• Sandy Greenwood says her art is received differently now compared to 20 years ago (Credit: Jo-Anne Driessens)Source: Credit: Jo-Anne Driessens
New research reveals First Nations artists continue to encounter "outdated assumptions" that pose barriers within the industry, meanwhile arts advocates urge practitioners to maintain their momentum in producing work as the industry responds to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rachael Hocking

20 Aug 2020 - 2:17 AM  UPDATED 20 Aug 2020 - 2:17 AM

Gumbaynggirr, Dunghutti and Bundjalung woman Sandy Greenwood has worked in the arts for around 20 years as an actor, writer and producer, and in that time she says she has witnessed a shift in the way the wider public engage with the works of First Nations' artists.

The early days of her career were marked by an unwillingness to cast fair-skinned Aboriginal women in acting roles, she said, and narrow perceptions from audiences "not wanting to be lectured". 

"I remember doing this show around Queensland once, and the teacher said to me, 'Why do you have to keep bringing these serious bloody shows out? You know? Why can't you just bring a nice, happy opera out?'" Ms Greenwood said.

"I think traditionally, audiences are a bit scared because they feel like Indigenous content is going to be didactic. And it's going to challenge them and it's going to make them feel guilty and all those things."

While there has been a greater appreciation for the breadth of First Nations art in recent years, there are still outdated assumptions posing barriers to artists - according to new research released by the Australia Council for the Arts this week. 

Based on interviews with 45 artists and creatives, the research was conducted prior to the current global health pandemic. In it, participants labelled the stereotyping they have experienced across arts industries. 

"It’s quite hard to navigate festivals when they know you are of Indigenous origin because they immediately go with the sand circle situation. ... I have learned to dance on the sand but not every Blackfella comes from a land with sand. I learned on grass," one artist noted. 

Others called-out programming which has seen them placed in the 'Indigenous venue' and excluded from mainstream stages, while praising the efforts of Indigenous-run companies and festivals like YIRRAMBOI in Melbourne. 

"I think artists are very clear that there is an appetite for the work and that the barriers or challenges that they're facing are the perceptions that emerged from the industry about works being too risky or not being financially viable," the Australia Council's executive director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Lydia Miller said. 

"But it also highlights that there are gaps and there's a lack of skills in areas like technical support or design support."

Ms Miller says it's important to learn from the experiences and successes of artists in the study, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 in 2020. 

"What [the study] will enable us to do is, provide us a baseline about how artists are making work now," she said.

"And hopefully in terms of the future, it actually enables people to rethink the type of models, to address some of the issues and challenges and barriers that artists have said exist in the industry at this point, pre-COVID."

Changing tides

The report is the latest in a swathe of research grappling with changing attitudes and institutional barriers - including a study in 2015 which revealed a stark contrast in how Australians engage with First Nations art: that while 92 per cent thought that First Nations arts and culture was integral to the nation, only 24 per cent actually attended.

Ms Greenwood says she was shocked to see a change in audiences' attitudes after recently returning to Australia following five years spent in the United States. 

"I think it was in those five years that somehow there was a shift in consciousness. People were wanting to go and experience First Nations art, actively seeking it out and wanting to sit in the audience with an open heart.

"I couldn't believe the lineup of First Nations art in the Melbourne Fringe Festival that I was performing in, and how many people were just wanting to see everything. Anything in First Nations, it was sold out, you know?" 

Ms Greenwood was able to measure this change when she launched her one-woman show, Matriarch - an ode to the strong Gumbaynggirr women in her family that was co-written alongside Oliver V Cowley.

The performance saw sold-out audiences and a national tour in 2019 - including Green Room awards for Ms Greenwood's acting and writing. The show was due to hit the international stage this year before the coronavirus pandemic. 

"I had a big US tour planned, had a season in LA and New York already programmed, and obviously that's all been put on hold," she said.

"It's just like every artist, you have to be adaptable, or you sink when you can't feed yourself."

Ms Greenwood says 2020 has been tough but rewarding: lately she has been busy working on Gumbaynggirr Country creating an audio drama and online educational resource based on her play.

It's a common story among artists working in isolation, according to Amrita Hepi, who works primarily with dance and choreography.

She says the challenges posed by the current pandemic are not necessarily new to First Nations artists, who are constantly creating opportunities and "contexts for themselves by which to work".

"I think that being First Nations comes with having a certain intrinsic understanding of how to work with cultural contexts respectfully," said Ms Hepi.

"There's definitely been barriers in resisting hegemony, and insisting on this resistance - but then there is also a wealth of community in order to have conversations and create points of difference and to consider how audiences are responding."

She says First Nations art practice is "ever-changing" and that she is working on bringing her work to audiences in new ways.

For the past five weeks that has included an initiative dubbed Soothsayer Serenades: where each week a playlist is uploaded and people are encouraged to move together for 25 minutes without video proof they are doing so. 

"First Nations people have lived through plagues before and managed to keep practices and protocols. I am committed to immensely enjoy working with other people in a live context, in close proximity or 'in the room' so to speak and I am not going to surrender this forever," she said. 

"We are meant to flatten the curve - not our ways of being."

'Survival depends on the collective'

The Australia Council's Ms Miller has overseen round table discussions for First Nations artists since the beginning of the pandemic and says the focus has been on staying connected and focused. 

"Essentially in the space of a week we saw 255,000 events cancelled. It was just like a domino effect... then of course with the physical restrictions, venues had to close," she said. 

"So, the round tables were our way of going, 'Come together. Let's talk about this, and let's connect'. By actually giving voice to it, what people did is it allowed them the ability to deal with that. So over a period of months, we sort of changed from isolation and anxiety and depression, to connection."

Ms Miller said she is encouraged by the creativity artists are embracing during isolation and hopes the enthusiasm for First Nations' art is as strong post-pandemic as it was prior to the outbreak. 

"I hope, if anything, it affords us a wonderful opportunity because we've all had to stop,"  she said.

"I know that artists have been thinking about creative practice... and deeply considering the type of creative practice they want to forge, and that augers well for when we do come back, 'what is the nature of our industry in terms of the presentation or exhibition of those works that are being generated during this time?'"

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