February.12.2018

Building creative futures from the powerful stories and voice of First Nations peoples

By Susan Davis

Australia Day this year was marked by thousands of people marching against holding our national celebration on 26th January. It is a day that represents the start of invasion, pain and dispossession for First Nations peoples. The pain was compounded this year by the refusal of the Australian Government to embrace the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ and its call for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution.

So I believe it is important to share the stories of great creative work that celebrates partnerships with First Nations peoples. First Nation knowledge and creativity could be playing a vital role in helping educate our children and can help us achieve the productive futures we want, where innovation and creativity are basic to growing our national economy.

There are important stories to be told about how we can realise creative futures, where creative, technical and business skills combine, which can draw upon the most ancient of traditions of our First Nation peoples. These include approaches that value kinship and connections, and artforms that combine ancient stories and knowing with contemporary creative technologies and performance art.

First Nation remarkable heritage can be part of our innovation and creativity agenda

Whether it be examples of Aboriginal dances adapted and created to tell the stories of first sightings of ships or white man, to a breakthrough musical theatre production like Bran Nue Dae that disrupted popular stereotypes of Indigenous peoples to recent new works such as ‘My name is Jimi’ featuring Torres Strait Islander stories from Jimi Bani, and Nakkiah Lui’s ‘Black is the new white’, First Nation theatre and performances serve as performative acts of protest and agency. Such actions and work demonstrate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always had to devise, adapt, create and remake to achieve equal rights and recognition, and arts and creative forms have been important vehicles for this.

Recently at our national capital our Arts Education, Practice and Research group along with the AARE community of educational researchers acknowledged this remarkable heritage. It was especially pertinent with 2017 being the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, 25 years since the Mabo decision and the 20-year anniversary of the ‘Bringing them Home’ Report.

We heard from Traditional Owners such as Dr Matilda House and from Indigenous artists such as Dennis Golding and were inspired by First Nation voices, stories, resilience and creativity. Matilda House believes that “you must have stories of your country. If you don’t, you don’t belong, no matter where you come from’.

These stories, these histories and contemporary arts practices should be more appropriately recognised within various national innovation and creativity agendas. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributions are rarely considered within the innovation agenda, apart from deficit discourse about Indigenous performance and outcomes. However, Indigenous creativity, endemic to traditional cultural practices, is also an inspiration to contemporary arts and innovation practice. As Noonuccal Nuugi director, writer Wesley Enoch said:

‘The facility for change is also built into Indigenous traditional meaning-making structures. A dance from Bathurst Island depicting the gunning turrets stationed on the islands during WWII shows interpretive traditional enacting as a more modern experience, or the creation of explanatory myth-like structured stories for the coming of alcohol or money or AIDS or the Nissan four-wheel drive bespeaks a flexibility to accept and explain environmental changes through a facility of ‘New Dreaming.’

Our research project

I am currently engaged in a new research project that reminds me of the power of story and voice for helping provide insight into the human experience, but also for enabling us to realise new visions and ‘New Dreamings’.

Working in partnership with JUTE Theatre in Cairns, our research with the ‘Dare to Dream’ project will seek to investigate the short and longer-term impacts of a participatory program whereby new theatre works are being created that tell Indigenous stories, that are also generated in collaboration with local Indigenous leaders and feature Indigenous artists as key creatives on the projects. Each year as well as the performance of the work in schools, a one week workshop program is conducted within 10 schools in far-North Queensland. During the week young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (from grades 6-10) participate in drama and storytelling workshops and at the end of the week they are invited to share what they have created with the community. The theatre and workshop experience provides direct contact for the young Indigenous people to positive professional role models and positive stories about a range of possible futures.

The first work of the series was ‘Proppa Solid’ by Steven Oliver (of ABC Black Comedy fame). The play begins with a great creative premise: in 2044 Australia has its first Aboriginal president of the republic. He has moved the centre of power (the Black House) to Brisbane and unlike his wife, the President Paul Toppy has little knowledge and connection to his country or people. Throughout the course of the play he comes to understand who he is, where he comes from and the importance of his kinship with family and country.

This week a creative development process is being hosted in Cairns which profiles the life of Henrietta Marrie, a Traditional Owner whose great-grandfather was known as ‘King Ye-i-nie’ of the Yidinji. Henrietta has been a tireless advocate for Aboriginal culture and heritage. This includes Henrietta’s work as the first Aboriginal Australian to work for the United Nations and draws attention to Australia’s obligations to its Indigenous communities under various UN Articles of the Convention of Biological Diversity.

The 2018 work being developed for the ‘Dare to Dream’ project is known as Bukal, named for Henrietta and also the black lawyer vine which grows in the rainforest and is used for weaving and other purposes. The goal for this new show is that it will inspire and educate young people, particularly young Indigenous women.

 

Nurturing an innovative and creative future through drama, theatre and arts education

This type of project and the related research is important for a number of reasons. It works in the short term to help Indigenous students feel valued and to see their cultures and stories represented on stage, but it also can have significant longer term benefits. For example, recent work from ANU reported on the Australian Council site reports:

‘One in ten First Nations people in remote Australia earn income from arts, “remote creative arts participation rates declined between 2008 and 2014-15 driven by declines in remote NT and Queensland – a concerning trend given the importance of First Nations arts to cultural and economic sustainability, and community wellbeing’.

Drama and theatre are often not regarded as particularly innovative art forms or crucial for realising ‘New Dreamings’ within digital worlds. However dramatic learning affirms the fact we still inhabit human bodies, which enable us to take action within the world. Through drama and performance players can learn. They are using dramatic forms of storytelling, but they are also bearing witness, inventing and affirming new voices and identities, and discovering new career pathways and life roles.

Through theatre we have seen the emergence of a strong body of work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and writers. They have documented their experiences, perceptions and imaginings through embracing, adapting and innovating upon western theatre forms of performance and scriptwriting.

From the Kevin Gilbert in 1971 with the ‘Cherry Pickers’, Bob Maza, Robert Merritt’s ‘Cake Man’, Eva Johnson’s ‘Murras’, Jack Davis’ ‘The Dreamers’, to Enoch and Mailman’s ‘Seven Stages of Grieving”, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander playwrights have provided us with insights into what has often been hidden and not spoken about in the lives of Indigenous peoples.Women’s experiences have been shared through personal histories revealed in works by Lingali Lawford, Leah Purcell, Sally Morgan, and Jane Harrison. Different insights on major historical events have also been documented, including through works such as ‘Black Diggers’ which highlighted the experiences of Indigenous soldiers during WWI. These play texts contain great sources of insight that can be brought into any classroom, not only theatre or drama classes.

The contribution of the drama, theatre and arts education for cultivating the skills of communication and expression, of experimentation and innovation, reflection and creativity required for productive futures seems to be undervalued by the government bodies, even though in this past year they claimed to value the importance of creativity and innovation for our future national prosperity (see the 2017 House of Representatives Federal Parliamentary inquiry).

However projects such as the ‘Dare to Dream’ project are demonstrating that creative work and processes are able to generate innovative work and life options for young people and arts professionals. As Mark Sheppard, ‘Proppa Solid’ actor said in 2017:

‘I think what enables them to have that breakthrough is a different way of learning. There is no right or wrong, it’s actually about participating. … it can be empowering and give a different perspective about what is out there in a wider world… not only in being a performer, but that the tools of theatre and creating and creativity can bring to everyday life tools of empowerment, of feeling good about yourself, and hopefully we’re able to make an impact that way.’

So much more to be done

While it is early days for the program and research, so far students and teachers have all noted the positive outcomes of the program with reports of high levels of student engagement, increased levels of confidence and the young people having expanded notions of opportunities and life pathways. The actor/facilitators have spoken of how for many of the students, the experience has opened up their sense of what might be possible (beyond sport, teaching, nursing or in some communities the military). Plans for future work will also focus on ways to capitalise on the possible connections across the school and wider communities where the shows tour, and to firm up the strategies for building and extending learning through the kinship and connection networks.

It is time to recognise that creativity and innovation relies on people and very human forms of creativity and expression, it is also time to more fully recognise the contributions, strengths, creativity and innovations of our First Nations peoples, and that their ingenuity, resilience and creative endeavours are quite extraordinary and should be more explicitly celebrated in ways that are respectful and appropriate.

 

Susan Davis is Deputy Dean Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University, Australia. Her research has focused on drama, arts-education, engagement and digital technologies. She is one of the Co-Convenors of the Arts Education Research SIG of AARE and a Board member for Drama Australia and the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance. Sue was previously a drama teacher and performing arts Head of Department and has created and managed many arts-based projects in collaboration with various education, arts industry and community groups. Susan was one of the convenors of a Creative Education Summit held at ACMI in 2016, with summit outcomes contributing to an Arts Education, Practice and Research group submission to the “The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy”. She was also invited to present further evidence at a roundtable for the inquiry. 

 

 

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