‘Intense’ voices and sleepless nights helped Lou Bennett find her way

For a couple of nights, as she developed her latest work, Lou Bennett found herself unable to sleep. She was hearing the voices of the old people, telling her what she needed to do.

Wurukur Djuanduk Balag – Ancestors Are Calling, part of this year’s RISING festival, arose out of Bennett’s visits to Museums Victoria, when she would go and sit with the old people, what the museum calls artefacts.

I was so grateful to just sit and have a cry myself, have a bit of a laugh and enjoy the feelings and the responses, because there were responses, quite intense responses back, Bennett, a Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung composer, performer and academic tells me from her home on Dja Dja Wurrung country.

I could feel something within me. It resulted in a couple of nights of not sleeping, of hearing old people’s voices and telling me, this is it. This is what you’re going to write about. So, they’ve put me on a journey, they’ve given me a task, it was time to put pen to paper.

For First Nations artists, so much of the craft of storytelling is listening. Listening to each other, the world in context, trying to extract meaning where it is often elusive. It involves listening for stories that faded out centuries ago during the decimation of invasion, the theft of land, the persecution of culture and the attempted erasure of all that was held sacred in living memory.

It’s what makes telling First Nations stories from First Nations perspectives different. Wurukur Djuanduk Balag features collaborations with Uncle Herb Patten (Ganai-Kurnai, Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri), Aunty Joy Wandin Murphy (Wurundjeri), musician Allara (Yorta Yorta) and string quartet Silo SQ. The piece was created as part of Moving Objects, a collection of works curated by RISING artistic associate Kimberly Moulton. First Nations artists were asked to sit with and respond to cultural collections at Museums Victoria and create a piece of art, performative or otherwise, from their reflections.

The artefacts, as institutions call them, are our old people, so when people tell me, ‘you fellas are no different to us’, I say ‘we are’. We’re extremely different, we have a completely different world view, we have completely different understanding of our own existence, our ontology, the way we see ourselves in this world as connected, not disconnected. We are localised, our roots are deeply embedded in the earth here.

Removal and returning to places sacred is also at the centre of another work for RISING. The Return, written by Torres Strait Islander John Harvey and co-directed by Yorta Yorta man Jason Tamiru and Malthouse Theatre artistic director Matthew Lutton, weaves its way through three stories centred on the ongoing struggle to repatriate the mortal remains of First Nations people to their traditional lands. The three narratives follow a repatriation officer, a museum curator and a bone collector in a story spanning 250 years.

The play is based on Tamiru’s real-life experience of repatriation during his time with an organisation overseeing the cultural heritage for the region from Bendigo to Mildura.

It was work that I was aware our people were doing from a very young age, he says. One of my cousins … was keeping bones inside his garage, at his house! Which was quite strange when you’re a kid hearing these stories, pretty spooky, dark. But what he was doing was storing them and keeping them until they could work out a way to repatriate them.

So when the job [of reburying our people] came along it totally flipped my world in a big way. It was very confronting work, very emotional … [but] it felt like a normal thing to do, he says. In this industry [the collection of artefacts] they have dehumanised us, and they’ve dehumanised us for a number of reasons, so they can work with us, alive or dead, without having any emotion.

[Our people] were tagged and put into storage. As part of that disconnect, they wear gloves when handling the remains of our people. I found there was a strong urge in me to handle the remains with my own hands, that it is the way they would have been handled in the first place. I wanted to give them back their humanity and I hope this play captures that.

The process or repatriation is ongoing, as institutions and private collectors still possess the remains of First Nations people. With plays like this one, we are talking about things, about people that have been locked away in institutions for years, unspoken, Tamiru says. Maybe we can get people to think about returning these people to where they belong. Without blame.

It is one thing to tell true history, it is another to inject humanity into the stories of our people from times past, to try and paint the picture of what people felt as they were confronted with insurmountable challenges.

This was the task John Harvey faced when writing The Return. After many lengthy conversations with Jason about his experience and the subject matter, I began to feel the weight of the material, so one way of dealing with all that was initially just to write for myself, not for the team, he says. I would just write in response to the material. I would start with a scene, or a theatrical response to something I’ve read to help me understand it all and more importantly to process it.

These two works, covering the heaviest of subject matters, come at a time in the cultural life of this country when First Nations voices are at the heart of its expression. Across every artistic discipline, First Nations people are now able to hold up a mirror to society.

This wasn’t always the case, as Bennett, a member of the pioneering band Tiddas, remembers: I was quite an activist in my early 20s; Tiddas was seen as an activist band when all we were doing was speaking the truth. We weren’t trying to cause any kind of trouble or be against any kind of grain. We were just saying mainstream doesn’t work for us.

Now I look at that protest in a different light: now it’s time to let the young ones take up the fight. Things have come a long way since then and there are more opportunities than ever to be heard.

Similarly, for Timaru, there is a recognition of how far things have come. I honour and respect those that made these jobs possible for us, he says. I think the country is more open now to hearing these hard stories, to hearing the truth no matter how hard, and there is so much more to come. For me it’s about filling in the missing links about who I am and what I’ve come from. That’s partly why there are so many of us working in this space right now.

The Return is at the Malthouse Theatre until June 4; malthousetheatre. com. au.

Wurukur Djuanduk Balag – Ancestors Are Calling is at Ullumbra Theatre, Bendigo, on June 1 and Melbourne Museum on June 3. rising. melbourne.

Daniel James hosts Return to Country: Repatriation and Resilience, a discussion with John Harvey, Jason Tamiru and Kimberley Moulton, at the Wheeler Centre on May 31; wheelercentre. com

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