What constitutes contemporary Indigenous art? Who gets to answer that question? Who tells stories in this country, and what version of history are they representing?

In 1994 Wesley Enoch was the Artistic Director of Brisbane-based Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Theatre which was founded in 1993 and finished producing work in 2007. He and actor Deborah Mailman premiered their groundbreaking 7 Stages of Grieving for the company in 1995. Enoch, a director and playwright, went on to become Resident Director with the Sydney Theatre Company, Artistic Director of Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-Operative, Associate Artistic Director with Company B Belvoir St, Artistic Director of the Queensland Theatre Company and is currently Artistic Director of Sydney Festival and a well-known commentator on Indigenous and other issues. In the 1990s he wrote occasionally for RealTime and was part of a RealTime team of writers commissioned by LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre) to respond to its 1997 program alongside local writers.

In 1994, when he wrote this article, Enoch was directing Kooemba Jdarra’s inaugural production, Indigenous writer and activist Kevin Gilbert’s 1971 classic, The Cherry Pickers. (Gilbert was Chair of the ‘88 Treaty campaign for a treaty enshrining Aboriginal rights and sovereignty.)

The limitations described by Enoch in 1994 on Indigenous access to “meaning-making” in dominant Western culture have been forcefully challenged by Indigenous artists and companies in the two decades since, sometimes reaching large audiences, though not consistently. There are only two Aboriginal theatre companies, Ilbijerri and Perth’s Yirra Yaakin, alongside Sydney’s Moogahlin Performing Arts which operates the Yellamundie National First Peoples Playwriting Festival. Collaboration with the white artistic community, especially through Belvoir and mostly individual artists and dramaturgs, has been vital, though white writers dealing with Aboriginality have mostly learned that appropriation is not on.

Enoch emphasises the totality (everyday, environmental, mythic) that is Indigenous storytelling, which is not an adjunct to life and politics, but an essential part of it. Enoch’s argument for opening up access to the infrastructure of Australian storytelling to diverse Indigenous voices remains as relevant as ever today. But his vision of storytelling goes beyond the theatre to the media, citing cases of “young Murri men breaking the law as a sense of giving yourself to a story; to be awarded public recognition, to get your face in the newspaper; hear your story on the radio or television,” and thus fulfilling negative expectations. He writes, “The obvious need for Indigenous people to control the means of representation is part of the reconstructive process from a culture of resistance to a culture of repair.” In that respect, there’s still a long way to go.

This is the second instalment in our series, The Deep Archive, which brings select stories to light from the recesses of RealTime’s more than 20-year history of publishing intelligent art criticism and commentary. LCH & KG

Cover of RealTime #4, December 1994-January 1995

Contemporary Indigenous Arts Practice?

Kooemba Jdarra director Wesley Enoch battles definitions

RealTime #4, December-January 1994

There is no generic entity labelled Contemporary Indigenous Arts Practice. The word “contemporary” has been called into question; “arts” is regarded as a term defiled through association; “practice” is a sticky point; and “Indigenous” defies classic Anglo definition. Half-caste, migaloo, yellow skinned, douggai, mixed breed, invisible trouble-maker. ‘You’ve done something with your life. You don’t have to be Aboriginal anymore,’ politically correct, fair skinned, pale one, up-market Murri, Myall.


The meaning of ‘contemporary’ without heritage?

What is Contemporary Aboriginal Art? In the modern dilemma of urban Aboriginality there remain many questions of authenticity in terms of the creation and maintenance of traditionally-based social structures devoid (through waves of psychological and physical attack) of the traditionally cultural means to create meaning. The destruction of dance, song, story, language etc through the process of invasion and systematic genocide, has precipitated a new wandering amongst Aboriginal generations who have not experienced the first-hand traditional heritage that we are expected to have in order to claim the mantle ‘Indigenous.’ Nor do we possess the cultural capital to fully analyse the dominant discourse in terms of appropriate change and acknowledgement of culturally specific development throughlines.


Dreaming: tradition and continuity

The character of contemporary Indigenous cultural meaning-making maintains a diversity reflected in traditional experiences. The diversity is exemplified by the sheer numbers of Indigenous languages spoken on the continent, the variance in geographic situation and the degrees of colonial resistance. The basic premise that Indigenous arts and culture are ways of explaining the world we inhabit has much credence when viewing the multiplicity of roles for stories originating from the ‘Dreaming.’ Questions of law, clan morals, geography, genealogy, history, survival information and basic social adhesion can be addressed through explanation of the origins of a region’s topography, flora, fauna or climate. The facility for change is also built into Indigenous traditional meaning-making structures. The Great Horse Gallery at Laura in Far North Queensland shows the first sighting of the horse rendered in what would be called traditional design; similarly a dance from Bathurst Island depicting the gunning turrets stationed on the islands during WWII shows interpretive traditional enacting as a more modern experience; or the creation of explanatory myth-like structured stories for the coming of alcohol or money or AIDS or the Nissan four-wheel drive bespeaks a flexibility to accept and explain environmental changes through a facility of ‘New Dreaming.’ I argue that this ‘New Dreaming’ is legitimated (by Middle Australia) as Indigenous through its continuity of vocabulary and sense of inclusive expansion, in that the obvious bases of language, form and geographic context remain unchanged whereas content is the responsive element.


Regionalism, technologies & control

Lydia Miller, performer and director from Sydney via Cairns, disputes the use of “contemporary.” She argues: “I believe that art is more about regionalism. It’s certainly about the influences brought on urban society, or what we know as urban society which has come to mean the coastal areas as opposed to the more remote areas. But each has had different influences on them, so different styles have evolved geographically in which people cope in different ways. In terms of urban society, we are exposed continually to technologies. When we are talking about theatre and art, I think we are addressing the fact we are dealing with a number of multimedia forms through which we can facilitate ideas and the storytelling process. That’s as old as history.”

There is an inherent need for storytelling and the continuation of oral traditions of explaining the world that we, as Indigenous people, inhabit. This is not a uniquely Indigenous experience. In fact if history read more like an injection of technologies into Indigenous cultures, as opposed to the denial of access coupled with an outlawing of cultural practices, I believe that the more embracing and culturally analytical use of technologies that we are starting to see now would have emerged earlier. Video and telecommunications technologies are now used by family members [to keep in touch with those] in detention as a strategy to combat the high number of Indigenous deaths in custody. First Nations people in North America are starting to use hi-tech virtual reality to create environments depicting ancient stories of creation as teaching tools for their young people.

The imperative to make meaning through story is so intense that it has led to a two-sided manipulation of the media, which has provided the greatest access for Indigenous people to tell their stories. On the one hand, Middle Australia has used the media to maintain its dominance, while on the other, Indigenous Australia has distorted its image to fit into this self-fulfilling projection of negative stereotypes. Many young Murris I’ve worked with talk about an urban initiation based on breaking the law as a sense of giving yourself a story; to be awarded public recognition, to get your face in the newspaper; hear your story on the radio or television. Denial of access to storytelling or meaning-making structures encourages actions such as rallies and marches, and inspires thoughts of civil war or rebellion (where it is fighting for the right to write history in the winner’s image). The obvious need for Indigenous people to control the means of representation is part of the reconstructive process from a culture of resistance to a culture of repair.


Internal cultural analysis

There should not be a sense of reclamation of traditional meaning-making without analysis, but in most cases for urban Murris this is impossible because of the amount of damage sustained in the last 206 years of resistance. I fear that if we try to recapture and appropriate what we interpret traditional cultures to be, we run the risk of denying the experiences we have had throughout the process of invasion. The instigation of internal cultural analysis must be one of our first steps in any form of reconciliation, be that with Middle Australia or with ourselves. Issues such as men’s business and women’s business, gender construction and its impact in areas such as domestic violence and homicide, the pressure to homogenise Indigenous culture (the appropriation of dances, language, songs and images from one clan to fill another’s void), and the need for role model development should all be analysed. In many cases traditional values are appropriated as an excuse not to face opposition or to avoid exposure.

There is no sense in which this work can be seen as inauthentic. Our experience as Indigenous people cannot be devalued because of the colour of our skin, the choice of materials for our art-making, our education backgrounds, geography etc. There are many different performance interpretations of our Indigenous experience based on these factors, but none being more Indigenous than another. The role of contemporary Indigenous meaning-making through arts and cultural endeavour is a continuation of ancient structures of storytelling with an ongoing review of language, form and geographic context as well as content.


The Cherry Pickers

Kooemba Jdarra (which means “Good Ground” or “Sweet Land” in the Turrabul group of languages from South-East Queensland) is a company dedicated to these debates through live performance. Kooemba Jdarra came from a groundswell of support from Indigenous artists and communities for a company to explore that perspective in an all Murri Mura environment. The Cherry Pickers, the company’s inaugural production directed by Lydia Miller and featuring seven professional Queensland Indigenous performers, sets out to tell a specific experience of Indigenous survival. The text has been appropriated and interpreted to reflect a 1994 Indigenous perspective, to play the dual roles of celebration of story and exploration of meaning and historical roots for our Murri Mura community in South-East Queensland. The further appropriation of performance form joined with Kevin Gilbert’s appropriation of English and the conventional playwriting format basically facilitates the storytelling and in no way undermines its credibility as an Indigenous story. The script is used as a vehicle to publicly discuss issues of cultural appropriation, health and mortality, alcohol dependence and economic disempowerment. At the root of this is the acknowledgement that all culture must appropriate symbols, forms, language, stories, etc to create meaning tempered by a specific protocol and respect for our community.

The Cherry Pickers is a process of experimenting with material and perspective, an ongoing dialogue between community and artist about actively shaping our cultures, responding from within not without. The ability to generate and comment on our cultural development is at the heart of contemporary Indigenous arts and at the core of Kooemba Jdarra.

Top image credit: Clipping from RealTime #4, December 1994-January 1995

At its most overt, Wesley Enoch’s 2017 Sydney Festival programming is about sensory engagement, indigeneity and innovative art-making. Alongside works that challenge the senses there’s a cluster of works by and about First Nations peoples and an overlapping one, principally theatrical, from independent Australian and visiting artists. These are complemented by discrete programs of contemporary circus and Canadian performance amid diverse festival fare from around the world, beyond easy summary.

Unlike most festival directors, Wesley Enoch is, expectedly, forthright about matters social, cultural and political. Although his festival might not be themed top to bottom and despite its considerable breadth, it has a core, the man himself. Towards the end of our conversation in the festival office in the Rocks, he asks rhetorically, how it could be otherwise: “How am I so of this place and of this time that I’m responding and reflecting what’s here?” It’s a question he thinks all festival directors should ask of themselves.

He adds, “When I look through the program, I think my politics are there for everyone to see—my way of seeing the world. The big thing I find challenging is going from being someone who makes theatre to someone who curates a festival. I still think like someone who’s got to make it. It’s not a curated experience this one. It’s about me going, this is what I want to happen; can we make it happen? It’ll succeed or fail or spark conversation or people will go ho-hum. This is what a festival is about.”


DIY festival

The large format program features the colourful festival logo breaking up over a lively black and white portrait of a Sydneysider. There are eight of these selected from public submissions and eight program covers to match, depending which one you pick up. As well as inviting the public to make art, Enoch says play with the festival logo is “all about extensions and connections; about it being broken apart and finding its own way back together again. It’s an invitation to the audience to make their own Sydney Festival, literally from bits and pieces, to have confidence in themselves as individuals now that everyone’s a maker—having at their fingertips the means of production to make a film or do whatever.”

Enoch hopes that the curiosity festivals can excite might counter “the fracturing of our body politic. Individuals are now tribal in the way they see the world and we get a lot of [self-reinforcing] feedback through social media or our choice of news media. Things get reflected back to us that an algorithm says we’ll like. I find that fascinating. It builds a confidence that I don’t always like…We really need to say, ‘Be creative in your own thinking, be curious in the way you see the world, engage with otherness, with difference, so that you bring a quality to your life that is outside your lived experience.'”

Enoch’s program, delineating the sensory, Indigenous, Canadian and circus/physical theatre mini-programs, provides festival-goers with clear starting points for entering what at first glance might appear to be a maze. He underlines the importance of clustering, arguing, “If you do one [of a kind of work], it’s saddled with the idea that it has to be representative of a whole practice. Once you do a number of them you have a diversity of approaches.”


The Encounter, Complicite, photo Gianmarco Bresadola

A festival of the senses

A featured festival work is conceptual and olfactory artist Cat Jones’ Scent of Sydney, to be staged at Carriageworks. I mention Indigenous artist Archie Moore’s ‘perfume portrait’ series, Les Eaux d’Amoore, with its robust scents. Enoch recalls, “One of them was stale beer and cigarettes wasn’t it? That was full-on! As we’re living in an increasingly digital, disembodied world in our leisure time, in our work, artists are asking, how do you get back into the corporeal, the body of things? I wonder if we have lost the subtle vocabulary for our senses.”

Cat Jones will tell us about Scent of Sydney in next week’s RealTime. In the meantime, Enoch explains that the scents will be made by the artist in response to the recollections of a small group of participants of the aromas they associate with subjects like democracy, resistance and landscape. Audiences will be able to experience the outcomes and ponder their own associations.

Also on the sensory front, in deafblind artists Heather Lawson and Michelle Stevens’ Imagined Touch the audience wear goggles and earphones to share a quiet, dark, complex world. It can be experienced as a performance or a free installation. House of Mirrors in the Festival Village offers another kind of sensory disorientation. In Encounter, the UK’s Complicite, utilising the depth of field and detail generated by the binaural microphone, takes its headphoned audience on a recreated journey up the Amazon.


Champions, FORM Dance Projects, photo Heidrun Löhr

Australia’s bold independents

Parramatta’s FORM Dance Projects is mounting Champions. Focused on women’s football, it’s directed by Sydney choreographer Martin del Amo whose engrossing signature works have often sprung from the act of walking—a short step to field moves. Created in consultation with Western Sydney Wanderers W-league, the work features 11 female performers enacting the drills, tactics and rituals of the game and expressing the joys of playing along with the frustrations of imposed gender limitations. We have an interview with del Amo in next week’s RealTime.

Enoch was keen to premiere Champions at Carriageworks: “It doesn’t have to be that Western Sydney is just a colony of Sydney.” Conversely, Ich Nibber Dibber by those proud Westies, post—featuring the astonishing trio reproducing excepts of conversations from their 10-year performance history—will open at Campelltown Arts Centre.

Prize Fighter, photo Dylan Evans

Prize Fighter from Brisbane’s La Boite plays out as a convincing real time boxing match in its telling of the life of a Congolese child soldier relocated to Brisbane. It was written by Future D Fidel, himself a Congolese refugee. Reviewer Kathryn Kelly wrote that it “showcas[ed] the breadth of African-Australian talent in this country with local performers Pacharo and Gideon Mzembe matched by recent NIDA graduate Thuso Lekwape…The opening night felt genuinely significant, evoking descriptions of the first night of Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s Seven Stages of Grieving at Metro Arts in the 1990s.”

Urban Theatre Projects and Blacktown Arts Centre come together to present Home Country, a work about intra- and cross-cultural tensions—Indigenous, Algerian and Greek—played out in a Blacktown car park from scripts by Andrea James, Peter Polites and Gaele Sobott. Also in Western Sydney is Hakawati from the National Theatre of Parramatta, featuring shared food and song from the Middle East.

Jacob Boehme, Blood on the Dance Floor, photo Bryony Jackson

Innovative Australian works from across borders include Melbourne’s Patricia Cornelius, with her play Shit (about class and misogyny), Jacob Boehme’s dance theatre work Blood on the Dance Floor from Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Theatre (read the review “To live, dance and love with HIV“), Brisbane’s Circa in Humans, from Tasmania, Terrapin Puppet Theatre’s You and Me and the Space Between and from Cairns, Dancenorth’s Spectra. Enoch says of the strong interstate showing, “I don’t think Sydney sees enough of the work that’s created outside of Sydney. Is that terrible to say?” I’m also interested in what happens when works like Prize Fighter get a rare second outing. There are things that can change, mature. Jacob Boehme’s Blood on the Dance Floor is another example. Aesthetically, it’s a real step on for Indigenous storytelling.”


Trevor Jamieson, The Season, Sydney Festival 2017, photo Simon Pynt

Indigenous culture: continuity, 1967, language

Enoch’s prominent Indigenous program ranges across theatre, play development, dance and visual arts. The Season, by Tasmanian playwright Nathan Maynard, a descendant of the chief of the Trawlwoolway Clan and of the North East Tasmanian Indigenous peoples, made its first appearance in the 2015 Yellamundie First Nations Peoples Playwriting Festival. I ask Enoch the writer’s age. “Oh, if you told me he was mid-30s I’d believe you; if you told me he was early 40s, I’d believe you—wise old man that he is. The writing reminds me of some of the early Jack Davis work where you have family environments in which cultural continuity is being expressed just through lived action. There’s a lightness of touch, of comedy, that belies a heavy burden, especially coming from Tasmania where the dominant myth is that all Aboriginal people were wiped out.” The Season addresses “cultural continuity around mutton-birding which has gone on for hundreds and thousands of years.” Also in the program is Ilbijerri Theatre’s “road trip comedy,” Which Way Home, by writer-performer Katie Beckett, about a daughter’s relationship with her single-parent father.

In Not An Animal Or A Plant, Vernon Ah Kee responds through drawings, paintings, text and projections to the 1967 Referendum which recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as citizens and included them in the census.”He’s bringing together his work as a conversation about that historical event. I don’t think this country’s even cognisant of the fact that this year is the 50th anniversary. It was such a successful referendum, 90.77% of the population voted. I wonder if it happened now, would it get through? What’s changed?”

The referendum will not be forgotten with the mounting of 1967, Music in the Key of Yes, in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, featuring film footage from the period and a stellar line-up of singers: Leah Flannagan, Yirrmal, Dan Sultan, Adalita, Stephen Pigram, Radical Son and Thelma Plum.

Bayala, Let’s Speak Sydney Language, is a very special component of the festival’s Indigenous program, an opportunity to become familiar with—through documents, classes and a “sing-up”—with the once assumed lost languages of the Eora and Darug peoples.


Meeting Canada

Enoch is pleased to be presenting “a big chunk of Canadian work, including Huff by writer-performer Cliff Cardinal from Native Earth Performing Arts [Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre company]. There’s been a lot of exchange between Indigenous Australians and Canadians for quite a while now, especially the further north you go in Australia and through the tri-nation agreement between Australia, New Zealand and Canada over at the past decade.

“Huff literally means to sniff, as in solvent sniffing. It’s a multi-generational story where the performer plays all 20 roles. The youngest of three brothers has the gift from the Creator to make people feel good, and by the end, with all the tortuous things that he observes or that happen to him, he’s lost it. Huff marries the spiritual nature of a lot of First Nations storytelling with this story of growing up. It has a lot of black humour. The storytelling is both beautiful and tragic as you’d expect from any First Nations story. That’s where it works best: I’m laughing, but at the same time, I’m feeling like it’s dragging me under.”

Also from Canada is Company 605 in the dance work Inheritor Album; Tomboy Survival Guide’s words and music investigation into gender identity; Montreal composer Nicole Lizée’s form-bending Sex, Lynch and Video Games; and Anthropologies Imaginaires, Gabriel Dharmoo’s fictional chants and rituals which “examine Western culture and the way we look at others” (program). Also featured is iD by Cirque Eloize, the centrepiece in Parramatta’s Circus City, where all the circus works, associated workshops, forums and films will be presented. “Canada has a rich circus tradition but amazingly, we hear very little of it, except for Cirque du Soleil,” says Enoch.


Wesley Enoch, photo Prudence Upton

Remembering Myuran Sukumaran

Myuran Sukumaran was executed on 29 April, 2015 in Indonesia for drug trafficking. Sydney Festival, in conjunction with Campbelltown Arts Centre, is staging an exhibition of his paintings, curated by friend and mentor, the Australian artist Ben Quilty, and CAC director Michael Dagostino. Programming it makes a strong statement. “It’s important,” says Enoch. “Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Ronald Ryan hanging, the last legal execution in Australia. So there’s a sense of convergence. I think that as a festival we’re here to prod debate and discussion. There’ll be some people who’ll say, ‘How dare you elevate a drug dealer to the ‘hallowed halls’ of art!’ Well, if we believe that you incarcerate people because there’s a possibility of rehabilitation, there is the case to argue for the redemptive power of art. And after 10 years, my opinion is that those two people (Myuran and Andrew Chan) found a way to be rehabilitated. Capital punishment is such a final thing.”

We began our conversation with scents and senses and end with what is so evident about this Sydney Festival, its great sense of occasion—timely celebration of the 1967 Referendum, remembrance of the unnecessary death of Myuran Sukumaran, an embrace of Canadian art, and acknowledgment of the breadth and depth of Aboriginal culture and the innovative Australian art-making of which it is a sharer and driver. For all the breadth of its summer festival fare, Wesley Enoch’s 2017 Sydney Festival is a rarity among its peers for its sense of purpose, its aesthetics inseparable from its politics. It looks to be the festival Enoch sought of himself, “of this place and of this time,” of this city, of Australia in all its cultural complexity.

In a companion article, we offer a personal guide to shows RealTime readers might like to seek out.

Sydney Festival 2017, 7-29 Jan

Top image credit: Cliff Cardinal, Huff, Native Earth Performing Arts, photo Akipari