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From The Vault - SUSTAINABLE OR UNOBTAINABLE? Economic sustainability through Indigenous arts reclam

Sam COOKs KISSmyBLAKartsCOLUMN – July 2006

SUSTAINABLE OR UNOBTAINABLE? Economic sustainability through Indigenous arts reclamation - The choice is yours.

Economic sustainability is a dilemma faced in both urban and remote communities. As Indigenous nations, we presently exist within a bureaucratic regime that commands we are sustainable, that demands we reconcile, that reprimands us if these targets, goals and objectives aren’t met. So whilst there is a lot of finger waiving directed toward the Indigenous community, the reality is that Indigenous communities have largely been set up to fail.

I say this as I know first hand that Indigenous organisations and communities are the most macro managed, the most scrutinised and the most under-resourced in the whole of Australia. And with mainstreaming looming on the horizon, this cycle will remain, if not ensure, that it leaves a wake of destruction and despair within the Indigenous community - so that we again can be measured negatively, so that we continue to remain controlled, so that we continue to live without hope.

So how does one exist within a failing sense of despair?

What I am suggesting is that we don’t. That in reality, we either maintain, tread the survival wheel or live to die. In this reality all the infrastructure and all the inoculation in the world will not ensure we move beyond basic survival. It helps, but it only keeps us maintaining the cycle, or as some suggest, prolongs it. So what then is in place for we, as Indigenous Australia to rise above it?


Hope afterall, is the impetus for Indigenous people to believe that economic sustainability or community regeneration is indeed possible or likely.

So for me as Executive Producer of YIRRA YAAKIN, alongside the “YIRRA YAAKIN FAMILY”, it is a current fundamental lack of hope, that is of critical interest to who we are and what we do, as collectively we understand, that without a mechanism for positive social change in our communities, we will fail to see our worth, we will continue to buy into the oppression of our “statistics” and we will continue to live to die.

So why would one of Australia’s leading Aboriginal theatre companies care? Aren’t we here just put on a good show? Isn’t that our job - Light Relief?

If only it were ever that simple!

As a self-determined model of Indigenous arts practise, we shoulder the mantle of a community approach and responsibility so that the “good show”, is only ever five percent of the story. By the time that one good show ends up a world class theatre production, it has undergone ninety-five percent of its journey, a journey that cuts across community cultural development, community capacity building, economical return to Indigenous stakeholders and most critically, a process embedded in protocols and respect as we fulfil our Vision TO ENABLE ABORIGINAL COMMUNITIES TO TELL THEIR OWN STORIES.

So I am here, to state the case for an area that has been largely overlooked in its vast potential, within Indigenous community development and economic sustainability. An area diminished to “a great show” “a nice painting” “a cultural experience”. But an area that through any history, white and black, past and present, is where significant social change has evolved.

It’s the arts.

The Indigenous arts approach has always been holistic. Storytelling, performance, song, sculpture and visual arts are practises Indigenous people have built upon since time immemorial. Its how, as a living culture we have evolved. Its how, as a living culture, we know our histories. Its how as a living culture, we have survived. The arts had an integral part, in traditional Indigenous social constructs, and was as important as food, shelter and health. In fact, it was how our cultural knowledge was recorded, our visual database of notes, passed on through generational learning and sharing, with protocols and respect.

The performing arts, taught young hunters how to mimic and read the animals that they would later prey upon for food source, the visual arts recorded the land and held spiritual belief intact, song cycles recorded oral histories that are the basis of our dreamings and sculpture gave us our totems, our tools, our markers within the landscape so we knew our boundaries.

Its only through having to be survivalist, that Indigenous arts has had to be forced into a separation from community, and its true cultural worth. The first step towards the diminishment of the true place Indigenous arts has in Indigenous society, is in the institutionalised processes imposed upon us. With our arts, having to be defined in this way, merely so that we could tick a box, and conform to a Western construct.

But its stuck. As now Indigenous arts sits on the periphery, of any economic sustainability or community capacity building discourse, relegated to that “nice painting” that light relief, that programmed performance to fill the infrastructure we build, or the new health initiative we launch. Such an overlook of the potential, of what the Indigenous arts can achieve to bring our communities forward.

So I ask, do we accept this, challenge this or continue to relegate the importance of Indigenous arts to a relic of long ago? Will we continue to come together over and over to talk in circles about the infrastructure needed to sustain our communities and do it with the view that the role of Indigenous arts is extraneous? – The choice is yours.


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