Wesley Enoch has long been a proud firebrand; the former head of Queensland Theatre Company boasts an outspoken track record advocating for improved arts funding, same-sex marriage equality, and Indigenous rights.
So, it came as no surprise that upon taking up the position of Director of the Sydney Festival in 2016 he would stay true to those convictions, using his city-sized soapbox to debate and dissect a range of politically charged topics.
Chief among them is the issue of race relations and Indigenous reconciliation in Australia. But far from pointing a finger of accusation, much of the work Enoch is championing in his second Sydney Festival offers a far more diverse perspective on an often contentious subject.
Enoch spoke to Maxim Boon about the curatorial philosophy underpinning Sydney Festival’s inaugural Blak Out program.
Maxim Boon: This year for the first time, you’ve grouped work made by Indigenous artists together into a kind of mini-festival within a festival. Why was it important for you to create a distinct identity for the work of First Nation artists?
Wesley Enoch: A ‘Blak Out’ is actually a term we [Indigenous people] use for ourselves: when there’s a whole lot of black fellas around, we say, “It’s a blak out tonight.” And what I like about that is that there’s something about our lived experience being expressed, rather than translating our experience into how others understand us.
MB: One aspect of the Blak Out program that immediately jumps out is the variety of expression represented. There’s music, there’s dance, there’s visual art. But there’s also more abstracted responses to First Nation culture. We find it explored through memoir, history, language, law; almost every conceivable route into this cultural conversation is embraced. Was showcasing this variety a deliberate way to curate this program or was it something that emerged organically as the program evolved?
WE: To be honest, you can only respond to what artists are making. I think your point is also that many arts festivals have a tick-a-box philosophy, and that inevitably heaps on the responsibility of representation to those one or two projects. Whereas if you have a diverse number of projects or a larger number then suddenly you can have diversity amongst that particular voice of both form and content. You can then have contradictory conversations about the situation as well, and that makes for a more complex debate.
And actually, I think that often in First Nation stories I prefer the more complex debate. I think that a lot of my non-Indigenous counterparts are sometimes scared of entering into what can be, yes, a very tricky world to talk through and debate. I totally accept that, but I believe that can lead to a paralysis of integrity: we can’t step forward just in case we make a mistake.
The language programme is a really good example of this, where it’s very much contested ground – there’s no consensus amongst the different Aboriginal communities of Sydney about which language is right. So instead of avoiding that disagreement, we’ve said, “Let’s talk about that.” And that approach steps over the whole idea of being scared to have a debate because you might get it wrong. Let’s accept that we will get it wrong and put that front and centre.
I guess to go back one step, there’s a real sense that if we don’t deal with the complexity of the issues, if we only try to create a singular position, often what happens is you get unpicked later on because it’s not the truth.
Let’s look back to 1967 and the ’67 Referendum. There was an absolute need for all Aboriginal and First Islanders to bind together and to argue for the thing that needed to be done. It was a political necessity that we, as First Nations people, got together and agreed to work as one unit to fight for something that needed to be achieved, be it employment rights, health, education, land rights, whatever. But the truth is, we are all so diverse in terms of our backgrounds, our geography, our cultural practices. As soon as people start to find out that we are diverse, it’s used against us as a way of weakening our position.
My thing now is to go, “Let’s start with the idea that we are diverse. We are not one people, we are many. We are First Nations in this country we call Australia but we are gay, we are tertiary educated. We have been incarcerated or we do come from rural or remote areas or we don’t have language, and we do have language.” The more we can show people how diverse we are, then the reality of our experience is out there first and foremost, rather than a politically projected image.
MB: This also raises an interesting question about the friction between authenticity and education, which inevitably resonates within work exploring Indigenous perspectives. It seems that revealing an authentic truth, complex as it may be, takes priority over work that might be considered didactic. Why have you favoured that direction of storytelling?
WE: First and foremost, it humanises Aboriginal people. It says, “We are not the stereotype, whatever the stereotype may be in your head. We are not in need of a form of paternalism to protect us or to save us or whatever.” I think the arts and sports have offered the most powerful opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to change the hearts and minds of the rest of the country and to encourage them to think about the moral issues that we’re talking about because they give these issues a human face. And it really isn’t an impossible task. New Zealand, for all its faults in other areas, has dealt with similar issues through the Treaty of Waitangi and a whole range of things, which makes them so much more advanced than Australia. In Canada in particular, they’ve been doing a lot of reparations over the last several decades.
But because we’ve not been given a legitimate political voice or constitutional recognition, artists and sports people in Australia are some of our most visible representatives. They use their platforms to just get out there and say “We need to think about this more.” Which is why artists and festivals like Sydney Festival have to really hunker down and deliver a much bigger discussion.
MB: But beyond the simple question of visibility, there’s also a difficulty faced by First Nation artists because of the way in which Australia is often unwilling to engage in this conversation. There is so much discomfort in looking our colonial heritage in the eye, and there is so much innate shame in the way that we admit to the horrors of Australia’s past. Interestingly, some of the work you’re offering in the Blak Out program – shows like My Name is Jimi and Ghenoa Gela’s My Urrwai – seems to negotiate this issue by focusing on the personal, in work that is both emotionally touching and accessibly relatable. These works obviously appeal to the better parts of our humanity, but can this type of production still affect change without a more explicit confrontation?
WE: I think Scott Rankin said, “If you know the story of a people, you can no longer oppress them.” If you understand the humanity of a group then you can no longer treat them like an animal or even worse than an animal. This idea, that if we understand their personality, if you understand their names, their families, we see pictures of them, we can say, “What would we do in that situation?”
There is a natural compassion or a natural empathy in the human condition. I think that we do feel for others. That’s why we can build communities in very different ways, communities of choice as well as communities of birth, and that these natural compassions hold us together. For me, from an Aboriginal perspective, if we’re saying, “Think about our condition and how you need to help us,” then the next argument is, “How can you help us on our terms, not on your terms?”
And that’s the more important question in a way. There is an issue with the paternalistic attitudes that often permeate Australian ideas. If you are the one providing what might be seen as charity, you have the right to distinguish the standard of living, the condition under which that charity is offered.
MB: And under those conditions, it’s often remarkable how resilient marginalised communities prove themselves to be. We see this elsewhere in this year’s Sydney Festival program, for example Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles and its portrait of the microcosms that minority communities make in order to preserve parts of their cultural psyche. But Sydney is one of Australia’s most multicultural cities. Why is it a responsibility of arts festivals like Sydney’s to represent cultural diversity?
WE: I would challenge the notion that Australia is a multicultural country, because I think we’re a monocultural, multi-ethnic country.
We are forcing a monoculture to happen. We just happen to be multi-ethnic in the process of that. The danger is that the dominant culture, which isn’t necessarily connected to forms of race or country of origin, that the dominant culture doesn’t feel that it has anything to gain by having other cultures influence it.
Broad generalisations here: I don’t always agree in this way but as a point of argument, our diversity is actually our strength. I think this is a through line for me, that for example, if you understand what Ramadan means, and understand what drives this idea of sacrifice or denying yourself for a period of time and having discipline, what that does for your psyche and does for your body, we can grow as a country if we understand what others are doing and how they’re doing it and why they’re doing.
For me as an Aboriginal man, I see Aboriginal people as being the first who welcomed others in, starting with the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Spanish. The English were just the last lot that came through out of a long line of colonial powers. We often just forget that Aboriginal people have always been welcoming and had structures to welcome people in, to adopt people into the cultural milieu and we also had, because of the oral traditions, ways of adapting to the future.
Stories would shift and change over time to respond to the way the world’s changing. I guess I’m saying that we are a stronger nation if we do accept the differences of people who come in, and I hope works like Barber Shop Chronicles communicate how that strength of community and cultural distinctiveness is something to embrace, not fear.