Confront the racist crap and create real change

Becky Chatfield - Wagana DancersThree days after Australia Day, January 26,  Becky Chatfield, right, of Wagana Aboriginal Dancers in the Blue Mountains,  posted on Facebook – feeling cross . . . .  People who say things like ‘Aboriginal people should think themselves lucky, they could have been invaded by way worse people.’  Oh yeah ok thanks for pointing that out. Mass murder, rape and genocide sounds totally lucky. Chuck in a bit of dehumanising behavior, some decapitated babies and a nice big bunch of stolen children and I feel like we’ve won the lotto!

A friend responded, “People say these things!? I actually welled up from this post. I can’t handle the disrespect that is implied everyday to our mob.”

As reported on ABC Radio, a recent survey has found that the vast majority of people believe the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is important. But it also found that a third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had been racially abused in the six months before the survey.

Lena and Blak DouglasDiscussion at the recent artists’ talks at Fairfield City Museum and Gallery was impassioned and frequently angry. The anger was driven by decades of frustration among Aboriginal artists and their supporters that Aboriginal people and their knowledge are continually belittled or totally ignored.

Co-curator Lena Nahlous introduced the talks by explaining that her original brief for the exhibition which became Talk the Change/Change the Talk had been to respond to proposed constitutional change that would include specific reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Her initial local research revealed that the brief was seen by local Aboriginal people as simply a white bureaucratic imposition and of little interest. Instead, she became aware that there were extraordinary stories of resilient communities creating their own networks of mutual support and survival. Unlike the white and immigrant communities in the Fairfield area, their stories had never been recorded. If this were to change, she needed a strong, high profile Aboriginal artist to be her co-curator, who could pull in other leading indigenous artists.

Karla DickensMuch against his will, Blak Douglas (aka Adam Hill) finally agreed to take on the role. “I am not a trained curator,” he said, “and there is only one indigenous curator in Australia, who has the objectivity needed to see work clearly and with purpose.” Born in Blacktown, western Sydney, of an Aboriginal Australian father and white Australian mother, Blak trained in graphic arts and became a passionate advocate for social justice. In the upper photo, he listens while Lena speaks, standing below one of his preliminary works for Do or Die, a painting expressing his gamble in being an Aboriginal artist in the mainstream Australian art world. Blak describes himself as a political artist, who seeks to encourage Aboriginal youth art and culture. He is a past winner of the NSW Parliamentary Art Prize, which has brought him further recognition, but left him deeply sceptical about judges and sponsors of the prize.

He sees exposure like the Parliamentary prize as an opportunity to produce a willy willy of consciousness, but says the world hasn’t changed in 45 years of his experience. Among the works in the exhibition are Karla Dickens’ old mantel clocks, above, expressing the same desperation about the lack of change. Karla is a multi award winning artist and Wiradjuri Ngurambanggu woman, who lives in the Lismore/Casino area of New South Wales, which is also a base for the Ku Klux Klan in Australia. The KKK is an extremist American hate group preaching white supremacy – often with violence. The exhibition catalogue quotes Karla as saying:

There is power in asserting objection shoulder-to-shoulder – and disapproval of the obvious injustices, pains and truths of the unheard. It is an action that holds the hope that, once the story is told, a change in the unacceptable will be born and grow.

Leanne Tobin - BurbanganaAnother highly awarded artist exhibiting in the show, Leanne Tobin, a Darug descendant of the Boorooberongal and Wumali clans of the Greater Sydney region, agreed wholeheartedly with Blak’s sentiments. She says Burbagana (To Rise), her painting above, is rendered in Renaissance style using ochres to portray the clearing of fog around Darug ancestors. Leanne is a trained teacher and artist. In schools she teaches about creeks, plants and animals, giving children an entry into Aboriginal knowledge, respect for the land and for the old people. She assists Aboriginal women prisoners to research and recover their own identities. Leanne is endlessly frustrated by the constant dilemmas and conflicts engendered by government misunderstandings and creations. “Eora”, she says, simply means “from here” and is not the name of a clan or tribe. Land councils are white bureaucratic constructions that ignore the role of traditional custodians of the land.

1-IMG_4435Elaine Pelot Syron is a non indigenous artist, right, whose documentary photos are an important feature of Talk the Change/Change the Talk. She came to her role as photographer almost by accident. She arrived in Australia from the USA in 1971, already influenced by the Civil Rights movement and Dr Martin Luther King. She was shocked to find the endlessly negative reporting by the media about Aboriginal people and began taking photographs of her own to correct the record. She accumulated a precious archive of decades of photos, which include some of the leading names in Aboriginal activism – Joe Croft, Mum Shirl, Burnum-Burnum, Dr Roberta Sykes, Isabel Coe, NAISDA and Bangarra.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda gave a cautious welcome to Prime MInister Turnbull’s speech in parliament yesterday, which saw him repeatedly quote the message he had heard from Indigenous groups: “Do things with us, not to us”.

“We have heard these words before,” Mr Gooda said. “We take them with good heart but there’s got to be a carrying-out of that new relationship so I think we’re entitled to be a little bit cynical about it until it starts happening.”

Cape York leader Noel Pearson says, “We’d like to see the Prime Minister commit to treating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders like he promised he’d treat Australians more generally – as people with intelligence who can handle complex problems and issues.”

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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

Nakkiah Lui’s play “Kill the Messenger” provokes thought and discussion

Nakkiah Lui - Kill the Messenger 1When publicity about Nakkiah Lui’s new play Kill the Messenger spoke of her anger and institutionalised racism, it seemed her Belvoir Theatre audience had to prepare for confrontation and accusation. Nakkiah, right, is a young Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander playwright, actor and lawyer, who was born and raised in  Mount Druitt – an area known for its socio-economic disadvantage, high proportion of Aboriginal people, and public housing. Hers is the first generation of her family to be raised in Sydney. Everyone else grew up in the country. Although her grandfather was illiterate, Nakkiah says that it was his gift for storytelling that inspired her play writing. Her heritage and politics inform her craft.

Yes, Kill the Mkill the messenger 2essenger is confronting, but it is far more nuanced than seemed to be suggested. It is confronting in part because of Nakkiah’s sheer honesty and her determination to present the stories as she experienced and researched them. Initially, her play was inspired by the suicide of an Aboriginal man, who was refused drugs at the local hospital, because it was assumed he was merely an addict. Part way through her writing, Nakkiah’s beloved Nanna died from injuries after falling through the termite ridden floor of her Housing Commission home of more than 30 years. Her loss was devastating to Nakkiah and in her grief and anger, her play began to weave the two stories together with herself as the central character and performer. There seemed no other way to tell the stories.

I saw the play on March 3, with a capacity audience of many young as wNakkiah Lui - Kill the Messenger 3ell as older people. Gradually, we met the key players – Paul, above, the Aboriginal man, whose addiction means he is always trying to scrape together enough money to score another hit; Alex, the white male nurse in the hospital’s emergency unit, right; Harley, Paul’s sister who loves him and tries to fight his addiction, with Paul, above; Nakkiah the playwright and Peter her on again/off again white boyfriend and fellow law student, below. The stories weave themselves between and through each other and at times seem to merge. The scenes are interspersed with commentary from Nakkiah.

The context for each character becomes clear throughout the play. The endless part that institutionalised racism plays in Aboriginal lives is constantly revealed. Her grandfather was given honorary white man status for his military service in World War II, though it was immediately withdrawn once his service ended. Consequently, he could never receive a home like those awarded to other returned servicemen. Nakkiah’s grandparents did receive a house through an Aboriginal housing agency, but could never own it. Because of uncoordinated bureaucratic regulation, Aboriginal housing slipped to the bottom of government housing maintenance lists. As a result, despite a year of pleading for repairs to be done, Nakkiah’s Nanna was severely injured and died weeks later in hospital.

1-kill-the-messenger-2015-belvoir-production-image-photo-credit-brett-boardmanYes, it is a story of deep injustice and tragedy, but it it is told with self-mocking and sometimes sharp tongued humour, youthful energy and optimism. To her audience Nakkiah says, “It’s so easy to point the bad things out, like racism, but it’s a whole lot harder to identify ourselves, where we fit. You may not see yourself in this story because you may not think you are part of it. You may not really see me either. I’m just the messenger, here to tell a tale or deliver the bad news. But I’m not just the messenger, this is me. My thoughts aren’t clear and I don’t know why bad things happen and how to fix it, but I’m telling you this. I wrote this. I wrote this for you.”

In the writer’s note to her play Kill the Messenger, published by Currency Press, Nakkiah Lui says: “We come to the theatre for empathy and to know that we exist. We seek acknowledgement in theatre and through that acknowledgement we seek agency.”

Photos, rehearsals – Belvoir. Cast: Alex – Matthew Backer, Harley – Katie Beckett, Nakkiah – Nakkiah Lui, Paul – Lasarus Ratuere, Peter – Sam O’Sullivan. Director – Anthea Williams.