For its closing weekend, Mona Foma festival returned from Launceston to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) on the outskirts of nipaluna/Hobart, Tasmania – the unceded lands of the Palawa people.
So often at music festivals the Welcome to Country can feel rushed and obligatory. But here, time was given for the audience to consider the stories contained within the Country’s soil and to receive an open-hearted welcome from the collected Elders: “We love you. You are always welcome on our lands. We’re waiting for ya.”
Still, as Elders directed the audience to drum the earth, one couldn’t help imagine those reverberations echoing through the vast cavern below, hollowed from Palawa Country rock, to house the fine art collection of the museum’s millionaire owner, David Walsh. The night’s performers (Pilbara musicians from the town of Roebourne, collected under the banner of the Freedom Band) paid tribute to the family of John Pat, 40 years after the Yindjibarndi teenager was beaten and left to die in custody by Western Australian Police. The contrasting priorities of the settlers sipping sparkling riesling and the performers on stage was palpable.
Nonetheless the night opened an important dialogue between those gathered (which is surely the point of institutions like MONA) and ultimately Thursday was a joyful, multi-generational celebration of First Peoples artistry.
Friday’s Mona Sessions opened with an hour of improvised drumming from Chloe Kim, one of a hundred others performed by the jazz drummer over the festival’s two weeks. On the nearby tennis court, the Queer Woodchop saw performers subvert the typically cis male world of woodsports; downstairs below ground the dancer and choreographer Amber McCartney writhed on the Nolan Gallery’s floor as a larval approximation of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Attending performances such as these is essential to getting the most out of Mona Foma.
Later, Friday’s headliner, Peaches, sporting a vulva headdress, clomped out on stage supported by a Zimmer frame – which she quickly punted aside. The legendary Canadian electroclash performer celebrated the 20th anniversary of her album ‘The Teaches of Peaches’ with two hours of unmitigated mayhem: copious nudity, forearm mullets, synth cunnilingus and abortion rights activism. After climbing inside a giant inflatable phallus held aloft by the audience, Peaches closed with a 15-minute encore performance of Celine Dion’s ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now’ featuring an Auslan interpreter’s attempt to sign “felch me”.
Saturday started gently at Rosny Farm with Climate Notes – new compositions inspired by the handwritten notes of climate scientists. Violinist Anna McMichael and percussionist Louise Devenish used gum leaves to bow their strings and delicately hammered porcelain discs pressed with the markings of tree rings. Back at MONA, Jockstrap deployed absurd pop-culture vocal samples, pre-recorded and manipulated strings and synths that sounded like a Gen Z approximation of a dial-up modem.
Angel Olsen then took the stage with a lush six-piece band. ‘Sister’, which Olsen wrote on a previous Australian tour, floated amongst the raindrops, before she closed with Harry Nilsson’s classic ‘Without You’.
Now for a moment of honesty: the night’s iconic ’90s indie headliners, Pavement, mean nothing to this reviewer – possibly a sacrilegious admission to many NME readers. Our mega-fan friends in attendance sang every line from the opener ‘Grounded’ onwards, though. Everyone appeared to love it, but NME hightailed it back into town for The Party – Mona Foma’s late-night dance-music sweatbox.
The Party on Friday was disappointing – headline DJ Bradley Zero was a mismatch for the industrial warehouse interiors and hulking printing presses of the Old Mercury Print Hall – but came into its own on Saturday, when harder techno and party remixes prevailed. Naarm’s House Mum was a highlight, dropping remixes of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Money Trees’ and Lily Allen’s ‘Not Fair’ to meet the crowd in the middle, backing up those up with powerful South American drum tracks and bass-loaded techno.
On Sunday, it was the festival’s 2023 artist in residence, Nico Muhly, who was tasked with soothing fragile festivalgoers. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra performed the American contemporary classical composer’s works at the Odeon before Muhly and the TSO Chorus performed A Life Sentence – a new work in which the audience selected poems for the choir to perform, while in another room Muhly created a new composition from scratch. The set-up gave the proceedings a real sense of fun and let the audience in on the risk-taking magic of the creative process.
The last of Mona Foma’s headliners, Bikini Kill, played on Sunday night. Peaches, Pavement and Bikini Kill are all so-called “legacy acts”, with the latter two either rarely playing together or recently reformed to tour decades-old material. Their songs’ messages haven’t become any less meaningful, but their headline bookings felt more relevant to the festival’s American-born artistic director Brian Ritchie, a founding member of the late 20th century indie band Violent Femmes, than to the Country on which the festival took place.
This is by no means an ageist assessment, because it was Kutcha Edwards’ return to the stage on Sunday (after first appearing on Thursday with the Freedom Band) that was arguably the set of the festival. The towering performer is a heartfelt, gregarious presence who uses humour as a sleight of hand to allow the seriousness of his life story to be absorbed. He described being taken from his parents by police and transported to Melbourne, where he lived in a children’s home for 11 years: “I’m still trying to understand why.” His commanding performance was proof that while festivals may have to market themselves with international headliners, it’s when they platform artists like Edwards that they feel most vital.