On Sunday, something quietly momentous happened in the State Theatre Centre in Perth. It was a blazing 38C day, the streets jammed with people drifting between gelato bars and galleries, Chinese New Year festivities and festival events, street food stalls and sticky benches in the shade. Downstairs, in the theatre Underground, a gathering of Noongars and wadjelas, a cross-section of the huge cultural spectrum on the move above, sat down to ruminate on country.
The stories shared by Noongar Elders through the afternoon stopped festival time in its tracks. Careful scheduling just fell away, and nobody cared, because the Aunties and Uncles were speaking. They spoke quietly, with grace and wit, they made gentle fun of one another ('Watch out; that Uncle Noel, he can talk forever'), and one by one they told us of their connection to country and the brutality with which most of them were stolen as children from their birthplaces and their families. May MacGuire, Peter Phillips, Leisha Doolan Eates, Walter Eates, Noel Nannup, Carol Innes and Lynette Knapp, together, at their own pace and in their own words, spoke back into being the whole fabric of their culture, bringing together in their telling the edges torn apart by white colonialism in its devastation of community, land and language.
Ruminations on Country. Photo: Perth Festival
Something happened in that room through the grace of the Elders and the strength of their commitment to truth, identity, ecological education and, in the face of all their intergenerational pain, their belief in reconciliation. At the end of his story, Uncle Walter said, 'Looking at all the people in this room, I can say for the first time in my life that the healing of Australia has truly begun.'
Auntie Lynette, who, unlike her siblings, escaped forced removal due to meningitis, told us the three Noongar words from which her culture emerges and through which it remains whole: boodja (country), Kaartdijin (knowledge) and moort (family). Auntie Lynette and I both had meningitis at the same age. Both of us were calmed as children on those nights of crippling headache and fever by our fathers carrying us outside to tell us stories of the night sky. When I told her this, Auntie Lynette took my hand. 'That's a special thing', she said, 'that love and those stories.'
Constellation of endangered species from the Beeliar Wetlands, Boorna Waanginy. Photo: Ruth Little
There are blood lines running through and scrawled across many works in this year's festival; tales and images of heartlands and lifeways made coherent and held together by kinship. Family isn’t only about genes, though Lynette Walsh and Noel Nannup can claim connection to their ancestral homelands in the Southwest going back some 75,000 years. They've always known it; now Western science knows it too, via tests on their mitochondrial DNA. But kith and kin come in many forms and their points of connection may be cultural, spiritual, or material. What makes family is intimacy, love and loyalty, and land.
Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam was set up by brothers Nguyen Nhat Ly and Nguyen Lân Maurice with their friend Tuan Le around their co-created show Lang Toi (My Village). Combining ancient Vietnamese arts and the European new circus style in which all 3 men were trained, the work is a flowing, visually astonishing, musically-propelled reimagining of traditional Vietnamese village life, fast vanishing under the pressure of modernisation, Westernisation and economic growth. For the brothers Nhat Ly and Lân Maurice, the seasonal rituals of rural life in the village where they were sent as children to escape American bombing at the height of the Vietnam War created a strong connection with place and the rhythms of place. Lang Toi is a poetic tribute to a way of life based on communal social practice and proximity to natural processes, and to an abiding cultural spirit symbolised by that ubiquitous, unpretentious, practical and resilient material, bamboo.
Lang Toi. Image: Nguyen Anh Phuong
The acrobats of Lang Toi climb and tumble across an ochre floor mat that refers to the heart of the country and the Red River basin. The same colour, the same substance, is at the core of Ochre Dance, whose collaboration with Indian dance company Daksha Sheth has resulted in Kwongkan (Sand), a work of intense environmental advocacy underpinned by new and old forms of kinship. Ochre's artistic director, Noongar artist Mark Howett says he was both physically and spiritually transformed by the collaboration, which took place over 3 years on Indian and Aboriginal sacred lands. Along the way, Mark came to recognise the kinship of ritual forms and practices in the two indigenous cultures built up over thousands of years in lands that were once part of a single ancient continent. He found common cause with the Indian artists in the shared context of climate change and came to see his own body differently, shedding 50kg of the 'armour' with which he had tried to protect himself from racism in his own country.
Kwongkan seamlessly combines live dance and music with film, and brings Aboriginal dancers into dialogue with the idiomatic movement language of renowned contemporary Indian dancer Isha Sharvani. Sharvani is the daughter of Keralan Indian dance guru Daksha Sheth and Australian-born Dev Issaro, Kwongkan's designer. Her brother Tao Issaro is the show's composer and one of its performers. Together, the Daksha Sheth family and the Ochre dancers have produced a new intercultural form based on an urgent call for realignment with the natural world; a cry of mortal alarm in the face of human greed and neglect which is replacing life on earth with desert sand. Like the bamboo in Lang Toi, an ubiquitous material - here both the ground for sacred dance and the measure of time and change - becomes a resonant metaphor for the choice between indifference and reconnection with our damaged earth.
Kwongkan. Photo: Mat McHugh
In 2009, the year Lang Toi premiered at the Hanoi Opera House (where Vietnamese government censors criticised the deployment of bamboo poles in the work as a covert call for social uprising), British cabaret artist and queer provocateur Ursula Martinez brought her parents together on stage to lay bare their relationships as a family, warts and all. Her father Arthur Lea was then 83 and her mother Mila, considerably younger, performed a cheeky minimalist dance to Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive'. 20 years later, Arthur is gone, but Mila has indeed survived, and Ursula and her mother are together again on stage, though they now perform in the unpredictable context of Mila's early stage dementia. Ursula and her sister Monica are caring for their mother while touring and performing with her on the other side of the world from her home in Spain. 'She's not sitting alone at home on a sofa,' says Ursula. 'She's sitting on a sofa in the company of 200 people every night. She doesn’t always remember why she's here, but she's busy, she's engaged, she's a star.'
Ursula and Milagros Martinez in A Family Outing. Photo: Deborah May
Absence is one of the protagonists in the new Family Outing: the absence of Arthur, of Mila's bearings, and of the certainties of youth informs everything on stage. At the same time, though, Martinez's openness, emotional honesty and humour, the brilliant double helix construction of the work, and her love, loyalty, exasperation towards and intimacy with her mother, rivet our attention on the depth and complexity of familial entanglements, and the universal human reverberations of our vulnerabilities and capabilities.
Art makes presence out of absence, reconfiguring what's lost and giving new form to vanished or vanishing things. In Wot? No Fish!! British writer and storyteller Danny Braverman gently unearths a heap of wage packets beautifully, playfully, tellingly illustrated over 50 years by his now-absent great uncle Ab Solomons. Wot? No Fish!! is at once a genealogical investigation, a speculative weaving of family mythology, and a love story. As he tells it, envelope by envelope, Braverman's own questions about his Jewish ancestry and identity unfold within the small frame of his ancestor's outsider art.
Wot? No Fish!! Photo: Tony Lewis
Uncles and Aunties, sisters and brothers, kith, kin and comrades. For all of us, as JA Baker wrote in his classic meditation on peregrine falcons, ‘time is measured by a clock of blood.' Through the lens of the teeming, steaming present, future time for life on earth is running out, sand spilling and spreading from the hourglass across a smouldering country. From an indigenous standpoint, the immeasurable past pulses in both present and future and the way forward is also the way back, towards intimacy with and practices of care for country, for all the beings and resources that comprise it, including one another. The way forward is with family, expanded, extended, bound by ritual and respect and that other essential Noongar word, koort or heart.
Seeds of Change, Boorna Waanginy. Photo: Ruth Little