On Monday 18 July some of the Digi Youth Art's crew spoke at the "What is the future of performance in Brisbane?" event at La Boite (thanks for having us).
These were our words:
Alethea: Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the role that performance has had on these lands for many thousands of years. Long before these four walls, or the walls of any Brisbane arts institution, was built. I would also like to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island artists, our current and emerging elders, whose work has begun the long process of decolonisation so that Indigenous performance will no longer be a government pleaser or anthropological spectacle of the other or a tool for further assimilation in this country. And as this is a discussion about the future, I would like to acknowledge our future artists who will continue to do this work. Especially those that stand beside me today: Taneale, Lachie and Lenny. (Because I wouldn’t be Alethea Beetson if I didn’t have a swagger of Indigenous youth beside me at all times. And yes, swagger is the correct collective noun).
In the future I am not going to need to spend so much time providing context for this conversation so stay with me.
Firstly, I am an Aboriginal woman. I was raised by my Mum, Nanna and Pop. My Pop is Kabi Kabi and Wiradjuri and Nan is of European descent. I am proud of all parts of my heritage. My identity does not give me licence to speak on behalf of all Indigenous people, especially due to my age and experience. My identity also does not give any audience the right to assume my thoughts and opinions are representative of all Indigenous people.
Secondly, I do say everything I say today knowing that there are sometimes more pressing issues in the world I find myself in. I am not saying liberation within the arts is not connected to liberation in all other facets of life. I know that the arts can address these issues and in many cases provide a platform for healing. But I know there have been times I have not been mentally and physically present with #IStandWithTheArts movements because my mental and physical presence has been prioritised elsewhere. Like supporting kids who actually live the harsh Indigenous youth suicide statistics that some of you may read about. Yesterday, as I was tying up what I was going to say today, I learnt of the passing of an older cousin to a couple of Digi Youth Art’s kids. And honestly at that point in time I didn’t really care about the future of performance in Brisbane. Not when you are in a constant state of bearing witness to such tragedy. I also say all of this knowing how hard I was fought for. I know that people fought for my voice to be in this kind of arena. It is a balancing act that exists for me and many others working alongside me.
Thirdly, it is literally not in our DNA to be able to separate the past, present or future. We are super positive people with super positive thoughts on the future, we are just going to have to get real with you from time to time - it’s what we do. Besides, hiding the past is just another way of controlling the future.
Lastly, to unpack our focus question before addressing it: what is the future of performance in Brisbane? As much as I get excited about the work that I might get to make alongside my communities in 5, 10 or even 20 years’ time, most of what we do has to consider the word future in a question like this as: what do we want for our children’s children? Or our children’s children’s children. As for performance, I am going to speak to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performance, which now includes theatre. Remembering that our performance is integral to the passing down of our culture and now political history. We would like to look at this quite holistically and at an industry level on what needs to shift, change and/or go back to what it always was. It would be nice to think about the stylistic future of performance but the social and political climate of this country often means our creative risk is just standing on stage and sharing our perspective. Sometimes we don’t feel we are in a position to take the same creative risks of our peers.
Now I have set some context for our contribution to this conversation, it is time to actually answer the questions. We hope the future of performance in Brisbane is
Taneale: Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small town. Her skin was black. Her hair was curly. Her eyes were brown. She looked a lot like all the other people in the small town. She loved her small town. She loved that all her family lived around the corner. All of her friends were a bike ride away. She loved the smell of rain when they were in drought. She loved the silence that floated around and nestled in the calm waters of the Warrego river. She knew all the streets inside and out, the way the river hit the sand bank, the motorbike tracks under the bridge, where to catch the best yabbies, the best tree to build a cubby house. But most of all, she loved the feeling of being understood without needing to even say anything. Just a head nod or a quick glance. That was her lingo. This girl soon learned that life outside her small town wasn’t so understanding. It wasn’t so comforting and safe. It needed work. It needed to be whole. Seven years on, this girl, now a young woman still calls this small town home. The small town being Charleville. The young girl being me. My name is Taneale Lawton and I’m a proud Bidjara woman. I am 19 years old and I currently live in Brisbane. Brisbane is my second home and has been since I moved here 7 years ago to attend St Margaret’s Anglican Girls as a boarder.
Now, the young girl I spoke about ‘was’ me. The only reason I say ‘was’ is because I changed. I changed in 2010 when I went to boarding school. My first few weeks at Maggie's, some of my newly friends said things like this to me:
“I’ve never met an Aboriginal before”
“You’re a bit different to what I expected you to be.”
“You look like an Aboriginal but you don’t sound like one.”
“You’re actually a cool one, like we get along and stuff.”
It was from that point on that I realized this is not Charleville. This is not my small town where I can just look at someone and they understand me. My first reaction was anger. It infuriated me that they had this image of what I was supposed to be. My second thought was, perhaps there not intentionally being racist, but more the fact that they’re not educated about my culture or who I am. It wasn’t until 2012 that I really had an opportunity to voice my opinions in my first Indigenous theatre performance unpacking this ignorance.
For me the future is when the truth about this country is finally out in the open and everyone is standing on common ground. It is a place where we are truly reconciled. For a long time, Australia has been disconnected. Divided. Separated. If we really want a successful future, it’s about educating the wider community about what we experience, feel and think and how to respect that. And for thousands of years, our people have been doing that through the arts, especially performance. The art we create encapsulates the voices of thousands of generations. In this moment, my voice along with all other young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are finally being heard and our audience are listening and learning. I still have black skin. I still have curly hair. And I still have brown eyes. But I have an education. I have a creative voice. I also have stories. Stories passed down from generation to generation. Stories from the very ground our arts institutions around Brisbane are built on. Stories from my ancestors. Stories that I’m going to ensure come with me in to the future. As current and future arts leaders, I ask you what are you bringing with you into the future? And how will that impact all of us positively?
Lachie: The future of performance in Brisbane for people like me, relies on a complete shift in our approach to educating and preparing artists for this industry.
Let’s jump forward to say the year 2030. Pokemon Go is well a truly a thing of the past but our desire to consume and explore will still be there. There is a girl named Sam. She is 17 years old. Indigenous and raised in the Sunshine Coast suburb of Caloundra. (Yep that is right Caloundra still exists because we decided that the environment was actually important). Sam just moved to Kelvin Grove to study. Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama. A course she has wanted to do since she was little. A course that'll give her a chance to make it into her chosen industry - theatre and performance. She is about to receive an education that is reflective of the industry she works in. When she studies Australian Performance, the Indigenous component isn’t a one off lecture or footnote. It is told accurately with regards to the very deep and long history of performance in this country. Yes, the origins of theatre may lie on other lands, but our performance has many similarities, there is just the absence of these four walls.
This vision of the future is far from the experiences of many students today. Yes, there are courses and institutions dedicated to Indigenous performance and that shows the progress we have made and can continue to make. But the performance I want to engage with, Indigenous performance, well that isn’t available to me, despite being at an Australian university. And sometimes, where is available, it is an elective. And that’s what privilege is. When your style of performance or your history is taught to everyone, where as mine is an elective despite it’s 40 000 year plus timeline.
Alethea: Decolonisation is an awkward, confronting and uncomfortable process. We can’t make it quick like ripping off a band aid either. A lot has happened so a lot needs to be undone.
So many of our ancestors are still in cultural institutions within Australia and around the world. How can Indigenous performance actually sit in the arts and cultural sector until our ancestors are returned home or where their mob wants them to be? So many of the projects we want to do are determined by people who do not share our cultural heritage or in some cases may not have been through any vigorous education programs to understand our heritage. How can Indigenous performance continue to thrive in a space where our sovereignty within our arts practice is not fully recognised by the processes we endure? As Indigenous artists, how are we going to manage the cultural load of continuing our culture through performance and pushing the creative boundaries of what our performance can become alongside educating those we work with so we can ensure a culturally safe industry for our artists and young people? These are some pretty big questions. We know we haven’t provided any answers but these are questions we hope our children’s children’s children won't have to answer. So many of the artists we look up to have begun unsettling this industry and we are excited to be in a position to do so. Digi Youth Arts recognises that unsettling is a process led by blackfellas but we also know it requires support from the wider community. And we think supporting an unsettled industry will reward everyone.
It might seem like unsettling or decolonising the arts and cultural sector will only benefit artists like us. But we think colonisation might be the cause of many, many issues within the industry at present. Disrespect for the arts from leadership, well that came with the tall ships as well. Our artists have been deemed instrumental in our communities for many, many, many years. They are our historians, our teachers and our keepers of our knowledge systems. That is how important the arts are to our communities. And we know the arts are important to all of you here. What is exciting about this land that we all now call home is that artists have been respected by leadership here longer than we haven’t. This isn’t to scale but it paints a picture - if you take a 30cm ruler and say that is the timeline of the physical human presence on Australia. The period of white settlement is like a small dot at the end. That is all. That means for this entire period here, on these lands, artists have been given the same resources as everyone else. That is pretty rad. Unsettling benefits all of us. So if an unsettled industry means we find a way to ensure our sovereignty within performance is recognised, our role within institutions is equal and we skip back a little bit in our history to a time when artists were given the same resources as everyone else, I am pretty sure that is something we can all get on board with.
We know these changes are going to require some pretty big changes outside this industry as well.
This deadly fulla ain’t no MC
But words are gonna set us free
We ain’t the master of no beats
We know we own these streets
They say Australians all let us rejoice?
But them fullas don’t really give us a choice.
They say, for we are young and free?
Because they keep ignoring our history.
Getting in a spin about the word invasion.
When it nearly took us out of the equation.
(Aside) What you still going on about that for?
Ain’t that long ago you rocked up on our shore.
These dark rings around these eyes.
A result of thousands of inherited cries.
Now it ain’t all pain and it ain’t all sorrow.
There is a way forward and it starts tomorrow.
Our yesterday gives the best guidance
Standing on the shoulder of ancient giants
These boundless plains to share?
Well our mob is the next rightful heir.
For those who have come across the seas?
It is time for some significant treaties.
We come from the desert,
To the rainforest that meets the sea.
Closing of our communities
That brings less opportunities
We must stand and fight
One day we will all see the light
The First People’s of Australian
Ain’t going no where I can tell ya
In history’s stage
Let’s create this page
In history’s stage
Let’s create this page.