With a Wiradjuri mother and a white father, inter-disciplinary artist and writer Sarah-Jane Norman often “passes” for white. The weight of that cultural assumption is something they’ve been dealing with all of their life, deconstructing creatively in their practice.
“People don’t necessarily clock me as Koori, and that then precipitates this very complex process of erasure which is a daily micro-aggression you have to deal with as a white-passing blackfella,” they say.
A complex discussion of duality that’s full of nuance, Norman is now at a stage where gender has come to the centre of their experience, identifying as non-binary. “I make a living out of describing complex and liminal emotional states as an artist and as a writer and even I really struggle to find a language to talk about where I stand in all of this,” they say. “I spent a long time negotiating with race as the first item on the agenda, and I feel similarly now about gender. It has the same emotional and visceral quality for me.”
Describing non-binary as falling somewhere on the broader trans spectrum, Norman says the public discourse on the subject of gender is still incredibly simplistic. “Even though we have 40 years of queer theory behind us, we continue to cycle back to the same points. Much of the current discourse around non-binary gender often fails to acknowledge the profound differences in the way gender is coded and constructed culturally. Whose binary, exactly? Often we’re assuming the centrality of whiteness, and that can make this discourse alienating for a lot of queer and trans people of colour.”
The binaries abound in public discussion. “You’re in a position where you’re having to answer to binaries all the time because our culture runs off of binaries, so if you don’t easily fit a category, one way or the other, there’s an enormous social and cultural pressure to change yourself.”
Not one to bow to pressure, Norman will re-stage a trio of previous works as part of their contribution to Dance Territories: Border Lines, a Melbourne Festival collaboration with Dancehouse. They will be showcased alongside the work of French-Algerian choreographer and dancer Nacera Belaza.
Heirloom is a willow-pattern dinner set displayed on a sideboard, hand-painted in Norman’s own blood.Take this, for it is my body also uses Norman’s blood, but this time as an ingredient in a batch of scones baked and then offered to the audience. InThe River's Children, Norman asks the audience to bring white laundry, which they proceed to wash in water taken from the Murray River. As they hang them out to dry, the details of Aboriginal massacres are projected onto the makeshift canvases.
“As a performing artist, I figure stuff out through my body,” Norman says. “I wanted to speak to the complex grief that I feel as an Aboriginal person living in this country, which I experience as a kind of physical weight. If you talk to a lot of people who come from a cultural background that has been marked by genocide, war, slavery or dispossession of any kind, it’s a very familiar feeling.”
With talk of treaty and constitutional recognition moving sluggishly in Canberra, Norman says it’s vitally important Australians have this conversation. “The trauma of First Nations people is immense and that weighs not just on us but the whole cultural psyche of Australia in ways which I think are so deeply embedded people don’t notice the extent to which they’re acting on these dynamics.”
Take this, for it is my body references their grandmother who was a shearers’ cook, one of many itinerant workers who went from sheep station to sheep station making scones for the farmers. “Thefarmhouse afternoon tea is a very colonial ritual that has been transported to Australia and is still a part of our culture, particularly in rural areas. I took that and re-appropriated it as a way of exploring cultural trauma.”
Norman challenges the audience to address what blood means to them. “On the one hand, for me, it’s about the outright massacre of Aboriginal bodies and on the other it’s about the assimilation policy that has had incredibly far reaching and damaging consequences for us.”
Norman’s mother, made to sit at the back of class as a “half-caste,” had a very real choice to make. “She grew up in an era where, if you were a Koori kid of fair skin and could “pass”, and I don’t just mean in terms of the way you look, but also the way you acted and lived, it dictated a lot about your circumstances. This was during the era of child removal. Those were the stakes for my mother and my grandmother.”
Passing was not easy then and continues to be problematic now. “There’s a very complex process of self-denial and really deeply hideous stuff that people had to live with and through as a result of those policies,” Norman says. “It’s a very particular kind of violence that leaves a very particular kind of smear on people and their cultures.”
A similar vein runs through The River's Children, again referencing their grandmother’s domestic work and the many massacres that occurred along the banksof the Murray River. “You go to any country town, even one of only 2,000 people, and there will always be a war memorial, but there could be a massacre site 5 kilometres out of town and the only people there who would even know about it will be the local Aboriginal community. We’re charged with holding that history and everybody else just gets to move on, and that’s not okay.”
Undoubtedly heavy material, there’s a dark vein of humour in Norman’s work too. “It’s also quite obviously a pun on the term whitewashing, which kind of makes me chuckle a little bit because nobody ever gets the joke.”
Book tickets to see Dance Territories: Border Lines at the Melbourne Festival here.