How the Enlighten 2021 Theme Got It So Wrong

Written by Imogen McDonald
Graphic by Paris Robson

CW: Mentions of sexual assault, institutional betrayal.

Hope; a term that the toxic-positivity culture of my generation spreads through social media with aesthetic calligraphy and pastel colours. A term that was the apparent theme for this year’s Enlighten Festival in Canberra. A frivolous distraction of bright lights, food vans, and seemingly happy families to divert from the truth. The truth that our city is drowning in the despair of sexual assault allegations from a building that supposedly represents justice and equality. Hope seems only appropriate as the festival’s theme, right?

When I went to the hope-themed festival and stood in front of Parliament House, I laughed. I was standing beneath a light display of the first Members of Parliament for Australia; 40 portraits of white men towering over me. In the whole display, there was not a single picture of a woman or person of colour. I laughed because the tone-deafness was not only unbearably loud, but utterly bizarre.

When I laughed, I didn’t feel as if I was laughing alone. Parliament House was laughing too – at me and everyone else who thought this festival might even attempt to give survivors of sexual assault any sense of real hope. It couldn’t even be bothered anymore with its reluctant attempts at showing a single fraction of remorse. It wanted everyone to know its true stance, no matter how many empathy training sessions it was prescribed. All of my tears had been squeezed out of me; I had turned into a shrivelled, dry sponge, unable to absorb anything else, so all I could do was stand there and laugh at my own naivety of having even an ounce of hope. I was laughing at the ridiculousness of my former self who was excited to move to a progressive city where I thought women’s voices were not only accepted, but embraced.

Parliament House stood there in front of me, looking at itself in the reflection of the artificial lake in front of it. It saw itself, concealed with the faces of privilege and colonisation, standing in the place of thousands of years of natural waterholes and meeting places, and it thought to itself, ‘This is a good outfit.’ It has become so obvious that Parliament House actually likes this appearance. It likes being overwhelmingly dominated by privileged oppressors. It’s okay with that. In fact, it’s so confident that it laughed at how ignorant I am. It laughed because we will probably never know the extent of sexual abuse within systems of power and it knows it can cover it up. I could nearly feel the suppressed screams coming from the women inside.

The biggest deception of today is the warmth and alluring presence of artificial lighting. If the lights are big enough and bright enough, surely people will remain distracted from what is actually going on, right? Are the radiant red lights at brothels meant to distract us from the fact that 44% of sex workers have faced sexual abuse in their job? Or, are the flashing neon billboards in cities meant to keep us from remembering that we are living on invaded land? Billboards of flawless models and picturesque holiday destinations that shine so bright that their pollution has blocked any source of starlight – the kind of light that is real and honest and powerful. All that lingers are the superficial remnants of colonisation. One cut of a cord and the facade is revealed.

The Enlighten Festival decided to embrace this disguise not only when the stories of survivors were surfacing, but also during International Women’s Day. Out of the mountains of Instagram posts that I scrolled through that day, the one that I related to most was a woman who said she was exhausted and didn’t know what to do anymore. Soon the world will forget about the 97% statistic, yet we are meant to move on, carrying this fact with us. ‘Be hopeful!’ screams the blazing lights of Canberra. ‘But do that while we continue to celebrate those that have drained the women in this country of faith. Stand there while they tower over you.’

I laugh. The delusion that is hope.

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