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Aboriginality And The Australian Aboriginal Performance English Literature Essay

A study of Australian Aboriginal performance history is complex. The notion of history is tenuous to Aboriginal peoples whose narratives operate differentially in space and time and whose transmission of cultures, as largely oral based, do not follow strict chronological patterns. In addition, the definition of Aboriginality is also undergoing continuous examination and debate. Within theatrical frameworks the performative aspects of Aboriginal culture go back long before any association with non-Aboriginal peoples and include the primary aesthetics of theatre such as use of the body, ritual, space, story and music (including song and dance). This is a historical tradition whose aesthetic value is slowly being recognized on its own terms. Additionally, Aboriginal playwrights have developed their own oeuvre since the 1960s and the development of various themes such as land rights, assimilation policies and the celebration of identity have also chartered another arc that actively engages in intercultural explorations of hybridity. This chapter explores both these histories, beginning with an investigation of Aboriginality, and then continuing to explore the aesthetic merit of Aboriginal features of performance within very different but overlapping histories. The chapter concludes with a discussion of ongoing scholarship and research in an attempt to identify the forces that are shaping the discourse of Aboriginal performance.

Aboriginality or Aboriginal identity is constructed in a number of different ways, by different forces and for different reasons, allowing these identities to compete and coexist. From a historic and legal perspective, 67 definitions of Aboriginality have been documented since colonial legislation, [1] including judgements that were based on place of habitation, ‘quantum’ blood classifications, references to degrees of Aboriginal blood and often, in practice, based on nothing more than skin colour [2] . In the 1980s a new definition was proposed:

‘An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives’. [3] 

This three-part definition (descent, self-identification and community recognition) was soon adopted by Federal Government departments as their ‘working definition’, but its usefulness continued to be questioned, as in the case of Justice Merkel in Shaw v Wolf (1998) who claimed Aboriginality need not be proved ‘according to any strict legal standard’, it being:

‘…a technical rather than a real criterion for identity, which after all in this day and age, is accepted as a social, rather than a genetic, construct’. [4] 

It is vital to recognize such legislative implications and how discussions of identity that ignore the political context separate the reality of lived experience from its socio-cultural debate. Whether traditional or contemporary, Aboriginality and its expressions have always been political statements whether in regard to land rights, culture or identity. The difference perhaps is that today contemporary works are mores easily ‘readable’ by the public than the traditional works [5] .

The problem of representation is central to the idea of Aboriginality but the notion that Aboriginal people will make ‘better’ representations simply because being Aboriginal provides a ‘greater’ understanding is a simplistic deduction and, according to critic Marcia Langton, is based on a ‘fear of the undifferentiated other’ [6] . More specifically, the assumption that all Aborigines are alike and equally understand each other, without regard to cultural variation, history, gender and sexual preference, affirms the colonial perspective of a singularly exclusive ‘true’ representation of Aboriginality [7] . Even within an Aboriginal nation there is no such thing as a homogenized people. Wesley Enoch, recently appointed artistic director of Queensland Theatre Company, expresses this need for individual recognition by saying:

‘We are a collection of peoples of this continent but with a diversity of languages, cultural practices and geographies [therefore] there isn’t a generic Aboriginal experience to write of’. [8] 

Who is Aboriginal? What is Aboriginal? For Aboriginal people, resolving who is Aboriginal and who is not is an easy issue. Langton distinguishes three contexts for the construction of Aboriginality:

‘Aboriginal people interacting with each other; stereotyping and mythologizing by white people without contact with Aboriginal people; and in dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal subjects’. [9] 

Today, multiple definitions of Aboriginality exist and to argue which is the most appropriate is to miss the ‘practical point that a range of different actors are simultaneously creating images’ [10] . The artistic nature of Aboriginal culture reflects the deep cultural investment of Aboriginal peoples in the performative. Story, music, dance and other forms of performance play an integral role in the development and maintenance of diverse cultural identities for the Australian Aboriginal. The processes of creating and controlling the world is through ‘singing up the land’ and exploring identity through performance is embedded in ‘a narrative of self realisation through aesthetic production and evidence of cultural renewal, creativity, resistance, and survival’ [11] . The productivity of Aboriginal artists is reflected by a rapidly growing proliferation of visual art, film, video, music and performing arts that clearly owes its debt to the value Aboriginal people have traditionally placed on the visual and oral artistic practices and it is my contention that Aboriginal epistemology, although the term has shifted in its meanings from its conception [12] , has come to describe the origins of Aboriginal cosmologies that revolve around a sacred nexus. While by no means an exhaustive analysis, it is hoped that the following brief sections on the performative aspects of the body, ritual, space, storytelling and music (including song and dance) will offer a frame of reference that locates these traditional aesthetics of Aboriginal performance with the larger landscape of the Aboriginal sacred that will be useful when exploring contemporary model of hybrid performance.

Aspects of Traditional Aboriginal Performance:

Body, Ritual, Space, Story and Music

According to David Tacey, author of Re-Enchantment:The New Australian Spirituality:

‘culture involves an aesthetic awareness and beauty, but it is more than the mere aesthetics – it is beauty with soul, or form with spiritual content.. it is the social and aesthetic embodiment of traditional dreaming and religious values’. [13] 

Here, the culturally inscribed body is understood as the ‘aesthetic realm where meaning is made, life is experienced, and truth is understood as partial and relational’ [14] . As a cultural phenomenon, the Aboriginal body refutes the negative connotations of Western ideologies of biological reproduction and instead is engaged in ongoing transformation shaped by a ‘mediation and interaction of social and historical somatic experiences’ [15] . Judith Butler argues that ‘gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various speech acts proceed, rather it is...an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts’ [16] . Butler’s comments offer insight into ‘wimmin’s business’ [17] , emphasizing how the body is not restricted by genetic compositions but inscribed by culture and located within networks that include biological, historical, social and cultural networks.

‘The body itself, always a gendered body, provides the framework through which

relationship to time and space can ne expressed, and it is in the design, the paint, the

mark, the movement of hand and foot, the track in the sand or the trembling of the

thigh that meaningful statements are made.’ [18] 

The body and its performances, provides a basis for a ‘mutuality through which people and the land can continue indefinitely through time’ [19] . The body as vehicle for transcendental meaning is central to the notion of the sacred, reverberating through the physical but also the psychological and spiritual dimensions of an individual’s state of being.

From the body, the natural progression is to examine ritual as a particular class of performance that is a symbolic formation of the self-consciously performative body. Ritual as a practice has been conventionally stereotyped simply as the primordial space of the symbolic ‘where human beings are emerged in mythic consciousness and re-originate themselves as distinct from other beings [20] . However, in Aboriginal Australian performances, rites of passage are understood as performances that engage in transformation. To perform within a ritualized act may be seen in a pragmatic, experiential way to learning the process of flow and transform gradually during that process into a new state of being [21] . Within a dramatic context, such engagements with ritualized processes of transformation (and not simply creative re-origination), facilitate the lyrical qualities of performance to approach a reflective aesthetic that evokes what historian Greg Dening identified as ‘the hermeneutics dimensions that are created in presenting ritual meaning [22] . Within Aboriginal performative practices, ritual is located within a space that exists through a cosmic entirety, involving a reduction of individuality in a universal essence that leads to the complete and utter submergence of the ego to its moment of transformation. Here within a prescribed space the repetition of movement, of design, music and song calls forth the distinctive relationships of men and women and of the links between the living generations and ancestral time.

Perceiving and knowing ‘place’ is always in the flux and flow of becoming and this can be seen through performances such as painting, singing and dancing. A deliberate and carefully crafted use of the stage space results in Aboriginal Performance in particular being affective, not merely effective, because it affects in certain emotional and physical ways. Therefore, the use of the space moves from being metaphorical to being metaphysical. Western performances often take place in static geometric spaces that exist unchanged both before and after the performance. However, a performative as opposed to a performance space opens possibilities between actors and spectators and movement and perception towards transforming a spatial arrangement that can engage different perceptual possibilities with each constellation offering different negotiations of one’s sensitivities

While the land can be marked or penetrated in ritual as an act of emplacement, such penetration, without the covering of song and dance, can release uncontrolled forces, Thus the homeland needs to be continually re-birthed by imagining its animated features through singing and dancing and storytelling. Traditional storytelling techniques include song, dance, and oral narration, which in turn are sometimes supported by visual imagery. The story transgresses the space ordained by history and, therefore, in navigating in story space, the logic of history is displaced by sacred places that are not fixed. Actress Justine Saunders explains: ‘storytelling has always been a part of our Aboriginal heritage, not just for entertainment, but an essential part of passing down the law and lineage of each group’ [23] . In this way, the limitations of prescribed space are constantly re-formed, making new topologies.

Music and dance have been used by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia for thousands of years and are integral to their aesthetic. Aboriginal culture is of the land and the Aboriginal sacred is a spirituality of place. The sacred songs and chants are sung to gigantic and ancient rock formations and to vast expanses of red earth, while the sacred dances are earth dances where the celebrants gather to ‘sing up’ and sustain the spirits of the Earth. The act of singing, for example, ‘imbues the participant with the power to imagine the move of the soul on its way, while dancing embodies the spiritual power to affect its journey’ [24] . For some Indigenous people, country music, which also has been adapted to suit Indigenous storytelling needs, is more representative of Indigeneity than didgeridoo and clapsticks. People who hold such a view may acknowledge the didgeridoo as a sign for one experience of Aboriginality, but it is country that has been a part of their lives and experiences [25] . In Arnhem Land, ritual is referred to in Aboriginal English as ‘Sunday business’ and a ritual entrepreneur is a ‘businessman’ [26] . This usage accurately reflects an important aspect of Aboriginal oral traditions; songs, dances, icons, and even whole ceremonies are sacred and often secret, but they are owned by clans. Representations of dance as reified spectacle are problematized in contemporary Aboriginal drama if we focus on movement as part of identity formation/recuperation and spatial reorientation rather than just as the vehicle for an effect. This approach avoids situating dance as a ‘universal sign that does not need interpreting and paradoxically as an opaque essence that cannot be read anyway because it is intuitive, visceral and pre-verbal’ [27] .

Aboriginal Drama

In the opening article on Performance in the Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Culture and History, Wesley Enoch explains that Indigenous drama (within the framework of mainstream Australian theatre) follows on ‘from the smooth and dynamic growth of our traditional performance structures but the purposes of our storytelling have not changed’ [28] . Having explored traditional performance structures, this section focuses on the development of Aboriginal drama with an aim to highlight the changes from strongly biographical based works to different artistic forms that engage in abstraction as much as contemporary issues of identity and voice.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were a number of Indigenous theatre orientated initiatives throughout the country. These included street theatre, guerrilla theatre, publication campaigns and the establishment of drama and dance workshops with the aim of developing skills, training opportunities and commercial performances. Lester Bostock, a member of the Black Theatre Group in Sydney from its inception in 1969, remembers ‘we performed as black theatre groups, as street groups, in marches. Black Theatre would get involved in all the demonstrations’ [29] . With the exception of the Cherry Pickers in 1971, initiated by Brian Syron, a Koori director and actor in collaboration with Kevin Gilbert; there were no commercial productions of theatre texts by Indigenous artists until they established their own theatre companies. Black theatre, during its three year period of activity included public readings of work by writers such as Jack Davis and the production of two new plays - The Cake Man in 1975 by Roger Merritt and Gerry Bostock’s Here comes the Nigger (1976). But it was Jack Davis, poet and playwright, who launched Aboriginal drama into mainstream Australian reception through his trilogy The First-Born: The Dreamers (1982); No Sugar (1985) Barungin (Smell the Wind) (1988). No Sugar, chronologically the first of the three plays, has had several individual productions around the country, while The Dreamers toured nationally in 1983 and to London in 1988. Barungin, the final in the trilogy is an Aboriginal J'accuse about the poverty, alcoholism and deaths in custody caused by white treatment of black Australia, is ironically and deliberately set in the Bicentenary year. Davis' work is recognized as realist operating within conventional Western theatrical structures with clear plot developments and characterisation; however ‘it achieves a distinctly Indigenous theatrical style through the use of Nyoongah language and Aboriginal symbols, rituals and dance’ [30] .

The shift from the late 70’s and through to the early 90’s saw the ongoing campaign by Indigenous activists to gain recognition and voice for issues relating to race and cultural politics. In particular the assimilation policies which resulted in generations of Indigenous Australian children forcibly taken from their families under the pretext of being ‘placed in a first class private homes where the superior standard of life would pave the way for the absorption of these people into the general population’ [31] was openly scrutinized and condemned by the growing volume of Indigenous literature and theatre. Bran Nue Dae (1990) is a significant expression of how families were deliberately split apart in the name of self-improvement. Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s Seven Stages of Grieving (1994) This one woman collage show, featuring an indigenous ‘Everywoman’, mixed poetry, lamentation, story telling, humour and agitprop, all performed alongside a huge

and gradually melting, weeping, block of ice [32] . The Bringing Them Home Report in 1997 became a catalyst for a chain reaction of denial, resentment and endless debate and into this tumultuous political upheaval productions like Stolen (1998) which explores the journey of five Aboriginal children who were stolen faced ‘the challenge of not being ‘black’ enough to represent an Aboriginal experience’.

The traditional practice of integrating art forms is being reinstated: sophisticated rendering of design and the use of the body as the site of performance are replacing the conventions of earlier works which traded in the currencies of naturalism and biography. Examples such as Box the Pony, Stolen, Up the Road and Corrugation Road have all pushed stylistic advance to the brink – music, agitprop, direct address storytelling, stand up comedy, visual theatre and singing are now all strongly part of our artistic arsenal [33] . The fusion of Western forms of theatre with Aboriginal ritual and spirituality are also evident in plays such as Merrill Bray's Mechanics for the Spirit, Sally Morgan's Sistergirl, Andrea James' No!, Roger Bennett's musical Funerals and Circuses, and Ray Kelly's Somewhere the Darkness which was the first Aboriginal play to be staged at The Sydney Theatre Company under the auspices of John Howard's Australian People's Theatre in 1996.

Exploring a distinctive voice and separateness of vision, Aboriginal theatre creates a highly idiosyncratic form of storytelling with the use of rituals and traditions, and a dramatic language which often mixes Australian English with Aboriginal English, along with words and expressions from the writers' different tribal languages. In doing so it gives all Australians the chance to hear the real humour, rhythm, metre and music of the Australian landscape unlike the 60s and 70s where ‘under the pressure of European culture and arts, merely to be heard we had had to adopt or adapt European arts forms’ [34] . Most Aboriginal playwrights argue that the past constitutes the present at the same time it is constituted by the present. By challenging notions of linear time and neutral space, Aboriginal plays refuse complicity with the kind of historical consciousness that claims objectivity. Constructions of nonlinear time take different forms in various plays: juxtaposition, elision, overlaying of different times and the incorporation of historical documents into the enacted texts [35] .

Scholarship and Research

Aboriginal performance has witnessed a volume of research both from Aboriginal and non Aboriginal researchers. They key arguments in the field are worth being acquainted with. Festival director of the Indigenous program for the Sydney Olympics, Rhoda Roberts, has raised concerns about the critical reception of indigenous productions, identifying two predominant issues with how Australian cultural productions are judged and how the Australian community receive Indigenous cultural expression. The first centres on critical standards and the ‘kindness approach’ which results in a lack of engagement with the work: ‘the last thing we want is for the best of aboriginal art and theatre to be put into the charity basket’ [36] while the second concerns the dissemination of cultural knowledge and the lack of cultural awareness in most reviews. Both these concerns draw attention to the barriers that stand between Non-Indigenous audience members and an Indigenous production in the reception and understanding of Indigenous theatre.

Indigenous scholars argue that that their way of knowing is connected to their positioning as subjects/knowers of enquiry who are socially situated and related to others in the actualities of their own living. Knowledge can be acquired outside experience but ‘knowing is also connected to experience and understood in relation to situated acts of interpretation and representation’ [37] . Indigenous Leader Michael Dodson argues: “our subjectivities, our aspirations, our ways of seeing and our language have been excluded from the equation, as the colonising culture plays with itself. It is as if we have been ushered onto a stage to play in a drama where the parts have already been written’ [38] .

The critics of the 1970s, whose comments ‘appear to be shaped by social and political intercultural narratives rather than aesthetic response,’ [39] reflected a specific era of cultural politics where the readers were clearly Non-Indigenous recipients of Indigenous theatre and whose writers analysed the performances largely in patronizing terms that refused to acknowledge the unique voice of Aboriginal Australians. In the late 90s, however, the writing of critics can be effectively summarized by Professor Kenneth Minogue, who, visiting Australia from the Department of Government at the London School of Economics in 1999, suggested: ‘that saturating indigenous peoples in a mist of self-referential Western sympathy is merely one way in which we use them for the luxury of our own self-regard’ [40] . This statement enables present day readers to perceive the dynamics of a continually changing relationship between Indigenous theatre and its audiences, but also the motivations of building relationships, both subjective and analytical, between those who were in a position of power to engage with Indigenous performance and relay their perceptions to a wider audience.

The formal simplicity of much Aboriginal performance belies its embodiment of complex social, mythic and ceremonial meanings. It often rests on that preference for ‘cryptography and obliqueness demanded by a restricted economy of spiritual knowledge the basis of so much power in Aboriginal society’ [41] . It is not easy to predict future directions for Aboriginal Australian drama, but Narogin and others have urged that it move further away from Europeanized English discourse. Narogin has pointed out that all truly Aboriginal literature evokes oral rather than written form, and that a poet like Lionel Fogarty is a forerunner of others who will ‘seek to establish a discourse ... not based on European patterns’ [42] . Narogin seems to be thinking of ‘discourse’ as being closely bound with ‘language’, but if the term ‘discourse’ embraces a wider sense of total theatrical communication, there is another possible direction - towards more stylized forms. The Aboriginal oral tradition depends a great deal on the sound of words, the effects of repetition of certain sounds and syllables, and the symbolic/analogical characteristics mentioned already. None of the published plays makes much extensive use of canto-like modes of dramatic recitation, such as occurred in the ‘song’ portions of the corroboree form, but there is effective use of several such short passages in some of the plays. One could cite the first appearance of the chanting Yagan in Kullark; and the passage in No Sugar where the newly admitted Millimura men at Moore River join forces with the Kimberley men Billy and Bluey and present a corroboree based on chants from their respective tribes and traditions, celebrating a kind of pan-Aboriginality where local allegiances and specific territorial affiliations are temporarily laid aside. With the right playwrights and directors, then, Aboriginal drama may well move into theatrical realms more determined by the cultural pervasiveness of the Dreaming and explore in more radical ways the outdoor settings and use of dance, mime, and chant that appear in the corroboree [43] .

Conclusion:

Performance is a series of narratives, an embodied discourse medium which straddles the often uneasy and fluctuating gaps between people and their theories and practices. These include rituals and social customs (and their subversions); human relationships and formal kinship systems; institutional, jural and control systems; economic and subsistence practices; physical environment; cosmologies and religions; aesthetics and politics. It is a communication activity or process by which each and every aspect of changing inter-human and extra-human behaviours and inter-relations and their relations with their environmental ecologies, are negotiated and ‘voiced’ in a number of languages, genres, forms and styles. Embodied narrative and performed discourse connect people with their own and each other’s lived lives directly and immediately and allows the external expression of the human expression of ‘the human condition’ and its interrelations. In Aboriginal performance humans remain in a balance with their environmental and spiritual ecologies and, in many cases, are not the main players at all and are certainly not ‘objects’ [44] .


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