Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Performing for Aboriginal Life and Culture: Aboriginal Theatre and Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Performing for Aboriginal Life and Culture: Aboriginal Theatre and Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu

Article excerpt

Since colonisation, the tensions between the intentions and meanings of Indigenous performers and the cross-cultural framing and reception of their performance have been part of the complex relationship that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Australia. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Indigenous-controlled performances drawn from their own historical cultural practices were a focal point of crosscultural exchange and engagement. ' Within the colonial exercise, the EuroAustralian and European attitudes towards, and framing of, these performances as a lower form of practice were an important part of containing and colonising Indigenous cultures and the land. Since the 1970s, there have been many transitions and movements shifting the terms of reception and providing the basis for a more respectful engagement with Indigenous performance. However, the notion that Aboriginal historical practices represent primitive or simple cultural forms has continued as traces in the reception of performances that draw on traditional pre-contact practices.

Examinations of performances that derive from traditional or historical Aboriginal performance practices are usually divided into ritual and oral histories as authentically Aboriginal forms, and performances for crosscultural entertainment or communication as, at best, 'hybrid'.3 This type of division and epistemic violence shapes and limits the cross-cultural reception of a performative dialogue that includes traditional or historical practices that are not ceremony or oral history. Though the last decades have seen the development of new ways of understanding and interrogating Indigenous performance aimed at recuperating colonised people's agency, the basic premise that continues to cast a shadow of imperialist assumptions over performances is the blindness to, or lack of value attributed to, both historical as well as contemporary, culturally specific performance practices for entertainment.4

Indigenous Australian performance drawing on historical practices is recognised as a form of performative politics within the cross-cultural context. Fiona Magowan, in relation to types of performance labelled as dance, argues that Indigenous performance 'is a poetic politics of crosscultural encounter that engages Aboriginal identities with those of the Australian nation'. She argues this on the basis that

ancestral dances have been repositioned in national performance venues, such as concerts, cultural centres and ritual arenas, as a means of asserting performative statements about indigenous positioning within the nation-state ... as well as [Indigenous people's] desire to convey something of the sentiment and sentience embodied in the poetics of their ancestral performances.5

She positions performance as a medium for 'expressing indigenous sentiment as performative politics, a performative mode that has no immediate cultural parallels in Australian politics'.6 Magowan's focus is on dance that has been traditionally part of ceremonies. I argue that this poetic politics is not just in the presentation of respected aspects of traditional culture, such as performances based on Dreaming stories, but also in the presentation of 'fun' stories - local performances for entertainment. These 'fun' performances add an important layer within productions aiming to communicate with crosscultural audiences as embodied statements that claim space for contemporary Indigenous cultures.

This article examines the performative dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians presented in two performances from remote communities in the Northern Territory, one from the 1 960s and one from the 2000s. One produced and toured in 2010, Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu: Wrong Skin, engages with the impact of systemic social and political racism in a remote community; the other, Aboriginal Theatre, was performed and toured in 1 963 in the context of campaigns for land rights and against slave-labour working conditions. …

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