A bittersweet tale of Australia’s Black Capital

Sacred fire dance: Aboriginal men dance around a sacred fire at the 40th anniversary of Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.
Sacred fire dance: Aboriginal men dance around a sacred fire at the 40th anniversary of Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.

In Sydney’s inner-city neighborhood of Redfern, there is a building with the city skyline as its background. Its whole side is painted with a yellow circle in the center, a block of black paint on top and red on the bottom. These are the colors and symbols of the Aboriginal Australian flag. The painting on the side of the building is apt for the area, as Redfern has for years been the heart of black Sydney.

It became a clear choice too for Sydney Festival organizers to select Redfern as the location for their Indigenous art program. The biggest cultural event in Sydney, the event is a summer-long citywide festival of music, film, visual and performing arts. This year, for the first time since its inception in 1977, the organizers dedicated a program, with the moniker “Black Capital”, for contemporary indigenous art. Carriageworks Gallery, the site for Black Capital is located in the old Eveleigh rail yards that drew thousands of indigenous people from rural areas to work there in the 1920s.

Redfern for Aboriginal communities in Australia has been the center for the indigenous peoples’ rights movement. The building with the Aboriginal flag painted on its side is located in an area of Redfern called “The Block”, nearly 8,000 square meters of land owned by the Aboriginal Housing Company. In 1972, at the start of Aboriginal land rights movement, activists won a grant to purchase the land for indigenous peoples, who at that time were under threat of eviction. Redfern is the birthplace of the first Aboriginal Legal Service and the first Aboriginal Medical Service. A few meters away from the “Aboriginal flag” building is a concrete wall that borders the bridge over the train tracks from Redfern Station. The wall is covered with murals depicting the story of the Eora nation, the land of Aboriginal tribes of Sydney.

Yet for the broader Sydney community, as drugs came in the area in the 1990s, Redfern became notorious for violence and crime. Many of Sydney residents’ in the 90s avoided going through Redfern, or if there was no alternative route, being vigilant about locking their car doors as they drove through it, lest they get mugged. Racial tensions between Aboriginal people in Redfern and the police escalated in 2004, when a riot broke out after the death of a teenage Aboriginal boy who crashed his bicycle into a fence and was impaled while fleeing the police.

Today’s Redfern has changed from the dark image of drugs and violence. Crime rates have dropped and property prices have increased. As places like “The Block” are scheduled for redevelopment, Redfern is slowly becoming gentrified, with little cafes, restaurants and small bars opening up. Meanwhile, its rich history as the center of the Aboriginal peoples’ rights movement in Sydney continues to be an inspiration for indigenous Australians and the city’s broader society.

The stories of Redfern became the soul of The Traveling Colony, the work of artist Brook Andrew for the Black Capital. The artist painted seven mobile homes with vibrant colors based on patterns from his mother’s indigenous tribe, the Wiradjuri. The trailers were parked along Macquarie Street on Jan. 7, the festival’s opening and were visited by thousands of Sydney residents. Since then, the mobile homes have been moved, and are now being showcased in the foyer of the Carriageworks Gallery until March 4.

Each mobile home has different interior settings, uniquely decorated from one another. The trailers offer different points of view both artistically and literally, as a video of a Redfern resident telling his or her story plays on a television set inside each unit.

The videos show people from different generations, from young Redfern artists such as Rarriwuy Hick and Corey “Little Nooky” Webster, to longtime Aboriginal rights activist Jenny Munro and Les Maleser. They answer the artist’s questions such as “What’s the most exciting thing that has happened in Redfern?”, “Have you imagined a different Redfern?” and “Who are your favorite stars?”

Andrew, who is based in Melbourne, explained in an email that the interviews reflected the personal ideas of the people in Redfern. “The work is personal,” he responded when asked whether “Traveling Colony” has any political intent. “As Aboriginal people, we have always been quite independent and made things happen for our people. I think this is reflected in their stories.”

Andrew said that the mobile homes were to house “the humble and powerful voices of the locals of Redfern and their personal stories. We are privileged to hear them speak. The trailer is like a holiday or a keeping place of culture. With my designs on them, they become a kind of special sacred place for sharing important stories,” he wrote.

What is personal in the stories is also deeply and radically political. Munro, slim with a short pixie haircut and a smoker’s lips, says in her video interview that she imagines a different Redfern. “Hell, I imagined a different Australia many times,” Munro says. “A black parliament, for example,” she added. “Yeah, I’ve imagined a different place, a different country many times.”

Munro dreams of a treaty being signed between the government and the Indigenous peoples. After the 1970s Aboriginal land rights movement, talk of a signing of a treaty was signaled by the Labor government in the 1980s. However, due to objections from the opposition, a “reconciliation process” was put forward instead. More than 30 years later, the process of reconciliation has yet to be finalized and indigenous Australians are still the most impoverished minority in the country. Indigenous peoples are over-represented in state prisons and have a 10- to 17-year gap in life expectancy compared to non-indigenous peoples. In the Northern Territory of Australia, Aboriginal people are subjected to welfare restrictions and bans on pornography and alcohol, a policy considered racist by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. The latest promise for reconciliation is a referendum to amend the Constitution by 2013 to recognize indigenous peoples as the first Australians.

Munro rejected the idea of constitutional reform. “The constitution is the basis of the racism. It’s the founding document of racism. Its intent is racist, its content is racist, its effect is racist,” she said. “Chuck the whole document out. Let’s talk about a treaty.

“Let’s sit around the table as equals, not this giving-us-crumbs-underneath-the-table situation. We are equal at the table and we decide as a group what’s contained in that treaty and it’s by consensus. It’s not by force — white is right or might is right,” she said.

Munro said that country has flourished for thousands of years before the 1788, the year the first fleet of British settlers arrived. “We’ve been sick since then and that’s because of the disease that came here, called racism,” she said.

“The constitution is the basis of the racism. It’s the founding document of racism. Its intent is racist.”

Munro moved to Redfern as a young woman in 1972, the year the protest for the Aboriginal land rights movement in Canberra started. She said that Redfern was a bastion of radicalism and she was actively part in it. She was on the board of the Aboriginal Housing Company for 20 years. Her radical spirit never waned over the years, and in the video interview, her grief shows through as she laments the growing conservatism among Aboriginal people.

Andrew said that his The Traveling Colony installation was a reflection of the rich cultural and social history of Redfern. “I think the work also reflects another side of Redfern that some people don’t understand, the passion and local,” he wrote. Listening to Munro’s voice in The Traveling Colony, one also glimpses the complexity of the reconciliation process.

There are mixed views on the issue of reconciliation among indigenous peoples in Australia. Munro is part of a more radical group that demands a treaty. On Jan. 26, she was among the thousand-strong march that rallied in Canberra, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a movement that has grown to be a symbol of the struggle for sovereignty and self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders.

The Tent Embassy rally became rowdy as hundreds of protesters picketed a nearby restaurant where Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition leader Tony Abbot were holding a function. The national leaders fled the scene under tight security and the mainstream Australian media portrayed the incident as a violent protest, disseminating a view that the group has a confrontational approach.

On the other hand, there are other groups of indigenous peoples, who sought a softer reconciliatory approach. Among them is a revered Aboriginal activist, Patrick Dodson, who co-chaired the expert panel that provided recommendations to the government for Constitutional changes in January. Dodson believes that there is a possibility of reconciliation through a referendum to recognize indigenous peoples in the constitution of Australia.

Dodson acknowledged the different ways Aboriginal groups assert their political rights. “I will always condemn bad manners and unnecessarily aggressive behavior by whomever. But, I will always defend people’s rights to assert their political position and try to look to the heart of why people feel so oppressed that they feel violent confrontation is the only recourse to the resolution of their position,” he said in a speech late last month at the University of New South Wales.

Amid the complexity of reconciliation, Sydney Festival’s Black Capital holds indigenous people’s contribution to Sydney’s art and cultural sphere in high regard, while addressing these challenging issues.

Sydney Festival director Lindy Hume said that Sydney has always been an important site for the indigenous peoples of Australia. Pre-dating the Aboriginal movement in Redfern, Aboriginal tribes in Sydney were the first to encounter the British fleet that would later colonize the land. “We wanted to try to celebrate that aspect of Sydney in some ways. The significance [of Black Capital] is to shine a light on a part of Sydney that is quite often thought of as problematic and complex — certainly not the kind of picture post card of Sydney that fits the tourist version of Sydney”.

Along with The Traveling Colony, Black Capital presents Wesley Enoch’s play I am Eora, a performance that explore the different archetypes in Aboriginal society. Prominent characters include the Aboriginal warrior and general Pemulwuy, who was decapitated by the British; the interpreter/reconciler Bennelong who was deemed by some Aboriginal people as a traitor; and the nurturer, Barangaroo, the wife of Bennelong. Black Capital also presents a concert by the Barefoot Divas and the exhibition and symposium of the history of black theater in Sydney.

The production of Black Capital is in its own way a reconciliatory process, as both indigenous and non-indigenous people worked together in producing artwork and performances that remind people of this special history. Andrew said that Black Capital was “a wonderful nod to the important history of Aboriginal people in Sydney”.

Black Capital was three years in the making, according to Hume. She said that the festival’s organizers consulted with Aboriginal communities in Sydney. She said that there is a sense of confidence and enthusiasm from the Aboriginal communities on Sydney Festival in a way that has never been shown before.

Hume also added that Black Capital brought contemporary indigenous art to a broader audience. “We were able to bring to the mainstream audience the work, the ideas and the imagination and the talent of particularly Aboriginal artists — a narrative of Sydney that hasn’t been understood very well by non-Aboriginal Sydney.”

Dodson said in his speech that the Aboriginal people of Australia and the colonizing people have been locked in an endless endeavor “to come to terms with each other’s place on this continent” since their first encounter in Botany Bay more than 200 years ago.

Whether this country will finally be able to heal the wounds of colonialism and close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people is yet to be seen. Andrew personally has mixed views on the government’s proposed reconciliation process. “I am not sure how we can reconcile on this vast issue when there are so many diverse Aboriginal nations in this country. It’s a long process that means different things to different people. Recognition and the revealing of the real history of this country needs to come and be acknowledged more thoroughly first”.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Sydney | Feature | Thu, February 23 2012

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