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In an article about the 20th anniversary of Bangarra Dance Theatre, director Stephen Page noted the changes afoot in the telling of Australia’s indigenous stories, and the need for a new paradigm in storytelling toward ‘… one that expands the narratives about the Stolen Generation and social dysfunction to take in a more diverse, contemporary reality’. He was quoted as adding, ‘I grew up in the 1990s and I want to tell stories that are true to me, my culture, what I grew up with’.1
Indigenous painting, dancing, singing and filmmaking have transformed the arts in Australia in recent years. Their strengths have defined and led international interest in Australian contemporary art and cultural initiatives. Despite this success, calls from the likes of Page, theatre director Wesley Enoch and young actors like Meyne Wyatt, for a new range of stories and experiences bode well for the continued development in indigenous culture, allied to a move away from the almost exclusively autobiographical style of stories and ‘political medicine’,2 toward new narratives.
In this context, a survey of indigenous animation from Australia and Canada titled ‘Big Eye: Aboriginal Animations’ is both timely and fascinating. The exhibition provides an opportunity to note the ability of new media to both record and re-transition traditional indigenous story telling within a contemporary context, and to allow its appreciation by a broader audience.
As the education kit suggests, ‘'Big Eye' foregrounds both the cultural and historical similarities between these two Nations’ First Peoples, and explores how traditional storytelling is being re-told through the visual art of animation’.3 What stands out in the exhibition is the polish and sophistication available to Canadian makers when compared with similar Australian new media works.4 Traditional stories utilising different techniques—simple 2D Australian animations as seen in the SBS ‘The Dreaming’ series such as ‘How Bama Got Biri’ compared with the ‘Raven Tales’ series (from Canada)—also note the shared cultural and historical experiences common to Aboriginal peoples in Canada and Australia. It describes a shared ‘… fusion between traditional and urban—contemporary and ancient … Each generates an almost visual poetry as a narrative connected to the subconscious and the unknown. Two words—‘you’ and ‘us’—register a relationship between atmosphere and earth. This is understood as a time continuum between the past, present and future which then returns us back to the start, never-ending.’5 The exploration of an indigenous world view that is at variance from a Western and linear version is also interesting to observe in these short films.
Other themes include new social issues (such as depression and suicide prevention) and the use of animation to retain the traditional stories and keep the past alive. Techniques range from claymation, to computer-generated imagery, to the use of the online game ‘Second Life’ and other virtual realms as digital animation tools. The TimeTravellertm series made by Skawennati Tricia Fragnito is an intriguing exploration of Canadian indigenous history and contemporary interaction, exploring issues of historicity and the imposition of current values on the past. Australian Aroha Groves also uses ‘Second Life’ to develop What is a Blakfulla doing in a virtual realm? to think through identity issues and as a nexus to avoid social politics.
Many Australian dreamtime stories are traditionally told using a passive narrative voice. ‘Big Eye’ presents this style of narrative but also describes the development of other models of engagement with audiences. This may be both useful and destructive, with Rennae Hopkins noting, ‘… in fitting in within avenues of mainstream audience, the true authenticity of ceremony and practice within our own inherent system of storytelling has become lost’.6 However a multiplicity of techniques and styles also promotes an alternative cultural voice.
Curator Jenny Fraser suggested that the creative act remains crucial, noting, ‘If we keep involved in creative acts, we maintain connection to the essence of our ancestral roots … As Louis Riel, an important Métis leader prophesised in 1885: ‘My people will sleep for one hundred years, when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back”’.7
The availability of indigenous stories to non-indigenous audiences, through animation and other new media, promotes healthy cultural understandings. Watching the Australian component of ‘Big Eye’ at Logan Art Gallery recently with a secondary school group, I was reminded of the increasingly international base from which Australians are drawn. Sharing our stories in ways both old and new is necessary for a lively future yielding cultural exchange and interaction.
1. Sharon Verghis, ‘Bangarra’s main man Stephen Page celebrates 20 years at the helm’, The Australian, 18 June, 2011.
2. Ibid, quote from Wesley Enoch.
3. Education Kit, Big Eye: Aboriginal Animations, QUT Creative Industries Precinct, 2011.
4. Email from Jenny Fraser to Louise Martin-Chew notes the reasons for this: ‘Aside from other cultural and economic differences, they have more screening outcomes available to them in Canada. For a long time they’ve had their own channel APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) which commissions animations and other short works, along with many other networks, some channels are specifically focused on short films. Then there’s the neighbouring American market. Some animators, like those who have worked on Raven Tales have worked for Disney—which means access to high-end developmental technology and pays well. As mentioned briefly in the room brochure, there’s also the health avenue over there. It seems that when Native Canadians have sovereignty over how they spend their health budgets, they choose to incorporate digital storytelling as a way of engaging with their own people. Their funding bodies seem more open to Aboriginal New Media Arts. This is all very different to the context here in Australia, especially compared to the conditions that artists work under here.’
5. Rennae Hopkins, Big Eye Room Brochure, http://www.cybertribe.culture2.org/jennyfraser/images/writing/Big-Eye- Aboriginal-Animations-floorbrochure.pdf
7. Jenny Fraser, Big Eye Room Brochure, http://www.cybertribe.culture2.org/jennyfraser/images/writing/Big-Eye- Aboriginal-Animations-floorbrochure.pdf
‘Big Eye: Aboriginal Animations’ was curated by Jenny Fraser and Lubi Thomas, with assistant curators Rennae Hopkins and Maggie McDade. Artists included, from Canada: Dark Thunder Productions, Raven Tales, Skawennati Tricia Fragnito and AbTech, Rabbit and Bear Paws and The Healthy Aboriginal Network; and from Australia: Frank McLeod & Aboriginal Nations, Aroha Groves, Christine Peacock, Rebekah Pitt and John Graham, the Gunbalanya Community and Gozer Media, and Jenny Fraser. The exhibition toured Queensland, and showed in Darwin and in Canada at Vtape in Toronto, coinciding with imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival and also the Aboriginal Curatorial Collectives Colloquium.