As a ‘whitefella’ of Irish, Danish and English settler descent who married a man of Trobriand Island descent whom I met at university during a demonstration in support of the Gurundji walk-off against the Vestey Pastoral Company who had taken their land, I’ve long been immersed in the challenges of interculturalism. I was a student activist of the late 1960s and 1970s, railing against the Vietnam War, racism in Australia and South Africa, and sexual puritanism and censorship. Quite by accident I fell into the company of the UNSW branch of the Sydney Push, which originated at the University of Sydney. But we all gathered of a Friday night at the Newcastle Pub at the Rocks – long since demolished. It was only when I got involved with my Trobriand Island lover that I became aware that there is a difference between racism and ethnocentrism.
My Push friends were thoroughly against racism, but they had no idea that they were still imprisoned in their own ethnocentrism, operating under the unconscious assumption that their left wing, Marxist informed libertarianism, a product of the Western Enlightenment, was somehow culturally neutral. Despite our familiarity with the works of Franz Fanon, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, and our rejection of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, we had not realised that colonialism was not only economically and politically exploitative, it was an exercise in epistemic violence. It’s denial of the validity of other ontologies was continued under the Marxist claim for global analysis via social class conflict, embedded in scientific materialism, from which flowed ignorance of significant cultural differences, particularly in pre-industrial oral cultures in Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia.
But I was in a relationship with someone who was grappling not only with racism but with cultural alienation, with someone born in an extant Melanesian culture only at that stage lightly touched by Australian colonialism and global capitalism. When I arrived with him to begin a life in Port Moresby in early 1972, I was plunged directly into the world of interculturalism in my private life, the ‘white’ daughter-in-law of a Trobriand Island family firmly planted in their culture and language. I was a member of the colonising power that had intruded so rudely into their world to claim political and cultural superiority over them. I was plunged into a reality where the spirit world was alive and active, where magical knowledge had not yet been vanquished by scientific materialism, where society beat to different rules to the ones that I had been used to.
Trobriand Island young women dressed up for dancing at the yam harvest festivities
I would continue my intercultural journey even after returning to Australia, after separating from my husband in late 1978.
—Firstly through my personal spiritual journey as a student-practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, itself anchored in a pre-industrial culture that fought to protect itself against the colonising power of the British in India to its south, and the Chinese empire to its east, and where the rationality of Indian Buddhist philosophy had made a unique accommodation with the earth-based spiritual forces of pre-Buddhist Tibet and the crazy wisdom tradition of the mahasiddhas of northern India before the Muslim invasions wiped out Buddhism from the face of India—but where it survived as a significant cultural force in SE Asia, and along the Silk Road to China, Korea and Japan, and into Tibet.
—Secondly through the time I spent with Uncle Bob Randall, a Yankunytjatjara man from Central Australia, learning about Aboriginal wisdom culture, travelling with him to his Country at Uluru, and north to Ainslee Point in Arnhem Land, close to Croker Island to where he had been sent as a member of the Stolen Generation, and then at my place in Stanwell Park, NSW, trying to help him with his book project, later published as Songman in 2003.
—Thirdly through my growing realisation as a sociologist of science and technology, that the Western Enlightenment inheritance carried fatal epistemological flaws that has led us to the current interlinked climate, environmental and socio-political crises engulfing us.
Aboriginal Elders have been known to comment, “White man got no Dreaming”. Well in terms of the non-temporal nature of the idea of the Dreaming (past-present-future all at once), that may be true. However, unfortunately ‘white man’ has a big dreaming, the dream of perpetual linear Progress and Growth, presently being articulated in the idea of Australia’s future as a Renewable Energy Superpower – onwards and ever upwards through techno-capitalism, with just a bit of redistributive justice in the mix.
Marrugeku is a performing arts company led by Dalisa Pigram, a Ywuru/Bardi woman from Broome WA, and Rachael Swain, a woman of white settler descent from New Zealand.
I was very excited when I found a reference to their work in an article in The Guardian, and that led me to the work of Marrugeku, which had somehow passed me by, despite the extraordinary work they have been doing over the past 25 years. To the left is the book, ‘Marrugeku, Telling That Story’, published by Performance Research Books (2021) about their 25 years of trans-Indigenous and intercultural performance work. The following story about Marrugeku is taken from this book.
Marreguku was born from the Mimi project that brought together artists from many cultures and backgrounds. The Kunwinjku people of West Arnhem Land understand the mimih spirits to visit artists in their dreams, giving them dances, songs or painting, which they can then materialise in their art. These tall thin spirits appear in rock art dating back 50,000 years and also in a range of contemporary Aboriginal paintings and visual media.
They explain that Marreguku’s work did not spring from a preconceived notion of interculturalism or from any particular mission to explore intercultural performance praxis as such. Rather the proposal to embody the Mimih came from a compelling practical need for the collaborators to learn each other’s physical skills. Three main groups of performance makers collaborated: Kunwinjku cultural custodians, storytellers, dancers and musicians; indigenous contemporary dancers who were mostly from Western Australia.
Marrugeku performance of Mimi
The process of interculturalism gained impetus from their shared fascination with each other’s art forms and, as time went on, from the phenomenal response to Mimi across Australia, in international venues and, no last, among audiences in the Kuariwinjiku and neighbouring indigenous communities.
Marrugeku was born from this alchemy, from the embodied labour and deep socio-cultural negotiations fundamental to creating and performing a show whose development unfolded across two years in remote northern Australia as well as in urban Perth.
Today and under the joint leadership of artistic directors Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain, both of whom were collaborators on Mimi, Marrugeku continues to experiment with culturally grounded storytelling processes while building bridges and breaking down walls between Indigenous and non-indigenous artists, urban and remote dance communities and local and global situations. In its subsequent projects, the company has worked with many different collaborators and in a variety of sites and contexts while remaining firmly committed to the simple yet sometimes profoundly difficult process of telling stories together across cultural divides. This commitment has produced not only an influential body of original dance and performance works but also a number of research laboratories likewise designed o explore and extend contemporary dance languages through intercultural practice.
Listening to Country Workshops
A significant aspect of the Mimi collaboration was an intersectional commitment to exploring how stories and embedded in landscape. For the artists involved, the work of making this large-scale outdoor show seeded an understanding of ways to synthesise different physical and visual forms of performance in and through the micro-signs and the meta narratives of Country, as it is understood in Indigenous Australia.
That synthesis has flourished throughout Marrugeku’s productions ever since. To the left we see the dancers visiting country and allowing it to speak to them, as they listen and respond with their bodies moving in tune with the voices they hear.
When we talk about traditional Country we mean something beyond the dictionary definition of the word. . . For Aboriginal Australians, we might mean homeland, or tribal or clan area and we might mean more than just a place on the map. For us Country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of our ancestral domains (Pat Dodson, 2009).
With this understanding Marrugeku has slowly evolved methodologies that foreground the process of paying attention to places, together with the specificities of their human and nonhuman inhabitants, weather, local communities and histories. This process has been refined as a set of practise applied primarily in the context of the north of Australia, led by a sensorial and choreopolitical response o the realities of a particular environment, the insights of its custodians, the events that have occurred there and the contemporary social worlds at issue.
The Commitment to Co-Creation in Interculturalism
Today Marrugeku works with a bi-coastal operation from its dual homes in Broome, where its headquarters are based at the town’s Civic Centre, and in Sydney, as a resident company at Carriageworks. This arrangement enables ongoing collaboration with the Broome community as well as ready access to the infrastructural benefits of a major urban hub and to the arts networks and potential audiences therein. Since its early experiments in Arnhem Land, Marrugeku has maintained a commitment to bring shows to remote Indigenous communities as well as festivals around the world.
The company’s work has been significantly shaped by the fact that it aims not only to speak to those with located knowledge of Country and personal experience of the politics and social conditions at issues, but also to those with little or only partial understanding of these ways of knowing but who are implicated in the storytelling process, be it through colonial histories or shared experience of contemporary local and or global concerns.
This mission to produce works that function in different ways for different audiences has also been a defining factor in the company’s ongoing collaborations. The process of building multiple layers of meaning, doing, sensing and being into the performances has been enabled by co-ceations involving artists who work in and across distinct art worlds and cultural contexts, including inside as well as outside indigenous communities.
Indigneity is now increasingly recognised as mattering in twenty-first century debates about heritage, governance, representation, social justice and environmental sustainability, to name just some of the contentious issues that continue to stall the unfinished business of decolonisation. Contemporary Indigenous dance contributes to these debates in myriad local and national arenas as well as on the international stage, where Marrugeku’s work participates in a visible movement to bring Indigenous stories and cultural knowledge to the fore through choreographic forms forged in the nexus of traditional and contemporary repertoires.
Other companies working in this area are:
- Bangarra Dance Theatre – Australia
- Red Sky Performances – Canada
- Kahawi Dance Theatre – Canada
- Atamira Dance Company – NZ
- Dancing Earth – USA
What distinguishes Marrugeku is the long-standing commitment to the difficult work of bringing a wide range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists into negotiated coalitions through an intercultural dance praxis grounded in Indigenous locations, communities, contexts and aesthetics.
The company strives to make manifest the understanding that the material and conceptual terrain on which intercultural practice takes place is always unstable and shifting. Such practice often invokes painful histories of contact but also provides scope for remapping future exchanges in contested sites. For Marrugeku, interculturalism is a place for both cultural and disciplinary dialogues. Marrugeku is proudly Indigenous and proudly intercultural at the same time.
This manifests in complex ways that do not reduce to the simple binaries of cross-cultural exchange between settler and Indigenous groups. The intercultualism is at once a creative, cultural and political stance. This commitment to shared leadership is based on respect for the ways of seeing, knowing, moving and performing in he world. The diverse views speak to the intercultural ethos within the company itself and its commitment to working processes that activate encounters among collaborators in multi-directional yet distinct ways and that acknowledge a wide range of subjectivities among those witnessing the work.