.'

If this sounds a little worthy, it shouldn't be. 'It is a good learning experience for our young people and the older generation too to encounter different cultures,' Tandon argues. 'But enjoyment is top, with the food, sounds and smells and the lovely street arts on show.'

Tandon senses that the mood among audiences for other cultures, arts and traditions is changing in Northern Ireland, in spite of a recent spate of racist crimes in east Belfast and elsewhere. 'You see the attitudes of people totally changing, gaining respect for the new cultures. When I arrived over 20 years ago, I was welcomed. Kids' workshops help with this, and the women's and intergenerational groups too.'

The best art naturally brings people together in a shared experience. Journalist Emma-Louise Johnston, who helped launch this year's Mela and brought her three-year-old daughter Emily to the event, says it's vital for parents to broaden their children's horizons.

'I think I have a duty to introduce Emily to the bigger society. I support integrated education, too, and think the way forward is to get to the point where multi-culturalism simply isn't an issue. We live in mid-Ulster which is predominantly Caucasian and it's great to be able to bring Emily early to events like this.'

Bronx-born drummer Ralph Rolles, who provides the beat in Niles Rodgers' band Chic, gave an illuminating music workshop in Donegal recently where he said: 'Culture can't be owned by one group, it has to be shared,' When seminal hip hop act Public Enemy gigged here recently, frontman Chuck D described himself as a 'culturalist', and at least one band member attended one of the Gaza protest meetings in the capital.

The bonus of sharing culture is that it wears away at casual stereotyping and the sort of racism that can lead to mindless slogans daubed on people's homes – the argument contends that if you've walked in someone else's shoes or understood a bit of their history, it's not so easy to name-call.

Eva Grosman, founder of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival – which takes place annually in spring – and now working as chief executive of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, agrees. 'In a way it's a backhanded compliment that these factions are attacking cultural events, as if they know art works against extremism.

'What better way to share something positive than through a shared cultural experience? It cuts through the divisions if you are enjoying a piece of art work from somebody else's culture. It gives you time to reflect, whether it's visual art, theatre or music, and just feel the joy of the process.'

Referring to the Ulster Museum's acclaimed Art of the Troubles exhiibtion, Grosman says high art in the show has given people the chance to find their own space in this account of the conflict. 'I thought, "Wow, this is the way to bring people together and move beyond Haas".'

Kinoteka has been bringing powerful movies from eastern Europe to Northern Irish audiences and helping them join the dots between different worlds since 2006. 'Film is always a powerful art form,' adds Grosman, 'and with works by directors like Andrei Wajda, who in the movie Katyn dealt with the massacre of 15,000 officers in that town by the Russians in the Second World War, people realize the scale of what the Polish experienced.'

Grosman feels that the screening of other key films at recent Kinoteka festivals – like The Runaway, about a boy who escaped Auschwitz, or Ida, which Queen's Film Theatre are hoping to screen this coming October – can help to counter the feeling behind prejudiced actions like the burning of the Polish flag on the Twelth of July bonfires across Northern Ireland.

The concensus is that giving people the chance to enjoy ethnic arts can help reduce prejudice, but there isn't a magic wand. As Wilson Magwere, whose Afro-Caribbean band will be wowing the Mela crowd with reggae, says: 'People enjoy our music at festivals and last year was really successful.

'I have given a couple of workshops in east Belfast too, but I'm not sure it changes things dramatically. If people like the music, they stay. If not, not. You can bring people together for a day and these events build bridges but [prejudice] is in people's minds. If they want to stop it, they can, but it's a very long road.'

Belfast Mela takes place in Botanic Gardens, Belfast on August 24.