Jacob Boehme: Currency House Creativity and Business breakfast speech at MCA

8 March, 2017 in Stories

On Wednesday 8 March 2017, YIRRAMBOI Creative Director delivered a speech at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney) at the invitation of Currency House. The speech highlighted how the YIRRAMBOI First Nations Arts Festival was developed under Jacob’s vision. Below is his speech…

Good morning and thank you for being here so early. I’d like to pay my respects to the people of the Eora / Gaddigal nations on whose lands we are gathered today and to acknowledge their Elders past, present and future and to also acknowledge First Nations peoples and their Elders, representing nations from across our country, here in the room today.

Thank you Karilyn for being here this morning and taking up the invitation to provide such a warm and generous introduction. Karilyn Brown and I only met 2 years ago. But it has been a meeting of the minds, hearts and passions that has made this friendship seem so much older than it actually is. Thank you for being here Karilyn. It’s important to me that you are here today and important too, that I get the opportunity to acknowledge and state publicly how much I value you, your support and friendship: as a colleague, as an accomplice and dear friend. Thank you.

I would also like to thank Katharine Brisbane and Currency House for the invitation to speak here this morning.

My name is Jacob Boehme. I stand here today as a member of the Narangga and Kaurna nations of Yorke Peninsula and Adelaide Plains in South Australia, with Irish, English and Finnish heritage. I was born in Fitzroy on Wurundjeri country and grew up on the lands of the Boon Wurrung in Newport. I call and consider Melbourne my home. First and foremost I’m an artist with a background in theatre, dance, playwriting and puppetry. Currently I am the Creative Director of YIRRAMBOI First Nations Arts Festival, presented by the City of Melbourne in partnership with Creative Victoria, gathering creative visionaries from across Victoria, Australia and around the world in Nairm-Melbourne, this coming May.

When I accepted the invitation to speak here this morning, there was much discussion around the various ways in which I might approach this address and of the topics that I might talk to and experiences that I could share with you. Whether it be from the point of view of the artist: Aboriginal and under-represented. Or of the Aboriginal contemporary choreographer and the myriad of questions, assumptions and complexities those three words together evoke for enquiring or skeptical minds. Or could I talk more broadly about the consistency of challenges and problems encountered by the Indigenous arts sector, across Australia? And on a good day, to each of those topics, I could bend your ear for hours and hours and hours. There are the ever-present issues of equity and authority to still be angry about. There is data and statistics to bring about concern, rage and shock (we’ll get to that in a minute). A ton of information I could stand here and impart: of us as a nation of nations, of the diversity of our cultures, traditions and peoples: as both practitioners and sovereign citizens. Or of the complexities, anxiety and threat we face internally, within our communities, arts and cultural sectors, when asked to prescribe to a paradigm that requires us to define ourselves as either traditional or contemporary.

And either directly or indirectly, I will speak to each of these topics, but the ‘issues’ and ‘problems’ will not be a point of focus today. Today, I would like to talk to you about hope: as an essential ingredient when taking or calculating risk, and more specifically, how hope has been a key driver in my approach to my new position as Creative Director of YIRRAMBOI.

In August 2015, the Australia Council for the Arts released research titled Building Audiences Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts, examining models and strategies around audience development for Indigenous arts in Australia.

It starts by outlining in the introduction, statistics that demonstrate the vast gap between interest and engagement in the Indigenous arts. 92% of respondents to the survey, considered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts an important part of Australian culture. 64% expressed a strong or growing interest in arts created or performed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. However, only 24% had actually attended an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts event or activity in that year.

The research also used word cloud techniques to illustrate characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts that resonated most strongly with members of the arts ecology, its audiences and potential audiences. The most common words used to describe perceptions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts by potential audiences: Didgeridoo, Dots, Serious, Spiritual and Storytelling.

In September 2016, the Australia Council released further research into the situation, this time with a focus on presentation opportunities for Indigenous artists in the country. Titled Showcasing Creativity: Programming and Presenting First Nations Performing Arts it revealed, through national mapping of the programs of 135 Australian presenters, that First Nations performing arts made up only 2% of the 6,000 works programmed in 2015. Just as shockingly, half of the Australian presenters are not programming any First Nations work at all.

Currently, programming decisions for major arts venues and festivals throughout most Australian cities and towns are made by non-Indigenous administrators, with limited networks and/or knowledge of the Indigenous arts sector, or of the complexities of contemporary Aboriginal (and urban) cultures.

In Melbourne, where I am based, we don’t have a dedicated Indigenous Arts venue or space for live performance, either owned or managed. At present, we have one mid-career Indigenous arts worker who holds an executive position at a ‘community arts’ organization. And at last count, we have eight Indigenous Producers of live performance, working across Melbourne, with no programming authority or capacity.

There has been much investment over the past decade in building capacity for Indigenous Leadership in the arts, with initiatives such as Treading the Pathways (now known as BlakDance) becoming the peak body for Indigenous contemporary and cultural dance in Australia, the Emerging Producers program, generating over 30 Indigenous producers now working in small to medium and mainstream organisations across the country and the British Council’s ACCELERATE Indigenous Leaders Initiative, with an Alumni of over 40 emerging leaders, building dreams and standing in their own truths, throughout our states and territories. We all understand the need for self-determination, not just for our community, but many communities across the country. But even known allies are sometimes paralyzed with fear when a conversation about Indigenous leadership and First Peoples First, turns into action. The unproven fear of losing power, authority and control far outweighs the opportunity to gain new knowledge.

The lack of Indigenous leadership in the sector is not just a consideration from the point of view of representation – it also means that the content and ‘acceptable’ narratives for Indigenous creative expression on Australian main stages – assuming that they get to presentation – are shaped by other, more dominant narratives.

Faced with this reality and armed with these statistics, one could assume that the situation for Indigenous artists and the Blak arts sector in Australia, is hopeless.

In 1994, Simon and Schuster published The Psychology of Hope by Professor Charles Richard Snyder. Throughout his career, Snyder published 6 books and 262 articles about Hope Theory and the impact hope can have on all aspects of our lives.

Snyder argues that there are 3 main things that make up hopeful thinking:

  • Goals – Approaching life in a goal-oriented way
  • Pathways – Finding different ways to achieve our goals
  • Agency – Believing that we can instigate change and achieve these goals

In The Psychology of Hope, which grew out of his own 15-year struggle with chronic pain, he explores two aspects concerning our ability to shape our own futures:

  • Will Power – the will to shape our own future, and
  • Way Power – our ability to see ways to shape the future

He explains why a normally positive person can feel confused if they feel depressed when facing a particular challenge. That they still have a strong will to solve the issue, but cannot see a way to find a solution. However, once they see a way through the problem, the cloud evaporates and their sense of hope returns, feeling reinvigorated to tackle the challenge. We all know the saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” But this phrase can be turned around to say: “Where there’s a way, there’s a will.”

Snyder also analyzes the significant events our first 18 years contribute to the development of hope. Through a variety of clinical cases, he explores how hope is often destroyed in children and in adults. He shows how neglect, abuse, parental loss, unrealistic expectations for the child, and inconsistent parenting can erode in different ways the child’s ability to envision goals or their ability to develop strategies to reach them. Now, if we, just for a second, substitute the words ‘child’ and ‘parenting’ for ‘artist’ and ‘administration’, we get a fairly clear and concise summary of the chaos the arts community, as a whole, is facing today. For the Indigenous arts sector, there is a lot to be (potentially) less hopeful about.

I met the opportunity to take on the role of Creative Director of the then Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival with an equal measure of excitement and terror. This new role posed challenges – namely, raising the profile of Indigenous arts and culture, inspiring participation, challenging perceptions and developing the next generation of Indigenous arts practitioners. It is more than just a role it is a responsibility. To play a role, with contractual obligations and clauses, to me implies that one can hand over, delegate down, even opt out. A responsibility however, ups the stakes. It requires of you to hold space and to take action.

Did I have a goal? Many. Could I identify pathways toward achieving those goals? I wasn’t sure, but I had a budget. Did I believe I had the agency to achieve, for my community, and myself the hopes and dreams I held for our sector? At first, this wasn’t clear either, but I had a vision of our future and the will to fight for it. I just needed to find the way.

I’d inherited a consortia model, one that consisted of mostly non-Indigenous organisations, without Indigenous representation within their companies, or a commitment to Indigenous arts as part of their core business. A model whereby potential presenting partners were of the assumption that they, knowing their audiences and in protecting their brand, bound by board rooms and bottom lines, would feed this first time Festival Director lists of shows and ideas, and I as the good novice, would curate these into one cohesive thread under the guise of an Indigenous arts festival. And when I looked at the list of shows I’d been asked to consider, what I’d been given was a collection of serious, spiritual storytelling with lots of dots, and you guessed it, didgeridoos. This just wasn’t gonna work.

After many frustrated and failed attempts at early negotiations, a bold and potentially risky move needed to be made. A vision became a philosophy and a philosophy became a framework. A framework, which delivered a set of 4 non-negotiable curatorial principles that hopefully, we could all be guided by:

  1. Indigenous Leadership – Ensuring that every production, exhibition, concert and idea must have Indigenous creatives as the lead. That each event be conceived, choreographed, curated, written and directed by First Nations talent, placing First Nations authority and decision making first
  2. Visibility and Dialogue – seek-out, provide and support new platforms and contexts for presentation, whilst simultaneously and rigorously creating space for new language and dialogue to emerge around how we perceive and talk about Indigenous contemporary arts
  3. New work and Ideas –supporting artists to present work, at any stage of development that seeks to go beyond acceptable narratives and comfortable known outcomes. Not as a matter of innovation, but integrity. Supporting artists bringing 60,000 plus years of performance making dramaturgies and methodologies to the fore of their practice and process, rather than performed cultures on stage
  4. Collaboration and exchange – to create and facilitate a gathering space that not only promotes exchange between our mob and First Nations internationally, but encourages contemporary arts exchange and collaboration, nation to nation within our country

Still a little shaky in my new shoes, I again hit the pavement, this time with a will and a way. But would they go for it?

I wasn’t just pitching programming choices this time, I was suggesting that together we, not so much reinvent the wheel, but at least change it. For as we know, the wheel is broken, the cart it fell off is now best used as firewood and the horse pulling the cart, is practically dead, poor thing.

Our responsibility as curators, presenters and programmers of arts venues and of festivals, is to facilitate space: for the individual and collective voice. Indeed, this is the responsibility of all arts organisations – to pave the way for expression and facilitate the civic engagement of new voices. These may not always be voices we agree with, at first. But unless they are given the opportunity to be heard: on their own terms, in their own language, or form, experimentation or discipline/s, we lose the chance to experience those moments when a singular voice becomes the will and the vision of the collective. This, as a curator or presenter, requires courage, hope and a fearless embracing of risk – because it makes anything possible, and allows any voice to be heard.

And it has been through an act of hope that a will and a way forward has been paved by the collective efforts of our dedicated team at YIRRAMBOI, the City of Melbourne, Creative Victoria and all our presenting partners. Sure, we lost a few along the way, whether it be from fear of the unknown, a matter of bad timing or a clash of ideology – some of us like things just as they are. And that’s ok, because it created space for new allies to emerge.

YIRRAMBOI First Nations Arts Festival is more than just dots and didgeridoos.

A 10-day feast of contemporary arts and events, YIRRAMBOI smashes through perceptions of Indigenous arts in Australia.

Showcasing creative visionaries from across the country and the world, YIRRAMBOI celebrates the diversity, individuality and creative risks of First Nations artists leading contemporary 21st century arts practice.

We are more than just serious and spiritual storytellers.

YIRRAMBOI challenges current language and old notions around what Indigenous art is, creating opportunities for new language to emerge and a new dialogue to begin.

What started as a flickering ember and the dream of one voice, and then a few, by nation and by continent, became the vision and hope of many, spreading like bushfire. And we, along with many First Nations cultures visiting YIRRAMBOI in May, have been working with fire for over 60,000 years.

Fire is the essential element in Land Care and cultural practices spanning thousands of generations across what is now known as Australia. Fire is used to eliminate danger, to heal, to encourage new growth and abundance. And when managed with over 60,000 years of knowledge, a controlled burn off could be exactly what this fragile system needs.

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