The Role of the Arts in Restoring and  Renewing Culture.

A paper prepared for the Drama Teachers Conference 18th June 2005.

All over Australia there are indigenous and non-indigenous people working together to find ways to retain and or restore indigenous culture. An example of this is work being done to “capture” language by fostering the crossover from oral to written forms, work that has a degree of urgency about it, as the bearers of the oral tradition, the Elders, are fewer in number with each passing year. We are engaged in this work in our school.

All cultures, in order to survive, need to adapt to new situations and renew themselves. A Maori Elder said to me several years ago that there is currently an interest in traditional dance forms as they offer a window into the past. He went on to strongly assert that these traditional forms will soon lose there relevance and that unless they provide a platform for a contemporary expression that is relevant to people’s lives, as they live them today, they will disappear or people will lose interest in them.

Cultural practice serves as a framework for living and helps the individual understand the rules, laws or practices of their clan or tribe. A strong cultural base is a powerful tool for a group’s survival and indigenous groups around the world are reclaiming the elements of their traditional culture that are important to them, those elements that help to define and support them. These groups are also experimenting with contemporary cultural forms and attempting to imbed the traditional elements that they value within these new frameworks.

A wonderful example of this is Bangara Dance Theatre. Steven Page, the Artistic Director of Bangara, has been trained in Contemporary Dance techniques and performance practice. When he formed Bangara however he looked to his indigenous roots for traditional knowledge and brought in traditional teachers to his studio. He also had his dancers travel to indigenous communities and form deep connections with those communities. Bangara has also offered graduates of the Aboriginal and Islander school the opportunity to develop as artists.

Earlier I used the phrase “retain and restore” in relation to culture but there is more involved in the process than to merely preserve culture. For cultural practice to survive it must serve the needs the community in contemporary terms. It is here that the Arts are of great importance. The Arts are a significant tool for communities to define themselves and to communicate to others the things that are significant or important to them. Cultures live and renew themselves through Arts practice.

A powerful example of this is provided by the central desert people who, in embracing acrylic paint and other contemporary materials, have maintained a cultural practice that has served them for tens of thousands of years. The modern world is provided with a view into the values and lives of these people through the medium of their painting.

As a teacher of Arts practice in a school that has a high percentage of indigenous children I am convinced that these children have a predisposition to excel in the Arts given the right context. Time working in the Yuendumu community taught me about cultural shyness or “shame” as indigenous people refer it to. This can act as a strong disincentive in the bold individualized world of contemporary performance where Ego is a prerequisite. However given the right learning environment and the right performing context indigenous students can thrive and excel.

Crocfest is designed to provide such a context. Crocfest is not a competition. It is a community celebration or sharing of culture. People come together to learn from each other in a supportive and nurturing atmosphere. It feels like a gathering of the clans. I have read, in the Diaries of W.A. Cawthorne (an artist and anthropologist in the early years of European settlement in South Australia), descriptions of the Peramangk, Kuana and Ngarrindjeri peoples gathering at the Mt Barker summit. Here they shared, ceremonies, games information and food. Crocfest is a wonderful modern version of this type of gathering.

We have worked hard at Murray Bridge North Primary School to make our contributions to Crocfest reflect the heritage and values of our community. Our dances celebrate our relationship with the land and our heritage. Ngarrindjeri elder Major Sumner, in teaching us a traditional dance for our performance graciously said to the non-indigenous kids, “You live on Ngarrindjeri land, that gives you the right to perform this dance.”

Last year we included a rap written by one of our indigenous kids about his feelings about living in the “Bridge”. This year we are opening our piece with a brief look at a Ngarrindjeri creation story. We are also singing a song that includes Ngarrindjeri language written by one of our teachers with Ngarrindjeri heritage. This is an extension of our indigenous language program. The senior girls in the group are creating a dance that encourages us to share this wonderful land and that promotes reconciliation.

In another section we are creating a dance using a didgeridoo rhythm and imagery derived from local totemic animals. Kids playing the Didgeridoo, drumming on African Drums and others playing the Celtic Whistle, accompany this dance. This section of our presentation represents strongly some of the elements of the cultural mix that makes up our community.

In closing I would recommend Crocfest as a great focus for performance activity. The festival encourages and promotes tolerance, understanding and reconciliation through the medium of cultural engagement. I cannot wait to get up to Port Augusta again.

Andrew McNicol

Andrew has a long association with the Arts and with teaching. A member of the Australian Dance Theatre in its early years, Director of Dance Excentrix for 15 years, Musician, Arts Consultant and former lecturer in Early Childhood Arts Education at Flinders University. Andrew is currently running a performing arts program in the Murray Bridge North Schools and Mylor Primary School. He is also providing programs for learners with a disability for Arts Access SA.