Since the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia, we might be working from home but we are busier than ever before. While venues and theatres closed their doors, we have been looking internally at what we can do to shift the way the performance industry relates to our First Nations dance practices. We believe we can achieve self-determination in the arts.
At BlakDance, we work on Turrbal and Yuggera homelands. Our organisation is a First Nations-led, industry development and producing organisation founded by Marylin Miller in 2005. We are proud to have a Cultural Council with local Elders and senior dance practitioners, which ensures First Nations cultural knowledge is part of everyday business. We work with independent dance artists, emerging small to medium professional contemporary companies and their communities.
When our industry first started feeling the impacts of COVID19, BlakDance spearheaded a meeting with other self-determined performing arts organisations like Ilbijerri, Moogahlin, and Yirra Yaakin. Together we worked up a set of priorities to advocate for our communities at every level of government. Our first priority is ensuring our Elders safety to prevent loss of cultural knowledge. Our Elders are the source of our culture and stories. Without them, we have no future performing arts sector. Our second priority is figuring out ways we can ensure our spiritual wellbeing and mental health during isolation. Our third priority relates to overwhelming concern for First Nations artists, as the majority of them are independent sole traders and their access to Centrelink is complex.
Understanding how the mainstream peak bodies are working directly with government on developing stimulus packages for the arts has been profoundly frustrating. As the COVID-19 language shifts into the language of ‘Recovery’, there is no First Nations person on the COVID-19 emergency response committee to government and we need to be asking why. How can vulnerable communities be on the front foot without representation?
Since COVID-19 restrictions shut down the country, BlakDance has held over 122 consultations via teleconference or online gatherings. These conversations have opened up ways for us to redesign our own programs. The single most important thing these consultations have told us is that we need to campaign now for First Nations arts and culture in different policies of recovery.
For us at BlakDance, recovery is better positioned as ‘Re-futuring’. This means embedding the needs of all the First Nations dance sector as part of the national recovery phase. But we don’t want things to remain the same, we want to shift the status quo. BlakDance wants to see a long overdue cohort of Indigenous small-to-medium dance companies established and our sector wants First Nations independence across our entire industry ecology. We want our own venues and touring circuits. Where is the First Nations peak body for theatre and music?
For us at BlakDance, recovery is better positioned as ‘Re-futuring’ … But we don’t want things to remain the same, we want to shift the status quo.
Outside of our First Nations sector, every week BlakDance meets with government, the Australia Council and the 17 peak bodies across our great south land. We have learned a lot from these alliances. For example, Live Performance Australia, Theatre Network Australia and the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) all agree that the safety of First Nations Elders is a national priority and these organisations continue to support our calls for self-determination in industry approaches to recovery from the devastation of COVID-19 on our livelihoods.
Sometimes being part of these conversations leads us to more questions than answers. For example, how can we lobby effectively for recovery if we don’t have baseline data on independent artists earnings and income? Where do we focus our energy if we don’t understand how independent artists survive on a day-to-day basis? Do we focus on the presenting sector and their limited allocation of First Nations and diversity funding? From listening to our friends at Performing Arts Connections (PAC) Australia, the already minimal budget allocated by programmers to present First Nations work will diminish in 2020 and 2021 as a result of COVID-19. Marginalised communities’ work falling off the radar is not only a national issue, it is a global outcome of the pandemic. In an International Society for Performing Arts meet up with arts practitioners and administrators, we heard the same sentiment articulated by cultural practitioners in the USA and South East Asia.
One of our local responses had been Wiripiidargo, an online gathering for the Meanjin [Brisbane] cultural arts sector. Aunty Kerry Charlton named this gathering in Yuggera language: Wiripiidargo meaning ‘come back altogether whole again’. We employ Elders to open and close all our online gatherings which grounds our conversations in First Nations protocols during social isolation. Every fortnight we run an independent dance maker gathering via zoom, and a regular catch up with the self-determined performing arts organisations. Artists and companies are telling us that they appreciate this time and space to reflect, contemplate and embrace the fullness of cultural practices. As we write this, we’ve just finished asking artists what they want in the future? What does recovery mean?
Artists are questioning whether they want to continue in the sector – what opportunity do they have to grow if established artists and companies can’t survive the fallout of COVID-19? Even before the crisis, we were already facing the decimation of our small-to-medium arts and cultural sector in the last four-year funding round from Australia Council for the Arts. Optimism is lower than ever and artists are feeling the grind with never-ending funding applications in an environment of constantly diminished funding. Overwhelmingly there is a sense that we don’t want to go back to normal, why would we when we don’t have multi-year company funding for any small to medium First Nations dance companies making and touring their own work?
Overwhelmingly there is a sense that we don’t want to go back to normal: why would we when we don’t have multi-year company funding for any small to medium First Nations dance companies making and touring their own work?
In this recovery environment we are sure to see the decline of monolithic ‘cultural venues’ and those that define the value of art and culture by ticket sales alone. Artists are now calling for a shift in the criteria for both having to make work and be expected to present in those circumstances. We are too reliant on government funding models and hierarchical relationships to survive and grow. How did we become reliant on this infrastructure and what happens when it falls through, like now? In conversation, Jacob Boehme, a Narangga and Kaurna performance visionary said, ‘We need to redefine our practice, its relevancy to our people and broader society, build local economies where we value communities as primary stakeholders – which means we need to speak and be accountable to those communities, our practice needs to be in service to them, not the other way around.’
As such, BlakDance is calling for reinvestment of existing funds or new funds to resource, research and development for independent artists in 2021 so they can deep dive into their cultural practice and develop their processes, protocols and form to the next level. We call for First Nations-led online marketplaces to sell and exchange ideas about work, for 2022 programming and beyond. We call for more of the Playing Australia Regional Performing Arts Touring Fund to be made available for First Nations curators to program our work in 2021 and beyond, and we call for a First Nations cultural arts industry and community roundtable to devise a 10 year plan for our Re-Future. We want to work with all our sector to form a coalition that can generate dialogue, ideas and exchange that leads to First Nations independence.
We urgently need a national First Nations cultural arts peak body to advocate and lobby effectively on issues such as protocols, policy, stimulus packages, development of baseline data and accountability to Indigenous human rights. All roads lead to a National Indigenous Arts and Cultural Authority (NIACA). In the words of one of our Elders-in-Residence, Bob Weatherall, ‘We want Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs. We want an independent arts and cultural sector.’
BlakDance invite you to come to Dana Waranara and re-future with them. Dana Waranara, January 2021, Sydney.