The departed Sydney Festival Director, Wesley Enoch, now back on Quandamooka land, sought a compromise between Invasion Day and Australia Day. He came up with ‘The Vigil’, celebrating 25th January, the last day (in 1788) when Indigenous Australia was free of the colonial yoke. It was a brilliant idea, given that the Sydney Festival simply couldn’t ignore the reality of its calendar. And he followed it up this year with an op-ed in the ‘Sydney Morning Herald‘ expanding on the values of Australia Day as part of Noel Pearson’s three-stage Australia – First People, Second People (the Brits and their rule of law), and subsequent multi-cultural migrants.
Enoch’s ‘Vigil‘ started small in 2017 – a few people on a Barangaroo hillside yarning in the dark round a fire. It’s built, so that last year was a full-on paying event used to introduce a possible response to the Maori Hakka for Australian football, and filmed as a mob First Nations men tried it out.
Are we still thinking ‘Vigil‘ though? Does a vigil have to incorporate some symbolic element to fulfill the OED definition of “nocturnal devotions”?
This year, Enoch handed his concept over to Indigenous designer Jacob Nash rather than to non-Indigenous Festival Director Olivia Ansell – despite which this major Festival production avoided being part of the boycott against Israel as other First Nations shows have chosen to be.
Nash writes of the event as always “bringing Australia’s finest First Nations artists together to share their perspectives on the world” – which ain’t quite true. And do artists singing about Jesus, playing the didg, or even movingly recalling a dead brother in song really add up to “sharing their perspectives”?
Admittedly, both Nash and compere Luke Carroll did touch on issues such as the boycott and the “raw hurt” that was still there from 1788, which Carroll said felt like only a couple of generations ago. And we had languages from high in the Torres Strait down through the Kalkadunga lands to the Pitjanjatjarra around Uluru. We had the wonderful confidence of youth – a couple of teenagers singing their hearts out and writing their own songs as well on such subjects as Aboriginal deaths in custody.
But it did seem more like just another pop concert in which Christine Anu felt bound to sing ‘My Island Home‘ yet again (in a rather over-wrought manner) rather than another linguistic celebration of her Saibai Island origins. Her 19 year old daughter Zapora/Zippy was aboard with her and then solo – happiest, I felt with a traditional Island song. There was a sense of passing the baton down a generation.
Elaine Crombie – another stage daughter, of the great Lillian Crombie – came across the road to Barangaroo from Bangarra’s show at the Sydney Theatre and challenged us somewhat with lines like “I lay a’bleeding like my mother’s sacred ground” (Uluru) and her cry of “Justice for TJ”, the Redfern boy who ended up dead on fence spikes after a police chase. And I admit it was the sort of direct, laid-back performance a vigil might require.
Unlike young Budjerah from the Bundjalong lands on the NSW/Queensland border where his amazing voice served mainly to emphasis that “Jesus is my portion”.
But surely the biggest mistake of the night was William Barton’s performance. The maestro of the yidaki/didgeridoo from Mt Isa has developed an improvisation with his partner, the brilliant violinist Veronique Serret, in which both sing, use a lot of electronics, make surprising sounds out of the the violin, but rarely shake us awake with the earth sounds of that didg. The power of the yidaki to transport us into the ceremonial world of the tribal North was just what we needed to round out our nocturnal devotions. It went missing.
But a laid-back crowd brought their kids along for this vigilant ride, and, amidst the smell of camp fires and the varicoloured lighting of smoke billowing up behind a stage proclaiming CHANGE, few left their perches on the grass before it was over.
Meanwhile, on Invasion/Australia Day itself, the sails of the Opera House were lit up at dawn with the tale of the giant perentie lizard. ‘Wati Ngintaka‘ was a specially commissioned painting by David Miller, who lives in the remote community of Kalka in the APY Lands. He had dearly hoped to travel to Sydney to see his painting beamed onto the nation’s most recognisable building. But the 70-year old recently became a close COVID-19 contact and has been isolating in a medi-hotel in Adelaide.
But Miller told the ‘Sydney Morning Herald‘ that the moment will be the pinnacle of his artistic career. “The painting tells the story of my father’s country. I’m really pleased my father’s Dreaming will be displayed on the Opera House and everyone will see it. I’m very proud and honoured”.
Of course, David Miller was a significant player in the major ‘Ngintaka‘ exhibition that was held at the South Australian Museum in 2014. Indeed, his representation from that time of the perentie lizard’s amazing legend was on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Mind you, the show nearly didn’t happen because journalist Nicolas Rothwell seems to have encouraged various APY Elder men to complain that their cultural rights had been stolen, mainly by women. Miller, as the traditional owner of the Inarki part of the 800km story and Chair of Ananguku Arts at that time, clearly begged to differ. I wrote about it at the time.
This time, David Miller is also shrugging off controversy. Miller was undaunted by the invitation to feature in the NSW government’s official Australia Day celebrations, even though the date marks the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay and the start of European colonisation in Australia. He told the SMH, “I’m from the centre of the country and we have a different view from people living in the city. We feel Australia Day is about coming together, sharing our stories as Indigenous people and keeping our culture strong”.