Review: Disrupting City Streets with Blak Culture

The citywide Blak-out of Barring Yanabul performances opened Melbourne’s eyes to its First Nations heart, writes Timmah Ball. Blak Critics is a YIRRAMBOI initiative giving voice to First Nations writers and critics.

Exiting Melbourne Central station into the thoroughfare of capitalism that includes supermarkets, iPhone stores and novelty pop-up shops is an intrinsic part of city living. YIRRAMBOI, Australia’s premier First Nations arts festival, shifts these norms, reminding those who have forgotten that Melbourne is Birrarung-ga, a place embedded with deep culture.

Barring Yanabul acts as an exciting reminder of this fact through a program of art, dance, performance and music curated in public spaces across the CBD. It unearths the formidable talents of First Nations artists for one day, allowing people to move through the city in a new way.

As I left the station and headed onto Swanston Street ready to review the citywide event, the Dhungala Children’s Choir radically transformed the steps of the State Library in front of me. Led by opera singer and Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham, the children’s voices soothed the colonial architecture as if to say, ‘we’re still here and thriving,’ amongst the authoritarian statues of English explorers that framed them on the library lawn.

The encounter foreshadowed a range of site-specific performances programmed as part of the day, opening eyes to the city’s First Nations heart. As I moved towards Bourke Street another symbol of western capitalism, H&M, was altered by Blak song. Splatters of rain didn’t deter the enthusiastic crowd who gathered around the steps of the old GPO, which became a makeshift auditorium.

Noongar performer Rose Chalks delivered a powerful spoken word poem Where the Heart Lays, reminding us that ‘we live in a place of unease’ when we don’t acknowledge our past. Her reassuring honesty was propelled by the angelic pop vocals of Garret Lyon, who brought a different tone with his R&B sounds. His uplifting performance confirmed him as an important name to watch in the ever-growing Blak music scene.

Tucked away in the more conventional venue Basement Discs, I was drawn into the soulful country sound of Robert K Champion. With a voice that hit me at my core, the Gubrun, Kokatha and Mirning man’s flawless set left me wondering why it took me so long to come around to country music. Backed by an ensemble of musicians that elevated the modest stage, I was reminded why Blakfullas have such a love for the genre and left wanting more.

In a strikingly different space over at Campbell Arcade, diverse artworks were exhibited at The Dirty Dozen gallery. Safe Spaces by David Heilmann Ottosen was an arresting series of portraits and landscapes, which sat comfortably between Melbourne and his subjects from Greenland. Alan Stewart’s Maaman spoke to the way Blak people move across culture, time and space in an illuminating group of connecting photos, which presented Taungurung country in contrast to inner-city Collingwood. And as I exited towards Flinders Street, Kalinda Palmer’s What’s your Totem? evoked the environment that was once here before the Hoddle Grid and its western buildings erupted during settlement.

Heading towards Hamer Hall to experience the highly anticipated dis rupt, conceptualized by Taungurung rising star Kate ten Buuren, I caught a glimpse of Choice Cut by Jasmin Sheppard at Flinders Street Station. Like a small precursor to what I was about to experience, it challenged the oppressive impact colonialism has had on women’s bodies with fierce beauty.

As I reached the banks of the Birrarung near Hamer Hall, the collective of artists assembled for dis rupt gathered along the Southbank terrace overlooking the river for an important Welcome to Country. Before we entered the intimidating arts institute, the performers thanked the Elders of the Kulin Nations and their own before inviting us into the altered space. Striking bark trees hung in the foyer as they drew us down the staircase for the first of many performances, which consciously disrupted the European interior.

Surrounded by an array of Blak bodies and art filling the streets and buildings, it became clear that something important was happening. Under the direction of creative director Caroline Martin, Barring Yanabul was a testimony to the powerful matriarchy re-shaping our city, ensuring that the wrongs of the past will not impact our future.

Barring Yanabul was a full day takeover of Melbourne’s laneways and public places at YIRRAMBOI Festival 2019 with over 50 music and art performances.

Image: Dhungala Children’s Choir by James Henry