Here's the news. My play, THE LONG FORGOTTEN DREAM is debuting next year in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. The last year has been a wild ride with rough drafts, development and long chats with staff from Sydney Theatre Company.
I am so grateful to Kip Williams and Polly Rowe for showing such support for a piece of work that for the better part of a year, turned me into a bearded, robe wearing recluse.
Today of all days then, I find it necessary to re-examine how I arrived at this point in time.
In my coastal town of Goolwa during a 2012 arts conference RESILIENCE became the new buzz word. Words like 'cultural maintenance' and 'cultural resilience' fell from the mouths of guest speakers, like wisdom from the mouth of Minerva.
Within a week or so, all of these well travelled, well payed keynote speakers flew back to whatever holy loft they came from and most artisans in Goolwa got on with their art, as did I.
I'm glad to say that when all the conference prophets left town I chose to just keep doing what I did. Over the last five years I've managed to keep writing, studying and creating.
Resilience isn't given to you because you attend a high priced conference. Resilience is the stuff that anchors you to your work when everyone else has left the room. Some of what follows I've written elsewhere, scrapped and reworked, until I found my footing around what cultural maintenance and resilience are for me.
RESILIENCE AND IDENTITY
It can be argued that from federation, the arts scene in Australian society has been dominated by an artistic milieu of colonialism. Historically, the type of art that hung on the walls of parliament, art houses and galleries, the various plays that were performed and the kind of music available, was chosen by people who were heavily influenced by Social Darwinism. As a result, theatres, galleries and cultural exhibitions became the stomping ground for elitism and the most insidiously covert form of racism – artistic colonialism. Even when emerging artists of the 1950s and 1960s began to throw off the restraints of their predecessors and art was increasingly used as a form of protest (in a time when intellectuals were declaring that Australia was part of a network of herronvolk democracies), the protester’s involvement in arts practice always had a powerful fall back position. The majority of them came from the dominant culture.
There is no sense of destiny without a sense of history. In our desire to press forward into artistic destiny, we must secure a reasonable understanding of history, painful as it may be. A devastating by-product of the historical promotion of British / European art was the potent disregard for Aboriginal artistry. If it was not being totally disregarded, Aboriginal culture and art forms were regarded as less than civilized and fell into the dangerous category of ‘the other’. In much the same way as it was comforting for plunderers to categorize Australian Aborigines as less than human (Chan 1999), it is correspondingly comfortable to view Aboriginal art as ‘other’ and Aboriginal artists as needy recipients of funding.
With major funding organizations promoting their funding ‘success stories’ on websites it is plain to see that the emphasis of a majority of funding for visual art is placed on art derived from traditional form, or is of a political nature. In other words, the majority of Aboriginal visual art that is funded is stereotypically ‘other’ or discusses ‘otherness’. It suits the needs of an artistic colonial mindset to maintain a perception that Aboriginal people are only skilled in basket weaving, dot painting and making political statements. This is not cultural maintenance – it is a perpetuation of cultural dominance.
If we see culture as something that is socially constructed and maintained then the ongoing construction of Aboriginal culture is in danger of grinding to a halt. This is due to the fact that Aboriginal artists who desire to express themselves artistically outside the boundaries of a colonial paradigm are not viewed as ‘genuine’ Aboriginal artists, but as abberations.
A standout example being the most famous Aboriginal visual artist, Albert Namatjira. “As the first prominent Aboriginal artist to work in a modern idiom, he was widely regarded as a representative of assimilation. Namatjira's brilliant career highlighted the gap between the rhetoric and reality of assimilation policies. He encountered an ambiguous response from the art world. Some criticized his water color landscapes as derivative and conventional, others viewed them as evidence of acculturation and a loss of tribal traditions.”
It is important to acknowledge heritage.
But to continually refer to people as ‘Aboriginal’ artists is to classify rather than promote. It does a disservice to members of a community who have struggled to maintain specific expressions of culture when that expression is undermined, misappropriated, misrepresented and taken advantage of. Conversely it is also detrimental to pigeon-hole artists according to their race, color or creed, unless that artist expressly intends for their work to articulate that meaning or they give their permission to be so labelled. The sad point in the above quote is that Albert Namatjira was widely regarded as a representative of assimilation rather than widely regarded as an artist.
In the 2018 Sydney Theatre Company season brochure, I have been described as a "Ngarrindjeri writer". It doesn't offend me. Because it is not racialising my job. It is making the audience aware of my claim to authenticity. So before any Indigenous activist discourse begins around this play and how I am represented, let me be very clear. My appeal to authority is my work and my culture. I have no issue with the label 'Ngarrindjeri artist'. If anyone cares to notice, I'm also called an Australian playwright on the same website... so can I gently say, move on.
Having said that, in the definition of artists used by major organizations, colonialism and whiteness continually re-centres itself. Rarely is the term ‘White artist’ or ‘Artist of English descent’ used. This argument was also taken up in 2011 by Carrie Miller in issue 57 of The Australian Art Collector. “This conjuring into being of the Aboriginal other in relation to white European Australian art seems to be more of a function of the generalised and institutionalised racism that colonisation instantiated rather than an overt and explicit racism on the part of individuals operating in the art world now. Nevertheless, using categories like Aboriginal or Indigenous, if only as seemingly benign ethnographic classifications, have real effects in the present, allowing past practices to persist through a lack of confrontation with them.”
It can seem that highlighting this erroneous type of categorization could result in funding bodies adopting a ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t’ mentality. However, the error lies not in the practice, but in the perception behind the practice. Namely, the perception that Aboriginality as only defined by colonial patriarchy is a prerequisite for funding. Nowhere else is this more clearly seen than in the degrading practice of including a certificate of Aboriginality along with funding applications.
Artists do not create art in a vacuum. They exist on a continuum spanning generations, past and future. They are influenced and inspired by artisans who have gone before and have the potential to inspire those who come after them. We are able to recognize a painting by Pro Hart or Drysdale or McCubbin. In respect to identity, Namatjira transcended racial identity and became one of those artists that we can name as we walk through a gallery, simply saying ‘That’s a Namatjira’. By doing so, we close the book on the phrase "Aboriginal Artist" and open the way for future art students to walk through a gallery and proclaim ‘That’s a Queenie McKenzie’. The artist’s identity is no longer attached to racial qualifications, but artistic ones.
RESILIENCE, CULTURAL MAINTENANCE AND MEANING
Cultural maintenance has been defined as the effort to sustain a culture by asserting its way of life and preserving its material embodiment. For the most part, when it came to Aboriginal cultures, preserving material embodiment meant the collection and preservation of artefacts. More recently, emphasis has been placed on the preservation and restoration of language. Cultural maintenance is more than the preservation of a language. “In a culture, meaning often depends on larger units of analysis - narratives, statements, groups of images, whole discourses which operate over a variety of texts – areas of knowledge about a subject which have acquired widespread authority.”
If something is living it grows. Remaining faithful to the definition of cultural maintenance means we must allow the whole definition to find expression. Giving room for the assertion a culture’s way of life is to allow space for the ongoing cultural discourses and interaction between the members of that
culture. It is to allow and support the growth of new expressions of meaning in an ever-changing world over a variety of texts. The language and cosmology of a culture is a foundational source of strength to its members. But while that may provide structure, the articulation of that cosmology can be more fluid. For example, there are many expressions of Christ’s Passion, from classical music, to paintings and even film. But the meaning remains the same. There is a shared knowledge and understanding of The Passion amongst the members of the Christian world, regardless of denomination.
So too, amongst the members of the Aboriginal community, foundational beliefs can be expressed in different ways, irrespective of the location or language group. A point in case - a deep and abiding sense of connection to the land can be seen in a Papunya dot painting, a Ngarrindjeri traditional dance, the songs of Archie Roach, the plays of Jack Davis and in the films of Warwick Thornton and Rachel Perkins.
“To belong to a culture is to belong to roughly the same linguistic and conceptual universe…” Cultural maintenance falls prey to ambiguity when the individuals doing the maintenance do not belong to that culture but feel entitled to ‘cherry pick’ what is meaningful and what is not. The arrival of European artistic expression is a relatively new phenomena on the cultural landscape of what is now called Australia. Aboriginal traditions, cosmology and oral history have been sustained over thousands of years but the keepers of that history have had to come to terms with the loss of sacred places, languages and ceremony in a very brief time. The fact that Indigenous ceremonial artistic expression still thrives is testament to the resilience of a people who, in spite of their collective grief and loss, continue to assert what is meaningful and what is not, through the protocol of Eldership.
In genuine cultural maintenance it is the duty of rightfully appointed Elders to draw meaning from collective ceremony and interpret it. That duty belongs to no one else. In the same manner, contemporary artists within an Aboriginal community bear a similar responsibility for their own work. The discourse, coded or not, contained within the work is the property of the individual artist.
Within the context of an Aboriginal community, if the work is an individual work, then the artist alone should be accountable for meaning and interpretation. There is a discernible difference between a collective ritual and an individual piece of art.
There exists a manifest difference between a group ceremony handed down from generation to generation and a modern artistic expression. Therefore, we might well ask, does an Elder have the right to reject a piece of work as genuinely Aboriginal? If, in an effort to assert a continued way of life or cultural expression, an Elder disapproves of an individual piece of work, where does his/her responsibility lie? To cultural maintenance or the continuation of a living, breathing culture that is forming new expressions of resistance with each new generation of Aboriginal artists?
Where do the new Aboriginal Hip Hop musicians sit within the parameters of cultural maintenance? Are they seriously engaged in the continuation of resistance and thereby maintaining their culture or, to paraphrase Drew Barrymore in the film Music and Lyrics, are they destroying ‘two musical cultures’ at once? Who decides whether their music is ‘genuine’ Aboriginal art?
Australia Council encourages Aboriginal musicians to apply for funding but on their website they state “… traditional knowledge that underpins Indigenous artwork is what defines it and sets it apart from mainstream art.” Are not these musicians continuing to assert their culture and way of life by putting
political discourse into song? We need only look at the success of Non Indigenous bands like Hilltop Hoods to consider that Hip Hop is a genuine form of resistance and artistic expression in Australia for Indigenous artists.
If artists do not create art in a vacuum then we might say that in forming new expressions of resilience and resistance in song, dance and art, individual artists within an Aboriginal community are able to consolidate their own place on the continuum. In doing so they give meaning to their own lives, much like their ancestors did. “The truths of social living…were enshrined in their religion…A strong belief in that religion ensured maintenance of a social and cultural order that most of them (Aborigines) seemed to have regarded as eminently satisfactory. Within they found recognition of the dignity of man as a person, and assurance that his life had pattern and meaning, and that in death he was not lost to his society; that an essential essence remained and could never be dissipated.” (Berndt & Phillips 1973)
The complexity of processing and interpreting meaning from ceremonies, songs, painting, films and theatre in order to assess what is viable for the ongoing survival of a people and its culture needs to be left up to the people who are active participants in that culture.
The title Traditional Owner does not just apply to land, but to knowledge and meaning. Just because a new work does not appear ancient, or does not fit the funding bodies definition of Aboriginal art, that does not disqualify it from having as much Aboriginality and meaning as those works that the world is already familiar with. From bark paintings to stage plays, from didjeridus to digital samplers – discourse that brings meaning and operates over a variety of texts is a sign of a healthy, resilient culture. It is also a sign that artists in Aboriginal communities have the ability to break free from the semiotic limitations of texts imposed on them in bygone eras.
RESILIENCE AND ACCOMMODATION
“Much of twentieth-century Aboriginal art is ‘transitional’ in a number of ways. It is the art of people overwhelmed by an alien culture within which they have had to learn to live in order to survive, since the whites have made few adjustments.” J & M Megaw, 1988
Two needs have been illuminated so far. (1) The need for mainstream arts organizations and funding bodies to disengage from the practice of classifying artists by race and (2) The need for the Aboriginal community to identify and allow discourse that is authentic in the work of individual artists for the purpose of cultural maintenance. The first point speaks to an external action that can bolster the confidence of the Aboriginal community. Confidence to create and present work, knowing that the work will be appreciated for it’s own sake and not simply because it is part of a colonial ‘otherness’ paradigm. The second point speaks to an internal process of maturation on the part of Elders and individual artists in an Aboriginal community. Becoming mature enough to recognize that change is inevitable, but traditions can still be maintained with integrity. In the bigger scheme of the current arts system, these two needs are simply a starting point for Aboriginal groups who are on the journey to becoming more resilient artistic communities. They are mechanisms to resist further erosion of Aboriginal values. But to be resilient is to not merely be resistant and defensive.
Resilience has more to do with accommodation than resistance. In the resistance and accommodation model used in the historical study of Aboriginal/Colonial relations, accommodating and making room for an external influence can be seen as just as valid as resisting it. Trading with or taking on the customs of an occupying force was a means of survival for some Aboriginal groups. While resistance can be seen as simplistic in its methodology (Attacking cattle, protecting land or refusal to give up a native language), accommodation, though ostensibly passive, was a complicated choice and a more adaptive form of resistance for some individuals. To be able to accommodate the loss of land while continuing with ceremony, ritual and art in the face of overwhelming change is more akin to what Mark Robinson ( one of the keynotes at the aforementioned conference in Goolwa) calls adaptive resilience.
“Adaptive resilience is the capacity to remain productive and true to core purposeand identity whilst absorbing disturbance and adapting with integrity in response to changing circumstances.” – Making Adaptive Resilience Real, 2010.
In this paper Robinson advocates a move toward an artistic philosophy that embraces a more ecological systems approach rather than a business stance. He freely admits that this philosophy should be used as a starting point for discussion and analysis, rather than just considered another fad. While warning that resilience should not merely be the latest buzz-word he proposes that resilience theory shifts the perception of the arts sector from economy to ecology. This draws on the assumption that living ecological systems are adaptive and resilient in times of change. The shift from ‘arts economy’ to ‘arts ecology’ is likely to be a more functional parallel for South Australian Aboriginal communities in the Alexandrina region, since accommodation as a form of resilience was already being practiced in the 1830s. During this turbulent time of change ‘…Kaurna people and groups from areas such as Encounter Bay and along the Murray needed little encouragement to come into the colonial capital, Adelaide.’(Pope, 1989). They saw it as a peaceful way of surviving. Europeans saw it as an opportunity to concentrate an Aboriginal population into one area, thus making it easier to claim land that was not ‘occupied’. While Aboriginal and European groups of Adelaide lived peacefully during a time of mutual accommodation, agendas for land were never far from colonial thinking. With this in mind, it is useful to point out that Robinson warns against resilience theory becoming simply another arts sector agenda, ‘the post-2010 box for people to tick by generating so-called Resilience Plans.’
Aboriginal communities have been the subject of so many health, education and arts initiatives by successive governments that it is almost tiresome to hear about the arrival of a new paradigm. Also, having each successive government or arts board impose an initiative can create an unhealthy dependency on government, leading to a collective learned helplessness – the antithesis of resilience.
Again, cultural maintenance is more than the preservation of a language. It is the ongoing effort to maintain life, creativity and a functional artistic lifestyle in midst of turbulent times.
To be resilient, one must be in the fight. One must be tempered by the fray. In the end, as always, it is the work that matters.