Thursday, July 31, 2014

High Tea at Burrowye - Or what will REAL reconciliation take

Perhaps it was the rhyming of tea and Burrowye that had the regional ABC reporter who interviewed me at 7.30 am so completely disinterested in the purpose of this event. 
Charlotte Houston from Burrowye (see earlier post) had invited me to a festival at Burowye Station at which I was going to appear as Isabella Robertson. We had a few loose emails back and forth about how this would unfold, possibly involving a dialogue between myself and Charlotte in characters not our own.
What started out as a 'salon' was rebranded along the way. 
According to Wikipedia 'A Salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.'
Charlotte was definitely an inspiring host. With new baby Dora on her hip she arranged beautiful food, 'bone tea' in fine bone china, a massage room complete with masseur, a shop The Burrowye Store, selling local produce, introductions to the gathering guests and then finally found time to dress in her wedding dress as well as baby Dora in her christening clothes that had been finely knitted by James's Grandmother, all ready for the salon.
Beautiful food by Rochene
Equally beautiful music
Dressing as Isabella held its own difficulties as the corset which I wore underneath the high necked 1800's costume didn't let me sit down for more than a few minutes without cutting off my airways. I understood how women from that time had fainted from having too tight a corset. I hadn't had the obligatory lower rib removed. When we were all assembled in the drawing room there were approximately 25 to 30 people, mostly squatters and their families from the area sitting in balloon back chairs in the very location that my great grandparents had most likely held similar style of salons. However the purpose of this salon was very different.
Charlotte looking appropriately like an angel
I began by introducing myself and telling the story of my project KELOID including the meaning of its name. Keloid is variously used to describe both an unsightly scar from the healing of a wound, and a sign of initiation or significant life event. The intention of this project is to produce a 'beautiful scar' through the healing of a wound as the outcome of recognition and acknowledgement.
I spoke about how I had come to realise that my family were directly involved in the occupation of this country, even the country that we were standing on, and how through my marriage to Les, I had directly witnessed the impact of that on Aboriginal people as intergenerational trauma.

Fog on the weir on our way out the next morning
As I spoke I could feel the weight of my words in how they were being received by my audience. The significance was not lost on them, even though I was only speaking about my own journey. Some were obviously resistant but most were just plain confronted. I recognised my own painful feelings as I had begun several years ago to directly confront this issue.

I had great compassion for them as they still lived on the land and many had generations of investment both emotional and financial in that land, and to confront that it had been taken by immoral and violent means was even more difficult for them. While I was not pointing at anyone but my own family, no-one failed to realise that theirs was the same journey to be undertaken. James Houston, the other inspiring host, said that it was all very well to say that I was only examining my own families part in colonisation, that what I was doing would affect others too.

To this I responded that I did understand this but I hoped that others would also see the benefit through me. I described how powerful it was for me to know who I was by examining what and where I had come from. I also talked of the possibility of real reconciliation for the country. The extraordinary possibility of a place where Aboriginal people and culture is understood as the foundation of our country. Where the full wisdom, social cohesion and creativity of their culture is restored in the understanding of all Australians, and where we are all able to fully look an Aboriginal person in the eyes and know them as our equal partners in building a country that could find a way to flourish culturally and environmentally in uncertain time, based on the integrity that comes with having dealt with unfinished business in our past.

I know that I have only just begun in developing this conversation so that it can be heard by the breadth of positions that exist in white Australia, however I was moved by how many people came up to me at the end and said that they were moved by what I had said, they thought I was very brave, that it made them think and one young girl came to say how inspired she was. I know that there is a lot of work ahead of me and while it is very different speaking to people who already agree with me, I was SO grateful to Charlotte and James and their generous friends and family for giving me the opportunity to learn to speak about it to new ears.

All of this should be held inside a deep compassion for the pain that Aboriginal people have been through and still experience. The difficulty of confronting our past is in no way comparable to the difficulty of being at the effect of it. However there is something to be responsible for about how hard it is for human beings to admit they are wrong and own up to the bad things we have done. It is not a physical pain or even emotional, it is more ontological. It affects who we are for ourselves at the very core and we don't have the luxury of righteousness which is clearly in the hands of the victims.

Aboriginal people aren't victims. They have done a remarkable job at surviving and in many cases now flourishing but as we non-Aboriginal people begin to take responsibility for our past they are enable to step fully into their place in society and contribute to us in a way we have never allowed.

We all can only benefit from that.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

David Gulpilil dancing again - Thanks Rolf De Heer

I went to see Charlie's country this week and found myself completely immersed in the films mood for days. As usual Rolf de Heer has done a brilliant job with David to produce a film that depicts some fundamental issues for us white Australians. Sitting in the comfortable cinema on a cold rainy Melbourne night, one felt very 'white'. This is the brilliance of the film. It pushes the vast gap in experience and understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, in the faces of we who completely take for granted our place in this country.

David in Charlie' Country
It was also interesting for me on a whole other level, as I just recently returned something to David Gulpilil that I had kept for nearly 30 years. When I was working on the Koorie mural he came down to Melbourne with his dance troupe and they were staying at the Bert Williams Hostel in Northcote. We were trying to raise attention about the project, so they agreed to come and dance for the media in front of the mural.

David, Don, Peter, Bobby and George 1983
This was a great thing and it meant that we then followed them around during their tour of Melbourne. They hung out with us at the flat that Bear and Les had opposite the mural. We had a party that lasted a week. I remember David playing  the Chuck Berry song 'Johnny B goode' in language, on the balcony of the flat at 5pm one night as all the council workers came out of the big white building across the road and got into their cars that were parked in front of the mural and drove home. I wondered what they thought. There were dancing lessons for the some of the mural team and so many lessons for me that my head burst.
Bear and Bobby dancing in the flat 
David dancing in the flat
David sang a song for the mural which was recorded somewhere.
At some point he and I became involved which was odd for me as he was someone who I had idolised since childhood when I first saw the film Walkabout. He fulfilled all of the classic romantic, noble savage stereotypes that I had grown up with. He asked me to marry him which seemed bizarre to me as our ideas of that were so different. We only had a brief relationship as I understood that the gap in our lives was too great for me to contemplate bridging. We saw one another when he came back to Melbourne on a few more occasions, one of which I took him out to visit my vaguely hippy roots at St Andrews where the gap was ever so slightly lessened.
David and my dog Indigo at St Andrews
David Evans and David Gulpilil at Kangaroo Ground Tower 1984
He delighted my friends and my brother who was as entranced by him as me.
I can't remember when he gave me his dancing belts. I expected him to come and collect them at a later time but I guess he got involved somewhere else and lost contact with me.
They were something that I just kept wrapped up in some red satin, knowing they were special as one of them was made from human hair. They moved with me from house to house and each time they emerged from my stuff I wondered what to do with them. A good friend recently told me to deal with them as they had power.

When I recently read a review about Charlie's Country the reviewer wrote that he lived around the corner from David so I wrote to him to ask for a contact. He gave me an address to send the parcel after curiously asking what it was (suggesting it might be a child). I retuned it to David with photos of him dancing in front of the mural looking 30 years younger as did I. I also sent him cards about my project confronting colonisation from my own families point of view.

It was so strange seeing the story in Charlie's Country after this as in some odd way it seemed to echo my journey of the return of the belt.

Life is so mysterious. Perhaps it is just mysterious to my western mind which is patterned to try to understand. I know that the more I use my artists brain which is intuitively based, the closer I feel to the world of David Gulpilil and his people.
Thanks to Rolf De Heer who bridges that gap so well.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Messages from Burrowye

I received a wonderful email from Charlotte Houston from Burrowye this morning. It is amazing to me that I have been able to connect to the people who live on the lands that my great Grandfather owned over 100 years ago and then to find that they are interested and supportive of my project of disrupting the comfortable and blinkered understanding of our history in this country. It is proof that transformation is possible. Sometimes it is hard to see the changes that are happening in our awareness as there is so much evidence that nothing has changed, however under the surface of the tide that comes and goes in human compassion is a blooming of new thought. While the surface seems to be rough and impenetrable and forever marred by denial, wars, brutality and greed, I think our tendency to be drawn to drama makes us focus only on the bad things about humanity.
Charlotte tells me of many things in the upper Murray that are hopeful and people who are open to considering a new way of looking at history, one that encompasses some kind of integrity with how we reconcile with Aboriginal people and the land. She has invited me to participate in an event up there and hold a 'drawing room conversation' about my project. This makes me think about the Sit Down at my Table project that I did when I worked at ANTAR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation) It involved a series of dinner parties held in the homes of ANTAR members where my friend and play write Johnny Harding and I bought Aboriginal people as guests to these dinners. Over dinner we discussed reconciliation and I video taped the conversations which Johnny used to write a play called Second Helping that was then performed at the Art House in Nth Melb.
I am thinking that the next step is a series of 'drawing room' conversations which might involve my chairs. I am beginning to collect chairs for my 'Post Colonial Drawing Room' however it seems to me that we are not yet ready for a 'Post' Colonial Drawing room. It is still a 'Colonial' drawing room conversation that needs to be had.
I have started working on a sweet Victorian arm chair that is covered in stains. I have drawn around the stains and am beginning to embroider them.

Also working on the pinned faces that are all of me. Seems to be cathartic somehow. Half punishment and half healing acupuncture - referencing the Chinese history that is as long a part of the Australian story as the British one.

I also opened a new exhibition in the gallery I curate by my long term friend and often collaborator Gayle Maddigan. Her work PASSAGE THROUGH CEREMONY is about blood lines, genocide and survival. At the opening there were tears shed by some people and everyone was moved by this powerful work. The images are missing an amazing soundtrack which add to their power. The exhibition is on until Aug 24th and I believe it is a must to see. To walk through this exhibition is to begin to get a small sense of what Professor Michael McDaniel says in his incredible speech during reconciliation week "we need to tell you what it has been like to be the bi-product of your success"
The full speech is 17 minutes you will not regret spending. An amazing speech!

Passage Through Ceremony by Gayle Maddigan

Passage Through Ceremony by Gayle Maddigan