• Dancers, musicians, poets, painters, sculptors, theatre makers, and much more are all today’s storytellers. (AAP)
Can art hold the key to reconciliation? Dancer and artist Thomas ES Kelly explains why he thinks so.
By
Thomas ES Kelly

20 Feb 2017 - 10:58 AM  UPDATED 22 Feb 2017 - 12:16 PM

Imagine you are standing in the middle of a rainforest. The air is filled with the call of the birds and the buzzing of insects, as a nearby stream trickles lazily down a mountain-side and leaves sway lightly in the breeze. Yet, you find you don’t actually care much for this beauty, and, turning your back, you simply walk away.

Now imagine the same scene, but this time you consume every detail. The clearness of the drops of water silently dripping from the tips of the leaves, the softness of the moss growing on the side of the rocks, the way the stream steadily picks up steam as it approaches the base of the mountain, the rustle of unseen creatures darting through the shrubs.

How does one capture such beauty? Paint a painting? Compose a song? Choreograph a ballet? Maybe write a poem? Or even take a photo? Snap, edit, upload, wait for the social media likes.

Sadly, however, when it comes to art, us artists feel we like that rainforest that, despite its wealth of beauty, sees more than its fair share of turned backs.

All of these are valid art forms that I like to think of as different ecosystems in one giant artistic landscape.

Sadly, however, when it comes to art, us artists feel we like that rainforest that, despite its wealth of beauty, sees more than its fair share of turned backs.

Yes, I speak through the lens of a dancer and creator. But I also speak through the lens of my ancestors, the Bundjalung and Wiradjuri people of what is now called central New South Wales. I share my culture, which was also theirs through the songs, stories, and dances I create, all inspired by the land of which I have ancestral custodianship.

Rather than sitting by and letting the ancestral stories of past, present and future dissolve, I share them with everyone who is listening and willing to learn.

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Our art has never been a one-sided affair, something a lot of people seem to miss. When you look at an artwork, you have permission to develop an opinion on it, and by all means you are allowed to express it. For I believe the arts are one of the best ways to educate people of all ages.

As an artist, I am always learning more, absorbing more, after each show or performance or gallery I attend, both about art itself and culture. This is how we build a stronger understanding of the world.

Don’t get me wrong, NAIDOC is a great week, but its brevity makes it feel as though this is the only time that the whole country appreciates our culture.

I imagine what our country could be if we embraced the arts at a community level, say, teaching school students about Aboriginal art throughout the year, instead of limiting it to one token week a year. Don’t get me wrong, NAIDOC is a great week, but its brevity makes it feel as though this is the only time that the whole country appreciates our culture. Our culture still exists outside that week.

By developing more opportunities to open up the culture for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to come together, to learn from and respect one another, then we could nurture a new generation of people who understand and respect Aboriginal culture and help ensure its protection into the future.

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Bold to say it like that I know, but art forms have been part of Aboriginal culture since the beginning, more than 40,000 years ago, and they are still around today. Dancers, musicians, poets, painters, sculptors, theatre makers, and much more are all today’s storytellers.

They are storytellers that take you on a journey, into the past, present or future. Storytellers that stir up emotion, from happy to sad to angry, and back again. Storytellers that show you truths, opinions, realities from many different viewpoints, be it major global issues or grassroots community battles. Storytellers that capture beauty to share with those willing to lay their eyes and not turn their backs on it. Storytellers that tell stories to inform you and spark discussion, to share with you their voice and to listen to your own, so that we all may teach and learn from each other.

I’ve told stories of identity, of the sun, of the earth, of a mountain, and perhaps most importantly, of connection.

That’s why you see me, standing in the rainforest, taking it all in, from the uprooted tree felled by the last wild storm, to the butterfly floating by the speckled sunlight that shines through the canopy onto the thick rainforest bed. I look at every sight as if it is a revelation, and I listen to every sound as if it is a part of a symphony orchestra.

I look and I listen and I absorb all this beauty. I do this so I can relay this information back to you through my chosen art form and share with you my rainforest, my mountain, my country, and my people.


Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice.

Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).

Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand. 

   

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