Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Australia Then, Apocalypse Now

The resounding success of the Sapphires seems a significant moment in Australian culture. The film has not only been a popular hit with mainstream audiences, it has also received the top AACTA awards in the industry, winning best film, director and female actor. This energetic comic tale is seen as a ‘positive indigenous story’, by contrast to the hard truths of films such as Samson & Delilah. I certainly enjoyed the powerful Deborah Mailman, the enlivening Irish manager, the pumping soul music and even the inventive editing. As the writer Tony Briggs said, 'I wanted this film to be more about fun and entertainment than anything else'. Enough said?

But reality is hard to hide. The premise was about a group of Aboriginal singers going to Vietnam to entertain US troops. Despite the now conventional view that this war was a heroic struggle of independence by a small nation against a more powerful aggressor, The Sapphires sidesteps the moral context of the war. In terms of the narrative, the only issue at stake is the capacity to put on a good show for the invading army. The reality was quite different. In the real story, only two Sapphires went to Vietnam. The others stayed at home because they were part of the Australian anti-War movement. Why has this been deliberately overlooked in the film version?

As a comic film, it’s understandable that it uses simplifications in order to heighten emotions: all white Australians are prim racists and US popular culture promises liberation from prejudice. But the appeal of these stereotypes is limited to local audiences. The Sapphires had only a five week run in the UK, was called ‘le flop’ in France and received tepid US reviews. Why do Australian audiences enjoy this story so?

Maybe it's an essentially provincial story. It reflects an innocent and isolated settler colony nostalgic for the world once made familiar by a dominant Western power. This nostalgia emerges at a time of a quite profound political realignment of Indigenous and conservative voices.

Some Aboriginal voices now distance themselves from the liberal left. Marcia Langton’s Boyer Lectures have set the interests of the emerging Aboriginal middle class directly against the patronising southerners—‘leftists’—associated with the wilderness movement and social justice.

This divergence has been growing in recent times, in much less partisan ways, as Aboriginal interests engage with established power rather than be boxed into the radical margins. Figures like Tracey Moffatt embrace the global art scene in defiance of the perception that she should be earnestly depicting the plight of her people. Indigenous scholars such as Christian Thompson make the pilgrimage to Oxford. And in the academy, Indigenous Studies aspires to value of the sandstone university rather than identify with declining critical studies.

The trajectory of emancipation thus seems to lead away from the values of solidarity that set it in train. Isn't it the ultimate form of empowerment for an Aboriginal artist not to make work about Aboriginality? It's hard to question this form of success. Besides, the days of a non-indigenous person questioning Aboriginal choices has long gone.

So where does this place the southerner, who once saw solidarity in defending indigenous culture against the ravages of historic colonialism and mainstream capitalism. Is this just another sign of the liberal left’s growing irrelevance? Just as Western Sydney has deserted the ALP, and developing nations go for economic growth before environmental sustainability, are the ideals of the educated classes revealed as self-absorbed fantasies, designed more for ideological fashions than real action? Like Graham Greene’s deluded romantic heroes, are the champions of global change now lost in the real world of nations, each scrambling over each other to climb the ladder?

What do you say to someone from a 'developing' nation who baulks at energy limits, saying why should we have to pay for your mistakes? Why shouldn't we enjoy the same privileges as you take for granted?

Certainly, one path is to accept the seeming inevitable. I remember talking a white academic in South Africa about the fellow travellers who has been part of the freedom struggle, yet were completely ignored by the incoming ANC government. Those at odds with the government, like Coetzee, were seen as unable to accept that collective victory may come at a personal cost. It seemed an important part of the story of solidarity that even its heroes had to learn to step aside so that black empowerment could develop. As the professor said, ‘It’s what we all fought for after all.’

But while resentment should be avoided, does it follow that the original ideals must also be abandoned? To do so implies that the values originally espoused were dependent on validation from elsewhere—that ideals were upheld in the name of the other, not in their own right.

In the previous Arena, Boris Frankel wrote ‘Indigenous people can’t suddenly become mainstream and yet be exempted from the same obligations of non-Indigenous people to prevent dangerous climate change.’ Yes, but rather than couch this in moralistic terms, it seems more appropriate to place the onus on the settler position: non-indigenous should not lower their expectations of ethics dependent on indigeneity. Despite acknowledging the individual benefits of working in the mining industry, we should still expect Marcia Langton to mention the greater challenge of climate change.

There are significant Aboriginal voices that seek to articulate a common good. Christine Black's book of indigenous legal theory, The Land is the Source of the Law, offers a particularly strong Aboriginal context for environmental concerns in the thinking of Senior Law Men.

Across the Pacific, the buen vivir movement in Bolivia and Ecuador shows how a successful indigenous movement can emerge and still contest the mainstream. Even if such values do seem increasingly marginal, particularly with a three-term Liberal national government looming, they shouldn’t be abandoned. The historical commitment of Aboriginal leaders and communities to maintain an Indigenous culture, despite its status as ‘backward’, should be the very example that inspires an ethical stance today.

Marcia Langton’s Boyer lectures are a wakeup call. Arena demonstrates its relevance by offering a rare forum for debate on this issue, aided now by the Project Space which showed the paintings by Garawa man, Jacky Green, testifying to the destruction of sacred land by mining.

However, from Langton’s position, we ‘leftists’ reading Arena are in danger of being seen as just like those prim white Shepparton settlers in The Sapphires. Perhaps we are more likely to be cast in this role by rejecting mining outright, despite its obvious benefits for a large community of Australians. Sure, the obese extractocrats make it easy to pillory these ventures. But should Langton be the only outside interest at their table? Without being beholden to the mining industry for research funding, it should be possible to advocate for environmentally responsible practices.

So while it’s possible to enjoy the Sapphires, it’s also reasonable to feel that this leaves a story untold. Good morning Vietnam, g'day Ho Chi Minh City.

Thanks to Christine Black, Deborah Jordon, Damien Wright and Esther Lowe for feedback.  A better version may end up in Arena Magazine.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Being Watjala


While I live today as a Gubba, in Koorie land, and my most intense contact with Indigenous Australia has been as a Balanda, up north, I am originally a Watjala, a whitefella from Perth.

As a suburban boy, my contact with the world of Noongahs was largely speculative. In our neighbourhood, the roof of a bottle shop was adorned with a ‘Jackie’ sculpture of bearded aboriginal man with spear resting his foot on his knee. His silhouette defined our eastern sky. But the figure had as much to do with my childhood world as a Masonic Lodge.

But since I’ve been coming back to WA, I’ve gradually become more acquainted with the Noongah world. Through Nalda Searles I was able to meet the spirited women artists down south-west, in Narrogin, who made us Seven Sisters dolls.

Back for another visit last week, I became much more aware of the Noongah presence in the city of Perth. On Friday night, I was walking up Barrack Street behind a lithe young man with a beat box on his shoulder playing disco music. I was really admiring his footwork, a mixture of Travolta and traditional dance. I felt in touch with Perth as a city, with the energy of its different people’s gathered together.

But it was short-lived. Six policemen came out of nowhere and surrounded the young man. Compared to the dancer, these men were ox-like. One of them got out the blue plastic gloves and they started interrogating him.

Dennis at first tried to be cheeky with them. He was a little out of it, but sharp. The moustached officer who was leading the group maintained a completely impassive face. Eventually, Dennis succumbed and took a submissive position, calling him ‘boss’. I heard them talking about something that had been picked up on a city security camera.

Pedestrians walked around the scene with as much impassiveness as the policeman. But I stood still, about five metres from the group, and kept my gaze fixed at the policeman. He turned to me and asked, ‘You got any questions’. I shook my head but stayed. I was curious to see what happened, but also wanted to be some kind of witness, at least to have some acknowledgment of what was happening.

Eventually, Dennis started being cheeky again. I think he was just getting restless. The policeman’s face seemed to soften. He was a long way from smiling, but it seemed a little more relaxed. They eventually let Dennis go.

I walked away with Dennis and told him I liked the way he danced. He laughed at me and asked for $3. We turned the corner and ran into a small group of Noongah men and women staggering around. They were talking about booze and glue. Dennis bumped into a young woman and she asked him if he wanted a ‘push’.

I doubt the police would admit to being racist. But they don’t need to be. There are racists enough in Perth, eager to get the baseball bat out on a drunken Noongah lad. The police are there just to clean up the mess, and make sure the semblance of public order is maintained.

That Dennis could really dance.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The role of black face

There's been an outrage about an act involving Black Face in a revived television show Darryl Somers. Australians are seen as being backward and insensitive about the way comedy can ridicule people of different colour. It certainly doesn't place Australia in a great light to be seen as living in this neverland of the Deep South. But I do wonder whether there is potentially a worthwhile purpose in black face. I'm thinking particularly of its version in Cape Town, where people under apartheid known as Coloured were inspired by the American minstrels to create their own version of black face. There's something about this form that acknowledges inauthenticity while engaging with difference. I'd be hopeful that there's a way in which black face can help Australians engage with the difference between non-indigenous and indigenous. We've already seen with the Chooky dancers how effective 'white face' can be. If this was loosened up and there be a testing experimental attitude to it, it would help us come to terms with the essential inauthenticity of white existence in this country, where the best option might be to find ways of assimilating into indigenous culture, but in a way that acknowledges its secondary nature.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The mighty Murtoa stick shed

Many year ago, when I was working for Museums Australia, I wrote about one of the wonders of Victoria, the Murtoa Stick Shed.

I was very pleased to see recently that Leigh Hammerton has hoisted a website in honour of this ‘found cathedral’. Let’s hope it helps gain a new life as a cultural centre of the Wimmera.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Help Nombeko leap over to Australia

From Pam Zeplin comes the following request:

Nombeko Rwaxa was one of the B&B hosts for the 2007 South Project Gathering in Soweto. She was an integral part of the supportive local community in Orlando, Soweto that made this event so successful.

Nombeko has also been professionally associated with the music world with figures such as the late Lucky Dube. She received a kidney transplant not long ago and successfully competed in the National Transplant Games in South Africa. This has qualified Nombeko to come to Australia and compete in the World Transplant Games at the Gold Coast  (Queensland) (August 22-30 2009), under the auspices of South African Transplant Sports Association (see attached letters and website www.transplantsports.org.za .

This association and its athletes are seeking sponsorship to attend these games. Individual as well as corporate sponsorship can be accepted. As a previous guest at her Zizwe Guesthouse in Orlando, Soweto Nombeko has asked me to help find sponsors for this life affirming project.

For further information Willie Uys, National Chairman, South African Transplant Sports Association (E-mail: info@transplantsports.org.za )

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Getting to know wortabokarra

There are several days in summer when Melbourne is whipped by scorching northerly winds. They come in across the great deserts of the centre and bake this southerly city. They often bring with them the top soil of the Wimmera, and sometimes even ash from nearby bushfires.

Despite living with the curse – and dread – of this wind, we haven’t yet given it a name. While one-off cyclones are personified, this regular visitor remains anonymous. It’s as thought we haven’t yet settled into the land enough yet to have developed the acquaintance.

In Crikey, an Adelaide vertebrate palaeontologist Jim McNamara nominates the Kaurna word wortabokarra:

In 1840, Teichelmann and Schurmann, recorded its meaning as: "north-west wind; tempestuous weather". They also have bokarra: "northwesterly wind, which is very hot during summer and indicates a storm".

This is more like it.

What are the word's roots?

I am not a linguist, but the same book (available as a copy from Google) tells me that worta means "behind" and karra is the redgum tree with other meanings of high, sky and heaven.

Perhaps one response to the tragedy of Black Saturday would be a finally give this wind a name. If anything, it is likely to become a more regular visitor. It’s time we got onto speaking terms with it.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Climate changed!


The day began with talk of gardens. We are moving into the post-Magnolia era. No longer can we ornament our homes with camellia-centric gardens, no more erect birch trees. It’s back to the natives.

In terms of the disaster, the Victorian bushfires and Melbourne’s inferno is relatively mild. Compared to the disasters that can strike other cities due to earthquakes, the lost of life was small. But there seemed something like a loss of innocence on this day. We can no longer pretend to be a piece of green Europe tucked away in the antipodes. Instead, we’re part of a big brown continent. We can’t escape the cruel logic of its weather.

It’s time to join Australia.