Mona Foma: How a festival at the ‘end of the earth before Antarctica’ became one of the world’s greatest

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Mona Foma: How a festival at the ‘end of the earth before Antarctica’ became one of the world’s greatest

Words by Tahney Fosdike

What’s so sweet about being 16? “Freedom, experimentation, fun,” according to Brian Ritchie, Artistic Director of Mona Foma and ex-Violent Femmes bassist, as he describes Tasmania’s summer festival of music and art’s sixteenth edition.

“It’s such a long time to be doing a festival and have it still relatively fresh and vibrant,” he says. But while the festival’s goals remain the same – mixing genres of music and art – this year’s iteration has a particularly international flavour. Across 17 days, two cities and three weekends, a global contingent of over 500 performers and artists, including Queens of the Stone Age after a six-year hiatus, will amp up the early 2024 event.

Ritchie’s program favourites include a world premiere from Justin Shoulder, “a remarkable multimedia artist,” a collaboration between the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Darren Hanlon, “one of the most interesting songwriters in Australia,” and Courtney Barnett’s album premiere that’s “a step in a different direction musically for her.”

Other highlights include Paul Kelly, Lonnie Holley, Irreversible Entanglements, Isaac Et Nora, and Yahon Chang among many others.

Explore Melbourne’s latest arts and stage news, features, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

“It’s an honour to be able to host such a meeting of so many different kinds of artists from all over the place, including all parts of Australia,” he says, with a reference to Mulga Bore Hard Rock, an Indigenous band from a remote community 180 kms north east of Alice Springs. “It’s great to just be a meeting place for all these artists.”

Making a “post-COVID” festival so transnational can be tricky, especially in Tasmania, the “end of the earth before Antarctica,” according to Ritchie.

“Shipping costs are like twice as much as they used to be,” he explains, with expensive flights, weak Australian currency, and mental health challenges in the entertainment and arts industry also making it “more complicated to do an international program.”

Nonetheless, Mona Foma is confidently bringing a global zest to Tassie. And, as always, the state plays a crucial role in the program. Location is key for Mona’s festivals (Dark Mofo being its winter counterpart), and pries festivalgoers from far and wide who are keen to see and enjoy the southernmost state.

“Probably one of the most dramatic examples is a free concert in the Cataract Gorge,” Ritchie explains on curating a medley of local venues into the program. “I have never seen anything like it. There it is, running right through the heart of Launceston. We’ve made it special by having TISM, a band that hardly ever plays. They’ve only done three shows in the last 20 years. Getting them to come out and play in the Gorge is a once-in-a-lifetime event for them – and for us.”

Before Launceston on the tail-end of the festival comes the first two weekends in Hobart. At Franklin Wharf and Bellerive Waterfront, Arka Kinari by Filastine & Nova will turn a 70-tonne sailing ship into a multimedia spectacle with aims “to spread resistance to the carbon economy, resilience to the impending floods, and re-engagement with the great ecological commons of the sea.”

Ritchie also makes a note of Nigerian sound and installation artist Emeka Ogboh’s project Boats. Ogboh’s take-over of Detached Cultural Organisation in Hobart’s old Mercury newspaper building will include collaborating with Mona’s chef Vince Trim to make a gin with African botanicals.

The Museum of Old and New Art’s lawns will host Mona Sessions with the best of the festival’s line-up. Shruti Sessions, a collaboration between Indian and Australian musicians, will provide Morning Meditations at Moonah Arts Centre. For the “hedonistic” afterparty Faux Mo, attendees just need to cross the road from Mona to Granada Tavern. The “vulnerable pub” has been known for hosting live music, from the likes of Midnight Oil and INXS, for decades.

It’s gonna be an around-the-clock venture, buckle up.

“It basically depends on how much energy you have,” says Richie on approaching your experience at Mona Foma, “We believe strongly in creating your own journey. You should just do what’s fun for you.”

“Not everything is for everybody, but everything is programmed to be able to appeal to anybody. I advise people not to just go to the things that they’re already familiar with. We’ll have Mogwai and Queens of the Stone Age, but then some of the other bands on the bill you may not have heard of but still are going to be really engrossing.”

Mona Foma is in nipaluna / Hobart from 15–25 February and in Launceston on 2 March 2024. Tickets are available from Tuesday, 21 November, with Auslan-interpreted sessions and tactile tours available. Visit their website for more.