In December 2013 my partner Toni and I attended the third cycle of Opera Australia’s Melbourne production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. In preparation for this pilgrimage we had decided to invest in what is arguably the definitive recording of Wagner’s masterpiece, Decca’s Solti edition. Begun in September 1958 and completed in November 1965, fifteen hours of recorded music on thirty-eight CDs is an epic collection by any measure or comparison.
Friends in the know were eager to endorse the value of our purchase as a wonderful resource. No longer would we run the risk of faux pas when mixing with a more experienced and knowledgeable Wagner crowd. The endless list of characters with unfamiliar names, the baffling events from distant mythologies—all would finally be revealed to us.
Arriving home, our purchase was given pride of place in the lounge room, awaiting the moment when we would unlock the hidden treasures within and enter another realm of knowledge. That was May. By October the same year our limited edition boxed set remained untouched, the wonders of this epic work unexplored and unknown.
For me there is an obvious comparison to be made between this neglect of a wonderful resource and Australia’s reluctance to fully embrace the unknown, unexplored depth and value of the world’s longest continuing culture.
When the day came and we could no longer delay playing the first of the thirty-eight CDs from our boxed set of Der Ring des Nibelungen, it was an entirely liberating and empowering experience and one I highly recommend. Everything I needed to know ahead of our pilgrimage was right there in the box just waiting for us to claim it for our own. Could there be a broader lesson here?
In 2015 the Australian government has again stripped the budget of the Australia Council for the Arts. This limits the expression of individual artists in favour of larger institutions, representing a kind of social engineering, which is reckless, immature and lacking in empathy and has the potential to deny Australians the opportunity to realise a deeper cultural identity. To me this deliberate attempt to silence the arts signals a lack of interest in the maturity and emotional intelligence of our nation.
Over the past half-century Australians have awakened to the realisation that Aboriginal Australia has prevailed. Milestones such as the 1967 referendum, the Bringing Them Home report (1997) and the Apology to the Stolen Generations (2008) have captured the nation’s attention and done much to raise the general level of awareness of our shared history. This age of enlightenment notwithstanding, many have remained content with what little information they received during school years, meaning that most of Australia’s Indigenous cultures remain unwrapped, unacknowledged and unexplored. Many Australians seem content to know that Indigenous culture exists without troubling themselves to find meaningful engagement beyond the perfunctory and oftentimes soul-destroying act of compliance. More worrying, although hardly surprising, many still toil at a kind of all-consuming denial, which demands an extraordinary amount of commitment and energy to maintain.
Our national anthem tells us that we are ‘young and free’. Many Australians continue blindly to accept this notion. Setting aside 70,000 years of Indigenous cultures for a moment, 114 years on from Federation and 227 years into colonisation, at the very least these words lack a certain accuracy. As Australians can we aspire to be young for the rest of our lives? If we are ever to mature we simply cannot cling to this desperate notion.
Once we have acknowledged that the nuanced and sophisticated society found by those who arrived 230 years ago was deliberately and systematically overlooked, we must reach beyond the yoke of Western imperial history and rhetoric and harness the power of 70,000 years of accumulated wisdom and knowledge.
If it is time for Australia to grow up then how is this to be done? The opportunity to mature is and has always been contingent upon our ability to value, understand and embrace the longest continuing culture in the world. I’m often asked for advice on how to connect with Australia’s Indigenous cultures. For some, a meaningful connection seems all too difficult and unnecessarily complicated while for others, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures seem distant and remote, as if they are viewing those cultures through the wrong end of a telescopic lens. A greater effort is required to bring into focus the true depth and diversity of the cultural expression that surrounds and defines us.
For Indigenous Australians the visual and performing arts are the most powerful way by which we may know the world and give meaning to everything in it. For more than a thousand generations we have passed on all knowledge of geography, the sciences, medicine and humanity through the visual and performing arts. For the Indigenous people of this land the Arts have never been a luxury, rather a necessity. Our culture is our knowledge, our knowledge our survival. Indigenous arts practice may well be the key to our nation’s quest for a mature cultural identity.
I’ll leave you with the lyrics of a song penned in 2013 by members of the Dhungala Children’s Choir. Their ages range from eight to fourteen and this song was their heartfelt response to a society that pays too little respect to their culture, identity and unique status in the world:
I know you, but do you know me? When you hear the word Aboriginal,
tell me what do you see. Do you see you? Or do you see me?
We are our own people, our own community. We walk with pride as a family, we stand tall, we stand free. So I ask you again, do you know me?
The history you belong to, is just a fragment of our past, we sing and dance our culture, that’s how we made it last.
I belong to this land, it belongs to me. My culture, my ancestors were free.
Now I ask you again, do you know me?