• Footscray Community Arts Centre’s 2019 Wominjeka Festival is one of the many events cancelled amidst the Covid-19 outbreak. Image: Gianna Rizzo (Supplied)Source: Supplied
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to force restrictions on mass gatherings, those employed in the arts and entertainment industry face an unprecedented threat to their livelihood. First Nations artists speak to NITV News about the impact of the unfolding situation.
Emily Nicol

20 Mar 2020 - 3:50 PM  UPDATED 1 Sep 2020 - 1:34 PM

The Arts industry has all but ground to a halt in the wake of the Federal Government's announcement on Wednesday that non-essential indoor gatherings of more than 100 people are now banned in a desperate effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

The federal government is currently planning financial assistance for the Arts sector, with an important meeting with cultural ministers taking place on Thursday, however, where the funds go and who will be supported remains unclear. Meanwhile, event producers and artists are making, or have already confirmed, tough decisions about cancelling or postponing events indefinitely.

At the point of writing, the total number of events cancelled sits at 220,000, while over 400,000 people have been directly affected. And the loss of income has been put at $200 million in just the past fortnight.

Though the numbers are staggering, the I Lost My Gig organisation, which is tracking the cancelled gigs and lost income due to COVID-19, stresses that it's important to keep checking in on each other, particularly for an industry that already has a higher level of workers experiencing mental health issues. 

"While the numbers are important, we must remember that it's real people and real jobs that are the story here," says the organisation in a statement published on its website.

Whilst a stimulus package is still being debated, the arts and entertainment industry are leading the call for fans and supporters to stream local music, keep informed of alternative concert events and buy merchandise and artwork to keep supporting artists. 

Nhanda/Nyoongar First Nations Curator and Arts Facilitator, Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, says that he has had four months of work disappear overnight. 

"People are hoping it's just postponement, but it's pretty much thrown me into financial chaos," he tells NITV News.

As national arts advisory councils and organisations announced this as unprecedented times for the sector, Independent curator Mr Iseger-Pilkington says that smaller operators working in community are the hardest hit.

"Working with our First Nations communities, where residents often have complex health conditions and are at extremely high-risk during this pandemic, has meant that all face-to-face contact and travel has been cancelled or postponed. This represents 75% of my employment and my income stream," says Iseger-Pilkington in a written statement.

"A month ago things were uncertain and in just over a week that uncertainty has become overwhelming anxiety. Our livelihoods rely on and impact the lives and incomes of our Indigenous arts community. We work in an underfunded environment, our wages are far from high and like those in the entertainment industry we live from invoice to invoice."

Our livelihoods rely on and impact the lives and incomes of our Indigenous arts community. We work in an underfunded environment, our wages are far from high and like those in the entertainment industry we live from invoice to invoice.

Mr Iseger-Pilkington is calling on others in the arts industry to speak up at this critical time. 

"We all need to be visible in the discussions happening around our sector and reject the culture of invisibility that renders so many people in the arts voiceless in times of change and uncertainty," he says.


Earlier this week, the stark reality of the coronavirus and the impact of the pandemic was brought into focus with singer/songwriter and musician, Thelma Plum, making a public announcement through her Instagram page that she had tested positive to COVID-19.

The Gamilaraay artist had just announced a national tour in support of her hugely successful prize winning debut album, Homecoming Queen. Ms Plum spoke out about her experience in a social media statement posted from hospital that called for more awareness around the needs of the vulnerable, and more action from the Government to counteract the spread of the virus. 

"The lack of action taken by the government has left me feeling quite anxious and hopeless, as it has many other people," she wrote.

The singer also stressed the importance of social distancing to help protect our most vulnerable.

"This means skip that party, bar, restaurant or show you really want to go to & practice social distancing. I cannot stress enough how much this virus has the potential to severely harm our communities (particularly our Indigenous communities). We need to know that the public health system is going to care for our communities."

An official announcement regarding the status of Ms Plums' tour dates is yet to be released.

 Award-winning Aboriginal photographer and photojournalist, Wayne Quilliam, has also just had a succession of projects cancelled. 

"Today Vivid Festival was announcing my latest exhibition projected onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge, cancelled.  Filming two doco's; cancelled, workshops at Karinjini and Central Desert; cancelled and the list goes on," the artist tells NITV News.

As most of Mr Quillam's work is in remote Aboriginal communities, his belief is that the response is appropriate and he would not consider travelling to these areas for fear of causing problems.

"Cultural responsibility is critical to protecting our Elders," he says.

Mr Quilliam also says that, to his surprise, a corporate client suggested the need for a work contract to be fulfilled, despite the situation. In spite of these challenges, his response is through art. 

"On the other hand I am creating a new series of work called 'Virus'. Enjoy," he says.


Yorta Yorta artist Neil Morris, who performs as Drmngnow, says he has lost thousands of dollars of income through the loss of upcoming gigs. mr Morris says that he feels particularly "torn up" for the artists and Elders who are knowledge keepers. 

"As an Indigenous artist I'm deeply sad for all our artists whom ultimately are contemporary cultural keepers.," says Mr Morris. "It's so vital for our peoples to continue to offer song for this land.

"I believe strongly that Indigenous song can be one of the most powerful tools of resilience and healing for all through this tough tough time. It's always been. After all, we descended from song of this land itself. The endangerment of our land possibly losing keepers of cultural ways through song is utterly devastating."


Maori singer/songwriter and musician Declan Kelly, a stalwart in the Australian live music scene, expressed concern for his fellow artists and the wellbeing of the music community.  

“As an Artist I’m feeling for all my colleagues in the arts sector who have had all of their work halted with no definite fall back for us all," he says.  

"Throughout these vulnerable times, we need to be there for each other through the struggles, not only mentally to stay strong, but also as a community to ride this out back to health and stability. Kia Kaha (Stay Strong).”

Throughout these vulnerable times, we need to be there for each other through the struggles not only mentally to stay strong, but also as a community  to ride this out back to health and stability. Kia Kaha (Stay Strong).”


Artist Travis De Vries, a visual artist who also co-produces popular podcast Broriginals, says that he is feeling a sense of anxiety at the loss of work but plans to keep being positive and try and stay connected with his creative community.

"I feel like it's super important to help people stay connected with each other and be able to share some positivity. I'm looking for other artists to collaborate on it with as well. I guess this is one of the ways I'm dealing with it, is to kind of rise above 'despair' and create something beautiful with people."


Quandamooka, Ngugi descendant Cassie Stella Whitehead is another musician who has lost upcoming gigs. Ms Whitehead says that while she is relieved she can fall back on her teaching work, others around her are not as fortunate.

"My entire gig calendar for the next few months was wiped. Now with the banning of 100+ person gatherings, it almost feels as if live music is banned," she says

"Overnight I lost thousands of dollars in gig cancellations when the initial banning of 500+ person gatherings was announced. My entire gig calendar for the next few months was wiped."

Ms Whitehead says it all feels very surreal and that many of her friends and colleagues are feeling depressed and anxious.

"Some of the best artists we have are being pushed into poverty," she tells NITV News.

The musician says that her favourite thing to do is jam with other musicians and this situation also offers its own uniqueness.

"It’s been beautiful to watch Italy’s response to the isolation - getting by with a bit of help from music played communally in isolation from balconies. So perhaps there’s something we can learn from that," she says.


Wiradjuri woman and Artistic Director of Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre, Nicole Reilly, says it has been a wild week for her and the company, and that she is feeling very anxious. 

Ms Reilly, who is also currently producing for a Queensland arts festival, says she has found it difficult to reconcile herself to the concept of the restrictions and the effect they have had for artists and events. 

"It’s a hard concept to grasp," she says. "Ya lying low when we always turn to art to light the darkness." 

The performer says that she will try and rally herself and the artists around her to do what they do best: get creative.

"We might [be] self-isolating physically but we still need to check in and keep making things. We find new ways to connect with each other, with audiences. Develop work, ready for when we’re allowed back into our performance spaces," she says.

"Technology seems to be the key for now, finding ways to bring us together in unconventional ways."


Wiradyuri conceptual artist, Amala Groomhas channeled her uncertainty into an art work.

"The Fifth Element is a conceptual intervention into the Australian canon of art history," she says.

"In what can only be considered as ‘uncertain times’, and, with the impending events of colonial commemoration upon us, this work seeks to act as a demonstrative reminder that we are ngumbaay-dyil (all together in one place - 'all are one')," explains the artist.

On her website, Ms Groom says that amongst the recent fire crisis, and now the coronavirus outbreak, the beaten up print of Frederick McCubbin’s celebrated 1889 work,Down on His Luck, was found discarded in an ALDI car-park next to her house.

"The title of this work is taken from the medieval concept of the cosmos and used as evidence to support the indivisibility of the human experience across cultures and across histories.  (A)ether, the intangible classical fifth element, also known as ‘quintessence’ within medieval alchemy, is the ‘material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere’ or to paraphrase Aristotle ‘...(A)ether is located in the celestial regions and heavenly bodies’."


Many beloved festivals around the country have also either been cancelled or postponed, such as Parrtjima - A Festival in Light which was due to take place in April but has this week been rescheduled to return to Alice Springs for September 11-12. 

Footscray Arts Centre's Indigenous Cultural Producer, Dan Mitchell, says that the cancellation of the Wominjeka Festival, which they produce annually, has been a tough decision.

"Wominjeka Festival is an important community event, both in the West and across Melbourne which marks the opening of our Program at FCAC and honours First Nations culture which is intrinsic to everything we do here at the centre.

"As a result of COVID-19 we’ve had to postpone this important community event that was set to employ over 100 First Nations artists and community members, as well as event and production staff," Mr Mitchell says in a statement to NITV News. 

Mr Mitchell says bringing these kind of events back to the community when possible is important.

"We are determined to revisit the event when the time is right because we want to ensure that those impacted in the First Nations artistic community the most have something to come back to when we’re able to resume usual programming."

NAIDOC Week postponed due to Coronavirus fears
NAIDOC Week has been postponed with the National NAIDOC Committee saying the decision was made "in the interest of safety for our communities" amid the developing Coronavirus crisis.

As of Tuesday afternoon, only people who have recently travelled from overseas or have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and experienced symptoms within 14 days are advised to be tested.
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor, don’t visit, or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
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