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Dark Mofo festival weathered the backlash against Union Flag and a First Nations boycott, but the impact will be lasting


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NAIDOC(National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee)  அல்லது ‘National Aboriginal Day', ஒவ்வொரு வருடமும் ஆடி முதலாம் கிழமை ஆரம்பமாகி ஒரு வாரம் அவர்களுடைய நிகழ்வுகள் நடைபெறும். இந்த வருடம் கடந்த 4ம் திகதி தொடங்கி வரும் 11ந்திகதி வரை நிகழ்வுகள் நடைபெறும். இந்த வருடத்திற்கான கருப்பொருள் “Heal Country – calls for stronger measures to recognise, protect, and maintain all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage.” 

இவர்களுடைய இந்த NAIDOC வார ஆரம்பநிகழ்வில் இலங்கையில் பிறந்த, சிட்னியில் வாழ்ந்துவரும் ஓவியர், சிற்பகலைஞரான ரமேஷ் மாரியோ நித்தியேந்திரன் அவர்களின் ஒரு படைப்பும் கண்காட்சிக்கு வைக்கப்பட்டுள்ளது.. அவரது சிற்பங்கள் மிக மிக வித்தியாசமானவை..

Dark Mofo festival weathered the backlash against Union Flag and a First Nations boycott, but the impact will be lasting

 / 

By arts editor Dee Jefferson

Posted  1dday ago, updated 1dday ago
At night in a Hobart street, a young Aboriginal man holds up a Aboriginal flag, a large crowd of people gather behind the flagOn opening night of Dark Mofo, First Nations performers led the public on a 'reclamation walk' through Hobart CBD, before raising the Aboriginal flag.(Supplied: Dark Mofo/Remi Chauvin)

The opening ceremony for Dark Mofo this year was not conceived by the festival creative team — but rather, by the Palawa/Pakana community, traditional custodians of lutruwita (what is now known as Tasmania).

It started with a welcome to country in a car park in the CBD, led by Tasmanian Aboriginal elders and featuring dancing, singing and ceremonial smoke.

Two Aboriginal performers in body paint, one lying on the ground, while the other looks down at him, arms at his sides Aboriginal elder Aunty Nanette 'Netty' Shaw told the assembled crowd: "Today we are continuing our culture, that is passed down through generation to generation."(Supplied: Dark Mofo/Remi Chauvin)

"As you are gathered for this event, close your eyes and imagine this place in my ancestors' time," Aunty Nanette Shaw said.

This was followed by a "reclamation walk" through nipaluna (Hobart CBD), led by First Peoples.

"Come, walk with us," said organiser AJ King (a Bigambul and Wakka Wakka man) — an invitation taken up by a crowd of a couple of thousand.

The event culminated with the raising of the Aboriginal flag in Liverpool Street, which had been transformed with soil and sand, native plants and trees.

The event, titled Home State Reclamation Walk, was the first in Dark Mofo's eight-year history.

Shaw, who led the Welcome to Country alongside Uncle Rodney Dillon, said she hoped it was not the last.

"It was an absolutely wonderful, wonderful experience [and] I'm hoping like heck that they continue with it [for Dark Mofo 2022]," she told me the following week.

"Get the fellas to go down and do that opening ceremony smoking dance, to invite people in."

At night, five Aboriginal Tasmanians stand in a row some in possum skin cloaks in a welcome to country. Aunty Netty Shaw speaks Aunty Netty told ABC the opening night ceremony and installation had "opened people's minds and broken down a lot of barriers, I think".(Supplied: Dark Mofo/Remi Chauvin)

The blood-soaked flag

Home State Reclamation Walk was conceived in the aftermath of a wave of criticism and calls to boycott Dark Mofo, following the announcement in March of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra's now-notorious artwork, Union Flag.

As part of that announcement, the festival called for donations of blood by "First Nations peoples from countries claimed by the British Empire at some point in history" — for the purposes of soaking a Union Jack flag in blood.

The backlash against Dark Mofo and its parent institution, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), was swift and strong, and included criticism from visual artist and curator Paola Balla (a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman) and former Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch (Noonuccal Nuugi).

Daniel Browning, host of ABC RN's Awaye! at the time, described the work as exploitative and derivative.

"The Union Jack is known throughout the world among colonised people as the butcher's apron, precisely because of the bloodshed — the real bloodshed in the name of the British Empire," he said on the show.

 
Listen: Black blood and white tears on Awaye!

Browning also pointed to Sierra's track record of making "schlock art" that mined other people's trauma, which has included paying sex workers, with heroin, to be tattooed while being filmed; and filling a Jewish synagogue with carbon monoxide.

"These, in my opinion, are not performative or aesthetic experiences. They're not designed to deepen our awareness. In my opinion, and to my mind, they're vapid, tasteless and culturally unconscious acts that actually reproduce and banalise violence, genocide and trauma," Browning said.

Tasmanian Aboriginal artist and activist Jamie Graham Blair (a Trawlwulwuy and Plangermaireener man) wrote in an Instagram post: "Indigenous bodies are not tools to be used by colonisers. We are not props for your white guilt art."

MONA curator Emma Pike wrote a letter to owner David Walsh signed by other staff members, decrying the Union Flag commission as "tone-deaf to the current fights for a treaty, equality, for Aboriginal-led conversations, and ultimately reconciliation".

Leigh Carmichael, creative director of Dark Mofo and its parent organisation DarkLab, defended the work in an interview with ABC Hobart on March 23 — citing freedom of artistic expression and saying: "The artist's view or his intention, I believe, is honourable and clear. And he's against colonialism and all the horror that comes with that."

But within 24 hours, the festival had issued an apology, acknowledging the hurt caused and cancelling the work.

This year's Dark Mofo went ahead nonetheless, but the festival that opened on June 16 was one that had been substantially affected — and in fact shaped — by the Union Flag fallout.

ABC Arts went down to Hobart to talk to the artists who stayed in the program as well as those who did not; we listened to First Nations artists and community members with different perspectives on the past, present and future of the festival.

What follows is an attempt to represent the complexity and nuance of that conversation.

'A masterclass in cultural incompetency'

It is not the first time the festival has been the subject of controversy — and in fact some believe they actively court it — but Union Flag is the first project Dark Mofo has cancelled in response to criticism.

In a lengthy blog post reflecting on his decision to approve and then cancel the work, Walsh concluded: "It's no wonder everyone is disgusted. I'm sorry."

Speaking to ABC Hobart, Pakana artist Caleb Nichols-Mansell described the festival's apology as "too little too late".

"The damage has already been done within the Tasmanian community and the arts sector, and the trauma and distress that we've had to wear as a community the last couple of days trying to explain why this is so wrong, I believe outweighs any impact that the actual work would have had in its original form," he told Drive's Lucy Breaden.

Nala Mansell from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre told ABC News that Dark Mofo's failure to consult broadly among First Nations communities was critical: "To not speak to the people they were hoping to represent, prior to the announcement … is what has led to its demise."

Browning described MONA's handling of the situation as "a masterclass in cultural incompetency".

Speaking to Browning on Awaye!, Tasmanian artist and Aboriginal Heritage officer Fiona Hamilton (a Trawlwulwuy woman) said: "If you want to talk about colonialism and the impact of colonialism, that has to start from the place where you're situated and the lands that you're situated in, and give Tasmanian Aboriginal people our voice to talk about that and lead those discussions."

 
Listen: Fiona Hamilton on Awaye!

Hamilton spoke to Browning about her longer history of engaging with MONA, including a profoundly negative experience involving the 2014 'Aboriginal DNA testing kiosk' by Swiss artist Christoph Buchell, culminating in her decision last year to abandon any relationship with the organisation.

"This is the power of institutions; they have the power to make or break us, and to systemically co-opt us, and sometimes use that power in ways that's not great for us," she said.

A boycott

MONA's institutional power has been put under the microscope as a result of the flag fiasco.

Jamie Graham-Blair and Kaurna artist James Tylor co-convened a petition to Blak List MONA, on behalf of a broader group who said they "will not work with MONA, MONA FOMA and DARK MOFO until there are organisational reforms to be respectful to First Peoples, our culture and our histories".

Their petition said MONA and its festivals were "no longer … safe and respectful working environments for First Australian artists, arts curators and arts workers", and called on them to undertake six key reforms, including mandatory cultural awareness training and decolonisation workshops for all staff, the appointment of First Nations curators, and a First Nations advisory board.

The petition also called for an apology "for past events that have negatively affected First Peoples eg. Santiago Sierra project, Mike Parr's project, the Aboriginal DNA test project and the damages to Aboriginal Heritage Sites during the construction of MONA".

In the weeks that followed, artists withdrew from Dark Mofo, and the festival's visual arts curator, Theia Connell, resigned.

In a carpark at night, two enormous sculptures of fantastical creatures covered with orange and pink lights Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran's installation Earth Deities was part of this year's outdoor art park: Dark Downtown.(Supplied: Dark Mofo/Jesse Hunniford)

Brisbane-based Aboriginal artist collective proppaNOW, whose members include Richard Bell, Megan Cope and Tony Albert, was slated to present work at Dark Mofo, but withdrew from discussions.

Cope told ABC Arts: "The reason we withdrew was because of the harm that was caused by Leigh Carmichael's curatorial vision to use Indigenous blood to stain the Union Jack, and his decision to double-down during debate about the project."

Ian Sinclair and Loren Kronemyer of live art duo Pony Express (who presented Ecosexual Bathhouse at Dark Mofo 2017) also withdrew from the 2021 program, but chose to present their new work Abolish the Olympics concurrent with the festival — at Contemporary Art Tasmania.

"We had conversations and listened to our First Nations peers," Sinclair told ABC Arts.

"And we thought maybe, or hoped, it [withdrawing from the festival] would allow for a greater platform — or give space — to local First Nations artists to be deeply involved in the 2021 program for Dark Mofo."

Ian Sinclair in the starting position of a runner, in a low lunge with the tips of his fingers touching the court Abolish the Olympics interrogates the negative side effects of large-scale cultural events on communities. (Supplied: Pony Express/Julian Frichot)

Making space

Senior Australian artist Fiona Hall was one of those who chose to remain in the program but said that in the aftermath of the Union Flag announcement she felt uneasy.

"I felt just incredibly conflicted about doing anything," Hall told ABC.

Hall is known for large-scale installations with environmental themes, and represented Australia at the 2015 Venice Biennale with the installation Wrong Way Time.

Dark Mofo proposed that she take over an empty shop in Liverpool Street, and she was contemplating a work about environmental degradation that would involve building a burnt-out hut and natural landscape inside the space.

The festival offered to put her in touch with members of the local community who were involved in cultural burning — and this is how she met AJ King, a Bigambul and Wakka Wakka man living in Kaoota with his partner, Trawlwulwuy artist Bronwyn Dillon.

When Hall mentioned her installation idea to King, he told her about a large palawa 'cremation hut' that had been recorded at Recherche Bay in southern lutruwita in the 1790s, by French explorers.

"And I'm just sitting there thinking, 'That's amazing. Actually, that's what should happen here.' … [I realised] this is their project, not mine," Hall told ABC.

A 67-year-old woman stands in front of an art installation of a bark hut set inside a shopfront Artist Fiona Hall says: "Absolutely none of this is my work. It's purely the power and the visualisation of the palawa people."(ABC Arts: Tim Noonan)

Over the following weeks, King worked with members of the Palawa community to create Home State Nipaluna: a bark hut inside the shopfront space that Hall's work would have sat in.

The title is a cheeky twist on the name of the home decor shop that had previously occupied the space, which was called Home State Hobart.

Instead of trinkets and cushions, Home State Nipaluna displayed shell necklaces and baskets made from grass and kelp, by Tasmanian Aboriginal artists including Aunty Netty Shaw and Fiona Hughes. Inside the hut hung cremation amulets made by Luana Towney and Bronwyn Dillon.

A group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists seated or standing in rows in front of a bark hut installation The construction of the hut involved many community members, including Jason Thomas, Sheldon Thomas and Leroy Hart.(Supplied: Dark Mofo/Jesse Hunniford)

Towney told ABC: "For me, it was a case of, do I want to be a part of Dark Mofo after what's happened or do I not want to. And then when I was approached by AJ … and he told me what the project was about, I thought what a great way to promote our culture [and] encourage more of our community to be more active in their culture."

In the process of gathering materials for the hut, members of the community went bark harvesting on Bruny Island and women ran twining workshops on Cape Barren Island, where young girls learned alongside older women.

"And that played out time and time again, with hundreds of different elements of the installation — people learning new things, or they were engaged in something that they wouldn't have normally done," King said.

Reclamation

For King, Home State Nipaluna was an unexpected silver lining.

"I got somehow invited out of the blue to have a conversation with a lady called Fiona [Hall], who apparently is a contemporary artist … so I went into this conversation blind," he said.

He had publicly criticised Dark Mofo in the wake of the Union Flag announcement, including on ABC radio.

"So, for me to then make a conscious decision to turn around and [work with Dark Mofo] was a big thing," he told ABC.

"They made a big mistake, you know, and they paid a very, very, very big price for that, but that shouldn't stop great things from happening. And that shouldn't stop [us] being able to come together and show our solidarity and resourcefulness, and our strength in being able to do stuff."

An Indigenous young man with a big beard and a beanie sitting in front of animal skins and bark in an artwork at Dark Mofo AJ King says before working with Dark Mofo he asked himself: "Are they really genuine about letting Aboriginal people take the lead on creating something in this space?"(ABC Arts: Tim Noonan)

At the centre of King's mind was the idea of 'reclamation'.

"We see a lot of narrative acknowledgement statements on buildings … acknowledging the original and first owners of the land, which is great," he said.

"[But] if we can take that to a next level — to a deeper level — I think we can really push some buttons and really get people starting to think about the depth of our culture and our history and our knowledge."

From the idea of the hut, his ambitions for the project blossomed.

"[I thought] it would be fantastic for the broader community to come with us on a walk, just a couple of blocks … and walk with us into this reclamation space.

"We would actually reclaim [the CBD] just for a little bit of time — we'd have our mob out there in the street."

For the entirety of Dark Mofo, the local Palawa mob lived in the hut — sleeping there, weaving there, occupying the space.

On the morning after opening night, Towney told ABC: "Sitting down in the hut last night, it was just amazing. It was so peaceful, we were just sitting there doing what our old people would have been doing. I was breastfeeding my baby, Bron was sitting there grinding ochre, and Bec was laying down, keeping warm under her possum skin.

"And then when it was time to leave, we didn't want to leave … it was just loud and lights and bright, and colonised … not where we wanted to be, really."

An Indigenous woman looking determined standing in front of a tree in an artwork at Dark Mofo Luana Towney is an artist and children's book author.(ABC Arts: Tim Noonan)

During 'opening hours', members of the public were allowed in, a few at a time, to walk through the space.

King told ABC: "The idea is that when people come walking through … they're getting this real warm sense of, you know, what it would have been like for the old people to be sitting here doing this stuff on muwinina country all those years ago."

Over the course of the weekend, there was always a queue of people waiting to enter.

Relationships, repair

Many of the key moments of this year's Dark Mofo happened behind the scenes, and were powered by First Nations people; they involved forging relationships, bringing community together, and having conversations.

Sometimes, as with the women in the hut, the work involved simply holding space and practising culture with no audience at all.

King, who took on a paid project-management role with Dark Mofo, was one of the key proponents of this engagement.

Caleb Nichols-Mansell was another.

Having been one of Dark Mofo's most vocal critics in March, in April he accepted one of two new First Nations advisory roles with the festival, alongside Gumbaynggirr and Dunghutti artist and arts worker Dylan Hoskins.

"I don't think that I am the solution," Nichols-Mansell told ABC. "But what I can provide is a step into our [Palawa and Pakana] community, for Leigh and the organisation to better understand who we are and how we operate so that we can better work together into the future."

A young Aboriginal Tasmanian man looks into the camera seriously, he's standing in a hotel Caleb Nichols-Mansell lives and works in Burnie and is co-founder of Blackspace Creative Arts and Cultural Hub.(ABC Arts: Tim Noonan)

Like King, Nichols-Mansell emphasises the positive outcomes from the Union Flag fallout.

"The Blak List called for and brought to attention institutional issues that needed to be addressed. And so for that, I'm super grateful. And I think the [Dark Mofo] team's super grateful as well, because it brought about an awareness about something that I don't think they were too aware about.

"But ultimately, it was the artists that were kind of most damaged from that process … Some artists had already been programmed in the festival, and that brought about uncertainty whether they would be pulling their works or keeping them in the festival."

Speaking to ABC on the eve of the festival, he said his role in the previous six weeks had mainly been "talk[ing] to those artists about what their particular issues are, and addressing those issues".

Additionally, he facilitated connecting one of the artists in Dark Mofo's 2021 program, Melbourne-based painter Thelma Beeton, with her ancestral country, family and community.

Thelma Coral Beeton sits with her legs stretched out in a court room, screens of colourful art behind her Thelma Beeton's paintings featured in Dark Mofo exhibition The Tench at the former Hobart Convict Penitentiary.(Supplied: Dark Mofo/ Remi Chauvin)

After the festival, Nichols-Mansell and Beeton travelled to Launceston, Flinders Island and Cape Barren Island (where her grandparents were born) to meet different communities and family members.

It was the second time she had been to Tasmania (following a school trip in year 7), and the first time she had visited her ancestral country.

Beeton learned to paint in prison, through Indigenous arts program The Torch, which also introduced her to Palawa culture and her totem, the native emu (which is a recurring motif in her work).

She told ABC: "Because of Dark Mofo, I get to connect with my family and meet my family. And, I mean, I could never afford to do that."

'Toxic positivity' and truth-telling

In talking to First Nations artists and observers about Dark Mofo and the Santiago Sierra fallout, there is a divide between those who have decided to engage with the festival with a sense of optimism, and others who remain sceptical of the festival's response.

Dylan Hoskins, who has worked with MONA and DarkLab for several years — starting in hospitality and working his way up to production, and now the First Nations advisory role — said: "I know the work [Union Flag] hurt a lot of people.

"I think the way that they were trying to go about the conversation that they were trying to have — it was just done the wrong way, and was really culturally insensitive. But at the core of them [DarkLab], that's not who they are. And that's not the experience I've ever had. They've always been quite culturally safe."

Hamilton worries that "difficult conversations" about the relationship between MONA, Dark Mofo and the Tasmanian Aboriginal community are being neglected in the rush to repair.

"We're not some big harmonious group, in Tasmania we're a diverse group … [and] we're a deeply traumatised group of people," she explained.

"And when we're hurt we're hurt and when people in our community are hurting, we don't just dust it off — we address that hurt and that harm … [And] if we're just going to sweep that under the carpet and employ some toxic positivity, what will happen is that those people won't have a chance to resolve their issues with Dark Mofo and they won't have an opportunity to heal."

Next steps

In late April, when it announced the two aforementioned First Nations advisers, DarkLab also announced a $60,000 seed fund for Tasmanian Aboriginal artists to develop proposals for future Dark Mofo festivals — and a yet-to-be-appointed First Nations cultural advisory group.

Speaking to ABC during this year's festival, Hamilton expressed concern that these measures, taken with the Home State Reclamation Walk and Home State Nipaluna project, might constitute "black cladding" rather than meaningful, long-term change.

"At the moment where Dark Mofo has us [First Nations people] is at the programming level, and it's always at the programming level. And I think … if First Nations people are not involved, and if there's not a meaningful partnership that flows right through the festival — or right through the institution — from the top to the bottom, then what we're doing is picking up the slack in the middle, at the programming level," she said.

Via email, festival director Leigh Carmichael told ABC Arts that DarkLab would "meet and yarn with as many Tasmanian Aboriginal people and artists as we can over the coming months, and make a decision on what is the best way to form an advisory group sometime later in the year".

Asked what the festival would do to address concerns that the festival was an unsafe working environment for First Nations artists, Carmichael wrote:

"Dark Mofo is committed to providing a safe environment to all participating artists, regardless of cultural background or nationality. To my knowledge, we haven't had a single report from any of the approximately 4,000 Dark Mofo artists of ever feeling unsafe or unsupported."

Leigh Carmichael stands in the open doorway of a church-style door painted black, leading onto a vacant lot Leigh Carmichael, creative director of Dark Mofo, is in negotiations with the Tasmanian government over future funding of the festival.(Supplied: DarkLab/Amy Brown)

Nichols-Mansell told ABC: "I know from the conversations I've had, there is this idea that in the past the festival has been culturally unsafe, but I certainly feel confident moving forward that the festival has become a culturally safer space.

"And through my role, Dylan's role and the involvement of the Palawa community and First Nations artists more broadly, I think that will really solidify that cultural safety within the organisation."

Aunty Netty Shaw also emphasised the importance of Palawa involvement, and said: "It (consultation) needs to be with the whole community."

'Revolutionary change'

Historian Greg Lehman, a descendent of the Trawlwulwuy people who has worked as a consultant and advisor with MONA previously (including an integral role in the proposal for a Truth and Reconciliation Art Park), wants MONA and its subsidiaries to "get more Indigenous people into the organisation" — not just curators and artists, but also "registrars, cultural practitioners, business-people, patrons, audiences".

But Lehman says he doesn’t think MONA et al should necessarily adopt a First Nations reference group, Reconciliation Action Plan or anything else "that might come out of the playbook of a public institution".

Having worked in and around public institutions for 40 years, including a long-term stint on the National Museum of Australia's Indigenous Reference Group, he says: "There's a lot that can be achieved through those things."

"But at the same time, those sorts of processes are conditional, they are constrained; they work within a framework which emerges from colonial and imperial traditions of collecting institutions," he said.

"There has to be space for revolutionary change as well. There has to be stuff that comes right out of the box, right out of left field; stuff that challenges not just colonial or post-colonial, non-Indigenous institutions, but also challenges Indigenous orthodoxies and habits and narratives and expectations."

He points to this year's Dark Mofo as a case in point: "[There] are a number of elements in the program which weren't planned, they weren't contrived … they weren't cooked up by a consultative process. [Instead] Leigh responded to the challenges over the last couple of months by creating some space … for something to happen.

"And that will exponentially expand the space and the permission and the environment within which even more things can happen next year, as Indigenous participation increases."

 

https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/amp.abc.net.au/article/100252542

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