YIRRAMBOI artists speak their truth

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There is a deep connection to storytelling within First Nations culture which has occurred for thousands of years on the Australian continent. The 2021 YIRRAMBOI Festival – a premier First Nations arts and cultural festival across the City of Melbourne in May 2021 saw these stories take centre stage. Partnering for the third time, Arts Centre Melbourne and YIRRAMBOI continue to develop a relationship based on deep listening and truth-telling.

The festival began on the forecourt of Arts Centre Melbourne’s Theatres Building, under the Spire, with a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony, followed by cleansing all nine levels of the building with healing smoke to rid it of bad spirits and promote the wellbeing of all who work and visit.

YIRRAMBOI means ‘tomorrow’ in the shared local languages of the Woiwurrung and Boon Wurrung peoples, and this year’s festival reflected how past struggles and labour have enabled a new generation of artists and theatre makers to flourish.

“There’s a lot of amazing people that have worked to create our voice in this space,” says Rachael Maza, Artistic Director of ILBIJERRI Theatre Company. The iconic local group celebrated its 30-year anniversary this year and is the longest running Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre company in Australia.

“There’s no way this could have happened without the blood, sweat and tears of those community members who acknowledged and identified the gross need for First Nations stories told our way for our mob,” she says. “When I started out as an actor in my day, most of the work that was coming my way was written by white fellas. When I finally started directing I felt like the gaff(er) had been ripped from my mouth and I could talk.”

Rachael has been the company’s Creative Director now for 13 years and has relished the opportunities to drive her own narrative across a complex and realistic spectrum of First Nations characters on stage.

“I believe that theatre and the arts can offer different perspectives to a story and has the ability to change national narratives,” she says. “I believe that even if we change one heart and one mind in the audience, which I’m absolutely certain that we do, then the carrying impact of that can be profound.”

Rachael Maza, Kerri-Lee Harding, Kylie Belling at ‘History Salon: Celebrating 30 years of ILBIJERRI’ image by Tiffany Garvie

These national narratives continue to be addressed with justice through the arts. For playwright, artist and performer Declan Furber Gillick, creating art comes from a similar motivation – to change the pervasive national narratives around First Nations people.

“In 2016 I was working at an Aboriginal Legal Aid service in my home town Alice Springs when the ABC Four Corners investigation into Don Dale Youth Detention Centre aired,” he says.

“I was working with young people and their families in the courts, as well as with adult offenders. I watched the episode and felt a combination of exasperation, anger, fatigue and a kind of gratitude that the episode had gone to air. But I also felt numb. I took note of the numbness and I resolved to investigate it.”

The resulting work is Bighouse Dreaming, also a part of YIRRAMBOI 2021, which examines incredibly complex social relations that had led to this moment in our history: a moment in which adolescents were being abused in detention centres.

“I don’t want it to be a didactic play that I want to be absorbed and calmly agreed upon. I want to foster critical public thought and awaken people to an analysis that we’re missing in intellectual public life,” says Declan. “It’s just one of the sticks of dynamite in the backpack.”

“I think we’ve seen a real kind of renaissance of First Nations storytelling in the arts. An organisation and platform like YIRRAMBOI is a real testament to organising ourselves and demanding space to control our own narratives. You can tell there’s been a kind of cultural switch in Melbourne where people are more aware of the stories that need to be told and are prioritising these kinds of works,” he says.

Brunswick Mechanics season of ‘Bighouse Dreaming' images by Pier Carthew.

Basking in this renaissance are artists like Allara, Theo McMahon and James Howard who created soundscapes for Yulendji, an audio project that sung out across the Birrarung (Yarra River) over the course of YIRRAMBOI. Known for producing sonic installations reflecting culture, Country and politics, the trio created soundscapes that reflected on the past, present and future of this land’s ancient and evolving river.

“Considering I was composing in the Boon Wurrung space, I consulted with [Boon Wurrung elder] N’Arweet Carolyn Briggs,” says James. “And the question was, ‘How do we think about our future as First Nations people?’ Our discussion revolved around the cycling of time, and how stories and lessons from the Dreamtime can inform us going forward.”

“I would ask any performer, conductor, producer to consider: ‘what does it mean for me to be practicing on stolen Country, celebrating the arts and values of colonisers?’ We need a shift in which all practitioners should acknowledge and understand their privilege, and imagine what a process of decolonisation would look like and what their role in that process is.”

N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM at ‘History Salon: Celebrating 30 years of ILBIJERRI’ image by Tiffany Garvie.

For James it is clear that we all have something to learn from the stories that have been told on this country for generations. First Nations stories can teach us new ways of thinking and listening and can provide us a clear path into the future.

“The circumstances that led to the last ‘time of chaos’ – a dissonant relationship with Country, not following Bunjil’s law of caring for Country – seemed to resonate with the state of the world right now,” he says. “Then the waters rose and washed away the social structures, leading to new beginnings. It was a time of destruction, but also a time of beauty and new potential.”

For more information on the companies mentioned, visit yirramboi.com.au and ilbijerri.com.au

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