Academic journal article About Performance

Carnivalising Sovereignty: Containing Indigenous Protest within the 'White' Australian Nation

Academic journal article About Performance

Carnivalising Sovereignty: Containing Indigenous Protest within the 'White' Australian Nation

Article excerpt

Indigenous Australian activists and artists have deployed symbolic and representational protest actions across the twentieth century. The examples are many and varied including the formal declaration of a Day of Mourning in 1938, the Yirrkala's submission for rights on the Bark Petition in 1963, and the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972. There have also been many instances of individual symbolic gestures suchas Burnam Burnam planting the Aboriginal flag at Dover and claiming England in 1988. In these and other instances, Indigenous activists have consciously made performance choices that present Indigenous people and their claims for rights and social justice in symbolic and representational frames that engage with and counter the racialised performativity that shadows their presence. In this article the focus is on Indigenous protest within two events separated by 90 years; the opening of old Parliament House in Canberra in 1927 and Camp Sovereignty in Melbourne in 2006.1 Both these events were rituals of sovereignty, one Anglo-Australian and one Indigenous. The acts/performances by the Indigenous participants in both events were focused consciously on national and international audiences in order to foreground and claim recognition for Indigenous sovereignty. As both performances and performative acts of intervention, these events and their reception are performed acts of cross cultural communication.

One constant element within the response from both government sources and the mass media to Indigenous symbolic protests has been the tendency to frame these protests as carnivalesque. Though this framing is less explicit than the linking of protest action to the trope of carnival by some performance studies theorists (Kershaw 1999, 107-9), it is no less problematic. The notion of carnival is one that captures the imagination, in theory adding layers of potential subversion to acts of protest. In practice, however, the trope of carnival in the society of the spectacle facilitates containment rather than subversion. Close examination of the framing of the two events under consideration here indicates that layers of carnivalesque tropes have consistently been deployed to contain die Indigenous interventions in the social and moral landscape.

This practice has undergone a number of transitions over the last hundred years as Indigenous Australians have established a greater degree of political and social power. In the early part of the twentieth century protests were erased by the framing of the activists as comic and carnivalesque, and through this framing, effectively erasing the elements of protest. As the century progressed the frames changed from denying the protest to framing the protest as carnivalesque and authorised within the limits of sanctioned time and space, at the same time erasing or dismissing what could not be contained within this trope as an affirmation of the status quo.2 In the twenty-first century whilst some Indigenous protest is accommodated within these tropes and actions, the performative presences of the Indigenous other that cannot be absorbed in this way are excluded from acceptable political action on the basis of an extension of the carnivalesque grotesque as a way to deny authority. The naming of the other as an extreme grotesque, beyond the sanctioned carnivalised, silences authority and removes the necessity to negotiate and respect claims.

Ritual Of White Sovereignty, Canberra 1927

The opening of Parliament House in Canberra, in 1927, was an event where race and cross cultural relations were spectacularised within performative representations of race and colonial narratives. Described at the time as a "pageant of empire" and a "ceremonial display intended to engrave upon the memory of a nation the great events of its history", the opening ceremony of Parliament House in Canberra in 1927 was a performed spectacle that acted as a ritual of ownership, of sovereignty and control of the land (SMH 1927f; SMH 1927g). …

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