A flagship program at a First Nations arts festival in Victoria this year highlights the power of giving Indigenous writers the tools and platforms to critique arts and performance. Some of those involved wrote about what they learned, and what’s next.
The festival director
Jacob Boehme is a Melbourne-based artist of Narangga and Kaurna heritage and the creative director of Yirramboi First Nations Arts Festival.
Yirramboi’s Blak Critics was born from the need to hear our own voices critiquing our work. I had been speaking to reviewers of my own work for years about how we could include more of our voices in various public platforms. When I accepted the job at City of Melbourne, we made contact with Guardian Masterclasses, and a partnership was born.
I recently read a review written by a non-Indigenous reviewer of one of the dance works we presented, and was shocked at the writer’s lack of cultural awareness or understanding of the artist’s process. It was a contemporary dance work and because there were little to no generic symbols to identify the work as Aboriginal — ochre, clapsticks and the like — the reviewer was left dumbfounded.
Instead of interrogating her own bias or lack of understanding, the writer chose to value judge the artist against western choreographic process — which did not serve the artist or the work.
This is the main reason Blak Critics exists: to serve the artist and the future development of the work and our sector.
[The media needs to] create space in publications and forums for our voices to be heard and read. We are blessed to have so many talented Blak writers across the country.
Our current alumni will be undertaking further training, including building capacity among the group to deliver the program themselves, leading to a program that is Indigenous-led and managed. We are looking to engage with Blak writers across the country, heading toward a national rollout of Blak Critics in the near future.
The next generation
Timmah Ball is a Ballardong Noongar woman, a writer and urban planner.
I really wanted to connect with other Aboriginal people and have space to grow our voices away from conventional practice. Writing is very isolating and you often feel like you’re going crazy, particularly when your opinion is misunderstood. I really wanted to share my experiences and challenges with other like-minded people, and find ways to support each other. More broadly it’s crazy that art is still predominantly analysed and assessed through a white lens, so it’s really important that we shake things up!
I learned style, technique and the nature of how arts criticism works. It was really eye-opening to learn how quickly people are expected to file a review; it underscored the need to hone your craft and learn to be a fast and efficient writer. I was shocked when Jane Howard told us that she would have to write up to two or three reviews in a day when reviewing for the Edinburgh Fringe!
It’s really important to bring a new point of view, which is often erased. So often I see things that other Australians don’t and I think it’s really important that we share these perspectives. There are so many stories that impact how I interpret work and more opportunities to talk about this history is really important.
I have an article coming out in The Big Issue at the end of July.
What can mainstream media learn from Blak Critics? Read our reviews and try to move away from conventional writing styles and storytelling. It’s not easy but it would be incredible to see writing that is challenging and brings news voices into mainstream media.
Bryan Andy is a Yorta Yorta man from Cummeragunja, and a freelance writer, radio broadcaster, arts event producer and convenor of OutBlack.
When I first heard about Blak Critics, I remember thinking that the concept was quite simple, but absolutely vital for a First Nations arts festival. Sometimes I’ll read a review of an Aboriginal work by a non-Indigenous person that might get a tad euphemistic or a bit warm and fuzzy and I wonder if their tone is because they’re fearful of being too harsh for fear of being insensitive or, Biami forbid, racist.
On the other side of the coin, I have always been aware of the dearth of unfettered and direct Aboriginal voices in Australian culture and media. Our lives are often mediated by interests or agendas that aren’t our own; and so I saw Blak Critics as offering a unique and innovative opportunity to work on my voice as an Aboriginal man in the arts realm in a bid to diversify the review and critiquing landscape of Australia.
I actually learned how to be more comfortable and courageous with my insights and opinions as part of the Blak Critics program. The teachers of the masterclasses were passionate, learned, insightful, experienced and generous, as were our IndigenousX mentors Luke Pearson and Jack Latimore. I have to say, being in a series of masterclasses with a mob of Aboriginal people hailing from across the country was fun, encouraging, precious and empowering and it was nice to see how we all become more and more comfortable with our voices and a little bit more courageous too.
My own personal history, and my family’s history and my peoples’ history has had an indelible impact on my identity, my values, my experiences, my attitudes, and on the way I observe the world, and how I might then experience and critique art and culture — be it Blak or non-Indigenous art and culture. But I feel there is a strength as a Blak Critic. When considering First Nations art and culture, I recognise that I may have greater insight, understanding, solidarity and empathy than your average non-Indigenous person; when experiencing, say, a Native Canadian artwork I would be more inclined to parallel it with my family’s experiences of colonisation, of the Commonwealth and of survival and I’d argue that would heighten my observation, understanding and critique.
As Blak Critics, we were asked to file at least two pieces for Yirramboi. While I really feel we’ve only just begun to understand the intricacies of reviewing and critiquing, our experiences with Yirramboi gave us all a solid foundation and we can all expect to see our voices out there. A shout out to my fellow Blak Critics who have been published in The Guardian, NITV online, TimeOut Melbourne and Overland Journal since becoming Blak Critics.
The Yirramboi Blak Critics program does aim to shake up the current landscape and the dominant paradigm so there can be a greater appreciation of Blak voices alongside Blak art and culture. It’s only natural. I’d encourage writers and editors from mainstream media to encourage that and make space for that. And to any Blak writers out there, please consider becoming a Blak Critic for Yirramboi in 2019, we’d love to hear more of our voices in the arts and culture sector!
Kate Hennessy is a freelance arts and music critic for Guardian Australia and others.
I had developed a full-day music criticism course that I was delivering for The Guardian. The Guardian and City of Melbourne asked me to present it as part of Yirramboi’s Blak Critics program, with other critics including Jane Howard and Luke Buckmaster. I said yes, oh, five seconds after getting the email? I’d made a few efforts to initiate something similar some years before, but I’m a lone-wolf freelancer and didn’t have the networks. I regret that dithering now!
We have a hole in cultural criticism for Indigenous writers to fill. I knew that and I have experienced it personally. After my second year reporting from Barunga festival in the Northern Territory, I was done. I love Barunga but felt no-one needed to hear my voice — a white woman from the East Coast of Australia — opining yet again on her impressions of a festival, the chief charm of which is that it’s not for white Australians. Barunga is by and for Indigenous Australians: a weekend to celebrate music, sport, culture, family and connections. They’re generous people, and proud of their strong community, so they invite others to share that with them.
My disquiet arose again when I was sent to write about Garma Festival in Arnhem land. The idea I could parachute in, observe Yolgnu culture and opine, authoritatively, was farcical. My instinct was to stop talking and stop writing — and instead watch and listen openly and at length. But I was commissioned to write a feature, so I tried to write about what I knew. The subtext of that piece was how white Australians reacted to being in that environment.
In total, over those three years, my voice was heard at length in five high-profile publications. What voices were not heard as a direct result?
I saw my role in Blak Critics as a skills transfer. It’s easy to forget how much privilege and access to networks has played a role in what I’ve learnt. So, you know, here are the sticky spots I’ve encountered, here’s what has worked and not worked. And obviously, the key course lessons: frameworks like show versus tell, inform versus entertain. Plus exercises on great live reviews, being confident in your opinion, interviewing skills, etc. We also listened to music and discussed our reactions — that was pretty hilarious.
A lot of that went out the window though! My class members were so funny, sharp and chatty that some of the best progress we made was sharing stories, ideas and talking things out. I had to keep a lid on my urge to learn more from them that day — even so, I did. Our conversations on “how to write a negative review” strayed into areas I’d not been before.
I wanted them to know Australia was waiting for their critical voices. That their perspective was — and always had been — crucial, and that all Australians would benefit if it were heard in forums it wasn’t being heard in now. Critiques not just on Indigenous creative work but on all work.
It’s thorny, though, because critical writing relies on ideas of authority, judgement and power. Which are pretty fraught concepts in Australia. So with criticism, it’s like we need to wheel back to the start again. Which is something participants understood a lot more instinctively than I did, as they were already talking about a Blak Critics manifesto or methodology. That’s a wildly exciting idea for me, as a critic working in Australia, and I hope I hear more on it in the future.
I’d like the whole space of arts criticism to open up and greet not only a diversity of voices, but also of style, format, subject and expression. Critical orthodoxies can be stifling for more people than you’d imagine. It had calcified long before the funding trickled away. Maybe now is a good time to properly shake things up, and to do that, we need Indigenous Australian voices front and centre.
Yet I’d also like any budding voice to be paid fairly for their work, which is not where things are at, or heading, in arts criticism. I deeply regret that. Fair freelance rates also need to be central in of future discussions on arts criticism.
This piece is from Issue 89 (August 2017) of the Walkley Magazine.