Life at Home Is the Inspiration for Aboriginal Performance artistNingali. Nothing Unusual in That. except Her Immediate Family Is 300 Strong. She Talks to Clare Bayley

Article excerpt

"I didn't speak English or see many white people until I was 11," says the Australian Aboriginal performer Josie Ningali Lawford. "But when I went to Perth, what I really found curious was the white fellas. I was the anthropologist the other way round!" Ningali slaps her thigh, throws back her head and laughs for all the world like an Australian bushman with a six-pack by his side.

Ningali is a wonderfully unselfconscious mix of cultures, something reflected in her stage show, which consists of storytelling, a bit of stand-up, some traditional dancing, a few country songs and the merest hint of politics. The show is Ningali pure and undiluted - the story of her life told with candour, cheek and passion. Ningali has trained in dance but never as an actor - the very idea makes her laugh again. "Imagine getting a degree in how to be normal," she laughs. "That's what acting is. Storytelling is the oldest form of acting, and I think Aboriginals are all natural actors. We've had it drummed into us since we were children."

As she sits in the bar of the Traverse Theatre wearing jeans and Australian cowboy boots, chatting and punctuating her sentences with "mate", it's hard to believe the kind of childhood she had. Born under a tree on a cattle station in Kimberley, north-west Australia, she grew up with numerous brothers and sisters in the middle of that vast, flat desert landscape. Her mother and father worked for the white owners of the cattle station, but there was rarely any contact between the cultures. Ningali's father was the head stockman, a position of responsibility earned the hard way: when he was just seven years old he was taken away from his family and sent to school in Perth under the Aborigine Advancement Programme because his father was white. "They thought he wasn't as savage as a full-blood," says Ningali. "They thought we had no education."

Although Aboriginal culture and history are beginning to be known about here, Ningali is amazed by how many white Australians remain ignorant. "Now I've learnt to understand white people and the way they go about things," she explains. "Anger makes you strong, but you have to learn to use it in a certain way. I've become a spokesperson for my people, the Kimberley Aboriginals, my family."

When Ningali talks about her family, it gives a deceptive impression. As she explains in her stage show, the Aboriginal kinship system is highly complex, but roughly speaking her "immediate" family consists of up to 300 people, "and that's just the grandchildren, never mind the nieces and nephews. …