Review: Next Wave – 2008 Indigenous Program

Bindi Cole: Not Really Aboriginal. Thursday May 22 – Thursday June 5 2008, at Centre for Contemporary Photography, 404 George Street, Fitzroy. 12:00-5:00PM, Wed-Sat.

Urgent. Courthouse Youth Arts Centre, in partnership with Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative. Directed by Julia Torpey. Designer: Tanja Beer. Directing Mentor: Glenn Shea. Performing mentor & choreographer: Nikki Ashby. Performers: Robyn Knowles, Jess Hargraves, Caleena Sansbury, Johannes Scherpenhuizen, Colin Glass. Contributing Artist: Richard McKinnon. Season ended.

Wrong Skin. Written by Allan Clarke. Artists: Allan Clarke, Colin Kinchela, Mathew Shields. Season ended.

A version of this text was published online on

Looking back on the three indigenous works in the Next Wave 2008 program, it appears that they all somewhat failed to come to terms with the exact thing they were trying to express: the place in this country, in the arts of this country, of the indigenous culture.

In the introduction to her photography exhibition, Not Really Aboriginal, Bindi Cole asks:

“What is Aboriginal? According to most white experts and the media, it’s a black person who lives in a remote community, has social issues and claims benefits that are way above what they deserve. So being Aboriginal but white, fairly socially adjusted and living in an urban area, where do I fit in?”

Photo: Bindi Cole

All valid questions, and all left completely unanswered in this program. Instead, there are short circuits, confusion over failures to meet the pre-packaged expectations. In Not Really Aboriginal the blackface sarcasm of white suburban Aborigines can only be a view back from the stage. The balance of power, the place of importance, is reserved for the (white) viewer. It is by no means a self-knowing, self-possessing self-portrait. It is a spit in the face, but looking quite powerless to significantly influence the projected image of what it ought to be for the viewer. It screams, look at me, bending in two in order to give you the picture you want to get!. It may be fuelled by anger, or there may be the complicity of confusion. A single Aboriginal identity, after all, is a product of colonial relations, of an all-engulfing self-awareness: thus the Rainbow Serpent, the pointillist art, the Stolen Generation, the red earth lose their specific meaning and, divorced from all context become empty vessels of a theoretical Aboriginality, offered as the only answer to many-times removed people who identify as indigenous and yet are too young, too white, too urbane, too sedentary, living in too cold climates, to be anything but apprentices in this game of identity. Consequently, is no more empowering than the self-inflicted nude of the female artist, offering a conscious exploitation at best. Powerful, perhaps, as a slap in the white viewer’s face, but let’s not call it empowering.

With this impression, it was Urgent that came across as a more valid of the two theatrical works, despite the clumsiness of the execution, the earnest acting and the under-developed script. It may have been community-based theatre focused chiefly on doing right, on influencing a good change, and with this instrumentalizing an art form in a way it should not be done. But there was a comfortable fluidity in the performances – with the work having gone through a long group development – and a palpable ease on stage that made it so easy to watch these girls, frolicking and occasionally being rather endearingly silly. And. There is. A moment. When. Nikki Ashby as Adele, one of the three daughters of an Aboriginal man, one of the three sisters that have never met, a dance teacher and a consummate clubber, dances a little dance. And it is a true, honest and beautifully executed dance, blending rave with traditional Aboriginal dancing, without a single moment of pretence.

Wrong Skin, quite the contrary, applied considerable skill and talent to a project hopelessly doomed to fail: a fusion of classical tragedy with a classic story from the indigenous canon, one of betrayal, murder and religious conversion in the outback. Merging the strict format of a traditional fable with the strict format of pulp fiction, Wrong Skin ended up replete with clichés, from the incredible monologues to the final multi-suicide to gum leaves strewn on the ground of the Malthouse Tower theatre, covered with red soil. And yet, at the same time, it could barely escape being incredibly pretty. The designers have a real knack for creating a beautiful static moment: if it was presented as a series of tableaus, all of the pedestrian text purged – or even reconfigured into a dance, or physical theatre – it would have had a good chance of being rather decent. The girl, for example, was exquisite in every gesture, a powerful, hypnotic performer – and yet had to fight against each word her character was forced to utter. Talk about waste.

Wrong Skin

The problem was not simply that we were presented with an old, threadbare story devoid of powerful content. It was the fact that these young artists applied their talent to creating a story they themselves cannot relate to – so the audience cannot either. A story of Aboriginal commonplaces, saltbush, gum leaf clichés, rings hollow in everyone's ears.

And so all the three works, in one way or another, put so much redundant power into the hands of the spectator: either by offering her the predigested picture-book Aboriginality, ridiculing the meticulously duplicated image of the same, or advocating a change of mind. But in no work did the aboriginality appear deeply felt, unself-conscious, let alone skillfully transformed into art.

One Italian text, years ago, treating the question of women’s liberation (which in that country is not a given) in a lite and jejune way, suggested that women need to forget their being women, the way a man doesn’t even think of being male, in order to free themselves from the restrictions imposed on their sex. It is a simplistic way of framing the problems of mental minorities, sure, but it rings true. Forgetting yourself would imply, in this case, forgetting all the roles that you and your people have not chosen for yourselves. The way Australian whites do not wave their white flags, nor even think of themselves as a part of the white community. Next Wave certainly does not have a White Program. Is it viable at this point in history? I don’t know. But I am sure that’s the moment when indigenous art can truly become empowering.