I’m white, I’m British, so why am I running an Aboriginal Rights project?

I’m a white, British immigrant with Welsh blood and no ties to Australia, bar the decision to move here almost eight years ago. And I’m running a project about creative digital culture for social change, with a specific focus on Aboriginal Rights. No one has yet asked me “why?” but I think it’s useful to give some background for those who don’t know me. It’s timely, too, given that 26th January is once again upon us.

2003 – My first trip to Australia as a visiting artist.
My only exposure to Aboriginal Culture was the first time I experienced a Welcome to/Acknowledgement of Country at events. I ask a lot of questions, all the time, and was told that this was a very arts-scene thing and not common elsewhere. The next year, back in the UK, I sent a “Happy Australia Day!” email to everyone I’d met while visiting. I got -rightly- Ripped To Shreds (in the most beautifully constructive way, for which I remain truly grateful). This rapid-fire education explained why Mourning/Invasion/Survival Day was not a thing to be celebrated and how it was more about beer, bogans and flag-waving nationalism. Lesson One – which of course comes with #allthequestions and prompted my desire to learn more and, maybe, one day, work with community.

2005 – My third trip to Australia as a visiting artist.
One of our gigs over a three month trip was with the Awesome Arts Festival in Perth. They sent us up to Karratha as part of their community outreach program. While there we randomly met the wife of one of the local rock art experts who invited us to go out to view two sites in the Burrup. One was prolific with what Glen called ‘sketches’ (rock-artists-in-training!); the other contained less work but of a much greater detail and more narrative-driven. I took some photos at the time which aren’t great resolution but you get the idea.

big hands, aboriginal rock art, burrup WA 2005

suddenly i see where crumpler got their logo from!

2010 – Working as Digital Program Officer for the Australia Council for the Arts on a business sponsored visa.
One of my ‘clients’ was Bangarra Dance Theatre, so I had the luxury of watching a couple of their stunning performances. I also worked with them to find the right Geek in Residence for their needs (GiR was my favourite of all the initiatives I created in my role for OzCo), so had a great deal of conversations about Indigenous use of digital culture both on Country and urban areas (like “can you get online in the desert?!”). My curiosity was increasingly piqued, especially on learning that there wasn’t a word for ‘art’ in Aboriginal languages because art was so intrinsically linked within every aspect of their worlds *swoon*.

2011 – A holiday break from OzCo.
I took the opportunity to visit the phenomenal Alex Kelly (whom I’d first met at Crossover Media Lab in 2009) in Alice Springs, attending Wide Open Space Festival and taking a daytrip coach out to Uluru (and no, I didn’t walk on the rock). This was my first time glimpsing the red centre and again I didn’t have any direct contact with community, mostly because I wasn’t invited and it didn’t seem right to poke my nose in. Regarding Uluru, while I expected to be impressed by the beauty of the scenery I didn’t expect to feel that incredible spiritual energy. Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) gave me a particularly cosmic moment… but that’s not for this post.

2012 – Keynote Speaker for Regional Arts Australia’s Kumuwuki in Goolwa, now a Permanent Resident.
My absolute highlight of the whole event was hearing the late Ngarrindjeri elder, Uncle Tom Trevorrow, Manager of Camp Coorong (a centre for cross-cultural learning in South Australia) deliver a plenary. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried three times during his talk. His gentle voice spoke of such deep spiritual connection to Country, who wouldn’t have been moved?!

“Within the Ngarrindjeri nation the 18 clan groups all have a Ngarjtis (a totem animal, bird, fish or plant) that connects us to Country. I have a duty of care to look after the Coorong, to look after my Ngarjtis because my Ngarjtis looks after me. If my Coorong dies, then my Ngarjtis dies, then I die. … So you see that’s our culture, our connection to Country. But also it’s a management plan of how to care for Country and to care for our birds, our animals and all living things. … We want to spread a message about caring for Country: Don’t be greedy, don’t take any more than what you need. Share with one another. Don’t tell lies. Be respectful. Because if we don’t then everybody will suffer, everybody will be punished.”

In writing this I’ve found a soundcloud recording of his talk (which made me cry again), although I advise caution as Uncle Tom passed away the following year and this recording contains his voice. The Sea Nation Plan which he discusses in the recording can be found here.

2013 – Invited to apply for a grant to work in Indigenous communities.
That talk got me thinking. I was about to get the bus, planning on going out to regional/remote Australia sharing what I knew and learning what they knew. I was already in talks about the Nomadic Fab Lab (talking about 3D Printing and the like)… so would these types of conversations help Aboriginal communities too? Not “hey why don’t you stop making your own work and become a plastic-producing nerd” but “what do you do, how do you do it, and what -if any- digital practices might make any of that easier/cheaper/etc?”. Much like the Geek in Residence program, each situation would be bespoke, responding to the needs of each space. The focus could be about improving digital literacy; finding lower-cost, higher efficiency solutions to general operations; creating or improving online marketing/audience development; as well as the more artistic side of things.

I knew Country Arts SA from their Geek in Residence, and my contact there, Steve Mayhew, introduced me to Merilyn Cox just at the moment my head was exploding with ideas. She invited me to apply for a grant to find out. Usually -and rightly- you don’t get funding to work on Country unless the application comes from a community. I didn’t know any communities, yet somehow I got the grant. I’d specifically framed the application around needing to go and learn more first, taking a year to do the project to give what I thought would be ample time to learn, make contacts, try things out and see what happened.

2014 – Memefest.
I’d delayed the project because I wasn’t ready, the bus wasn’t ready. Transitioning into #buslife had taken much more of a learning curve than I had naively anticipated. This project mattered to me and I didn’t want to mess it up. Another factor was that an unfortunately common trait of community arts around the world is that artists get dropped in to a place without being invited. The (usually unaware) artist makes something (often with high end swanky digital kit, or worse, with the locals not really getting to do much themselves) and then leaves, taking all their toys away. Where’s the legacy? Where’s the ownership? What the hell is the point?! My old UK based company, the-phone-book Limited, had a policy of never going down that road, and I had no intentions of changing things now. Invitation was everything, but I hadn’t yet been invited.

I’d received an email asking me to be a mentor for a Swinburne University program about design and direct action, Memefest, from Lisa Gye whom I’d met on my first visiting artist trip in 2003. Already veering more toward activism and social change, I of course said yes. Little did I know that Memefest had previously been up in Brisbane where they’d worked closely with the Aboriginal Embassy. Some members of the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy and Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR) had come along. This was the first time I’d heard so many heartbreaking stories straight from the horses mouth, and not just about the past but about atrocities still continuing to this day.

I felt sick.

2015 – Canberra Embassy, Nullarbor, Nyoongar Embassy, Women’s Culture and Law Camp, Yambah.
It wasn’t long after Memefest that the threats of forced community closures hit. All the conversations I’d had there and since refocused everything else into this one area. I stopped applying for arts residencies and grants or daydreaming about future creative practice. I started helping to organise campaigns, attending and documenting rallies (see Flickr and YouTube), visiting Embassies and shouting loudly online.

After a while I was warned of becoming ‘overly earnest’, which at the time confused me. Why shouldn’t I speak out? Why the fk weren’t more people speaking out?! Turns out not all white Australians had received any education about Aboriginal history or culture, let alone were told the truth about past or present treatment of these communities. Some of those didn’t want to know that such things were happening today (a kind of entrenched white guilt, maybe? I know I feel that weight). Those who had (or who had self-taught) were involved as much as they could be and cautioned me about the typical white error: “speaking for, not walking with”.

In my gusto to ‘help’, to ‘do something’, I had in my rants occasionally used my white privileged voice to talk for them, instead of stepping back, with them in front. In my ignorance the name of the project was originally “niinamarni” (Kaurna for “hello”), I’d even bought the domain name. I had no idea that it was culturally inappropriate to use language without permission – and have subsequently not renewed the domain! I still make mistakes (there’s probably something in this post which is inadvertently inappropriate – if so, tell me and I’ll change it) but I’m learning (reading Decolonising Solidarity by Clare Land has helped).

I’ve learned more about Culture and Country both from patient individuals and personal research, about the Frontier Wars and the dubious ‘recognise campaign’. I’ve had the most astonishing privilege of travelling with an Elder and into community. I’ve seen, heard and learned things which I now can’t un-see, un-hear, un-learn. I’ve subsequently been adding a better understanding of social change so I can begin to grasp what’s come before and what’s possible next. I still struggle with imposter syndrome too – what do I know? what use can I be? I still don’t know enough, I doubt I ever will. But I can try.

2016 – to be continued…
So that is why I’m calling for expressions of interest for this project. Their voices, their needs, their knowledge is what needs to be shared, not mine. My role here is as a creative producer, to discuss projects and help find the right partnerships (just as I did with Geek in Residence) or fill in any missing pieces; to drive us wherever we need to go; to support the delivery of sessions; to document what happens and help connect the physical nodes through nomadic dotted lines; to celebrate the astonishing work that has been done in the past and which continues to thrive against all the odds. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, these giants just happen to be the oldest living culture in the world. What an honour to be able to stand with them, on January 26th and every other day of the year, every year. As GMAR say, sorry means not doing it again. It’s long overdue time that this brutality ended and the beauty more readily celebrated by all Australians and beyond.

My deepest thanks goes to everyone involved with GMAR (Grandmothers Against Removals); Luke at IndigenousX; the Aboriginal Tent Embassy (Canberra), the Nyoongar Tent Embassy (Perth); the Collie mob (south of Perth, who showed me the devastation that mining causes); Uncle Chris who travelled with me for much of last year and introduced me to the other members of the Original Sovereign Tribal Federation (Alice Springs); the NPY Womens’ Culture and Lore Camp (Ernabella); Call to Action Adelaide; and the countless individuals who have inspired this perspective and held my hand through my clumsy learning curves.

I thank you for your generous introductions to your families, your knowledge, your resilience and your connection to Country which has held you together despite all harsh brutalities past and present. I stand with you in solidarity, offering my time, skills and compassion to your campaigns for self determination & self governance, and I thank you more than I can express for the world I now see with new eyes.

#alwayswasalwayswillbe x