(VIDEO – WILD AUSTRALIA TOUR)
The footage you’re looking at right now comes from the live art promenade work Wild Australia Tour, created by Jack Sheppard, presented as part of Barring Yanabul at YIRRAMBOI First Nations Arts Festival in May last year.
Jack and co-performers Suri Bin Saad and Benjamin Creek walked the length of Swanston Street in Melbourne’s cbd, starting from the forecourt at Arts Centre Melbourne and finishing on the steps of the State Library. The piece was developed in response to archives Jack had unearthed whilst researching the stories of his ancestors, his family.
In 1892, 22 men, four women and one child from various language groups around Far North Queensland and also from Muralag in the Torres Strait, were forcibly abducted and placed in chains by a man named Archibald Meston, a Scotsman who would later become the chief protector of Aborigines.
They were forced to rehearse traditional dances in the canefields – a cut ‘n’ paste of the different mobs song cycles and stories. The “Wild Australia” performance toured Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. It played to great acclaim and made Meston a wealthy man.
While the show enjoyed huge success, the treatment of Meston’s performers became less and less socially acceptable the further south they travelled. In Melbourne, a complaint was made about the dancers being chained up and there was a public outcry. As a result, the program was defunded, Meston disbanded the troupe and he returned to Queensland.
The dancers were abandoned in Melbourne to fend for themselves. Facing starvation and illness, they earned money by performing. They became buskers, running their own show and at each stop, they earned enough to feed themselves and travel to the next town, until they reached home.
This extraordinary capacity for survival, for resilience, ingenuity, adaptability and brilliance is a reminder to First Nations brothers and sisters here today, that we will always find a feed. We will always find shelter, even if it’s under the blanket of a million eyes shining above. And we can always find our way home - some of us already have, some of us still searching, all of us at different stages in that journey.
This part of our history, this story, is unfortunately not unique. We have an almost 200 year-old history of what in the context of APAM could be described as, international arts touring.
In fact, we are probably the first international arts exports of this colonized country.
From the early 1800’s we have entertained the social elite of Germany, England, North America and most notably in ‘return seasons’ at the Paris World Fair. Our culture, songs and dances intrigued, delighted and tantalized audiences the world over - as performers in travelling circus troupes and more often than not, as exhibits in Human Zoo’s, to satisfy the curiosity of the European mind desiring closer and more intimate, but safe encounters, with the exotic, the native, the savage, the other.
I raise the examples of the Wild Australia Tour and a nation’s history in the international export of blakfulla arts and culture, within the context of an arts market that seeks to question its conventions and its future, because I have to ask - has much really changed?
If the majority of the room and this sector is made up of non-Indigenous buyers and presenters, some of whom are in the market for Indigenous work, for presentation in mainly non-Indigenous venues (actually all coz there’s still not one dedicated Blak performing arts venue in this country) and the work needs to suit the interests and thematics, politics, education and bottom-lines of the non-Indigenous presenter, programmer and their audiences, then what are we as First Nations creators and arts workers, other than pawns in a capitalist system which continues to trade in the exploitation of human labor for profit and the commodification of our culture for entertainment?
The men and women of the Wild Australia Tour did not have a choice, they were abducted, chained and shipped up and down the coast and across oceans to be put on parade. As First Nations artists today, how complicit in this system have we become? And what are our choices?
I would like to give just one example of how the conventions of this sector and of a market such as this, could currently be interpreted from a First Nations perspective:
Whitefulla still has all the power, authority and autonomy to dictate what trading and economic system we operate under.
Whitefulla determines what excellence or quality is.
Whitefella still manages and has curatorial control of performing arts venues Blakfella could work in.
Whitefella still programs Blak stories either written or directed by whitefellas and determines the Blak narratives that audiences engage in.
Blakfella says ‘fuck me’ if I’m gonna make a living from this, I better make the same kinda shit too”.
Blakfella gets busy making making that kinda work, that kinda narrative that intrigues, delights, traumatizes, tantalizes and satisfies the curious mind about Blakfellas culture, identity, traditions and modernity.
Blakfella constantly talking about being a blakfella.
Blakfella gets an opportunity to pitch their work.
Whitefella says ”Not Aboriginal enough” (true story).
Blakfella has another go.
Whitefella says “Now I want you to condense 70,000 years of ancestral lineage, of continuous culture and creative practice, of complex totemic, skin and ceremonial systems complicated by 229 years of colonization, survival, government and social policy that continues to actively oppress your peoples and sovereignty into a 2 minute elevator pitch or marketing blurb, but make it exciting and make it accessible”
Then Whitefella asks “what’s your community engagement strategy?”
Blakfella says “ey?”
Whitefella says “well 1. how would we contextualize this for non-Indigenous audiences? And 2. can you help us bring your mob in to see more of our work year round?”
Blakfella stops being an artist and gets busy creating education and learning tools on top of having spent the past 2 years sweating their box off making a new work, to do the work whitefella could have done 40-60 years ago when the bans on blakfullas entering civic spaces was finally lifted.
Whitefella asks ”oh and do you know such and such?”
Blakfella says “yeh, that’s my cuz”
Whitefella says “We love such and such, we so want to work with them”
Blakfella hands over networks and numbers, and more networks and more numbers and before Blakfella knows it, that phone ringing all the time. A real relationship is building. Blakfella getting asked which show’s a good show and who Whitefella should get in and what protocols go here and what best practice could go there.
But then sometimes Whitefella doesn’t listen and sometimes things fuck up and Whitefella always says “we just didn’t have enough time or budget to do that” and everytime things fuck up Blakfella says “told you so”.
Then one day Whitefella rings up and says “We’ve just done a whole reconstruction of the venue and we thought it would be a great time to rename some of the spaces. We were thinking we could rename the bar Ngargee, that’s the local name for ceremony isn’t it? Wouldn’t that be great?” (again, true story) “And can you teach me how to do a welcome in language?”
Blakfella says “Mmmmm” but Blakfella really thinking “so you want to name the place where people sit and get pissed before and after each show, after the mobs most significant ceremonial gathering? The ceremony whitefella banned back in the 1800’s completely altering the local economy, trading practices and protocols around the sharing of knowledge and lore? Huh”
So Blakfella says “This not my country. My mob from that way. You need to speak to Aunty so and so about that. But Aunty got strong opinions on people speaking her language, just so you know. It’s nice that Whitefella showing an interest and all, but mob can’t even speak language yet. We’re still recovering language that was banned and beaten out of our old people over 100 years ago”
Whitefella says “Oh it’s so complicated isn’t it. The protocols, the consultations, it’s all just so complex , it’s hard to keep up sometimes. We just want to do the right thing”
Blakfella says “Then you need to listen. Really listen. Here’s an idea. Seeing as no-one gonna hand over any of their venues or construct purpose built Blakfella spaces so we can lead our sector to the next level, how about you make space in yours and get a whole mob of us in there and Blakfella can lead and manage Blakfella business, our way?”
Whitefella says “Well, now that’s a great long term goal. But it’s gonna take work. We only just got our Reconciliation Action Plan over the line with the board and that took 4 years. Have you been in to see a show lately? We’ve got Aunty so and so doing prerecorded Welcomes before each show now”
Blakfella says “yeh I heard it last time you had Blakfella show in there 2 years ago”
Whitefella says “It’s great isn’t it?”
Blakfella says “so what do you think about that idea?”
Whitefella says “Like I said, it’s gonna take work, a whole lotta work. It’s a great long-term goal to have. Let’s keep the conversation going”
Blakfella says “You wanna do the right thing yeh?”
Whitefella says “But of course”
Blakfella says “Oh…just not, right now”