Blak Critics: flipping the power play in the arts

‘Sometimes I’m a little bummed out that there really aren’t any Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander or People of Colour critics – especially women – to review my work for publications.’ – Nakkiah Lui

Lui’s recent Facebook post reflects the ironies of an arts industry that craves ‘diverse programming’ and ‘new voices’ but lacks the structural frameworks to deliver fundamental change. Everywhere you look Aboriginal writers, actors, musicians and artists are on the rise, and recent festivals like Asia TOPA illustrate the industry’s desire to showcase artists beyond the white canon. Despite these shifts, systemic racism and prejudices pervade, hidden behind marketing material with alluring POC faces splashed across posters and company webpages.

Nakkiah Lui’s success encapsulates these challenges. A twenty-eight-year-old Gamilaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman is creating dynamic black theatre and television – painfully absent not that long ago – but there are only white people to review it. Her career rises, and we watch in frenzied adoration, finally seeing ourselves represented in ways that celebrate our humour, spirit and complexity. But the work itself is still valued through a white lens.

As many Aboriginal artists, designers and writers have suggested, these critics want our work, but on their terms. Our views on our own work and how it should be positioned within white institutions is often neglected.

Like Lui, I’m sometimes a little bummed out when an organisation approaches me to develop Indigenous content but words like ‘stolen’ ‘colonisation’ and ‘trauma’ are removed by the end. Mainstream institutions value Indigenous knowledge, but only insofar as it is manipulated to suit specific agendas, leaving those of us who were invited to participate exploited and confused. These scenarios place Aboriginal people under enormous pressure: we can either accept these conditions and compromise our values, or leave the project and lose work and future opportunities.

On her blog Future Black, architect Linda Kennedy shared similar experiences within the design sector:

Rather than being stuck within the institutional frameworks of design and sprinkling on some blackness in the process – how do we move forward to asserting our sovereignty through our work & sprinkling on some design along the way.

Kennedy’s arresting demand that we ‘flip the power play and stop indulging in the frameworks that continue to oppress and control us’ is both exciting and difficult to imagine. But, while it is easy to feel overwhelmed, Indigenous-run and -led festivals are beginning to reshape the operational structure of the sector. The inaugural First Nations Festival Yirramboi, led by creative director Jacob Boehme, is starting to flip the power play. One of the key principles of the festival was the establishment of Blak Critics, a program supporting nine Indigenous writers (including me) with a public platform for creating critical review and conversation, from our perspectives.

Participating in Blak Critics was an opportunity to destabilise mainstream practices. It was a space and program where our voices, values and cultures were centered. Over the six workshops we developed our skills, learning from leading critics and journalists while maintaining our own standpoint and desire to critique our work in ways that both respect and empower the artist.

From the first workshop new methodologies started to emerge. Muruwari playwright Jane Harrison quickly observed that we need to move away from the ‘softly softly’ approach too often used by white critics writing lukewarm, gentle reviews out of fear of being seen as racist, as if we lack the professionalism to handle rigorous judgment. But of equal importance was permission to critically engage with Aboriginal work with honesty, and in a reciprocal way, which would build and strengthen the artist’s work, not hurt or reduce them to a star rating.

These complexities and tensions played out as we engaged with our instructors and they shared their reviews. Kate Hennessy read a 2013 review she wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald when Gurrumul played at the Opera House. For her, the concert brought a deeper connection to Aboriginal Australia. It was a unique experience where two distinct cultures coalesced and ‘any gaps in comprehension that remain are closed by a mutual resolve to make the exchange work’, she wrote. We fell in love with her use of language: ‘the lights of Vivid Festival dispersed in droplets of fog. It’s urbanity at its most sumptuous.’  But many of us also believed that there was something a little too neat about her reflections: could one concert really create cultural harmony so easily?

Our review of Kate’s review became the real exchange she was looking for. She was enamored by our feedback and perspective; it was something she hadn’t thought of when caught in the emotions of that performance. Our dialogue engaged with challenging ideas that are too often ignored by an arts industry that falls back on the big emotional drawcard where hearing an Aboriginal language once is enough to heal and move on. Kate’s generosity and willingness to be critiqued, and to hear and understand our view, illustrated the need to keep having these conversations. Difficult and uncomfortable at times they may be, but they are essential to build respect, and to shift the ongoing tokenism and oppression we continue to experience.

In ‘Minimanual of the Urban WOC Guerrilla’, Indigenous Salvadoran artist and academic Tania Cañas wrote of the challenging and often suffocating state we find ourselves in:

We are looking at a systemic phenomenon and a value placed on race, but only in terms of how that is defined by Whiteness. This creates a framework to display diversity as ornaments in a white framework. This makes disposable voices of us, as extensions, additions, absorptions that do not challenge the power dynamics that exist.  So I would say: beware of superficial aesthetic-only diversity.

Blak critics are vital to flipping the power play in the arts, where whiteness continues to dominate, despite the cravings for First Nations work.

Writing our own reviews about our artists and the wider sector begins to break down the superficial aesthetic-only diversity, and centres Aboriginal culture for a change. We have a long way to go, but Jacob Boehme has started something powerful and urgent. A critical insurgence of Blak voices writing about the arts and developing new languages through which to describe and interpret our work is a powerful place to start.



Timmah Ball

Timmah Ball is a nonfiction writer of Ballardong Noongar heritage whose writing is influenced by studying and working in the field of urban planning. Her writing has appeared in a range of anthologies and literary journals.

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