River is an uplifting gift offering healing and hope

“All these rivers we must cross. Together we will get to the other side. . . . We’ll be forced to grow.” This is the theme of River, a haunting new video by the Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra. It is an inspiring sound and visual experience of the Australia we are becoming, all woven together by the movement and grace of Gambirra Illume, Yolngu performer and cultural educator from Australia’s north east Arnhem Land. River is a song of sadness and despair uplifted by the hope and optimism that emerges from sharing the journey towards resolution. Look at the warmth and laughter of the participants as they near the end of their street performance.  Watch the video River. It is now available from all digital retailers.

In January this year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that at least half of Australia’s special intake of 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees would be settled in Fairfield in western Sydney, within 12 months. In the previous year, Fairfield City Council had already welcomed 3000 humanitarian arrivals from the two war-torn countries. It was the continuation of a pattern of accepting migrants and refugees displaced by war and economic upheaval, which had grown since World War I. This concentration of cultural diversity gave Fairfield a special relevance as the setting for River, Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra‘s first single released last month. The photo below records the warmth and excitement that surrounded the orchestra following their inaugural concert at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, in November 2014, when they performed the remarkable three stages of love and death. The words and music of River are developed from an extract of this work. Please take the time to click on all the links and listen to the music recorded.

It would be true to say that years of preparation have gone into the launch of River. Some of the first threads were drawn together long before Richard Petkovic created the Cultural Arts Collective in 2007 with Maria Mitar. Even so, they say it took three years of working with fellow musicians to create, record and release River. Through Cultural Arts Collective they showcase the future of Australian music by combining Australia’s many cultures into music that “touches the spirit”. It is a generous vision that has driven Richard for a very long time – unearthing the musical talents and mastery that have remained unrecognised outside the bounds of individual cultural communities and gathering them into making music that draws on tradition to create inspirational contemporary work – anything from driving rock rhythms to hypnotic spiritual chants.

Through Cultural Arts Collective, Richard launched the first Sydney Sacred Music Festival in 2011 after working with migrant and refugee communities in western Sydney for more than 10 years. After operating on a shoestring, it is now an established non-profit organisation, with a measure of government and private financial support. The program extends right across metropolitan Sydney, linking together a whole range of music organisations.

Death and personal loss were the immediate inspiration behind the creation of River. It offers a message of hope for those struggling with grief and profound loss. Eleven musicians performed in the streets of Fairfield, where they were filmed with the willing support of locals. They were world renowned Uyghur bard Shohrat Tursun – vocals, dutar (two string lute), Yaw Derkyi – African percussion and vocals, Richard Petkovic – guitar and vocals, Maria Mitar and Gambirra Illume – vocals, Nicholas Ng – urhu (Chinese two stringed fiddle),  Bukhu Ganburged – Mongolian horse fiddle, Salar Hs – violin, Rudi Upright Valdez – double bass, Victor Valdes – Mexican harp, and Ngoc-Tuan Hoang – guitar.

Many of these artists have been playing together for several years now and it shows in their ease of improvisation and collaboration and their quiet mutual respect. Cultural Arts Collective produces and composes music, and creates ensembles to support artists previously hidden from the mainstream. Already firmly established is the Shohrat Tursun Trio, comprising Shohrat himself, in right of photo, Yaw Derkyi, centre, and Richard Petkovic. CAC manages artists, produces festivals and events and distributes new music.

Richard’s perseverance in changing the focus of Australian music making and performance has led to contracts with Musica Viva to re-imagine their regional touring program and Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority to work with several community festivals to improve their artistic direction. They are great steps forward on a deeply enriching path.


Flight from despair to hope, opportunity and creative engagement

UNHCR - RefugeesAccording to a report released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) last month, wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since UNHCR records began more than 65 years ago. The report, entitled Global Trends, found a total 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015, compared to 59.5 million just 12 months earlier.

Large numbers of people have fled Afghanistan and Somalia in recent decades and more recently, countries like Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine and Central America. Settlement solutions are becoming harder to find as countries close borders against an influx of distressed people and there is little sign of regional cooperation between countries that might receive refugees. Worldwide, Turkey is the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosts more refugees compared to its population than any other country. In 2015 children made up 51 per cent of the world’s refugees. Many were separated from their parents or travelling alone.

Blog - PPM book coverAll too often fear is the constant companion of refugees until they find respite. Now, with increasing frequency, fear has taken hold of people in countries that might offer protection – fear of terrorism, fear of losing jobs to refugees, fear of strained health, housing and education resources, a loss of law and order. Australia swings between cycles of fear and cycles of generosity. Our constitution for the founding of Australia as a federation of states in 1901 was influenced by fear of foreigners and totally ignored Aboriginal people. It still has the racist statement that the Commonwealth has the power “to regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races . . .” Two years later, the White Australia Policy was a direct outcome. By contrast, multiculturalism as a concept was introduced during the years of the Whitlam Government in the early 1970s. Under the following government of Malcolm Fraser, Australia opened its doors to Vietnamese refugees and asylum seekers, including those who arrived by boat. Associated stories appear in my book Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney and in this blog. They demonstrate repeatedly just how many migrants and refugees have gone on to become outstanding arts practitioners and community leaders. Research also shows that the economic costs of accepting migrants and refugees is far outweighed by the value of their ultimate contribution to society.

Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (CPAC) is conducting a two day forum on Friday and Saturday, August 19 and 20 to explore the relationship between refugees and the arts. “Open to artists, performers, art therapists, educators, researchers, art workers and creative producers, the Arts and Refugees Forum also welcomes humanitarian and community development workers to share their experiences and discuss various aspects of artistic practice by, with and about refugees.” It is a free event that will provide a platform for greater networking and development opportunities. The forum will take place against a background of photo-media and video works made by local Sydney-based artists who are former refugees, current asylum seekers and first generation Australians whose families fled war to settle here.

CPAC - refugees - curiousworksBeyond Refuge: Citizens has been assembled by CuriousWorks, which describes it as “an exhibition that asserts the beautiful and fundamental rights of every human being to freedom and peace. It is also a cry to those who have lost their freedom, through the structures and exertions of power.” Image above: Soheil Ettehadolhagh, “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens”  –  Báha’u’lláh universal peace, 2016. Photograph.

Both the forum and the exhibition take place in the context of a major exhibition, Refugees which brings together works by 22 world-renowned artists who share a refugee background. Important works by these high profile artists have never before been seen in western Sydney. The artists are Khadim Ali, Frank Auerbach, Christian Boltanski, Yosl Bergner, Judy Cassab, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Lucian Freud, Mona Hatoum, Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, Guo Jian, Anish Kapoor, Inge King, Dinh Q. Lê, Nalini Malani, Helmut Newton, Yoko Ono, Aida Tomescu, Danila Vassilieff, Ai Wei Wei, Ah Xian and Anne Zahalka.

CPAC is located in one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in Australia, with 40% of the population born overseas and over 150 languages spoken. The arts centre sees the exhibition as an opportunity for advocacy and empowerment of refugees in the local area, as a key to creating social change.

In the meantime, a yoHelen Boris - shards-life-poems-ung woman who arrived as a displaced person from Ukraine in 1949 and later settled with her husband in Seven Hills, is about to launch her first commercially published book. Helen Boris had her university studies in Kiev interrupted by the Soviet occupation and the Second World War and was never able to complete them. Despite the upheavals of terror under dictatorship and the death of family and friends, Helen never lost her love for literature and writing and her interest in sharing it with others. From her earliest days in Australia, she wrote poetry in English and her native Ukrainian. She became active in local chapters of organisations like the Fellowship of Australian Writers, conducted workshops with others like Ann Stewart Galwey to support local writers and helped their community publication. Next Saturday, at the age of 96, in frail health, but of very clear mind and with the support of the Ukrainian ambassador, she will launch her book of poems Shards of Life. You are invited to join them at the Ukrainian Hall, 59 – 63 Joseph St, Lidcombe, at 1pm. Shards of Life is a selection of Helen’s English language verse, through which she shares some fragments of her story, the “shards of her life”.

And thenSyd Sacred Music Fest 16 - Worlds Collide there’s Sydney Sacred Music Festival, now in its sixth year under the leadership of founder and director, Richard Petkovic. This year it begins on Friday, September 2 and continues across locations from Mona Vale to Campbelltown, Sydney CBD to the Blue Mountains, until Sunday, September 18. In the course of two decades, Richard has identified and come to know an extraordinary range of highly professional musicians, from many different cultures and faiths. Many were living in western Sydney following their escape from war torn countries. They have been working together with wonderfully enriching results.

This year, they will present a live multimedia performance of contemporary world and electronic dance music at Wentworth Street carpark in Parramatta’s CBD, on Saturday night, September 3 – Worlds Collide – Eight Storeys High, Seven Cultures, One Amazing New Sound. The rooftop, they say, “will be transformed into an artistic wonderland, featuring art installations by Khaled Sabasabi, Marian Abood and Ghasan Saaid, video projections, interactive dance workshops and the world premiere of the Arts NSW funded, Worlds Collide ensemble. Worlds Collide brings together the best world musicians in Sydney, photo above, and fuses the South Asian Underground beats of Coco Varma’s ‘Sitar Funk’, the acoustic world fusion of the Shohrat Tursun Trio; Latin music legend Victor Valdes; soaring vocals of Blue Mary’s Maria Mitar and the hip hop rhymes of Mt Druitt’s Esky the Emcee, all under the direction of music producer and composer Richard Petkovic (Cultural Arts Collective).”

Program details and bookings.

Angry residents to march on Sunday in protest at state government plans

NPRAG - march posterAngry residents and supporters will march on Sunday, June 5, to protest the NSW Government’s plans to demolish Parramatta Pool and develop the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. Not only have these plans proceeded with minimal or no consultation (as with the pool), the government now controls the development approval role of Parramatta and other councils. In the process of amalgamating local governments, the state government has placed the new enlarged councils in the hands of government appointed administrators. There will be no local government elections until September 2017, so in the meantime, the NSW Government can ensure approval of its plans by councils. So much for democracy, while the fox looks after the hen house! Local schools, churches and community organisations are all supporting this event.

1-NPRAG - Jack MundeyOrganisers say “We will assemble in the carpark in front of the Pirtek Stadium at the lights of Victoria Road and O’Connell Street for a briefing before starting our walk with our banners.  We are really pleased to announce that Western Sydney Samba will be showing their community support by supplying us with cool beats to keep us marching. We will be escorted by safety marshalls waving our banners and chanting to save Parramatta’s community pool and green space from private development.  We will walk along O’Connell Street, and after Parramatta Leagues Club turn down Fennel Street, along Fleet Street to arrive at the Cumberland Oval in the Cumberland Hospital Precinct.” Jack Mundey, above, one of the union leaders who led the Green Bans of the 1970s, at last year’s community rally where extension of Green Bans over the entire Cumberland Hospital site was announced.

“For those that won’t be able to participate in the march please join us at the Oval at midday where the community will meet for some short inspirational speeches from community leaders. Afterwards you can help support First North Rocks Scouts who are fundraising for vital repairs for their hall and cooking on the BBQ to sell us a lovely sausage sizzle on the grounds. Bring your family, Bring your neighbours,  Bring your friends!

Parramatta North artist's impression 2Since the first “community consultations” conducted by UrbanGrowth NSW in November 2013 about the future of the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct, a tide of community concern has been growing. Initially, the “community” was represented by very few people and the options they could consider were strictly limited. The site was little known and largely hidden from public view in Fleet St, North Parramatta. Above, is an artist’s impression of the redeveloped sports field in the precinct.

The precinct is the site of some of Australia’s most important Aboriginal and colonial history, including the convict Parramatta Female Factory from the 1820s and the 1840s Roman Catholic Orphanage – subsequently the notorious Parramatta Girls Home. Many of the buildings on the site are currently in use by Cumberland Hospital, which is gradually transferring its mental health services to other locations. The 1840s Parramatta Gaol adjoins the site, but is not part of current considerations.

The state member for Parramatta, Dr Geoff Lee MP, says that NSW Government needs to sell most of the 30 hectares of land in the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct to fund the conservation of its heritage buildings. Sale of the first super lots will begin in 2017. Although adjustments have since been made, apartment blocks of 20 and 30 storeys high are still among proposals by UrbanGrowth for residential development.

Old Government House, ParramattaIf these proceed, one of the first consequences could be the loss of World Heritage status for Old Government House. On a recent Heritage Week walk with Brian Powyer, vice president of the National Trust NSW, Brian pointed to the northern view from just behind the house, which encompasses the North Parramatta site. Currently, it is a soft vista of grassy parklands, trees and the flow of Parramatta River. One of the conditions for maintaining World Heritage listing is that there should be no intrusion of multi-storey buildings into that view. Brian explained that it was only when Parramatta Council insisted that the multi-storey towers currently being constructed on the old DJ’s site be moved one metre back from the riverbank, to the east, that the status was granted in 2010.

Parramatta Council’s 2005 Arts Facilities and Cultural Places Framework was developed as a 10 year plan for the future provision of arts facilities and associated projects across the City of Parramatta. The first major venue was to be in Civic Place, the second was to use The Old King’s School and the third to be a mixed use site in the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct. Little has been heard of stage one. After years of lobbying by the local and regional arts community, The Old King’s School has been taken over by the NSW Department of Education. After 20 years of discussion initiated by the Carr Labor Government about arts facilities on the North Parramatta site, a community meeting in February this year was told by UrbanGrowth representatives that the Minister for the Arts was not interested in the site.

1-NPRAG - symposium panelNorth Parramatta Residents Action Group has been strenuously lobbying for a delay in planning, while the community draws up alternative proposals. With the support of the National Trust, Parramatta Chamber of Commerce and many other community organisations, they conducted a very successful symposium last year, above left, which heard from a broad range of experts. Brian Powyer continues to receive widespread support for his proposal that a formally recognised community consultative committee should be appointed to the North Parramatta Project. UrbanGrowth points out that they work under the instruction of their political masters. Advocacy for change must be directed at them. That’s what Sunday is about.

200th anniversary of the Appin massacre offers opportunity to reconsider

dailytele-Capt CookMost people probably saw or heard about the Daily Telegraph front page, March 29, which sent commentators into overdrive. Whitewash said the headline – UNSW rewrites the history books to state Cook “invaded” Australia. Some claimed it was political correctness gone mad. Others stated that the university’s guidelines had been around for 20 years and were just that – guidelines for student essay writing. SBS’s “Backburner” offered a satirical opinion piece under the title Outrage as University Teaches History Correctly. In The Guardian online, Paul Daley wrote It’s not politically correct to say Australia was invaded, it’s history. Paul Daley also wrote a story Lachlan Macquarie was no humanitarian – his own words show he was a terrorist.

Camden professional historian, Dr Ian Willis responded to the second story with a blog post Was Governor Lachlan Macquarie a Terrorist? The colonial frontier was a violent location,” he wrote, “and many people suffered and died. Colonialism wreaked havoc on many cultures around the globe. Was Governor Macquarie any better or worse than any other colonial administrator?” Ian considered the NSW colonial frontier and transportation, the colonial frontier wars in North America and elsewhere and the “Sugar Slaves” of Queensland and provided further related references. Among them was a link to the exhibition With Secrecy and Dispatch at Campbelltown Arts Centre. I found myself responding and then copying the response to the Professional Historians Facebook page.

ABC - Tharawal - Glenda Chalker“By chance I have just heard Ellen Fanning on ABC RN Life Matters, this morning, with Tharawal elder Glenda Chalker, reading and discussing Macquarie’s original documents at the State Library and with two historians, considering this proposition “was he a terrorist”. The issue at Appin (in April 1816 – [not 2016!]) was that the Tharawal people gave no “show of resistance” at all. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and the people were sound asleep, The fact that the military attacked in these circumstances, was quite contrary to British law and risked ending the captain’s career and Macquarie’s had it become known. Reporting was therefore oblique and secretive in style, as I understand it. The fact that Aboriginal bodies were beheaded and hung in high places to deter resistance and the heads sent to Scotland [not London], compares with the much condemned contemporary behaviour of Islamic extremists. Those heads were returned to Australia in 1991 and are currently held in a warehouse in Canberra. Dharawal elder Glenda Chalker, above, with the proclamation document ordering the Appin Massacre. (photo by Tracey Trompf on the Life Matters website)

“Arguments which seem to prevail at present,” I wrote, “are that colonial powers at the time were all behaving in similar ways, so this was no worse than any other. For Aboriginal people, context of the times is irrelevant. They did suffer from invasion and where they could, fought back. Australia’s colonial history is much more complex and nuanced than is frequently portrayed. We can’t change it, but we need to face up to it and recognise the continuing consequences to Aboriginal Australians. In an atmosphere of mutual respect, we have a great deal to learn from each other.”

Cataract DamSecretary of the Professional Historians Association, Dr Stephen Gapps, responded, “It’s certainly a 200th anniversary that not a lot of fuss will be made about. Come to the ceremony on 17th” – with a link to Federal MP Laurie Ferguson’s website. Under the heading 2016 Appin Massacre Memorial Ceremony, is written – “To honour the Dharawal people, the Winga Myamly Reconciliation Group is hosting a memorial to mark the 200th anniversary of the Appin Massacre – Sunday, April 17, 11am, Cataract Dam picnic area. The account given varies somewhat from the Life Matters story, though difficulty, until recently, in getting access to those particular Macquarie documents may well be the cause. Photo – the Cataract Dam as it appears on the website.

Dharawal descendants and supporters have held this annual memorial ceremony now, for 20 years and Ian Willis’s link to the Campbelltown Arts Centre exhibition is closely related. With Secrecy and Despatch has been developed as a response to the 200th anniversary of the Appin Massacre. New works were commissioned from six Aboriginal Australian artists and four First Nation Canadian artists and are shown alongside existing works by prominent Australian Aboriginal artists. Together these works explore themes of colonial brutality, conflict, identity, culture and memory. If you can’t make it to the memorial, a visit to the exhibition would provide time to reflect on history and contemplate the steps required to share the grieving and find a shared way forward as Australians.

Bold new development in launch of National Theatre of Parramatta

Robert Love - RiversideThe National Theatre of Parramatta sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? National localised? Well yes, perhaps it is. But only because the founders see Parramatta as a microcosm of what Australia has become in the last few decades – extraordinarily culturally diverse and generating a vibrant intensity and passion for life that is simply not reflected on the mainstream Australian stage.

The National NT of P Annette-Shun-WahTheatre of Parramatta was launched at Riverside Theatres on November 19, 2015, where it will be the resident company. Its establishment fulfills a long held ambition of Riverside Theatres director Robert Love, above, to have a resident company servicing Parramatta, western Sydney and regional NSW, in telling the region’s own stories and providing professional career opportunities.

After many years of gestation, the National Theatre of Parramatta has won an initial four years of funding from Arts NSW, Crown Resorts NT of P Paula AboudFoundation, Packer Family Foundation and Parramatta City Council. A four member directorate comprises Annette Shun Wah, above left, Paula Abood, left, S Shaktidharan, below left, and Wayne Harrison, bottom left. Between them, they have an enormous range of creative and production experience in theatre, radio, music, film, major arts events and community cultural development. They make a formidable team and are all in agreement that they aspire “to create bold contemporary works that draw their inspiration from the rich diversity and untold stories NT of P S. Shakthidharanof western Sydney and beyond, adding to our cultural landscape a company that truly reflects the nation on stage. “

They “aspire to create a body of work that is expressive of new conversations and new voices; work that challenges and exhilarates; that engages audiences in a dialogue of ideas, nurturing emotional exchanges and interactions that move beyond the stage and into people’s lives.” You have only to type “theatre” into the search facility on this blog to glimpse a little of the range NT of P Wayne-Harrisonof talents and ideas that have already found expression in western Sydney and which constantly challenge the status quo of Australian theatre making.

The executive producer for this bold new company is Joanne Kee, whose international work record includes Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival, general manager of The Song Company, business manager of programming Sydney Opera House, setting up creative development and performance residencies for artists and work at the Arts Council of England and Carnivale, multicultural arts festival. As a producer she tours internationally award winning work. She is on the board of Music Australia, Sydney Fringe Festival and the Glebe Chamber of Commerce. She was Chair of Ausdance NSW and chair of the working group that set up Critical Path.

NT of P Joanne KeeJoanne, left, says, “We want to create opportunities for artists in an environment where they are being paid for their work and where they can learn their craft alongside the best in the business.” Their first season will begin in April with an existing play Swallow, which premiered to rave reviews in Edinburgh last year. In it, three strangers share states of vulnerability and defiance connecting their fates and influencing each others ability to re-enter the outside world. With challenge and humour, Swallow “explores questions of identity, heartbreak and hope with vivid, poetic intensity.” Swallow begins a sustainable first year, which will set the tone for program expansion in subsequent years. It will be followed by a fully developed production of Stolen in June after two successful readings of Jane Harrison’s play at Riverside in 2013 and 2015.

NTofP_Web_Stolen_BannerStolen is a story of five young Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents and brought up in a repressive children’s home without contact with family or culture. It is a story with parallels throughout Australian communities, told from the perspective of the children. You are invited to “immerse yourself in a yarn about the importance of family, understanding and issues that have impacted strongly on Aboriginal families. Stolen will be directed by acclaimed performance maker, Vicki Van Hout.

In October, Paula Abood and Wayne Harrison will stage the inaugural Telling Tales, a festival all about story telling using a series of traditional and unconventional spaces. Telling Tales will “celebrate the glorious complexity and diversity of Western Sydney, sharing the stories of its people; the yarns, anecdotes, personal memoirs and imaginary tales set in a performance context, with something for all ages.” Telling Tales will include some of the best entries in Tell It – a story telling competition to be run in September for people 18 years and younger.

Take the opportunity to explore the website of the National Theatre of Parramatta. They are interested in hearing from new voices, particularly those who have a connection to Western Sydney. If you would like to invite representatives to your performance or creative development please send invitations to admin_ntofp@parracity.nsw.gov.au. As part of its development program, the company will offer many chances to engage with it:

  • Trainee and Assisting Roles
  • Networking events
  • Masterclasses
  • Skills development workshops
  • Advanced Writer’s Salon
  • Mentorships
  • Performance platforms

There will also be opportunities to volunteer and learn. Add your name to their email list.

A chance to reflect on Aboriginality and what it means to be Australian

Paul Keating - 2015

In marking the 23rd anniversary of his Redfern speech on Aboriginal dispossession and white Australian responsibility, former prime minister Paul Keating gave another speech earlier this month, as reported by Michael Gordon in the Sydney Morning Herald. “Aboriginal art and culture draw from the land, for Aboriginality and the land are essential to each other and are inseparable,” (Mr Keating said). “In terms of art at its best, Aboriginal art still carries sacred messages through its symbols and materials, yet manages to hold its secrets while speaking to a broader audience. More than that, it has been effective in translating an entire culture and the understanding of an entire continent.”

Rather than re-enter the debate on constitutional recognition and his support for a compact, or treaty, Michael Gordon wrote, Mr Keating explored a bigger proposition – that Australia’s potential will not be realised until the question of identity is settled.

“Whatever our identity today is or has become, it is an identity that cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia,” he said. “For their 50,000 years here has slaked the land with their resonances, their presence and their spirit.

“Our opportunity is to rejoice in their identity, and without attempting to appropriate or diminish it, fuse it with our own, making the whole richer.”

Across western Sydney there are many opportunities to reflect on what this might mean and how we can be involved.

FCMG - Jeff McMullen with Stephen Willliams

Talk the Change/Change the Talk: an exhibition of Aboriginal self-determination makes its intention quite clear. It is contributing contemporary Aboriginal perspectives to discussion of Australian constitutional change and recognition after 230 years of white colonisation. Talk the Change is a thought provoking exhibition, which can be seen at Fairfield City Museum and Gallery until February 13. Above is Catherine Croll’s photo of Jeff McMullen delivering the opening speech, on November 28, with Uncle Stephen Williams in the right foreground. For many years a correspondent for the ABC and a host on the National Indigenous Television Network, Jeff McMullen has campaigned locally and internationally for the human rights of indigenous people.

FCMG - Blak Douglas plays yidaki - Catherine CrollTalk the Change/Change the Talk is co-curated by Aboriginal descendant, artist and musician, Blak Douglas (aka Adam Hill), who grew up in the Penrith area of western Sydney and Lena Nahlous, the museum and gallery’s curator of social history and exhibitions. Blak Douglas writes in the exhibition catalogue, “We now have entire suburbs where one may be immersed within the vibrancy of cultures from abroad, and there are even festivals of specific flavours. Sadly, though, the reparation of damage to Aboriginal cultures en masse is not occurring at an acceptable rate. Thankfully, utilising art as a voice, we communicate in one of the most powerful mediums . . . .” Blak Douglas, above left, plays the yidaki at the exhibition opening.

His own contribution to the exhibition is a series of photographs taken at the fifth and tenth anniversaries of the annual Redfern march, which continues to protest the death of teenager TJ Hickey in 2004. The white coroner determined that he was not pursued by police, when he became impaled on a fence. Nonetheless, for Aboriginal people TJ Hickey’s death has become a symbol of ongoing police corruption and violence towards Aboriginal people. More than one in four prisoners in Australia are indigenous Australians, despite comprising only three per cent of the population. Between 1980 and 2011, 449 indigenous Australians died in police custody and no police officer has been convicted for these deaths.

Talk the Change/Change the Talk is a modest and quietly reflective exhibition, which includes radio and oral histories, historic photography, music and visual art. It highlights the struggles of Aboriginal individuals and communities for recognition and justice, the right to speak their own languages and to protect their children from being taken by white authorities. While often a deeply disturbing picture, it is also one of resilience and hope. There is humour and determination in statements like Auntie Mae Robinson’s when people say Captain Cook discovered Australia. “My ancestors didn’t lose it, so how could he have discovered it?” Auntie Mae was the first Aboriginal person to graduate from what became the School of Education at the Milperra College of Advanced Education (1983). She remains a strong advocate for teaching Aboriginal history and culture in schools.

1-IMG_4366Well known contemporary artists like Karla Dickens of Wiradjuri descent, display a number of works of protest in the exhibition. She is thankful for the commitment of predecessors, who established the Australian Aborigines’ Progressive Association, and pays tribute to them in a quilt, Having a Voice is Tiresome (2014) while simultaneously expressing frustration that change is coming so slowly.

Speaking of Wiradjuri, it’s worth reading Patti Miller’s The Mind of a Thief, which won the 2013 NSW Premier’s History Award. Patti is a descendant of a German immigrant, who settled on Wiradjuri country, near Wellington in central NSW in the 1850s and whose family has farmed there ever since. She too has felt a connection to land and her explorations of family history and its possible Wiradjuri connections uncover a minefield of history and legislation. She grows to understand how Wiradjuri perspectives are quite different and yet complementary to her own and how respect for elders and their wisdom has diminished, to everyone’s loss. Complexity of Aboriginal relationships is compounded by the Land Council set up by the state government to represent local indigenous people.

A series of art works by Darug descendant Leanne Tobin illustrates the difficulties. The many clans of the Darug were the traditional people of the greater Sydney region and bore the first impact of invasion. For many years, it was assumed that they had all died out. “Even now,” she says, “Darug people are often seen to be ‘too white to be black’, and the continued denial of our very existence by local Aboriginal Land Councils allows continuing selling off and destruction of our tribal lands without consultation with the rightful custodians.”

1-IMG_4367Cathie Louise Banton is a granddaughter of Herbert (Bert) Groves, president of the Aborigines’ Progressive Association. Another participant in the exhibition, Cathie recorded an interview with Lena Nahlous, in which she outlined her parent’s struggle with poverty and the brief removal of their five children by white authorities. Later, she endured a violent marriage for 26 years, before finally escaping. Now she finds comfort, support and creative liberation in the Guntawang Aboriginal Women’s Group, which she helped to found in the Fairfield area in August 2013. Guntawang was initiated by Wendy Morgan, who retired from the Commonwealth public service after nearly 30 years and their third founding member was Margaret Roberts. Now 15 women attend fortnightly Guntawang meetings.

“Guntawang’s aims are to help support and strengthen social cohesion and identity for Aboriginal people, encourage creative expression and innovation cross a broad range of arts and crafts activities, and build self esteem for participants to become involved in the wider community.” Members exhibit a series of individual quilts, see above, which tell stories of their dreaming, where they grew up, their families, community totems and belonging to the land. Two of the quilts talk about discrimination and exclusion from the constitution.

Jacinta-Tobin-LOMusician and composer Jacinta Tobin, right, provided some of the lively musical entertainment at the launch. “We can do things differently,” she said. “We don’t have to go down the same angry path as before. Two thirds of our people were lost in the first five years. . . . . . Listen to country – not all the stories you hear are true – listen to country.” Then with a laugh she added, “We won anyway, by marrying into you mob!”

Two more opportunities to immerse yourself in indigenous experience are coming in January. Dharawal Aboriginal Corporation will host the Airds Summer Film and Music Screening series, organised by Campbelltown Arts Centre across four Saturdays. It will screen films like The Sapphires, Bran Nue Dae and the premiere of Black Comedy season two. Then there is the Sydney Festival program Fire Bucket, where you are invited into backyards in Sydney CBD, Redfern and Parramatta. Here you can sit with 93 year old Mt Druitt identity and Bidgambul elder Uncle Wes Marne around the fire bucket, while he yarns with friend and theatre director Alicia Talbot. Every night will be different as they talk of stories, dreams and wisdom. Bookings 1300 856 876 or online.

And then there is the remarkable announcement this week, which has largely gone under the radar – Aboriginal languages to become new HSC subject. “At long last, the Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages has been released by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority as part of the national curriculum,” writes Professor Jakelin Troy in the Sydney Morning Herald. Professor Troy is director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney and lead author of the Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages. “The success of this framework will ultimately hinge upon the level of government backing and financial support our teachers receive. There is still a huge amount of work ahead to support communities and schools to work together to create local language curriculum,” she says.

Another illuminating step towards a different response to our history.

PUBLIC STATEMENT in support of Adam Goodes by the Committee of PHA NSW & ACT

Adam Goodes and Donna IngramJust a few days ago, members of the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT (PHA NSW & ACT) were warmly and generously welcomed to country by Sydney Indigenous woman Donna Ingram before we began our annual mid-winter awards and social evening. We were all honoured to be welcomed, and for Donna to have then stayed and shared the evening with us. Left, Donna Ingram with Sydney Swans footballer and former Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes.

This week, the outbreak of public vilification and racism directed at Adam Goodes, now amplified and spread far beyond the grandstands, has shocked us, and caused many members of PHA NSW & ACT to ask whether we really were deserving of that generous welcome.

The objectives in the PHA constitution include “advocating public history perspectives in public debates concerning interpretations of history and the keeping of documentary, environmental and other historical records.” To this end, we have for some time been lobbying NSW Government agencies such as State Records to employ Aboriginal archivists, and the Heritage Council to reinstate its History Advisory Panel. Sadly, we have made little impact and the State has remained indifferent to our submissions.

Our members mostly work as independent public historians. We often work alone, outside academia, managing our own practices and acting collegially in furthering our own professional development. Many of us have been privileged to work with Aboriginal communities and families, on historic sites of great significance to Indigenous peoples, and in places where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples have shared histories. We appreciate the significant role of sport and sporting cultures in our history, in helping to bring about social cohesion, and in providing opportunities for so many people to improve their lives. We have tried, in our own small ways and in accordance with our own ethical standards, to be supportive of Aboriginal people and communities, to contribute to creating something new for our common future, a future based upon mutual respect.

As historians, we well know the impacts of past social attitudes and government policies – impacts that last across generations, often with terrible ongoing results. But as public historians – working in the public arena on issues of heritage and history – we also believe we have a role to comment on the context of issues that have plagued, and continue to plague, Australian history and society. The recent racist actions and words of some in the ‘debate’ around Adam Goodes have left many of our members appalled and distressed.

PHA RespectOn a personal level, some PHA NSW & ACT members have Indigenous friends, colleagues, partners and family. While the distress felt by our members will be nothing compared to the distress being experienced and lived every day now by Indigenous people, families and communities, these members feel strongly about this issue and wish their support for Adam Goodes and all other Indigenous people who experience similar issues to be known.

Thus the committee of PHA NSW & ACT issue this letter of public support.

We support the group of AFL captains who have called for an end to the harassment of Adam Goodes.

We support all the other leaders in civil society and sporting clubs calling for this to stop. Bullying is unacceptable. Racism is unacceptable. The time for reflection will come, but first the abhorrent chorus must stop, and it must stop now.

More than anything else, the PHA NSW & ACT and all of its members, in accordance with our own constitutional objectives, our own code of ethics and indeed our own personal morality and our own diverse understandings of the past, through this statement, extend our collective hand of support and friendship to Adam Goodes, to all Indigenous peoples and indeed to all Australians of good will. We support you, in our own small way, and we want you to know that we stand with you.

On behalf of the Committee,

Bruce Baskerville
Chair, PHA NSW & ACT
2 August 2015

As a graduate member of the Professional Historians Association NSW & ACT, I am thankful that Bruce has spoken on behalf of all members.

Katherine Knight