‘Just doing and being’—
Collective Movements and the Everyday Life of Indigenous Futurity
In the forthcoming 30th anniversary publication for ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, Narrunga dancer and playwright Jacob Boehme recounts the pivotal moment when he told a story to his friend Isaac on the dancefloor at a club night in Sydney in 2012. Hearing what Jacob had been turning in his brain that day, Isaac broke down. That idea would eventually grow to become Jacob’s well known work Blood on the Dance Floor.
There was blue, and red, and purple lights flashing. We were dancing, holding drinks, and trying to talk at the same time… it was the first time I told the Anthony story. By the time I finished telling him about Anthony, he was bawling, crying, and it was like, ‘Oh, okay, good. Because that has that effect on him, I’m going to take it into the workshop’.
Collective movements happen like this: on dancefloors, in cars during long drives, on walks, in bars, in backyards, in hushed conversations in the corner at parties, in a taxi or on a plane trip when you happen to be sitting next to each other. It’s in days-long, months-long, years- long text message conversations that never reach neat endpoints. It’s in laughter, jealousy, trust, and constant exchange. At the heart of collective movements are Blakfullas listening to one another, asking each other questions about how we can collaborate to best honour our Ancestors and our living communities. The origins of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collective movements in the arts come directly from grassroots activism for Blak survival. They evolve hand in hand with political struggles and have a multiplicity of function. They construct a distinct and powerful Blak futurity.
In speaking about a Blak futurity, I mean a type of imagining that makes life, real life, for Blak people, possible. I refer to a collective energy that insists on a joyful, complex and complete existence for Blak people and communities and takes action to put it into place for the generations to come. When I say Blak futurity, I also think about the concept of survivance as it’s used by the First Nations theorist Gerald Vizenor. Professor Grace Dillon, the Anishinaabe writer credited with coining the term Indigenous Futurism, calls Vizenor’s idea of survivance ‘more than survival, more than endurance or mere response … survivance is an active repudiation of dominance, tragedy, and victimry’. Survivance is a key feature of Indigenous futurist works for Dillon. For our collective movements, expressing survivance means actively refusing and contesting settler narratives of the future in so-called Australia in their political visions of the future whilst also transcending a simple narrative of resistance or ‘mere response’.
This is a thoughtful and generative mode of collective work. Gunditjmara artist Tarryn Love, who formed Koorroyarr with her sister Kelsey, talks about her own future imagining as an intentional process which keeps the future generations in mind:
We’ve really wanted to explore that transference of knowledge and how it happens. In my practice, I am looking at the idea of what ceremony means to me, bringing it into the now, and taking it away from a stuck in the past idea. Our culture is a living existing thing, like our traditions are living. Kelsey’s just had her bubup, who we’ve named Lilly, and now when we make our work I’m thinking about it through my role as an aunty to her, and what it’s going to be like when she starts talking and we can give her Gunditjmara language.
Yorta Yorta and Wurundjeri artist Moorina Boonini and Boonwurrung and Barkandji artist Mitch Mahoney, collaborating as part of this mob collective, have also been informed by intergenerational learning. The two have co-designed an installation which references traditional homes and gathering places used in the South East. Some of these traditional structures, Moorina says, could have held up to forty people, and she and Mitch have recreated one of these gathering places within the gallery space. Curator Kate ten Buuren, Moorina said, instructed them that whatever structure was created it would be with the hope that it could be inhabited at different times during the show.
The development of best practice around working with materials and cultural forms is one of the key parts of Blak collective movements. Moorina says that the project has given her and Mitch an opportunity to put into practice, and to develop a greater knowledge of, their understanding of best practice and cultural protocol in First Nations arts practice. ‘When working with materials that are collected from Country, or are deeply representative or symbolic of Aboriginal culture, it’s always done through consultation, collaboration and yarning.’ The use of gathering places within the walls of institutions is also a staple of this mob’s gallery work. Blak artistic collective movements often work to create everyday life, what Latje Latje Dance Group Mildura member Indi Clarke describes as ‘the practice of just doing and being’.
It’s all about the process of it. How these things actually come together is sometimes more important than the outcome of it, when you’re actually physically doing the work of stitching possum skins together. There’s a synergy to that kind of work. So, I think about grounding myself in the process of it, and recognising that’s where the important stuff is really happening, if that makes sense.
ILBIJERRI Theatre Company is the longest established body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre, and it began as a grassroots cooperative. Inspired by the very first meetings of the Aboriginal National Theatre Cooperative in the 1980s and the radical visions of the Blak arts movements of the time, ILBIJERRI held as its values the need to truly centre Blak stories and be led by Blak people.
Patterns of story repeat across the written and recorded oral testimonies through the book. Mob, some of whom were part of the stolen generations, recount their first times being invited to perform with ILBIJERRI and frequently describe feeling like they belonged somewhere for the first time. They tell stories about being given the opportunity to process their trauma in a safe place for the first time. They talk about experiencing family, feeling nurturance from other creatives, elders, and peers. They talk about being connected-up with community and being taught how to behave well and ethically in relation to Aboriginal stories and mob-led creative production. Jane Harrison remarks that while she grew up strong in her identity as an Aboriginal person, she didn’t feel as though she had grown up embedded in community. ILBIJERRI mentored her to work appropriately to collect and represent the stories of stolen generations survivors while the script for Stolen was being researched and developed, showing confidence in her and supporting her throughout. They did this important work with integrity during a time when funding wasn’t easy to come by.
Cherokee scholar and Indigenous Futurist writer Daniel Heath Justice has said that Indigenous people are not born innately knowing how to fulfil our responsibilities and obligations as community members, and that part of becoming as people is being given opportunities to learn in relation with other Indigenous community members. Reading these reflections from Daniel made me think about how grassroots Blak collectives can, and often do, perform the necessary work to institute practices that reflect our wider community’s values, looking after each other and bringing each other up. Every person who contributed to the book referred to a number of mentors and other people who had inspired them to create. Most referred to their involvement in the company as representing a kind of salvation.
The stories of many of the contributors to ILBIJERRI’s 30th book reflect the experiences of Blak people who have engaged in other collectives in the arts. Indi Clarke, speaking about the impact of Latje Latje Dance Group Mildura on his own wellbeing across his life, talks about how deeply inclusive the dance group felt for him. For him, the cultural work being done was completely inclusive, and had no hierarchies with regard to professionalism, qualifications or what kind of life experience group members had.
Another reflection which repeats across stories of collective movements is on the intimate ways through which Blak creators influence each other’s ideas. There are the direct ways this occurs through critical feedback, and other processes through which creators respond to one another’s stories and facilitate each other’s creative development.
That relational process also operates through witnessing and observation. It is an important process of learning and co-regulation that comes from the exposure to and experiences of other people’s creativity in a healthy and well-functioning culture. It is part of what a Blak collective movement can do and has always done. These relational and co-regulating creative processes have the capacity to habituate Blak people into effective working relationships and community-centred ways of life. They take place as part of a network of relationships in which Blak people feel held, recognised and loved. They are facilitated to produce excellent work which is done with integrity and respect to their communities. They are provided a space to belong.
Our Blak artistic collective movements are the safe places where we articulate the values which underpin our community as a whole. However, they are not necessarily stable or static places. They are places which can’t always be easily replicated. They are made up of a patchwork of ever-changing faces. There are moments where the collective might appear to become institutionalised—the date of its legal incorporation, the date it moves into its first rented office or studio space, the day it elects its official board. But a collective movement spreads out well beyond these landmarks which are visible from the outside. They are never able to be contained within the walls of the places they officially inhabit.
Looking over the history of the collective work described in this exhibition, the words of Murri scholar Mary Graham come to mind. She has written about the importance of understanding from an Aboriginal perspective, that we are not alone in this world. Collective movements, for me, are the other Aboriginal people who always occupy your mind—the ones who you’re always in constant mental conversation with as a writer, an activist, or an artist, no matter your practice. They strengthen you.
‘Our Blak artistic collective movements are the safe places where we articulate the values which underpin our community as a whole.’