I recently met with Arnhem Land, Gupapuyngu man Gawurra, at Emerald’s Lakeside train station near where he now lives. An Indigenous (Yolngu) musician, speaking 8 Yolngu languages as well as English and performing in at least 4 of these languages, I think that Gawurra is something of a national treasure.
It was as recent as the 1950s (and in WA the 1970s) that Indigenous Australians were disallowed through the ‘Aboriginal Protection Act’ to even speak in their own language, let alone perform live on some of the biggest stages in the country. I feel immense grief in knowing this and also great joy in celebrating Gawurra’s music and voice.
In 2016 Gawurra’s debut album Ratja Yaliyali which translates to Vine of Love; a thread of love that keeps everything connected, received a 4.5 star review from Rolling Stone Magazine and an ARIA award nomination, four NIMA Awards and The NT Song of the Year Award. The first of many accolades I am sure.
Gawurra speaks of the importance of songlines in his music and explains what songlines are. He says they are “the story from beginning to end that tells the history of the people, spirit and land”. Songlines, or in Gawurra’s language, ‘manikay’, are particular to each clan but are also interconnected. His song Mulunda (Kingfisher) on his first album release is a modern rendition of a songline in the Djambarrpuyngu language and was written for his beautiful wife of 25 years, Valda who also came with Gawurra to meet me. The couple’s two daughters, Charlene and Rihanna, go to Cockatoo Primary School and are enjoying their time very much.
I asked Gawurra if people wanted him to sing in English more, or at all. He said he does get asked and he thinks having one or two songs where he sings in English would be fine on balance. “That is the challenge. I am not a white man. I am a black man. I don’t want to sing in English all the time. My Elders would say why are you singing that in English? Don’t loose your culture”. Gawurra has an acute understanding of how his visibility and being heard is uplifting for Indigenous people to, as he says “share and shine in the world, with who we are.” This wisdom is two-fold and is a call for being seen in all of one’s authenticity, for Indigenous people, as well as for all people.
Gawurra explains that he grew up in the bush till he was 12, Gupapuyngu is his first language and his parents taught him from a young age, cultural lore. “I just came from the bush, I am telling my story, I love singing. My dream, my story.”
Talking to Gawurra about his move to Emerald, Victoria from Arnhem Land we expanded to reflect upon the complexity of belonging and identity in Australia. We acknowledged that many people, like myself, are a mix of multiple cultures; be that characterized by ancestral lines, through a connection to one’s place of birth or as an adoptive home through migration. I for example, have a great-great grandmother who was Aboriginal, a grandfather who was Italian, an English Grandmother, a Turkish Father… and so on. Gawurra says to me, “I come from a long way and my spirit is being changed by this land, this land is owning me. I’m not the person I was before I came. I am still Gupapuyngu but I am changed by the embrace of this land. The land is keeping us. Sacred place. We are becoming Wurundjeri. Our spirit is connected to the people of this land – Wurundjeri country. With all five clans across the Kulin Nation, we are also looking after this place. We have mutual respect between past and future. The spirit sees us.”
I feel blessed to hear these words from Gawurra and I imagined life if we all connected to place in this way, what a wonderful sense of belonging we could share as a community and a people.
I am also an artist. I am a dance artist and I told Gawurra that I have a thirst for collaboration and connection with Indigenous people. I asked him to comment on what he thought about collaboration between cultures. Gawurra turns to me and said, “Don’t be shy. I learn your culture and we can know each other better” I come to the conclusion and confer with Gawurra that collaboration that is thoughtful and respectful will come along slowly, if it is based on connection.
Towards the conclusion of our time together Gawurra tells me he has a big question for all people, “Why are you here and what are you doing? Are you here for yourself, for your people or for All?” He points to other people going about their day around us at the train station, each from different cultural groups and says, “They know why they are here and what they are doing, and we have to respect them. We know why we are here and what we are doing.” Gawurra includes all present at the table and says “We are all representing Australia – those who came here from a long way and me as an Indigenous Australian. What I do and make is not just for Indigenous people but for all Australians, making the way for black and white.”
Gawurra’s touring dates can be found at gawurra.com I encourage you to feed your soul and spend some time with him at one of his upcoming shows.
Dance X is an exhibition that playfully encourages people of all ages to move: creating opportunities through which viewers are enticed to ‘dance without realising they are dancing’ (as artist Viv Rogis describes it). Viv Rogis, Gareth Hart and Gülsen Özer, the three lead artists on this exciting new project, evolved their curatorial concept in a spirit of pooling their dance, spatial and technological knowledge to create an installation specifically for Yarra Ranges Regional Museum. Whilst most of the works combine dance and technology, including 360-degree HD video, X-Box and gaming technologies, and other works employ ‘low-fi’ materials such as cardboard boxes and flash cards, the six installations that comprise Dance X encourage experiential participation and (gently) impel the viewer/ participant to move.
The three renowned dance artists are all residents of the area and have shared interests in place-based research and practice, as well as in motivating community participation. The link to environments of the Yarra Ranges, as well as the inclusion of other local dancers in some of the works, layered upon the architectural site of the Museum in Lilydale, gives the exhibition a distinctly local connection, yet it also extends beyond these place associations.
Viv Rogis has created a choreographic game Chance or Choice, (the title/ concept referencing modern dance innovator Merce Cunningham) whereby she invited local dance artists to be photographed arcing and stretching in relation to their favourite trees of the area, demonstrating potential choreographic shapes on flash cards. The Dance X program includes a series of workshops by Rogis, an established dance teacher, facilitating children of various age brackets (from 3 years old!) to create their own dances using her game, which originated from her explorations with young children in her dance classes.
Gareth Hart’s 360-degree interactive film ‘this is all a little bit queer, isn’t it?’ features six performance artists enacting distinct and bizarre acts in the stunning Redwood Forest outside of Warburton. Viewers explore this dynamic between real and surreal, self and other, via iPads in a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience, through which they themselves are inadvertently moving in relation to the projected image.
Many people still think of dance as something spectacular or virtuosic, but Gülsen Özer’s installations draw attention to – and offer the viewer an experience of – the close-range engagement with one’s own body and surroundings that a dancer’s sensibility entails. A recorded reading of Steve Paxton’s 1970s ‘small dance’ which brings intimate focus to one’s eye socket and movement of the base of the skull, accompanies a neon sign reminding the viewer/ participant that You are Here.
In Duet, as the viewer’s walking within a 5-metre space relates to a video image of a dancer who appears to imitate your speed and proximity, we realise that this pedestrian action is potential choreography. Duet communicates an expanded understanding of dance and affirms to participant/ viewers that any body can dance.
Özer’s Virtual Dance Class brings the viewer/participant into an immersive experience of a youth ballet class (of local dance students taught by Viv Rogis), via a headset and google pixel phone, whilst the viewer is physically stationed at a ballet barre. Like You are Here and Duet, Özer has directed and designed this work using simple, formal aesthetics, for clarity of experience and reception, given that in the 360-degree format, ‘you can’t direct the audience’s gaze’. In contrast to the lack of, or ‘exploded’ ‘frame’ of the 360-degree surround video, Rogis’ In and out of the frame offers an alternative to the technological interfaces (which can be mysteriously mind-blowing to un-techno types, such as the author!) This work invites viewers/participants’ exploration of ways of seeing through the familiar form of cardboard boxes: breaking down the processes of perception and selection that are under way in the transition from live performance to a filmic point of view.
Dance and the gallery or museum are not new bedfellows, but this sort of experimental, participatory adventure is a rare treat in the outer suburban/ regional zone we inhabit. Dance X promises to be fun and welcoming, with ‘user-friendliness’ a major aspect of the project. Having predominantly worked in dance contexts, creating installations in which the viewer becomes the performer was a particular challenge and opportunity for these artists. The project, supported by a Yarra Ranges Council Arts and Heritage grant, has enabled Özer, Hart and Rogis to explore and expand their dance practices through the interaction with particular technologies and the theme of viewer participation. The three agree that the duration of the exhibition (three months) will also allow them to witness how participants engage with the works, which may inform further iterations and future explorations.
Open Wed 10 May-Sun 30 July, 2017
Yarra Ranges Regional Museum,
35 Castella Street, Lilydale
Fun times - participatory flashmob dance project facilitated by Gülsen Özer with choreography by Etienne Khoo. In April 2016 a wonderful and diverse group of participants danced in public spaces across three townships; Belgrave, Upper Ferntree Gully and Sassafras in Victoria, Australia. This project was supported by Yarra Ranges Council and Burrinja Cultural Centre for the Dance Here project.
Gülsen is a choreographer and also teaches workshops in contemporary dance technique, as well as in developing choreography and creating dance theatre.