A new initiative is looking to reclaim a loud and proud corner for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers in Australia’s cultural criticism landscape.
Melbourne’s Yirramboi First Nations Art Festival, in collaboration with The Guardian, has recruited nine Victorian-based indigenous writers, running an intense series of master classes encouraging robust criticism of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artistic work. The group, called Blak Critics, will critique all shows held during Yirramboi and have their reviews published on the website. The participants are almost equally divided in terms of gender and include two gay men, Davey Thomson and Bryan Andy.
Thomson, a Bidjara, Inningai, Wakka Wakka and Gubbi Gubbi man from Barcaldine, Queensland, now based in Melbourne, is a producer at Circus Oz. He runs their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program BLAKflip, with six of their emerging aboriginal artists involved in Yirramboi’s contemporary circus show Chasing Smoke.
Encouraged to join Blak Critics by Yirramboi creative director Jacob Boehme, Thomson was reticent. “I was really intimidated at first, I must say, because it is that white boy game and I’ve never really felt like it was an opportunity I could pursue or a field in which I could have some form of opinion that would be worth listening to,” he says. “Jacob highlighted for me the impact that it could have and really made me believe I have what it takes to do this. Blak Critics allowed us to learn the processes these phenomenal people go through whilst critiquing shows, taking their tools and using them our way.”
Those tutors included Kate Hennessy, Van Badham and Luke Buckmaster, as well as Boehme’s structured methodology. “They have just been so generous in teaching what felt like nearly everything they know, and we left with an intimate understanding of what these people do for a living and what they contribute to the arts sector,” Thomson says.
With the storytelling skills of Circus Oz in his tool belt and the support of his fellow emerging critics, Thomson feels confident he can contribute his unique perspective. “By default, I walk the planet on a very different path to many people,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of people out there who can say that they are aboriginal or gay, so if you’re able to say that you’re both, it means a lot for someone to see that.”
The scope of Australian criticism could certainly use broadening, Thomson says. “I’m interested in changing the way we talk about aboriginal art in this country, because if we can change that, it’s only a matter of time until that filters through to change the way Australians talk about aboriginal people.”
And that includes non-indigenous writers learning to criticise indigenous work in a similarly robust way. “Of course there are eggshells on the floor,” Thomson says. “We’re a race of people whose government has spent 200-odd years putting policy in [place] to wipe us off the earth, but the fact is we are still here, we are making shows and people are coming. That’s controversial enough for the mainstream consciousness of our country. I see so much potential for this great nation and we all just really need to come together and stop all the stupid shit. I’m here to make sure we’re talking the same language.”
Andy, a Yorta Yorta man from Cummeragunja, has contributed to queer radio station Joy FM as well as the ABC and Lonely Planet. He has worked for the indigenous lbijerri Theatre Company, the Melbourne Festival and the Australia Council. A convener of LGBTIQ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support and advocacy group OutBlack, he’s currently working on the Yirramboi marketing team and agrees that critiquing indigenous work needs to be bolder and better informed.
“Whenever that non-indigenous lens is put on our work, it often comes with this ‘softly, softly’ approach where people don’t want to go too hard, or they may not even have the right skills to read or understand expressions that are Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander, so as a keen audience member, I have been a bit frustrated by that,” he says.
“Given the processes of colonisation, invasion and dispossession, all those factors of history have had an impact on the way that we view and consider indigenous arts and culture in this country and that’s unfortunate, but we’re here to address that as black critics.”
Andy says working with the group has empowered him. “I just want to make sure that when we review that work, we can and do have the audacity, for want of a better word, to say where there were strengths, but also its shortcomings—not to criticise in a harsh way, but to offer advice and guidance in order to strengthen the work.”
Black leadership underpins every factor of Yirramboi, Andy says, and he’s proud that he and Thompson can contribute a queer perspective that’s reflected in several festival shows too. “I just love what Jacob has done with the program and the pretty specific minority within the minority he has been able to draw out for Melbourne to celebrate. I mean, we haven’t even served marriage equality, like most of the western world. It’s really vital that our voices are heard in forums like Yirramboi in order to pave the way and to show up that deficit we have in Australia when it comes to blackness, aboriginal arts and queer culture.”
Thompson says it’s about time. “I want to liberate us poor queer folk who still are living under ridiculous conditions, same with all of my mob living in remote communities. I want city people to not think of us as making lifestyle choices. It’s all about the words that you use. Language has a lot of power.”
To keep track of the output of the Blak Critics during Yirramboi, May 5-14, check the website here.