Image: Ray Redding

Although Houston’s International Festival has been around for 44 years, it was only in 1988 that they began the practice of featuring a single country for each year’s festival. The first country of honor? Australia, home of the kangaroo, the didgeridoo, and Mel Gibson too. Since then, iFest has spotlighted countries ranging from Japan to Spain to Brazil (this past spring’s featured country). But for the 2014 festival, iFest is going back to its roots by again selecting the land down under. The announcement was made last night at the Booker-Lowe Gallery, an Aboriginal art gallery co-owned by Nana Booker, an honorary counsel for Australia. 

Australia was chosen in an online poll, co-sponsored by KHOU, and open to attendees of this year’s festival. According to iFest president Kim Stoilis, Australia easily won the popular vote, trailed by France and Germany. Why the popular wellspring of support for Australia?

“It’s very exotic,” Stoilis says. “It’s someplace that a lot of people would like to go, but the barriers to travelling to Australia are so high—it takes time, you have to pay for the flight. Here, without incurring the expense, you can experience Australian food, music, and culture.”

Festival chair Stanton Welch

Image: Ray Redding

Exciting, yes. But exotic? This is an English-speaking country, after all, one that was colonized, like ours, by refugees from Great Britain. (Not that the countries were exactly uninhabited; we stole our land from the Native Americans the way their penal colonists stole theirs from the Aborigines.) Stoilis is quick to point out that Australians and Texans already have a lot of in common. “Texas is a kind of rough-and-rugged, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps place, and Australia is very similar,” she says. “Australians really identify with Texans, and Texans, when they meet Australians, actually get along very well. There are just a lot of commonalities in the culture.”

What can Houstonians expect from this year’s Australia-themed iFest? Stoilis promises the requisite didgeridoo performances, the expected Aboriginal art, and a much-anticipated barbeque cook-off between Australian and Texan pitmasters. For the kids, there will be a dance night featuring the music of the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton John, and Kylie Minogue. And for the businessmen, there will be a wealth of networking opportunities with Aussie oil and gas pooh-bahs. Chairing the festival will be Stanton Welch, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, who was born in Melbourne.

Okay, so Australia may not seem as exotic as, say, Uruguay or Tanzania. But there’s no arguing with the popular demand for Aussies. “I’m a big believer in giving the people what they want,” Stoilis says. “And this year Australia won overwhelmingly. The people picked.” 

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