Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Performing Aboriginalities: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Performing Aboriginalities: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

Article excerpt

In the introduction to his seminal work dealing with white representations of the 'indigene', white Canadian scholar Terry Goldie observes that because the Other is of interest only in as far as he or she reflects knowledge about the self, 'the image of the indigene reveals very little about the indigenes or their cultures. It reveals a great deal about the whites and their cultures'.1 With Goldie's warning in mind, this paper analyses the performance of Aboriginality in a cross-cultural context with the understanding that there is no singular model of interpretation. By bringing together two seemingly opposed constructions of Aboriginality, this analysis explores the dangers and benefits of intercultural comparisons in a parallel reading of two recent plays. Since I am aware of carrying a certain epistemological 'baggage', this analysis also reflects on my position as an Eastern European scholar and an outsider to both Aboriginal Australian and Native Canadian cultures. I remain, however, of the firm belief that 'complicitious critiques' are a necessary part of enabling an aesthetically, socially and politically progressive body of knowledge, and it is in this spirit that this paper is written.2

Any discussion about representations of Aboriginality in literature, visual arts or the arts in general should start by acknowledging that Aboriginality as a concept is a colonialist invention that encompasses a variety of groups, most of which are traditionally unrelated, from diverse and distant geographical areas, speaking different languages, and in some cases engaged in longstanding disputes. Particularly representative of the arbitrary and erroneous process of defining Aboriginal peoples is the name Indian attributed to Canadian First Nations, which has continued usage until the present day, despite widespread recognition of its historical inaccuracy.3

As Aboriginal peoples in Australia and Canada began to define themselves against what Goldie calls the reproduction of empty textual signifiers, they appropriated and reinscribed the terms Aboriginal, Indigenous and Indian for the purposes of social and political action.4 This has been paralleled by a growing tendency to affirm traditional affiliations, as observed in a recent anthology of First Nations drama, where each playwright is identified by tribal and kinship belongings.5 It has thus been possible to differentiate between various localized and specific traditions and positions within greater political groups, which in turn affirms the heterogeneity of experiences traditionally undifferentiated by the term 'Aboriginal'. From this perspective, First Nations playwright Tomson Highway's dramatic technique, highly acclaimed for its use of humour and blurring of racial and gender boundaries, can now also be linked to a specific Crée tradition and its geographical, social and cultural context.

Writing on the politics and aesthetics of films about Aboriginal people in Australia, Yiman sociologist and film critic Marcia Langton has influentially defined Aboriginality as 'a field of intersubjectivity . . . remade over and over again in a process of dialogue, of imagination, of representation and interpretation'.6 In Langton's model, both Aboriginal and nonAboriginal people create Aboriginality in three different experiences: Aboriginal peoples interacting with each other within specific Aboriginal cultures, non-Aboriginal people's interaction with imagined and stereotyped representations of Aboriginality and, most importantly, intercultural dialogue that allows for negotiation and mutual transformation.7

In a theatre environment, this model translates into a process of intercultural negotiation between cast and audience that challenges and transforms static perceptions. As English drama critic Baz Kershaw observes, theatrical performances enact a transaction of meaning between the stage and auditorium, in which theatrical signs are constantly encoded and decoded through audience and cast interaction. …

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