By Ngioka Bunda-Heath
(Wakka Wakka, Ngugi and Biripi)
Days before the audience enters the theatre, they know that this will not be a typical passive performer, forth wall, audience show. Audience members received a warning letter and a consent form stating that Wiradjuri performance artists Onyx aka S.J Norman will receive 147 scalpel incisions on their back throughout the 147 minute plus performance, to represent the 147 recorded Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia. Perfectly embodying actions that transmute grief. Onyx also ask of the audience members who are willing and able, to give a shocking and powerfully equal exchange throughout this performance. If audience members wanted to be passive going into this show they were not and actively took part. Taking hold and responsibility of the weight that this performance illuminated the overwhelming marginalised number of the Indigenous deaths in custody, who were found not guilty of a crime. 40 audience members participated and met Onyx half way in a corporeal offering when they felt ready and or necessary to do so in a ritualistic manner of two pledges. One of flesh: an offering of blood, and two an offering of skin.
The show started with an outdoor courtyard ceremonial welcome fire. The audience members were ushered into the theatre by Kalkadoon performance artist Joshua Pether to see Onyx already receiving incisions by Wallangamma and Takalaka descendant performance artist Carly Sheppard. While words detailing the sex, age, where and how the person who was in custody died (no names or images where shown) was projected on the wall behind. With a beautiful yet repetitive hunting soundscape played in the background thanks to Wiradjuri sound designer and performance artist Naretha Korvin. While, in front of the main action as you entered the audience members who gave permission of an offering, pledged the first. A single drop of blood given via a blood lancet and a small, quick and painless prink of the right index finger. Invocated their own ancestral line done by Darug woman, Mykaela Saunders. Then all the blood was mixed with salt water. The salt water had been transported by Onyx from Gadigal country, the first colonial penal colony in Australia. The second offering marked a pledge of remembrance, a promise made and kept between performer and audience member. With the top joint of the left index finger marked with a small dot. Imperceptibly, but permanently- by the tip of a single tattoo needle. Done by Inupiaq tattooist Holly Mititquq Nordlum.
After the 147 scalpel incisions and 147 minutes of the performance went by, Elder Aunty Muriel Miguel from the Kuna and Rappahannock Nations, of Spiderwoman Theatre based in Lenapehoking / New York cleaned and sang healing Onyx's wounds. Symbolising the end of the theatre space section of the show.
To finish the ritual, bringing the show full circle the blood and salt water was walked in procession from the theatre to the East River. Then poured into the East River as an offering to Lenapehoking / New York Indigenous land and its people. While we all walked it started raining acting as an almost cleansing for both the performers and the audience members.
You can’t choreograph that.