Has Sydney ever had such a political Artistic Director for its annual fun-fest? But then, is it possible to be an Aboriginal artistic leader and not be political???

Wesley Enoch doesn’t make a great fuss about his ancestry “ shared, of course, with his sister who is Queensland’s Arts Minister. But he does admit to craving a better knowledge of his family’s Jandai language than the rude words and imprecations that he picked up instinctively as a kid; and he now has a family house on his ancestral Stradbrook Island. Hope it’s on South Straddy, and not on the North island that’s shared with the Nunukul mob!

It was hardly noticed by the rest of the Sydney arts press, but when Enoch announced the 2019 festival that’s going to begin on 9th January, he made a significant reference to Noel Pearson’s recent ‘Declaration of Australia’. This poetic, one-page statement is, I suspect, part of a softening-up process for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, whereby non-Indigenous Australia comes to accept not just the primacy of the First Australians but their acceptance of an equality with both the First Fleeters who brought rule of law, parliamentary government and the Australian English language and the later wave of multi-cultural arrivals. When we renounced the White Australia policy, explains Pearson, we made a better Commonwealth….showing that people with different roots can live together, that we can learn to read the image-bank of others.

Wesley Enoch sees this embracing harmony of the three stories as a fine basis for a festival in 2019. What could be more Euro-canonical than The Iliad – all of it? Or timely, with a British/German collaboration about Europe stumbling towards chaos? Migrant contributions pop up from Sri Lanka, the Romanian Jews, the Maltese roots of Paul Capsis, a guqin accompanying dance from Townsville and the oud with that Iliad. And just in case you’re feeling dinky-di Aussie, there’s a show called Home which literally builds an absurdist one before your very eyes.

And then there’s Blak Out. It’s a substantial part of the program, but you won’t find Blak Out in the index “ for each work has its artform as well as its identity. It’s not ghettoised.

And, in case it isn’t apparent, a lot of it is gathered on Friday 25th January. Not the 26th.

I compare with America, Enoch explains. They have three days of national celebration “ the contentious Columbus Day, fireworks on Independence Day and some sort of recognition of their First Peoples’ supply of turkeys on Thanksgiving. Three different ceremonies around national identity. We have it all in one day with absolutely no ritual. And it was a movable feast until 1994! Now, we’re not going to get rid of 26th; it’s meaningful and you can’t change the facts of history. But could we recontextualise it to meet F Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of intelligence as ‘holding two opposing ideas simultaneously’? How could we believe in terrra nullius and acknowledge that there were obviously people here in 1788? I’m offering the 25th January as a day of reflection.

So, the reflection begins with a UTS Big Thinking Forum that attempts to set the agenda for considering the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival on our east coast in 2020. Then you head for the Opera House for ‘Spinifex Gum‘, a musical embrace of both good and evil in the Pilbara in English and Yindjibarndi, with Peter Garrett and Emma Donovan thrown in for good measure. Then head for Barangaroo where ALWAYS in massive letters will have been laying claim to Gadigal land throughout the festival, but where, on 25th, you can learn a song in Darug as part of the much more extensive ‘Bayala‘ project to teach the Sydney language; you can then spend the night through to 5.30am in a ‘Vigil‘ for the world before the First Fleet arrived. Music and stories will while away the hours.

And this is just the culmination of a festival of Blak theatre, dance, voices, and an installation at the MCA. Stand-outs include the versatile Ursula Yovich as a writer investigating suicide in ‘Man with the Iron Neck’, and ‘Biladurang‘ in which the gay dancer, Joel Bray brings his platypus totem into a CBD hotel bedroom!

Is Wesley Enoch building to an all-Indigenous festival in 2020? That’s not going to happen, he assured me. The Festival is about the city’s conversations, not my personal views. And while the defiantly urban ‘Blak‘ is there in his sub-title, non-urban classical Aboriginal culture is sadly missing from an event that is specifically intended to build ceremony and tradition around those significant days at the end of January. I don’t bring ceremony from the North, Enoch justified, as it’s intended to have meaning within the communities there. You need to go there to experience it in context. But, as Jonathon Jones proved with his Garden Palace show, Sydney is the original home of the ‘Great Forgetting’. Not only did the trauma of the fire that burnt it down excise the Palace building from the city’s memories, but the great south-east Aboriginal artefact collection went up in flames too. So I feel a duty to provide a platform for that culture where possible.

Behind the scenes, Wesley Enoch has a duty to the whole of Australia’s Indigenous culture as Chair of the Australia Council’s Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Strategy Panel. It may be a little-known body with a largely urban membership, but he’s actually working to replace it. And the long-wanted improvement would, he believes, be the National Indigenous Arts & Cultural Authority.

Now, the only Authorities I could think of involved those policing gaming and Food. What was Enoch imagining? He recalled the Brandis cuts to the arts and observed how powerless the Australia Council had been at the time. No one stood up to the government. NIACA presumably would have the authority to do just that.

But there’s also the factor that, as Enoch put it, so much of our work is made within white organisations “ whether they’re theatres, museums, festivals or experimental spaces. We’re in danger of being flooded by white paternity “ or paternalism! We had a much greater degree of self-determination “ and funding – during ATSIC days. Its policies allowed us to include cultural practices under the health rubric, for instance, which makes perfect sense to us. Now, that’s stuck in the Closing the Gap rhetoric, and no-one links it to culture. We need a Voice enshrined in a legal document that can’t be ripped up “ like the Uluru Statement’s Voice to Parliament.

It’s the only way to fight off the ‘Big Sticks’ that still come out to try to beat us into being more white!.

BTW “ there’s an on-line survey about NIACA open until February 28th at https://niaca.com.au/online-survey/

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