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Cultural Exchange, or even the more (apparently) modest notion of artistic collaboration, is typically fraught with pitfalls and misconceptions. Beyond diverse ethnicities, cultural and social differences and politically inscribed power relations, there are the more mundane but equally pressing issues of individual identity such as personality, sex, gender and ambition. Yet generally speaking, we assume that such exchanges are beneficial (like roughage in the mornings); that collaboration, by its very nature, is democratic, creative, generous and morally more certain than more selfish, individual pursuits. It is, however, a shifting ground, involving unstable relations and nowhere in this country are these notions of exchange and collaboration more fraught, than between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists.
Curator, Djon Mundine, speaking as part of the Art(iculations) program' at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts this year, commented ironically on the number of European and non-Aboriginal Australian artists who seek to impose their desire tor collaboration on traditional Aboriginal communities. Visiting European artists in particular, are understandably fascinated by the possibility of 'collaborating' with artists from the traditional communities, but as Mundine noted somewhat wryly, it is a mistake to assume that 'our' desire tor collaboration (or reconciliationtor that matter) is reciprocated. There is a not so fine line between colonisation and collaboration.
Despite the difficulties, such efforts at collaboration and exchange are critically important to the future of Australia and occasionally it is possible to experience an event which extends the gift of hope, that evokes the possibility of a reconciled future tor black and white Australia. In the current political climate, I am grateful tor the smallest glimmer. But, less sceptically, the experience of sound installation, lngamal Godingi, at the Fremantle Arts Centre this year, provided a rich moment of respite from the grinding racism that pervades apparently every aspect of Australian lite.
I keep so much inside-that's my downfall. The point is, who are you? Where are you going? What spiritual gift have you got? What culture have you got? What language have you got? Who are you? No-one asks them questions anymore. Spiritual truths. Who are we these days. The Western way doesn't work.2
Roy Buggai Wiggin, Bardi Elder
Ingamal Godingi was the outcome of an extended collaborative process that began with expatriates: playwright and film-maker, Nick Ward and producer Sharon Flindell. Commissioned by the 1997 Festival of Perth and produced by Flindell in collaboration with two Kimberley Aboriginal corporations: Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) and Wangki Yupurnanupurru Radio Station, the project developed over a twelve month period. The relationship between KALACC and Wangki Radio was established first and these relationships were pivotal to the success of the project. KALACC's role was to co-ordinate the participating communities and to provide cultural guidance throughout all stages of the work. Wangki Radio provided studio facilities, thereby facilitating the logging and initial editing of audio material.
I don't want to lose my culture. My mother been tell me and I don't want to lose it. That's all I can say. 3
Nyuju Stumpy Brown, Wangkajunga Elder
Whilst the initial research and development on the project was undertaken by Sharon Flindell who put these relationships in place, Nick Ward worked with the people of One Arm Point and Fitzroy Crossing, to compile a series of audio recordings that revealed aspects of Kimberley Aboriginal law, lite and culture. The title, lngamal Godingi, given by Ray Buggai Wiggin, a Bardi Elder, is Bardi language meaning both, 'it was hidden from you' and 'it was revealed to you'. Community members were given their own recording equipment and the freedom to record as they pleased.
Back in Perth, Nick Ward worked with James Hewgill and Wayne Osborn editing the material which he selected from the many hours of recording, transferring each of the sound samples to CD and then later to the computers which would control the installation.
lngamal Godingi was presented at the Fremantle Arts Centre, previously the Women's Lunatic Asylum, and as such, resonant with it's particular history of pain and suffering. 11 is quite a wild experience to go to an opening in this most colonial of buildings as the guest of fifteen traditional Elders from the Kimberley's Bardi, Walmajarri , Wangkajunga and Gooniyandi tribes. Sausages are sizzling on the large barbeques; there are people everywhere- black and white-and of course, lots of kids and dogs. it's cheerful, celebratory, fun and feels perfectly normal. Why should an experience "so relaxed and comfortable" be so rare?
The installation space is dark but clearly visible, as are the patterns (concentric circles) painted onto the hessian floor and, despite the sound, it is strangely quiet. lt is interesting how some sounds evoke silence. The installation consists of ten individual zones of light and sound. Each zone is controlled by computer technology and triggered by the presence and movement of the audience (no more than fifteen at time) through the space. Each light triggers a different sound sample telling its own story or creating its own fragment of experience, but surrounding the visitor are the sounds of running water, distant grumbling thunder, the wind in the trees.
Within the circles, it is possible to hear people talking, the sound of children laughing, the stories of different countries.
All the old people know the meaning of the story for their own country. People believe in that story and follow that story from the time we call Ngarrangkarni. Kartiya (non-Aboriginal people) say Dreamtime. 4
Jo Brown, Walmajarri Elder, KALACC Chairperson
As well as the Dreamtime stories, the 'open' stories of Law and Culture, there are contemporary tales of everyday life. There are jokes. Country and western music drifts from one space, even the ABC news theme. lt all builds a rich aural experience which emphasises a relationship of continuity rather than rupture with past traditions. To appropriate Umberto Ecco, it is this gradual discovery of 'new methods of adjustment' between different cultural traditions and between high and low, contemporary and traditional cultures; 'this immense work of bricolage balanced among nostalgia, hope and despair', which is perhaps not only what is most interesting but offers the most hope despite our current condition.
So if the prognosis for reconciliation does not appear optimistic at this time, then events such as lngamal Godingi become increasingly important. Such an event is of course not enough to shift an inherently racist culture but then as Tasmanian writer and theorist Ian Mclean has stated:
...art is not well positioned to deal with this anyway, if only because it has played such a prominent role in the culture of colonialism-although equally this is the reason why action must be taken in this arena.5
In inviting us to listen, to participate in a project which combines both ancient traditions and contemporary cultures, of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures and the very different worlds of experience that all the participants brought to the work, lngamal Godingi offers an extraordinary moment of respite, a glimmer of optimism. It's not only good politics. It's good art.
I. Art(icu/ations), was a program of artists' talks and forums focuss ing on the diverse art (primarily visual) practices produced as part of the 1997 Festival of Perth.
2. lngamal Godingi catalogue.
5. lan Mclean, "lndigenerty and Australian art schools: reasons to panic", speaking at the Hatched: Healthway National Graduate Show Symposium, June 1997.