Who’s the voice?
Photography: Daniel Boud
Australia’s news cycle has been dominated recently by significant issues like marriage equality and asylum seekers; but there is another matter close to the nation’s heart that deserves our attention. Just over three weeks ago, Indigenous Australians gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention and delivered the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement called for “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution”, and a referendum to establish a permanent Indigenous advisory body to Parliament. The proposition was then rejected by Malcolm Turnbull on the grounds that a plebiscite would not carry if put to the Australian population.
As a publisher, this decision prompted me to reflect on the question of voice; namely, who is allowed a voice, and who is silenced by an Act of British Parliament from 1901.
Publishers – and by extension, curators and arts administrators – have a platform to say what we want, provided we are not defamatory, deceptive or misleading. We are also gatekeepers who can choose to amplify the voices of the people who we believe have something important to say. We can also support the artists whose work plays a role in counterbalancing broken legal systems.
Like an increasing number of open-minded Australians, we at Time Out are trying to make up for lost time in recognising this nation’s Indigenous people within a modern Australian context. As a publisher, this means revisiting our own editorial charter and fixing it where it’s broken.
Giving away control
We gained a major insight in October 2016 when we set out to curate a Time Out Talk – The Politics of Bushfood Now – that questioned provenance and ethical use of Indigenous ingredients. The insight? Recognising at the outset that we did not have the standing, knowledge or cultural familiarity to chair the panel ourselves. Instead we reached out to dedicated Indigenous publisher, NITV. We prepped the stage, filled the room and switched on the lights. Then we handed the microphone to NITV, who led the discussion that included three Indigenous panellists.
Our experience here informed our decision to give away editorial control of our joint ‘Deadly Issues’ published in Melbourne and Sydney in June this year, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the referendum in which our Aboriginal brothers and sisters were granted recognition in the national census. It was also 25 years since the legal recognition of Aboriginal land rights in the High Court case of Mabo.
In Melbourne, artist and creative director of the inaugural Yirramboi First Nations Festival, Jacob Boehme (who is a descendant of the Narangga and Kaurna nations of South Australia), took editorial control of Time Out magazine; and in Sydney, Koori Radio host Emily Nicol – who has family roots in North Queensland (Birri Gubba) and the Torres Strait (Ugar) – did similarly.
These issues were our most lauded and talked about publications of the year, and were even nominated for an award at Mumbrella’s Publish Awards, for Special Edition of the Year.
We missed out in case you were wondering, with the judges favouring News Corp’s Herald Sun Footy17 edition.
But of course, the reason for us to publish in this manner was not to win awards. In trying to create wider positive social change we realised we could achieve more by giving away publishing control. To give away our voice, and to allow another to take its place, so that it could bellow more loudly, be heard more widely, and in so doing effect real change.
Choosing our words
I feel myself mounting the soapbox as I write, but what makes Turnbull’s rejection of the Statement for the Heart even more abhorrent is that the federal government is restricting Indigenous participation by maintaining a constrictive Anglo paradigm, as perpetuated by our Constitution.
I was in Perth recently, engaged with city decision-makers in creative city discussions as part of a Remix Academy event. The show-stopping moment of the summit was Indigenous performer and activist Dr Richard Walley’s response to a panel question in Nyoongar tongue, for two minutes, and at the end of which he asked the 300-strong audience, “Who understood what I said?” We all shifted uncomfortably.
It is moments like these that force us to confront the question: why are we still existing under the assumption that our system works, that our intellect and culture is superior to the world’s oldest continuing culture? Our current paradigm dictates that Indigenous Australians learn our language, dress in our suits, and fight for a seat at our table – which they have been denied.
What if we were to invert the paradigm? How might we learn from an Indigenous relationship to land, celebration of culture and system of law? It would, I propose, require us to endeavour to engage in First Nations language.
Language is central to full and active participation in society. It is the framework through which we understand the world and it is integral to the establishment of culture. By delving into the language of other cultures, we can foster empathy and closer connections.
Our goal as a publisher is to work towards an inclusive media landscape. Since its relaunch by SBS back in 2012, NITV has been a powerful voice for Indigenous communities, but we need to be doing more to encourage crossover into mainstream media channels.
Green shoots of this intention are visible – for example, the Blak Critics program that the Guardian established with Yirramboi First Nations Arts Festival. It’s a good step forward. For too long, traditional critical review of Indigenous artworks has a ‘white’ flavour (take, for example, the overuse of the word ‘spiritual’ in describing Indigenous works). We need Indigenous critics reviewing Indigenous art, as well as western art. These are examples of where we as a publisher want to go in our sphere of influence.
Thanks to forward-thinking curators, festival directors and artists, there are plenty of opportunities for us to open these channels of critical thinking. Here are just a few examples:
- The Australian National Maritime exhibition Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country is an acknowledgement of story of the Yolŋu people of northeast Arnhem Land and their fight for recognition of Indigenous Sea Rights and the Blue Mud Bay Legal Case.
- Yirramboi First Nations Festival will return in 2019, but creative director Jacob Boehme has been granted the green light by the City of Melbourne to produce an Indigenous arts program in 2018.
- Tanderrum was the opening event of the Melbourne Festival: part ceremony, part Welcome to Country, which saw members of the five clans of the Kulin Nation coming together in song and dance.
- Sydney Festival 2018 in January is once again offering free public classes in Darug, one of the first languages spoken in the Sydney area.
Whether in governance of the country, or in running a publication, the allure of power and control remains strong. Once held, we as gatekeepers and culture-makers are naturally reticent to give them away. But with the aim of positive social change, we have learned that that is exactly what we must do.
Publishers, artists, curators and arts administrators must start or continue to embrace Indigenous language and expression. In so doing we will gain a better understanding and appreciation for our Indigenous heritage. As Jacob Boehme would say, the window is open, if not around legislation, then at least in respect of hearts and minds. Publishers, artists, curators and cultural stakeholders have the power to help pull people through.
This is Aboriginal land. Always was, and always will be.