Daddy by Joel Bray (Biladurang) was one of six works commissioned by Yirramboi and premiering at the festival in 2019. (Supplied: Yirramboi/Bryony Jackson)
Under incoming creative director Caroline Martin, a future-focused First Nations festival Yirramboi burst through Melbourne’s streets and arts institutions earlier this month, redefining the way we view the city.
In its second year, the biennial festival presented 100 events across 25 venues and public spaces, guided by an Elders Council who provided cultural knowledge.
Many of the performances looked towards future generations, starting with questions about who we are today and imagining the steps required to address issues of land rights, climate catastrophe and queer identity.
Centering on the spirit and culture of Koorie mob, the festival also showcased international Indigenous artists such as Anthony Hudson (Grand Ronde, United States) and Taiwan’s TAI Body Theatre (Truku, Pinuyumayan, SaiSiyat, Atayal, Paiwan and Rukai) — the latter part of a collaboration with the Taiwanese Pulima Art Festival.
Red Earth is a collaboration between dancer and choreographer Carly Sheppard (Wallangamma and Takalaka) and TAI Body Theatre founder Watan Tusi (Taiwan). (Supplied: Yirramboi)
Within the layered program there was consideration of both emerging artists and powerhouse performers like Dan Sultan and Yothu Yindi. This allowed audiences to witness peak contemporary Aboriginal culture while gaining insights into what the next generation promises to bring.
These programming choices also reaffirmed Aboriginal Australia as a continuing culture, not relegated to historical artefacts displayed in museums. Fresh young voices coupled with Victorian Elders highlighted the dynamic way Aboriginal culture is always adapting, looking to our past while anticipating the future.
Reframing the city
In a 2005 essay, acclaimed Aboriginal author Tony Birch (Ghost River; Blood) argues that there is “narrowness contained in white Australia’s construction of Indigenous culture”, and that we need to find “new ways of seeing ourselves”.
Barring Yanabul, a vast program of more than 40 pop-up live art events and music performances, enabled both audiences and participating artists to do this.
Like a subtle incision cutting through Melbourne’s Hoddle Street Grid, the patterns of a colonial settlement were disrupted.
Rapper Clariyah performing as part of the Barring Yanabul program. (Supplied: Yirramboi/TJ Garvie)
At Flinders Street station, blak dance by Tagalaka and Kurtijar woman and choreographer Jasmin Sheppard interrogated the impact of colonisation on women’s bodies.
Beneath the streets, in the Dirty Dozen Gallery, Alan Stewart’s exhibition Maaman traversed culture, time and space, from his ancestral roots in Taungurung country to inner city Collingwood, where he currently lives.
Nyikina and Jabbirr Jabbirr artist Kalinda Palmer’s installation What’s Your Totem, also at Dirty Dozen, evoked the environment that was once here, before the buildings above erupted during settlement.
The cultural takeover transformed what we expect to see in city streets, reinserting blak people into the landscape and reminding those who may have forgotten that Melbourne was and continues to be Birrarung-ga, its traditional Woiwurrung name.
At the city’s spine, Swanston Street, the State Library Victoria was transformed by the Dhungala Children’s Choir, led by Yorta Yorta soprano and composer Deborah Cheetham. The children’s voices soothed the colonial architecture, softening the authoritarian statues of English explorers that framed the choir on the grey stone steps.
Rose Chalks performs Where the Heart Lays as part of Barring Yanabul. (Supplied: Yirramboi/TJ Garvie)
Just off Swanston Street, in the Bourke Street Mall, spoken word and song by artists including Noongar aerialist and acrobat Rose Chalks and Darumbal/Wulli-Wulli singer, musician and dancer Garret Lyon reminded audiences that “we live in a place of unease” when we don’t acknowledge our past.
The variety of live performances in unlikely city spaces — from shops fronts to trams — helped to draw audience members towards the Birrarung Marr, where a blak takeover was about to occur.
At Hamer Hall, visitors passed through a Welcome to Country outside the building, to find a foyer hung with bark trees, and the austere modernist architecture sidelined by young blak people expressing culture and encompassing the layers of pain, beauty and hope that mark their existence.
Dis Rupt, a program of music, performance and visual arts curated by Kate ten Buuren (Taungurung), Kalyani Mumtaz (Trawlwoolway) and Cienan Muir (Yorta Yorta and Ngarrindjeri), was premised on the notion that “‘young blak voices are crucial in conveying truth and enacting change”.
Queer artist Tré Turner (Arrernte) performing as part of Dis Rupt. (Supplied: Yirramboi/James Henry)
The mini-festival transformed Hamer Hall, a conservative cultural venue brimming with arts elitism, into an evocative landscape of activism and optimism.
As I walked down the opulent staircase, which sparked images of European opera, I was greeted with something entirely different: the velvet-carpeted floor was awash with vibrant dance, created by Brent Watkins (Gunai kurnai & Noongar Yamatji) alongside Yosua Roem (West Papua) and Sean Ryan (Kuku Nyunkal clan of Kuku Yalanji Nation).
Their defiant moves articulated First Nation peoples’ ongoing fight and connection to land and water.
Yosua Roem (West Papua) performs as part of Dis Rupt at Hamer Hall. (Supplied: Yirramboi/James Henry)
Elsewhere across the venue’s six floors, the European aesthetic was disrupted by drag performance, installation and immersive art pieces by Arkie Barton (Kalkadungu), Savanna Kruger (Wotjobaluk and South Sea Islander) and Rosie Kalina (Wemba Wemba and Gunditjmara).
As popular discourse grapples with the issues of constitutional recognition, Treaty and decolonisation, Dis Rupt seemed to physically enact what all the circular conversations often fail to see. A colonial space was thoughtfully reimagined, the Birrarung Marr waterway just below, as young people proudly asserted their sovereignty.
The closing act of Barring Yanabul, late-night concert Blak Mass, continued to re-conceptualise the city, building on the site-specific performances that disrupted the colonial grid during the day.
Created by Wiradjuri interdisciplinary artist Naretha Williams, Blak Mass was an immersive ritual of electronic sound that cleverly interrogated notions of the church and imposed religion.
Naretha Williams was commissioned to write a piece for the Grand Organ of Melbourne Town Hall. (Supplied: Yirramboi)
In the auditorium of Melbourne Town Hall, bodies politely took to their seats as if patiently waiting for a church sermon.
Under the control of Williams, the Town Hall’s Grand Organ became something else, electric and unruly as the deep melodic sounds of the old instrument intersected with her vivid set. Her music was an act of cleansing, taming the instruments that attempted to obliterate blak culture. Her presence and dynamic sound demonstrated survival in an era of renewed blak confidence.
Queering space and culture
In the exhibition catalogue for InsideOUT, writer and activist Nayuka Gorrie proclaimed that “we are living in a queer blak renaissance, but there’s no reason to get complacent: the city is still a place of colonisation”.
These words powerfully echoed the sensation of walking through the exhibition of work by Ngarigo queer artist Peter Waples-Crowe, at the Koorie Heritage Trust.
In his artist statement, Waples-Crowe wrote: “There are a lot of narratives about queerness not belonging to Aboriginal culture and it’s these narratives that I had to fight. Nature is queer — we are OK and we belong in both worlds.”
His words accompanied a layered exhibition that included small acrylic collages on canvas, a large animation, striking possum pelt cloaks (titled Ngarigo Queen) and the artist’s well-known collage work The Natives Rallied for Love.
The overall effect felt like an explosion of pleasure, gently hinting at the necessary struggles still to come. In one of the outstanding collages, Aboriginal Rage, Waples-Crowe proclaims that “his boyfriend allowed him 15 minutes of Aboriginal rage a day” — as if to say yes we are blak, queer and here, but aspects of these identities continue to be constrained.
North of the city, at Arts House, interactive dance performance Daddy complemented the themes evident in InsideOUT.
The semi-autobiographical performance by Wiradjuri artist Joel Bray transformed the main stage into a candy-coloured camp extravagance, which meshed the impact of colonisation with the quest for love in the Grindr era.
Joel Bray’s previous work, Biladurang, explored the experience of being a Aboriginal man raised in a white Pentecostal Christian household. (Supplied: Yirramboi/Bryony Jackson)
At one point, Bray talked about auditioning for porn — because why not increase diversity in the industry? — only to be told that he didn’t look ‘black’ enough. This segues into a powerful monologue on the impact of genocide.
In a lighter moment, Bray lured the audience into a mass dance off, as the theatre became a club.
Daddy demonstrated that we are indeed living in a blak queer cultural renaissance. And while there are struggles yet to come, unique perspectives are finally being celebrated.
An important component of this Yirramboi festival was the range of talks and workshops interspersed throughout the program.
At the core of this was the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) symposium Our Mother Tongue, at The Wheeler Centre. Dhagung Wurrung elder Lee Healy led the day, sharing the knowledge she had developed through her own language revival journey.
The event demonstrated the spirit of reciprocity, as people from diverse backgrounds shared new perspectives and were offered words from an ancient culture continuing to thrive.
The program of workshops, talks and panels provided an intellectual framework, which deepened the music, art, dance and performance presented in the main festival.
From the History Salon, with celebrated theatre maker Rachael Maza, to Critical Conversations with curator Paola Balla (Wemba Wemba & Gunditjmara) and artist Arika Waulu (Brayakaloong/Yigar/Tjapwurrung/Himberrong) there were multiple opportunities for meaningful discussions between shows. This ensured that the conversations and issues that arose during performances continued into deeper dialogues.
Timmah Ball is a freelance writer and member of the Yirramboi Blak Critics program. Her heritage is Ballardong Noongar from Western Australia on her mother’s side.