Review: Exorcising Colonial Demons with Blak Mass

Drawing on data from traditional First Nations Songlines and weaving in the sequence of her own DNA, Naretha Williams’s experimental electronic performance Blak Mass was a truly mesmerising experience, writes Angelina Hurley. Blak Critics is a YIRRAMBOI initiative giving voice to First Nations writers and critics.

Performed on the first Saturday night of YIRRAMBOI Festival of First Nations art and culture, the work of Wiradjuri woman Williams, born in Melbourne, is derived from her ongoing series Cryptex. Encompassing themes of identity, place and body, the cycle began with Circle at the inaugural YIRRAMBOI in 2017.

The performance was introduced by YIRRAMBOI’s creative director Caroline Martin, who sent out a dedication to the strength and talent of First Nations women, welcoming and acknowledging all First Nations peoples and reminding us of the importance of being able to walk on Country in our own right.

In this spirit, she celebrated the fact of Williams’s work being performed with a distinct purpose to decolonise. Hence Blak Mass was presented in the epitome of colonial venues, at Melbourne’s old Town Hall, ripe for decolonising.

Transforming her own DNA into a digitally created musical composition spoke to the legacy of colonisation, a commentary made all the more powerful by harnessing the voice of the venue’s historical instrument, the grand organ. But it wasn’t only the medium of sound through which this decolonisation occurred. It also took flight through extremes of colour and light.

Two strategically placed spotlights trained on the organ resembled giant eyes, with the glowing bottom row of the keyboard taking on the appearance of a mouth, as if the face of a 147-year-old man patiently waiting for his audience to arrive. Watching over us curiously as the hall slowly filled to the background sound of soft bells, a haunting blue mist caressed the stage.

The audience sat with placid anticipation at this vision, with a stark red light projected on the stage matching that of the Aboriginal flag atop the organ, joining with the yellowish beady-eyed spotlights and a black stage strewn with dots. The lighting of Blak Mass perfectly complemented the show – one minute the stage was totally engulfed in that dramatic red, the next decorated with light streams, which, to me, resembled the rarrk strokes of an Aboriginal painting.

The haunting old Grand Organ provided a heartbeat to Williams’s avant-garde, gothic techno music. Her overarching contemporary electronic score resonated with the nostalgia of a sci-fi movie, with the familiarity of a Doctor Who–type theme popping up in one section making me smile, as did distant clapstick sounds in the background. I do wish the performance had been louder though, or that I had sat closer to the stage to better feel the effect of sound, light and colour combined.

It might sound clichéd to say that Williams moves ever so calmly through her performance, making its complexity look effortless, but she does, and that’s testament to her ability. As the first event I attended at this year’s YIRRAMBOI, Blak Mass was a lovely, meditative experience that set me in good stead to take on the rest of the Festival.

Blak Mass premiered at YIRRAMBOI Festival 2019, supported by City of Melbourne.

Image: Naretha Williams by James Henry