Performance review: BLAKTIVISM, Hamer Hall

A potent First Nations performance with stirring vocals, storytelling and words of protest.
‘BLAKTIVISM 2023’ performance at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne. Photo: Pics That Pop. First Nations performers on stage wearing brightly coloured clothes against a projected background of a raised fist. In the foreground audiences are giving the performs a standing ovation.

BLAKTIVISM delivered a stirring and powerful night of story, song and protest. With an all-star cast, the 2023 edition of this performance ​​series explored the songlines of Skylore, which connects all First Nations cultures across the country through stories, from the rise of the Evening Star in the Kulin Nations to the rise of the Morning Star in West Papua.

Held on 1 December at Arts Centre Melbourne, the event coincided with West Papua’s Independence Day, commemorating the time in 1961 when West Papua held a Congress and its people declared independence, raising the country’s new flag – the Morning Star. Dreams of independence were short-lived, however, with Indonesia soon after claiming the country as part of its territories. 

Given the current political and social climate around the world and the tense situation in Palestine, the performance drew similarities with other occupied territories, finding strength in common ground and unity.

The performance opened with a stirring collection of First Nations voices. In ceremony, the languages came together; these Songlines washed over the audience and cleansed like the smoke from eucalyptus. This section, delivered by song women from each clan of the Kulin Nations, was performed by Isobel Paipadjerook (Taungarung), Mandy Nicholson (Wurundjeri), Renee Sweetman (Bunwurrung) and Corrina Eccles (Wadawarrung).

The power of hearing the Songlines in language that has existed for more than 65,000 years made for a strong opening – all the more powerful when we consider the space in which Blaktivism was performed. For while institutions such as Arts Centre Melbourne are making positive steps towards equality, in their art and performances, particularly on the mainstage, they have some way to go before fully breaking from the shackles of colonialism.

Early in this performance, Fred Leone with Birdz performed their hit ‘Bagi la-m Bargan’, a rock epic that acted as an incredible call to action. From here, the performance engulfed the audience and the energy that built throughout this number was sustained right until the curtain fell.

The bringing together of collective voices proved a strong through line for the entire performance, with the incomparable Sugar Cane Mamas providing soaring melodies throughout. Musically, the performance worked with a full backing band. The sound was expertly mixed, with not a single detail of this rich musical accompaniment lost in the cavernous space of Hamer Hall.

Interspersed throughout the performance were sections of traditional dance and movement, with large-scale projections used to beautiful effect in sections.

Closing the performance, Deline Briscoe’s incredible soaring vocals lifted the roof off Hamer Hall and brought the entire audience to a standing ovation.

Read: Music review: Maria Callas: A Concert in Hologram, Arts Centre Melbourne

At this current moment, when artists across stages in Australia are being targeted for simply expressing their democratic right to free speech and protest, BLAKTIVISM reminds us that the central mechanism of art and performance is storytelling, and that art is inherently political.

For white fellas like me, the biggest takeaway from this performance was to listen, to hear and fully understand the ongoing connection that First Nations people have to these unceded lands and that successive policies and governments have failed and do continue to fail the true Custodians of the lands on which we live, work and play.

Always was, always will be.

BLAKTIVISM 2023 was performed for one night only on 1 December at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Jessi Ryan (they/them) has been creating performance and exhibitions for the past 20 years, both locally, nationally and abroad- in this time collaborating with a huge number of artists from a broad cross section of cultural backgrounds. As a journalist they have written for and been published by some of Australia’s leading arts and news editorial across the last 10 years-and was recognised as a finalist for Globe Community Media Award in 2021. Ryan has also taken photos for a number of print and online publications.