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Colonised cultures

Sun, 01/05/2016

I am both English and Australian. For many years I was asked to choose where my allegiances lay but the fact is I have two identities. And more, as mother, daughter, feminist, arts worker, enironmental activist, human rights advocate, etc. I am white, middle class and from wealthy countries.  

A strange blend of colonial influences drives me to talk about colonisation; on my mothers side – Dutch colonials in Indonesia and Welsh settlers in New Zealand, family traversing the globe several times in a few generations and my grandparents meeting in Australia through the theosophical society. More on that later.

On my fathers side we are recent migrants to Australia, after I was born. However curiously a grandfather clock bequeathed by Father's Great Aunt Gladys arrived with papers showing several return trips to the great southern land. The clock was built in the 1760's....before whitefellas invaded. Sadly I know nothing of whether its history travels with mine. Suffice it to say I am from a family of colonisers and part of the ongoing story of invasion in south east asia and the antipodes.

Those of us from wealthy 'western' countries have inherited colonial systems and, consciiously or not, continue to impose those systems, particularly through culture. I think we need to explore this idea more thoroughly in our behaviour and attitudes.

Over ten years and through the BiDiNG TiME project I've been thinking about and identifying how we in the performing arts reflect and enact problems in the wider social structures. Many of our societies are sexist and racist, discriminating against people who are differently abled. The First Nations artists I work with cannot hail taxi’s because drivers won’t stop for them. They have been spat at. A dancer I also work with of Indian decent with brown skin is subjected to extra security every time he flies with the company but the white dancers are hardly ever stopped. We need to notice these problems and address them in-situ but that it not easy.


The performing Arts sector is aspirational, part of a bankrupt growth economy reliant on mass consumption – a conversation for another time. We are mostly looking up, wanting association with money and power. We are often not inclusive, but exclusive, not curious about others but judgemental and wield cultural attitudes (especially about excellence) and privilege to keep people out of our systems. Even if we are not doing this personally we are copted and colonized by systems that are. We train artists with specialised arts education and look down on those with different education, values and cultural practices. We have become expert at talking to each other but not at reaching out to other sectors…and if we do – its often to the most influential, the wealthy, the privileged OR promising wealth and privilege and power to those who seek to better their situation. There are intricate layers of hierarchy and influence but we rarely unpack this creative capital. And because I am a producer I am always analyzing who gets paid and who pays as this is usually a good indicator of how the power structures are working.

It is now usual for schools, official events and cultural gatherings  to start procedings with a welcome to country, performed by elders of the community whose land we are on, or an acknowledgment of country – that outsiders can do as a sign of respect for Aboriginal land and culture . This is part of a long slow process to recognition and recolciliation. The British invaded Australia and there has been systematic persecution over generations. So my first point in addressing diversity is about being open to and respectful of other cultures in our communities, understanding other ways, conditions and expectations because the ones I have learnt do not necessarily apply.

 The company I work for, Performing Lines has worked with Aboriginal artists for over 30 years. The organsiation has largely led the producing of that work, brokering it into our rather racist society, helping to manage white systems. Thankfully things have changed over 30 years. We and our Aboriginal colleagues are now very clear that it is no longer our place to lead this work. After some consultation it has become clear that its still not yet time to completely step aside but we must find new ways to support Indigenous work, led by Indigenous people. That stepping aside is a major challenge but one we know we must take.

I've got a lot to say on this subject, come and find me later but I will finish by saying that part of what Aboriginal culture offers a wider Australian community is a different system, with different conditions, protocols, connection to land and ancient wisdom that we need now to address the various crisis economic, environmental, etc. We need greater diversity in the cultural ecology just as we need biodiversity in the natural ecology.


Thank you.