Artists: Paul Gorrie, Neil Morris, Carly Sheppard, Kuan-Hsiang Liu, Sojugang, Alice Skye, Meriki Onus and Dtarneen Onus Williams.
Curator: Nayuka Gorrie
‘Black people are experts at surviving,’ announces curator and emcee Nayuka Gorrie, a Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri, and Yorta Yorta writer. She is standing on a stage lined with Australian plants, between curtains emblazoned with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags.
“‘But when the apocalypse comes what will happen to the white people? What lands will there be left to steal?’
So goes Apocalypse in Blak, a curated party of projection, poetry, visual arts, dance, music, and performance presented by Koorie Heritage Trust Inc. and Melbourne Fringe. As Gorrie points out, perspectives on apocalypses differ along the lines of Aboriginal peoples and settlers. Whereas climate change and the threat of nuclear war may spur on thoughts of end times for settlers, for Aboriginal peoples the ongoing violence wrought by English colonisers and subsequent settlers—spanning genocide, destruction of culture, denial of sovereignty, child removal, high incarceration rates, and the theft and degradation of Aboriginal lands—means that the apocalypse has already occurred. Apocalypse in Blak showcases Aboriginal artists’ responses to the notion of the end of the world, with ideas of loss, survival, and joy showcased throughout the night.
Neil Morris, a Yorta Yorta artist working with sound and word, presents the first performance. On his knees, he works at a board of effects pedals. He loops and layers what sounds like breaths and whispers, which fade out then swell in volume and intensity, evoking a deep past. A Theremin-like sound beats rhythmically and falls into step with the ancient soundscape. The future and past coexist here, a point emphasised when Morris finally speaks: ‘1788.’ Holding a book high in his left hand, Morris reads:
“‘They never knew we would survive… They never knew we were built to endure.’
Clearly referring to colonisation, he pits the ‘we’ of Aboriginal peoples against the settler ‘they’. In the multi-temporal atmosphere he’s created, Morris’ ‘we’ is continuous across space and time. On the other hand, the referent of ‘they’ is indistinct; does it refer strictly to the First Fleet, or encompass subsequent violent settlers?
For Morris, the apocalypse was in 1788. His immersive performance evokes the survival and endurance of Aboriginal peoples since.
The next performance is a breathtaking collaborative dance piece by Carly Sheppard and Kuan-Hsiang Liu. Sheppard, a dancer and choreographer descending from the Wallangamma and Takalaka tribes in Northern Queensland,and Taiwanese Liu recently collaborated on the Artist Lab as a part of the ADAM (Asia Discovers Asia Meeting for Contemporary Performance) Project. The strength of their collaborative relationship is evident as the dancers perform in close proximity on the stage, highlighting their distinct styles. Sheppard kicks and spins with fluidity between levels, while Liu mixes up smooth and erratic movements in a range of silhouettes. Midway through, Liu exits the stage through the curtains. Sheppard continues to dance as a woman’s voice, echoing with a two second delay, says, ‘The fear, the shame, the rage… the dead bodies.’ Emphasising the embodied reactions of these first items and in response to the last Sheppard and Liu’s performance is concerned less with what bodies are in a post-apocalyptic time, than with what they do.
An interval set by Gunnai/Wiradjuri DJ Sojugang sees the stage filled with audience members dancing to songs exclusively by people of colour, with club bangers like Cardi B’s ‘Bodak Yellow’, indie hits like Princess Nokia’s ‘Tomboy’, and classics like Amerie’s ‘One Thing’. Whether the end of the world is looming or already here, Sojugang provides a soundtrack for people to revel in apocalyptic nonchalance.
Dramatically shifting the mood, Wergaia singer-songwriter Alice Skye closes out the night with her keyboard and mesmerising voice. She explains her take on the theme:
“‘I thought about the apocalypse and loss and what that means to me… As Aboriginal people we’ve lost a lot.’
There isn’t an apocalypse without something vital being at stake, and Skye’s three songs—encompassing the loss of lovers, family members, and culture—testify vividly to this. The highlight is Skye’s final song, ‘Like the Waves’. Ruminating powerfully upon both the loss of Aboriginal cultures and the difficulty of constantly learning about them, she sings:
“‘Nothing lasts long enough / There’s no way I’m strong enough without you but / I’m slowly learning still…’
Speculating on the end of times is a common concern for settler communities these days. Apocalypse in Blak, on the other hand, is a showcase of Aboriginal artists’ responses towards the end of the world. Because as Nayuka Gorrie says, ‘We’re in apocalyptic times. Post-apocalyptic if you’re a blackfella.’
Stephen Pham is a writer based in Western Sydney.