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.

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Get Funparked on Sunday while you buy your groceries!

They did it! Kaz Therese and her creative team from Powerhouse Youth Theatre, Blacktown Arts Centre and the Mt Druitt community raised more than the $5000 they needed to stage FUNPARK in 2015. Their efforts through the crowd fundraiser Pozible were spurred by their anger at the negative publicity about the Mt Druitt neighbourhood generated by the SBS program Struggle Street in May.

Funpark 2015

The inaugural Funpark last year was a celebration of the Bidwill community’s stories and strengths and a feature of Sydney Festival. One of the best practical outcomes, apart from increased confidence and self-esteem, was the decision of Foodworks to set up a supermarket there. Funpark had highlighted the problem for the community of having none of the local shops they once had and the complexity of access to alternatives.

Funpark - Rev John DaceyKaz says, “My hot tips are, if you are a guest in Mt Druitt it would be great for you to attend these two works: The Occult of Bidwill presented by Minister John Dacey, left, and also Cuppa Tea with Therese presented by local resident Therese Wilson. These are both fascinating and inclusive live art works that provide direct engagement and an opportunity to get to understand some of the local issues and how you can further support the community on the day. Also make a t-shirt and dance like it’s the revolution in the carpark of your dreams – to DJ Tracksuitpants!

“Of course there are DJ’s, performances, workshops and social actions so check out the program and I’ll see you and your family and friends in Mt Druitt this Sunday from 3pm-7pm to get Funparked!  Foodworks (carpark),Carlise Ave, Bidwill. It will be cold so bring warm things and pillows and blankets to watch the videos. Do the locals a favour and do your shopping at Bidwill Foodworks!”

Taking a step toward each other through writing and theatre at Bankstown

1-IMG_3203When Urban Theatre Projects’ artistic director Rosie Dennis set out to create Bankstown Live, her goal was to get to know the neighbourhood better where the company works. By offering the opportunity for locals to work with a range of different artists, it was a chance for neighbours to get to know each other a little better and to tell their stories to a wider world. It was a four day event and part of Sydney Festival 2015.

For long established resident David Cranston, Urban Theatre Projects’ Bankstown Live offered the possibility of gently pushing a door open to catch a glimpse of what the future might be. When Rosie met David at his house in Northam Ave, 18 months ago, she found his yard perfect as the stage for the premiere season of The Tribe. Michael Mohammed Ahmad grew up in the area, is director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and a doctoral candidate at UWS’ Writing and Society Research Centre. The Tribe is his semi-autobiographical first novel in which he reflects on family and his Arab-Australian Muslim community as seen through the eyes of a child. David welcomed the proposal.

The Tribe - coverGiven the support of theatre director, Janice Muller, actor Hazem Shamas and composer and performer Oonagh Sherrard, Michael Mohammed adapted his novel for the stage. With minimal props and sympathetic background sound by Oonagh (top photo), Hazem evoked Bani the young boy and traced his relationship with his Tayta, the grandmother central to his young life, through his Tayta’s death and some of his extended family’s experience. It was a vivid, insightful and humorous evocation, just like the book, and greeted by the audience with warmth and recognition.

Director of Emu Heights Theatre Company, Ian Zammit, from the Penrith area, describes Michael Mohammed’s book as beautiful. In light of the Martin Place siege in December and the Charlie Ebdo attack in Paris, Ian is especially drawn to Michael Mohammed’s nuanced response about freedom – “Freedom of speech is a freedom worth fighting for, but there are equally important freedoms – the freedom to love. We may be granted the right to offend, but out of respect we can always choose not to exercise that right.

“I call this freedom, “Taking a step toward each other”,” Michael Mohammed says.

Family Portraits - Joanne SaadThere were many instances of this approach in the different presentations comprising Bankstown Live. Artists worked respectfully with each group. There was no sense of voyeurism or judgement as visitors were invited to share the experiences, hopes and dreams of local residents. Left, multi-media artist Joanne Saad captures Wafa Ziam in conversation with residents in Family Portraits. Joanne created an outdoor studio, using a life-size photo of the interior of four different family homes. She ensured the permission of each participant to publish their portraits and each of the four families hosted the event against the backdrop of their own home on successive evenings.

1 - Dancing Project - Albert OhThrough headphones, local writers shared intimate stories, read by another performer, of their responses to the death of a loved one. The Last Word was created with Rosie Dennis. The Bankstown Dancing Project was another with a generous spirit presented in two parts and developed by Emma Saunders. Emma was delighted to work with local couple Albert and Nancy Oh, whose suggestion of the Rumba 1 set the tone for an exuberant street celebration. Albert, above, puts his heart into the feeling of spring.

1-IMG_3200Left, the second dance was described by Emma as a kind of hokey pokey for the 21st century. The audience was left in no doubt about the dancers’ enjoyment. This dance was performed in front of the Bankstown Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House, which had been lifted, see below, by a willing group of supporters and transported to the other end of the performance area in Northam Ave. This followed Uncle Steve Williams - Acknowledgement to Countrythe launch of Bankstown Live by Aboriginal elder, Uncle Steve Williams’ traditional smoking ceremony and acknowledgement to country, lower left.

The Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House was the work of Filipino visual artist Alwin Reamillo and part of an ongoing collaboration with Urban Theatre Projects. The spirit house was reminiscent of the light structured house1-IMG_3189s of his homeland and the impact of Typhoon Haiyan last year. Bayanihan is the spirit of community action, which can be triggered by devastating events and lead to powerful links in volunteer assistance. Among the many meanings of moving the spirit house described by Alwin were the transience of housing in such climatic conditions, continuing change in the streets of Bankstown, the spirit of cooperation engendered by the need of mutual support and the movement of the house in a “creative spirit of community, diversity and togetherness”.

The spirit house became the backdrop to another new initiative by Urban Theatre Projects – their film debut. Bre & Back follows four Aboriginal women, Grace and Jenny Shillingworth, and Noeleen and Lily Shearer as they head to Brewarrina to visit family and reminisce about their lives. It’s a gentle, meandering film, full of glimpses into the lives of families profoundly affected by the removal of children decades ago, but coming together to reflect and share stories and culture in an atmosphere of humour, acceptance and quiet optimism.

A lullaby project, original songs and a short animated film were further enrichments of Bankstown Live and really required a second visit to fully appreciate the event.

1-Diet FC FinalTaking a step toward each other by different means is The Diet Starts on Monday published late last year in Bankstown. Author Tamar Chnorhokian is another founding member of Sweatshop and an arts and communications graduate from UWS. Drawing on her lifetime in western Sydney and her Armenian background, Tamar says The Diet Starts On
Monday tackles themes of obesity, cultural expectations and body image. “My novel is about the pressure teens today feel to emulate the perfect body image created by the mass
media.” It’s a story told with a light, but poignant touch and plenty of humour. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and highly recommend it.

Wondrous flights of theatrical imagination collide with government action

Tabac rouge 2015“Is this the story of a musician, a creator, a tyrant, an old fool? No, and Pergolesi is very unhappy to be dead: he doesn’t have the opportunity to reply.” This is the answer from the “Personnage” in “interview” notes in the program for Sydney Festival’s Tabac Rouge at Sydney Theatre, until January 23. Director, creator and central character, James Thierree, seen seated in the photo above with contortionist Valerie Doucet, has created another extraordinary production designed to disorient and amaze. See Jill Sykes’s Sydney Morning Herald review.

Set in a derelict darkened space inhabited by acolytes to an unpredictable “Personnage” and furnished with constantly moving bizarre machines, Tabac Rouge was both epic and episodic. It was violent and tender, organic with the flow of acrobats and dancers, mechanistic with the introduction of strange pieces of equipment assembled from a wild assortment of scraps. Lights flickered and glared, smoke poured from odd places, sound soared and thundered. Illusion abounded. A giant fragmented mirror and later a camera interrogated the soul, provoked confusion or became tools of comedy. This whole cavernous world seemed uncertain and out of control.

I began to wonder if I was dying, too, as changing scenes triggered endless associations with times past – Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove; individual patients on Male Ward 1, Parramatta Psychiatric Centre, where I worked in the late 1960s, David Wenham as the arsonist in Louis Nowra’s play Cosi; the amazing sensiblities of the wonderful actor/director Aanisa Vylet; the intense intelligence of activist writer/actor Michael Mohammed Ahmad; Bonney Djuric’s Les Oubliettes in Exposed to Moral Danger at the former Parramatta Girl’s Home; and Kaz Therese’s passionate commitment to authentic story telling. Something more than just the sum of its parts, Tabac Rouge is superbly skilful, breathtaking, and variously deafening and poignant.

1-Puncture final layoutCloser to home, Sydney Festival is bringing Puncture to Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, from January 22 to 25. Puncture brings together FORM dance, physical theatre company Legs on the Wall and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. They present a kaleidoscope of dance through time and space. “Watching bodies moving in rhythm, you are guided from the restraint and formality of classical dance through the sensuality of the tango, to the rebellion of youth and the freedom of dance.” All to Stefan Gregory’s score inspired by the great songwriters and sung live by a 30 voice choir. Two leading Australian dance artists, Kristina Chan and Joshua Thomson, lead 12 young dancers on to the floor.

Click here for information and bookings.

I was still thinking about my previous post Election looms – what happens now about arts precinct for North Parramatta? as I walked through Millers Point to Sydney Theatre and Tabac Rouge. Notices outside many houses owned by the NSW Department of Housing declared resistance to the eviction of occupants, so that the government could reap financial benefit. Some were lifelong residents and even third generation, who had been given abrupt notice only months ago. It was a needlessly cruel process.

In a submission to the Department of Planning & Environment about the Parramatta North Urban Renewal Transformation Project, a Parramatta resident points out that Planning Minister Pru Goward declared “. . . the public good must be front and centre” when announcing the formalisation of The Statement of Principles generated for the Bays Precinct Renewal Project in November 2014. No such statement exists for the nationally significant North Parramatta Heritage site. This has led the resident to fear that neither the NSW Government nor UrbanGrowth NSW consider the site as having the importance they purport to extol. It’s a fear expressed by other community members.

To be confronted with the unjust treatment of Millers Point residents is a nasty reminder of just how unfair and untrustworthy governments can be.

Bidwill’s angry rebuttal of media laziness

An angry post by Judith Ridge, February 8, about the endless and lazy media bashing of Bidwill – this time by ABC News – follows hard on the heels of the eminently successful Bidwill Funpark, part of Sydney Festival and directed by Kaz Therese. Theatre director Kaz was a nine year old living in Bidwill, when she was shocked to hear her street described on television’s 60 Minutes as the worst in Sydney (PPM p.99). The media indulged itself in a total beat-up about “Bidwill Riots” and Kaz was ultimately inspired to study theatre and work for the rights of communities to respect, understanding and adequate infrastructure through celebration of their strengths.  Funpark, an event of Sydney Festival supported by Blacktown Arts Centre, did all of that. Some media reporting has been more intelligent and constructive. The big hope is that the work of Funpark can be sustained and developed.

See the story that provoked Judith’s reaction – Bidwill residents describe life in a western Sydney suburb ‘full of sad stories’