This piece was written on Wangal Land in the Eora Nation, otherwise known as Sydney. These lands have never been ceded. I pay respect to First Nations Elders and offer solidarity to all Indigenous people in the ongoing struggle for constitutional recognition.
2020 was a devastating year for artists all over the world as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted so much of what we have come to expect as ‘normal’. For many, there was already a growing awareness that the way of life we have come to expect is destroying the living world.
As an English-Australian ‘settler’ living on stolen land, the idea of reconnecting with ‘the livings’ casts a very different shadow when walking alongside artists from the oldest living culture in the world.
Jacob Boehme (Australia) is a Melbourne born and raised artist of the Narangga and Kaurna Nations, South Australia. He describes himself as a multidisciplinary theatre maker and choreographer, creating work for the stage, screen and festivals. He is working between what we refer to as ‘Western’ performing arts and his Indigenous cultural heritage. Jacob is an outspoken cultural leader when leadership is in short supply. We find a moment to yarn via Zoom. The state border between NSW and Victoria is closed again due to a surge in Covid cases, a tiny cluster compared to what is going on in other parts of the world.
Jacob reminds me that he started performing on the streets in the western suburbs of Melbourne as a teenager using physical performance. He later studied puppetry at the Victorian College of the Arts. However, it was his training in dance at NAISDA, the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, which embedded him in First Nations cultural traditions.
At NAISDA, Jacob learnt traditional performance, connecting dance directly to the place it is from. The students had the benefit of both mainland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers. Through cultural exchange they would learn ceremonies from a specific community throughout the year and then go to perform it ‘on Country’. In this way Jacob learnt a Tiwi Island Creation Ceremony. Preparing to perform on the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, the whole community helped to paint up the student’s bodies with intricate local designs. The students then performed around a tree, the site of the story, where the dance came from and belonged.
This is what Jacob refers to as ceremonial arts. I fear it doesn’t quite translate to the European context because the ceremony, although it may be built on centuries old traditions, seems more about the achievements of civilisation there rather than carrying a sense of responsibility in the human relationship to the natural world.
Jacob muses: “Performance in Western street arts has to be big and bold to capture attention and draw people to the show or spectacle. Ceremonial Arts is very different because its purpose is intimate, the performers are in service to the stories and the place. A Western show is for the audience, but a ceremony is with them, they are playing a crucial part. The deep consideration of place and one's relationship and responsibility to the country, and the stories a country hold, are hugely important.”
Tiwi Traditional Dance
Wild Dog is Jacob’s latest project and likely to be his focus for the next decade. The story of the Dingo is connected to Jacob’s bloodlines on the Narangga (Yorke Peninsula) and Kaurna (Adelaide) Nations. The story is part of a song line, sometimes known as a dreaming track, that works its way right up through the country from Adelaide to the top of the Northern Territory and over to far North Queensland, traversing over 5000km, where the stor y appears and reappears in many forms.
“Every Wild Dog song or story that we’re tracking has geography. There was a practical natural location directly linked to the story. There is a (body) paint up that is directly linked to that location in that story, and in some cases there are still existing songs and dances that are in a direct relation to that paint up, which is in relation to that story, which is in relationship to that geography.” It is this interconnected relationship between people and other living things shared through story, dance, song and place that sets Indigenous cultures apart. According to Jacob’s research, talking to Lore men and women, there are also traces of the Dingo story across other parts of Australia and even amongst Indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Southern China, linking to trade routes thousands of years old.
In order to be able to start using this Dingo or Wild Dog story, Jacob had to seek permission from Kaurna Elders who will continue to guide and advise the project as it develops. Then in every new Indigenous Country or Nation, and we are talking about dozens of different communities where the song line and story appear, permission must be sought and negotiated with Traditional Owners, Elders and community members, so the story can be told the ‘proper way’, honouring the people and cultural practices of those places. Dingoes were water diviners and guided ancestors to waterholes and water sources, helping travellers sustain themselves on their journeys. Australia is the driest continent on Earth so this songline is all about survival. In a contemporary context that survival remains a strong imperative for continuing to tell these stories. This is a signifier of Indigenous culture: it crafts people with a humble respect for the past with a sense of liability for the future, very different from the modern artist, preoccupied with their own unique perspective.
First Nations people have proudly fought to maintain their culture despite genocide, violent subjugation and generations of stolen children that enabled colonisers to seize and exploit land, dislocating Indigenous people from Country, identity and sense of belonging. There is a growing awareness that climate change and a crisis of identity in Australia are directly impacted by this history and the ongoing denial of Indigenous knowledges.
“Ancient stories provide clues to what people are responsible for, because humans are not the only creatures reliant on those water sources,” Jacob explains. “The ceremonies are there to keep you and the ecology safe. As an apex predator Dingoes play a vital role in keeping biodiversity in equilibrium.”
Jacob enthuses that through Wild Dog he is learning much about land and water management, caring for country and layers of different knowledge from agriculture to aquaculture to astrology, as well as how those knowledges have been passed on. The imperative for the project is to explore how this knowledge can continue to be passed on through a mix of ceremonial and contemporary arts, retained through culture. It will connect elders with younger generations. “Technology is likely to play a part, given that is where the mainstream culture is leading us, and we need to make sense of that from an Indigenous perspective.”
Wild Dog will be for a wide-ranging au-dience with information likely to be layered to protect the custodians of the culture. On this journey there are things that even Jacob can’t know, because Indigenous cultures have complex systems for knowledge transfer. There are also things he can’t know yet, until he has shown that he will act responsibly with the information that he has been entrusted with. “Until I get my black belt, if you want to put it that way,” he explains.
“In October, we're bringing nine communities together in Adelaide. That’s the start. We will be performing a ceremony that exists, recreating a ceremony that may not have existed for a couple of hundred years and turning that into a performance that can be received by the witnesses that show up. These ceremonies need to be accessible at some level to everyone, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Being able to straddle both worlds and honour ceremonial practice is complicated and it will take as long as it takes. That coult mean an event taking three day? It won’t be bound to a 60minute ‘showtime’.”
Jacob and I agree that the spectacle approach to making street art is as seductive as marketing spin and easy to fall into. Ironically, it’s even easier when ‘ceremony’ is increasingly being co-opted for non-Indigenous events. Jacob knows all too well the trap of creating ceremony for the non-Indigenous cultural elite and how this undermines its cultural importance.
Jacob thanks Covid-19 for stalling him. Unable to travel he was in lockdown for al-most eight months in Melbourne, brewing ideas about how Wild Dog and its process will unfold. Covid has stopped him running towards an outcome. Part of the purpose of this work is to revive and enliven knowledge that has been broken. And if that’s where the art stands now in this country, reconnecting and deepening its relationship to place, adapting cultural practices to honour old ways, in order to find new pathways ahead, then I think humans here stand half a chance of surviving the ecological emergency.