If the recent skirmish over federal arts funding teaches us anything, it’s that even the best-laid plans are not set in stone. With a change of government or the swearing in of a new minister, an entire ecology can be swiftly placed in a precarious position. If the foundations are unstable, it can all come tumbling down.
The arts ecology is changing and with that, an evolution in our thinking and the ways in we which we resource our basic needs is required. With all the investment over the past decade made in building capacity for a self-managed arts sector, and with the abundance of talent across the country, perhaps now is the perfect time to look back at the origins of Indigenous contemporary performing arts and be reminded of the power in collective drive and vision.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, street theatre, guerrilla theatre and theatrical performances organised and staged by the Aboriginal community were used as a form of political protest. Theatre was not only entertainment; it became a powerful forum to raise awareness about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, land rights and the need for an Aboriginal legal service. The combination of these events led to the establishment of the National Black Theatre in Sydney 1972.
Born from the need to hear our own stories in our own way, playwrights Kevin Gilbert, Jack Davis and Kath Oodgeroo Noonuccal Walker presented some of the first examples of Aboriginal life written for the stage – theatre that was about us, by us and for us. In Melbourne in 1971 the Victorian Nindethana Theatre was formed with Uncle Jack Charles and Uncle Bob Maza as founding members – our first Indigenous-controlled theatre company.
Names like Charles and Maza, alongside Walker, Gilbert, Davis, and those of Harry and Bindi Williams, Gary Foley and Paul Coe, make up a list of pioneers whose passion and political drive laid the foundations for creating and presenting our own narratives rather than being the subject of – or subject to – others. These pioneering efforts of the early 1970s have become landmarks of the era, synonymous with the birth of a “Blak” arts movement which we have inherited and come to know as our Indigenous contemporary arts sector. A reminder of what a collective force can achieve.
Today, dance company Bangarra Dance Theatre – one of 28 major Blak arts organisations – tours Indigenous contemporary dance around the world. Other key Indigenous arts companies include the Ilbijerri Theatre Company, Moogahlin Performing Arts, Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, Marrugeku Theatre and BlakDance. These are all providing pathways for national and international export of theatre and independent dance.
Meanwhile, within non-Indigenous organisations such as the Sydney Opera House, Footscray Community Arts Centre and Norpa, there are leading examples of Indigenous-managed programming, while many other non-Indigenous companies around the country are hosting initiatives for the presentation of Indigenous arts.
But what of tomorrow? Where are we heading? And what’s next?
I read an article recently suggesting that while the modern western world scurries to discover the magical formula behind the latest startup business trends, what is often overlooked is the most commonly shared trait among entrepreneurs: access to financial capital. When basic needs are met, it’s easier to be creative. When you know you have a safety net, you are more willing to take risks.
What are the opportunities for independent Indigenous contemporary artists to lead new models of creative industry and expression, when the safety net barely exists?
One could look to the birth of our contemporary theatre and dance sectors, not yet 50 years old, for inspiration. With modest beginnings, a new path was forged and an industry was born. The most effective capital our sector’s founding fathers and mothers had was human resources. Made up of individual goals, political fire and passion, their safety net was the collective – community.
Next month, the inaugural Yirramboi First Nations Arts festival hits Melbourne. As we prepare for a citywide Blak Out, and follow in the footsteps of fearless leaders, Yirramboi has initiated a network called Kin for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists living in Victoria. Kin is an invitation for brilliant minds to come together to dream and determine the future of our sector. Our success will only be limited by our imagination and drive.
There’s a quote that I love that sums up for me what Yirramboi and Kin can be: “Collaboration is not about gluing together existing egos. It’s about the ideas that never existed until after everyone entered the room.”
Melbourne’s Yirramboi First Nations Arts Festival runs from 5 to 14 May 2017 .
This article first appeared in Guardian Australia on 17 April 2017 as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX.