Uncle John Graham:
Baugull nyungai, jimbelungs – g’day friends. My name is John Graham. I’m a Kombumerri man, a Saltwater man of the Gold Coast region. Our people are part of the Yugambeh language group. These lands stretch from Logan River in the north to Tweed in the south, to the other side of the Great Dividing Range is out past Beaudesert and up to a place called Tevin Brook and bordered by the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Kombumerri people’s land stretch from the Gumarra Gumarra, Coomera river in the north, to the Tweed, to the foothills of the mountains. At all welcomes that I do, I’d like to acknowledge and pay my respects to Elder’s past, present and emerging. For our people fought the good fight in dark and desperate times, in order for people of my generation, to work with other Australians towards a reconciled nation in order for us to leave a legacy for our young people, for they’re the bearers of the flame, the keepers of knowledge and keep our culture strong into the future. I also pay my respects to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across this nation. And I pay my respects to the Spirit of this Nation and our people, which includes all of you here at this event. I’d like to acknowledge my ancestor, Warru, who was born on the banks of the Nerang Well. the Nerang River, where I’m situated at the moment, its place of the shovel-nosed ray. She lived along here for many years, and in her later life, lived with their daughter, Jenny, and Andrew, up at a place called Gardner Island, which was just off Brighton Parade, Southport. They were sustained by the abundance of seafood from the river and also the ocean, and generations of our people lived along that place. It’s a special place. Our footprint remains strong in this place, as our sovereignty was never ceded. We are the custodians of this land and always will be. Thanks for listening to me and welcome to this country. I’d like to wish Stan and Kerry all the best with the conversation. And may we all work towards a better future for all of us, Australians. Thank you, until we meet again.
Professor Carolyn Evans, Vice Chancellor and President, Griffith University:
Good evening, everyone. My name is Carolyn Evans. I’m the Vice Chancellor and President of Griffith University. The co-host of this event, along with HOTA, Home of the Arts on the beautiful Gold Coast. HOTA and Griffith proudly acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we’re situated, the Kombumerri families of the Yugambeh language region.
We pay our respects to their elders, past and present, and recognize their continuing connections to the lands, waters and their extended communities throughout Southeast Queensland. Thank you for joining us for another chapter of A Better Future for All, hosted, as always, by the inimitable, Kerry O’Brien.
Griffith is home to the largest number of indigenous students of any university in Queensland. And we see daily the importance and power of cultural expression in shaping the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander understanding and knowledge. We’ve also come to appreciate the crucial role arts outlets play in amplifying indigenous stories and perspectives.
We are, therefore, thrilled to welcome two of this land’s most significant artistic innovators and pioneers as this evening’s guest, a celebrated Bundjalung woman, actor, writer, journalist, broadcaster, producer, podcast, artistic director, so much more besides. Rhoda Roberts AO has a breadth of talent few could hope to match.
Currently working as head of First Nations Programming at Sydney Opera House, the Festival Director of the Boomerang Festival and the creative director of the Northern Territory’s Parrtjima Festival. Rhoda has been working to uplift indigenous arts and voices for more than 30 years.
In the late 1980s, Rhoda co-founded the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust, the country’s first Aboriginal theatre company. And in 1990, she became the first Aboriginal person to present a primetime current affairs program as the host of SBS weekly series Vox Populi.
Among a litany of other career achievements, including a series of projects tied to the Sydney Olympics, she served as creative director for the iconic work Songlines in 2016, which famously and unforgettably opened vivid Sydney that year by lighting up the opera house sails.
The same year, she was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia for her distinguished service leadership and advocacy in the development, promotion and presentation of indigenous culture through the performing arts.
Joining her in the guest chair is Quandamooka man, writer and director, Wesley Enoch AM. Born on Minjeribah or North Stradbroke Island and grown in Brisbane, Wesley has worked with some of the country’s most significant independent and mainstream arts organizations in a career spanning more than three decades. He achieved recognition early in his career as the director and co-writer with Deborah Mailman, of the acclaimed play The Seven Stages of Grieving, which continues to grace the stage to this day. After stints with various theatre companies, he directed the original Helpmann award winning stage production of The Sapphires in 2004. By 2006, he’d become an associate artistic director at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre, before returning to Queensland Theatre Company in 2010 as its new artistic director and following a fruitful five-year stay at the QTC, he took on the challenge of directing The Sydney Festival, a role he held from February 2017 to 2021. In 2020, Wesley was awarded the member of the Order of Australia for his significant service to the performing arts as an indigenous director and playwright. And in March this year, he was appointed as the inaugural indigenous chair in the creative industries at his alma mater, the Queensland University of Technology. I could go on for much longer about both Rhoda and Wesley and their many, many achievements, but I know that you’re all waiting to hear from them. So, without further ado, let me hand over to Kerry.
Kerry O’Brien: So, Rhoda and Wesley, welcome to this conversation. It’s just short of 18 months since Australia’s borders were shut to the rest of the world and then our state borders began to open and shut to each other. It’s been a very intense, disruptive experience with no end in sight. In fact, right at this moment, it’s as bad as it’s been. We know it’s been particularly disruptive for the arts. But how do you measure that? Rhoda?
Rhoda Roberts AO: It’s a difficult one to measure, but I think I’ve actually moved from the Opera House to working at NORPA, which is the regional theatre company where people really rely on that week-to-week job. And I think we’ve noticed from the anecdotal stories we hear from our colleagues of the devastation they’re facing, particularly when they have children, when there’s work not available, they’ve still going to pay the mortgage. And often they don’t actually succeed with Job Keeper. So, it’s quite devastating for the arts industry at the moment.
Kerry O’Brien: Wesley?
Wesley Enoch AM: I think a lot of these measures are very subjective and around ourselves about the impact on artists, on arts companies. But I think you can also measure the impact on society and how we have been atomized in many ways and not being able to be brought together. I think the arts can be looked at as you know, this economic engine that has been shut off. You can also see the emotional impact as artists no longer can a make a living, and that we are a very vulnerable workforce because most of us work from contract to contract. We go from company to company. Sometimes, as Rhoda was saying, we don’t have that 12 months of work with one company. So, we couldn’t have got into job keeper because we couldn’t prove all of our connections to companies. And so, for me, what it is, is we are the heartbeat, if you like, of what a country is. The arts and culture, the storytelling of a nation has been diminished during this period of time in that live experience, which maybe is also popped up in the digital and we might talk about that later. But for me, it’s this live experience and the coming together that we actually need to see what deficits we’ve created here.
Kerry O’Brien: One recent report from the music industry, which, although it’s an important part, is just one part of a powerful mosaic, has estimated, that 28,000 live events have been cancelled through the pandemic and 84 million dollars lost. Now, maybe a long-established festival like Blues Fest might survive that with some help from the government. But I wonder what picture emerges when you actually drill down, particularly for those who aren’t seeing the kind of support that other industry sectors have received.
Rhoda Roberts AO: I was just going to say, I also think when we think of music, we immediately think of the performers. But in fact, the ripple effect is huge. You know, when you think of the catering, the hospitality, the experiences of destinations, that people will come to a music festival, but they’ll stay within that region to have a cultural tourism experience. It just affects entire communities. And I always go, “imagine life without the music”. And that sort of puts it a bit into focus, I think, we personally need that music for our own well-being. But when you think of what the industry does on such a broad scale and the economic impact it has, whether it’s festivals like blues or just your local pub, having a regular gig and clients coming into that pub, it’s this huge economic impact.
Kerry O’Brien: And Wesley, applying that same measure, if you like, to those other sectors of the arts, when you really do drill down, it’s not just that kind of front page, if you like, is it?
Wesley Enoch AM: No. And in many ways, the larger organizations, as you suggest, Kerry, have these fallback options. They have either ways of engaging with government and making sure they can be looked after with rescue packages, et cetera. It’s often the small to medium companies and the individual artists who have done it really hard. And it’s been fascinating to me to watch, it’s not so much the on again off again that’s really terrible. It’s also when we do get back into, let’s say, a theatre or a music hall or wherever, that it’s the only 50 percent. So suddenly the economic reason to actually perform has gone. And we’ve focused more on what it means to be performing, what it means to be in front of people or practicing our art. And I’ve loved this idea that, you know, suddenly a billion dollars isn’t a lot of money for the Federal government. You know, you’re talking billions like it’s, not that it’s nothing, but it’s easy to do. And so, it’s no longer about money. It’s about what we want. And how do we look after society, which I’ve been quite interested in. And this half kind of life has been weird because it’s made us more exclusive rather than more democratically open. And what I want to do is make sure that when we do get into a recovery mode, that it’s as open as possible and it’s not seen as this elite exclusive thing that’s not open to everyone. And I worry for the long-term sense of that.
Kerry O’Brien: Well, we’ll pursue this. Go on Rhoda.
Rhoda Roberts AO: Oh, no, sorry, I was just going to say, whereas I would say, though, that through technology we’ve had this opportunity of outreach specifically to areas where they might not have got content prior to COVID. So, it does have a silver lining in some aspects.
Wesley Enoch AM: Agreed.
Kerry O’Brien: I’ve just been reading a very evocative story in the Melbourne Age that starts, quote, “if 2020 was the year of the pivot for many Australian performers, 2021 is the year of despair. There is a loss of hope. The industry is thinning out top to bottom as lifelong dreams are crushed and abandoned with few opportunities left to look forward to on the calendar”. Are you hearing those stories firsthand?
Wesley Enoch AM: Yes, absolutely. You hear of theatre directors going, well, I can’t rely on this, I have to raise my family, I have to feed my family and individual performers who have had hope for over 18 months that it’d be OK that will get through it. And remembering that we actually had all the bushfires before, too. So, there are a lot of cancelations of music festivals and things going back to January 2020. And so, there’s this real sense of the double whammy. Some artists have gone into television working in film. I’ve seen also not just the performers, but also people working in accountancy and bookkeeping and publicity who no longer have jobs in theatre companies who have now gone, oh, well, I’ll go into other industries. And we just seeing the exodus of experience and expertise from the arts that I hope we will be able to replenish.
Kerry O’Brien: One example in that in that story was Amanda Harrison, an international star, an international star of musical theatre who’s now in real estate of Queenie van de Zandt, a singer, comedian, writer on antidepressants after too many episodes curled up, crying on the kitchen floor. “Artists are incredibly resilient people”, she says. “We have the ability to come up with ideas for absolutely nothing and to rise from the ashes. But we are exhausted, exhausted from doing that”. Rhoda, that resonates for you?
Rhoda Roberts AO: It totally resonates, I mean, I’m one of the fortunate ones, where I left an incredible job and was able to stay at home and work with a new theatre company. But I think these are some of our great artists. But not only are they working in the arts, but their partners also working in the arts at really, at high levels in musicals and to lose that income, not just one member of the household, but two incomes would be devastating. And my fear is, yes, people have to survive. And amazingly, how many artists are so resilient and can adapt in a very multi skilled, particularly women. We’ve always been multi-skilled. But my fear is: I hope that cultural amnesia doesn’t have a spread across this country, we need to get back to regaining our artists and their faith in the industry. You know, you can work in real estate. You might do really well. Why would you go back to an industry that still is very low paid compared to a lot of other corporate opportunities? And we can’t lose our artists, our artists, other people who give us depth. Our Artists tell the truth telling, our artists give an escape when we all need to escape. And we see it through our history. It has been the artists and the paintings and, you know, philosophers referring to, the effect can’t described in words, what art and culture actually brings to a society.
Kerry O’Brien: And that’s part of the problem in a sense, because it’s so hard to be measured and, you know, to keep throwing out a few examples. The great Australian cabaret star Paul Capsis. Not only is he struggling, but even his agent has left the industry. The young indigenous musician and opera singer Jess Hitchcock on her bad days, she says, crying all day. Her emotional coping strategies include moving furniture around the rooms. So, we’re not just talking about struggling young artists. We’re talking about the big names as well, often across all of these arts platforms. Now, I don’t know how you begin to measure the loss in human terms across all of those categories, nor the loss in our own cultural lives that you’re talking about. I don’t know how you measure that.
Wesley Enoch AM: Agreed, I don’t know how you measure it. Maybe it’s something that will go in 20 years from now, we’ll say, where are the masterpieces? Where are the amazing pieces of art? Where are they? Well, we lost all those artists in 2020, 2021 so, that’s where they went. I mean, I think when you see an artist like Paul Capsis, who has had, for decades, a really amazing career and has been working across the globe, and suddenly you see his career just kind of fall over, that’s really kind of heartbreaking. And we’re talking about artists at the moment, but in many ways, the artistic community is a microcosm for the whole nation, the kind of heartbreak and disappointment in the world that artists are feeling. We are the canaries down the coal mine and lots of things that are changing for artists are going to come or are happening in our society and artists are playing it out.
Rhoda Roberts AO: But I also think that, you know, for many of our community of artists and creative industries, they’re family-based businesses often as well, you know, it’s one or two generations within the family who continue to work across this industry. So, you’re seeing that layered as well. But I think we are an incredible bunch. And I do think that people have put their minds. I think when we come back to the gathering and looking in the theatre, just seeing the film, it might be slightly different and a different experience. And so, I think we’re challenged, but we’re still being creative. But we have to be aware that people need to be nurtured. And I think for many artists, it must feel like, I can’t even find the words when you can turn on your television and see a football match with 50,000 people sitting in an audience and yet we can’t, in a small venue, do the appropriate and safety of our artists and our audiences. And yet we have to close the curtain.
Kerry O’Brien: That was actually a question I was going to put to you anyway, because it must feel it must feel bizarre to make that comparison between the 50,000 that the politicians were actually able to make it work for the football clubs, that you could have all of those people sitting in the stands. But not only do you have empty concert halls, but orchestras can’t even go onto the stage and play because they can’t find enough space to socially distance.
Rhoda Roberts AO: Well, even in Melbourne at the moment, you can’t even rehearse. You can’t even kind of create a bubble to rehearse in. There’s all these kind of complications. And I love that the idea that they think that arts audiences are so rowdy and so boisterous that they can’t gather because it’s unsafe. You go oh, well, I’d love it for that. But they’re very respectful. They sit in their seats with masks on and don’t get up and cheer or yell. And so, there’s this interesting kind of dichotomy between what sports has been able to achieve and what arts hasn’t. And one of the things I was talking to people recently about, Peter V’Landys and his management style and his ability to lead. He’s the chair of the National Rugby League and able to crash through and demand political leaders to hear him. And he’s gone off almost in the cult of the individual in the way he’s banged through, whereas the arts have done it in a very collaborative, collective manner, that it’s been collective negotiation a lot, as we work together, both commercial sectors and the funded sector to go forward. And the exception here is like film and television have been able to stay in production because, again, they’ve been able to crash through as individuals to push things. And it’s interesting this kind of process of decision making, individuals slamming a table are getting heard and the kind of more considered thoughts have been put aside. I mean, remembering that the arts were the first to close down and we closed down voluntarily because we didn’t think it was safe for people in the early days of the pandemic. And so, there’s this real shift and change of what are we valuing as a society and how are we going forward?
Kerry O’Brien: So, how does the art sector go about recovering from this? And it’s in one sense a premature question because you’re still struggling to beg for the dollars to basically underpin the existence of all of these artists and the other employees of the industry as we speak. But at the same time, you must be thinking now and other leaders in your industry must be thinking now of how you do come out of this. How do you rise from the ashes, Rhoda?
Rhoda Roberts AO: Well, I would suggest that we need to get people and build resources. We need to get people back to the venues, but maybe the venue isn’t the first answer. And I would say it’s all about placemaking in a way. And actually, for myself as a Widjubul woman, I see great opportunities in cultural tourism. If we give people experiences of the land that they’re on and the stories about that and they come and see us, and then we can take them into the theatre to see the stories together, to celebrate the exhibitions, perhaps we organize things where you come and meet the artist while he’s painting the work and then you come to the exhibition, because I think that could be a little bit of a fear of the unknown from audiences of how quickly do they come back into venues? And is that a fear of gathering again? So perhaps looking at the placemaking of the site around and the country and the region that you’re in and tell those stories, you know, with cultural tourism walks, for example, maybe that’s a way we can move ahead and keep people employed.
Kerry O’Brien: Is it too simplistic to assume that that when the when the veil is lifted, when the restrictions are done, when enough of us are vaccinated and the political leadership decides that we can have a crack at returning to normal life at the festivals, whether it’s music or art or writers or whatever, come galloping back, the concerts come galloping back, the big events, even the small stage productions that the people pour back out of their houses, as ants do from their colonies after the rain, is there a chance of that?
Wesley Enoch AM: Look, I think there is. And I think that there is great solace in precedent. You know, the return of the things that we used to have. I think, though, the pandemic has given us an opportunity to innovate and look at new things. Rhoda, was saying before about the whole digital innovation. We’ve had this massive upgrade in the way we engage in technology. It would be a shame for that to slide backwards. You know, there are certain ways that we used to engage in the arts and we now have new ways that have removed the obstacles of time and space and ability and geography. And we’ve been able to kind of become a lot more mobile. I would hate for us to just go back to what it was because it felt comfortable. There’s an opportunity for us to grow, and especially a country the size that we are. Our markets are very, very small, especially in the live arts. How do we share more work is also important. The touring networks have been decimated in this last two years. And I don’t know how they’ll come back without a lot of-
Kerry O’Brien: Tell me a little bit more about that,
Wesley Enoch AM: About the touring networks? Yeah. Well, think of this way like: a show, that lets say it’s coming out of Brisbane and it makes its money playing in Sydney and Melbourne, and then it gets subsidized to go to Orange and Bathurst and Geelong in a number of other centres, suddenly you take out one or two of those things, and the viability of the tour just falls over. The uncertainty of being able to plan has now cost us all so much more money. So, the ability to say in six months’ time, I’m going to be touring this show through these 10, 15 venues, not being able to do that or it falling over the last moment means that no tour is viable. And until we have the kind of investment that can overcome one falling out or one coming in at the last minute and more flexibility, we won’t be able to see it. And I think music has been clear. Look, I think that’s been a huge underestimation. 28,000 live gigs and music seems low in terms of all of those pub gigs Rhoda was talking about, as well as concerts and touring groups and small bands, that there’s a lot of activity that is no longer viable because of the uncertainty caused by border restrictions and lockdowns happening at the last minute. Myself, I’ve had shows that have been touring that just fell over at the last minute or went into 50 percent. So, you can’t get the royalties for it and on and on and on. The uncertainty is going to crush us before the lack of resources, to be honest.
Rhoda Roberts AO: I was just going to say, surprisingly, audiences have been with us during the times where we’ve had to overnight change a ticketing campaign, refund, ask to move the ticket to when we rescheduled the theatre show, and it’s all such unknowns. The audiences have been with us and surprisingly, our audiences, when we do take that material online, there has been the opportunity where accessibility with various platforms of streaming concerts to shows, has gone to places we never thought possible, but also internationally. So, there is this undercurrent that’s building an audience that might not necessarily have come to see the show in the theatre. So, when we do get back on our feet, we thank our audiences firstly for standing by us, but also perhaps we have that opportunity that we now have, as Wesley is saying, it’s totally impractical. It’s not viable to do a tour at the moment. No one can afford to do it on their own. And so maybe there will be two platforms for us in the future: one of the technology and one of the live gig. But the government needs to know you cannot do this without resources. If we invested what we invested into our sporting nation, my goodness, Australia would be leading the world with arts.
Kerry O’Brien: Wesley, when you talked about the capacity of a Peter V’Landys to pressure governments into supporting, keeping Rugby League functioning with live audiences. When it really comes down, it really comes down to so often in politics is that, not being cynical, it’s just a fact of life, politicians are much more likely to respond to a particular lobby group if that lobby group can wield influence or muscle and the muscle that Peter V’Landys undoubtedly would have wielded was the public support for Rugby League or might have been someone else’s support for AFL. So, it’s not necessarily if you had gone in there waving your arms about in the way you say figuratively, Peter V’Landys has done, you’re not necessarily going to say, oh, OK, Wesley, yes. Well, we’ll give you what you need, because the arts community does not have that impact, does it? I mean, your public support is not so measurable and not so obvious as it is with sport.
Wesley Enoch AM: I’m going to pick you up on this case, because, you know, more people go to museums and art galleries than go to sporting events, but they’re not demonstrative about their support for the arts. It’s like anything because it’s very subjective versus the objective measures of success in sports. You know, someone runs fast, someone kicks goals, someone wins, someone loses. In the arts it’s not as clear as that. And so that subjectivity creates, if you like, a lack of visibility for what the support for the audience from the audiences are.
Kerry O’Brien: So, isn’t it the case that you’ve got to mobilize your audience?
Wesley Enoch AM: Agreed.
Kerry O’Brien: Well, it’s more of them that are going to reach the politicians as well. I mean, how many times have you tried to explain this to a politician and failed?
Wesley Enoch AM: Yeah, well, too many times. But it’s interesting. We shifted our arguments in the 80s about this around us as an economic engine rather than, as Julian Meyrick talks about, this idea of intrinsic values, measures of what a good society is. And we’ve become this argument for economics, for, you know, heads in beds and bums on seats, rather than the idea of what can the arts and cultural expression really mean. And I think that we are our own worst enemies because we don’t value ourselves half the time in a society because we go, oh, well, you know, sometimes I’m good or I’m not good. I don’t quite know. And we do have to kind of be very verbose about how we punch above our weight when it comes to – using a sporting metaphor – when it comes to this notion of we need to say it’s important in the in the way that sport is important for society. I’m not going to talk it down, but I’m going to say arts and culture are just as important. And it’s the subjectivity that becomes problematic, because government, I think, has become less tolerant of disagreement. And the arts are full of disagreement. People love something, hate something, want to see it shut down, want to disagree publicly about how good this is or whatever. And governments are very unnerved by the very nature of the arts, which is to question society and say society can be better. And let’s engage in big, dramatic ideas through our music, through our visual arts. And every Prime Minister, every politician is scared of the disagreement and the divisive nature that art can sometimes bring about.
Kerry O’Brien government is the same as it is the universities, or dare I say it, for the ABC, if all these institutions are doing their job, they will question government, they will review government critically. Is it too much to expect, Rhoda, Government ministers to understand and accept that that role is fundamental to a healthy democracy?
Rhoda Roberts AO: Oh, where do I start? I think the bigger issue is, as you mentioned before, we really have to look at what shackles us and question and look at a new way of operating. And, you know, the thing is, with governments, we can get a particular minister who as Arts Minister is very passionate and wants to be involved and wants to see change and support and resources, but then come around to the next election year and they’re no longer there. So, we’re constantly having to one step forward, two steps back to convince people that arts is more than simply sitting in a theatre. I mean, we only have to look at children who are surrounded by arts and the classics and what they grow up to become because of that value they have. I really don’t have answer because I’d be in Canberra.
Kerry O’Brien: And because, again, it’s not it isn’t just the politicians. It’s hard not to be sympathetic to the argument that artists always rise to the occasion for natural disasters using their fame or their networks for the greater community good. But it’s a spirit that’s often not reciprocated, not just by the politicians, but by communities. So, what does this say about the nation’s attitude to the arts?
Wesley Enoch AM: Can I challenge this? Because at one-point last year, the stories we were getting out there about how hard the arts were being hit, and there was a lot of public discourse about how arts and entertainment was doing it bad. And no matter how much we had advocated for ourselves, suddenly the general public were coming on board. And then the Federal government brought in their arts response, which was fantastic, could have done more, could have done so much more in terms of targeting and bringing on different systems. But it was interesting. We don’t actually get our audiences onside enough to be vocal to their local members. And we have to remember that governments are elected by communities, and communities need to keep expressing what they think is important. I do worry there’s a growing passivity in in in our society and that passivity forms around, well, I’ll just stay at home. I don’t need to get involved in that.
Kerry O’Brien: Well, it’s complex because, I mean, there’s a sense of powerlessness, I think, that’s quite pervasive in the community now, along with cynicism. I’ve lost track of how many times people might have said to me, how do I persuade politicians to support the ABC? And really, there’s not many things you can say in your answer and when you say, well, you can always contact your local politician. Mostly the response is to groan.
Wesley Enoch AM: And also, the idea that a politician can say, left is right and up is down. And as long as I keep pushing through the message, that’s all they do. There’s a lack of listening sometimes going on in in our political leadership. And what we need to do is encourage people to say, well, I mean, I just think about Indi and that whole movement and the GetUp movement and this notion that when communities organize and say to their local member in a very organized way, take on this idea, you know, and ignore it at your peril, and then you see Sophie Mirabella in this case, be moved out of office because she didn’t listen to the community. I love that. I think we should have more of that.
Kerry O’Brien: Rhoda, sorry you were going to say.
Rhoda Roberts AO: Yeah, I was just going to say absolutely, Wesley, couldn’t agree more. And I think we have to shift our mindset, but it’s quite often a difficult thing when you’ve one, got fires or you’ve got people dying with ill health due to a pandemic, or you’ve got people losing their homes and their jobs to the point where they’re homeless or living in their cars. And then you come along and go, we want funding to put on this art piece. We have to do more to enable the community to know what art actually brings and unpack it because they just see it as is frivolous often when up against some very severe issues like housing, education, health we all have to deal with. So, I think sometimes maybe our marketing or the way that we approach it, of how sell the arts, we have to relearn sometimes,
Wesley Enoch AM: But that’s what we know as Aboriginal artists. We know that if you look at cultural solutions, those other things, which are the symptoms of a great disease, seem to kind of solve themselves. If people feel culturally strong in their family, in their community, then some of these other issues are dealt with by doing that. And the more we think of ourselves as a culture rather than just purely an economy, that’s where I think we kind of lift as a country.
Kerry O’Brien: You’re running against the grain there, Wesley.
Wesley Enoch AM: Oh, I’m happy to run. I’m happy to run.
Rhoda Roberts AO: I was just going to say, if you want to know anything about isolation and coping at home and not and being segregated from going into town, just look at the way Aboriginal culture has shifted and adjusted over decades where we’ve learned how you can cope with this, because there are many things that will trigger trauma in the future because of this pandemic. And I think we sometimes have the answers, as Wesley was saying, with our own cultural kinship makeup. And I think families across the country, doesn’t matter where they come from, is they’re all starting to gather and connect, possibly a little stronger than prior to over to COVID.
Wesley Enoch AM: Stan Grant wrote this too. Stan Grant talks about the idea that we have more to offer society than the deficit modelling that often is placed on Aboriginal culture. You know, we put culture in the centre, we put family in the centre, we work out how we operate and that we look after elders and children in particular ways. And maybe I’m being a bit overly romantic, but the way Stan Grant talks saying we have more lessons to teach society than even the Closing the Gap conversation, sometimes places on us. The deficit modelling on Aboriginal society is one that we need to turn on its head. And if anything, the fires of 2019, 2020, when that raised this whole conversation around cultural burning and the purpose of cultural burning in Aboriginal society and how the whole country can learn from that. I’m off the point of the pandemic a little, but there’s the sense of saying Aboriginal society has a lot more answers to the questions that society is asking itself.
Kerry O’Brien: Yes, absolutely. Non-Indigenous people are slow learners, but we appear to be sort of we appear to be picking things up a little. I’m going to come back to the indigenous aspect of the arts and culture here, too. But a new report from the Australia Institute talks of a wave of small company insolvencies in the past year and says we should brace for some big company casualties. And it argues for a total public led reboot of the industry. The Institute estimates that the arts and culture sector employs more than 350,000 people. How do you reboot such a diverse, structured industry in the way it deals with government to more successfully gain the funding? But at the core of this question is, how do you reboot? How do you reshape? Rhoda first.
Rhoda Roberts AO: I think we start within our institutions and our education, is really looking at what the value. I often think that we as a nation can change our behaviour quite quickly. You might remember the particular smoking campaigns that existed for a decade. And, you know, people used to sit with Dave Frost and smoke a cigarette in an interview on the television. And, you know, if someone lit up in a house today or in a restaurant, we’d be horrified. And it took that campaign that shifted a whole nation’s behaviour. And I wonder if we have a similar campaign that really showcases what the value of culture and arts is, because I don’t think it’s ever been really framed in the consciousness, the psychological or physical, whatever it is. We’ve never really taught that, unless you go to drama school. So, I’m thinking, you know, begin with young people where they know this is a place that will tell their story. This is a place they can go for safety. This is a place that will heal trauma, which, sadly they’re going to experience the next time an outbreak occurs. And they remember they were home-schooled and unable to go out and have any sort of freedom. How do we teach those children that there is a safety place within arts and culture, that they can actually find a way of dealing with that trauma? And as Stan Grant says, many of us have the answers for that. So, yeah, perhaps beginning with an education campaign and just really specifically valuing what we bring. It’s as valuable as sports. When you ask the question, and we’ve heard it on a lot of our talk backs, when people talked about the push for football, the big question that came out from some of the fans was that it would reduce the level of domestic violence.
Kerry O’Brien: Wesley, how good is the arts community been at speaking with a united voice, when you’ve got all of these disparate from the small to the medium to the large, from the well feed the struggling to the most popular forms of the arts, to the less popular, but nonetheless important parts. Is that part of what has to be rebooted, the way the arts community restructures its voice?
Wesley Enoch AM: Yeah, taking Rhoda’s on this, too. It’s not just the value of the art, but the values that we hold. And often this kind of differing voices or contradictory voices is because we hold different values, there’s no one set because we’re exploring and finding new ways. The pandemic offers us an opportunity to reset and rearticulate some of those values. But it’s difficult because we’ve been placed as crabs in a bucket, as old uncle would say, you know, crabs in a bucket pulling each other down. Anyone who gets up gets pulled down. And because we don’t have the resources to achieve the goal that we want to achieve. I think there’s also opportunities here for large companies to think about commercial activities and a commercial life beyond their funded existence. What I’m saying is that sometimes we’re stopping a large-scale commercial theatre from existing in this country because we have large scale subsidized theatre. Let’s free them up and let them be commercial. Let’s give them, you know, an endowment and let them go off and explore the world in different ways so that we can look at the small to medium. And we’ve seen this schism over the last, let’s call it 20 years, between the grass roots, the small to medium and the large and the established and the commercial. And that schism isn’t real. Artists flow from one to the other, but the structures that exist are not resourced equally, are not thought of or valued in the same way. And we need to articulate how there is a full economy at work. And unfortunately, we’re all in competition rather than in a collaborative way, publicly. And what’s been great during the pandemic is this kind of collective discussion, collective advocacy behind the scenes to government. And we want to make sure that goes forward, articulating what our values are. Why should the arts be supported? Let’s talk about it. I think that when we go back to the 70s, when the Australia Council was established and Whitlam was there saying it’s about our national identity, it’s about hearing ourselves, seeing ourselves in the arts. In the 80s and 90s, it turned into this kind of economic argument. And so, by the time you get into this century, we’ve kind of lost the reason why we exist. We’re just there because we’ve always been there. And it’s time for us to reinvigorate why the arts are here. And the pandemic’s gives that a really great opportunity to do that.
Kerry O’Brien: And in some ways, we seem to have gone backwards in terms of our fixation on national identity. Some people find it very hard to get past Gallipoli. But I’d like to come back to the to the indigenous aspect of all of this. And I just wonder, are there lessons there? You sort of touched on this, Wesley. Are there lessons that the rest of the arts sector and the government, for that matter, can learn from the spectacular success of First Nations filmmakers, dancers, visual artists and authors?
Wesley Enoch AM: I think the thing is, have a purpose, have a reason to speak, and also have this idea of being unique. I think that when we look internationally, at the moment, First Nations, filmmakers in particular, are out there doing extraordinary work, being recognized for being the voice to the nation. And it’s an extraordinary thing that First Nations people, my non-Indigenous counterparts, I go, why do you get up and do what you do? It can’t just be about the exploration of the form. It must be because you want to tell a story. You want to kind of make the world a different place, change the world. It’s a bit off topic, but this idea of going to tell a story that shifts society or bring society together, and often they’ll say, oh, no, but I just love the theatre. And, you know, that’s not enough. Indigenous performers, indigenous makers are out there trying to engage in a much bigger social dialogue, if you like, because we know that sport and arts are the two ways that we can change the hearts and minds of people, that it’s not an accident, that artists and sports people have been our leaders in our national storytelling when it comes to indigenous change. You always see the artist and the sports people out there telling their story, telling where they come from, and creating a collective empathy or understanding or compassion for First Nations Australians. How do we do that as the arts is also important,
Kerry O’Brien: Rhoda, how vulnerable is the indigenous arts community to this pandemic.
Rhoda Roberts AO: Well, again, I think it varies depending on what art form, and I do know that it has given us space and a drive for many of our, particularly a lot of our academics and young writers. I think what Wesley was saying for since time immemorial, really, but the last couple of hundred years, we’ve actually seen our artists and makers have those conversations that are often viewed as very uncomfortable. And there have been some of our leaders who have had those robust conversations and demanded action. And we’re seeing a whole generation shift. I think surprisingly, you know, since January, with the whole sweep of the BLM movement, people started to look at diversity. There’s not one institution across this country now that probably hasn’t written their diversity toolkit. But what it did was it put a mirror to society. And I think we saw a shift and people were jumping on board, but we were controlling and navigating that conversation because we were at a time where we do have leadership within arts. We do have strategies that we want to look at. But I think what we’re trying to say to everyone, everything’s interconnected as we are and the ecology of who we are as a people. We come with protocols and cultural observance, responsibility. That is huge. But we take it on because we know we’re thinking about tomorrow. And I think there has been this incredible shift within the country. Still a lot of systemic behaviours that we have to question, particularly in government. Still a lot of things that need to be addressed when we think of treaties or whatever. But it is time for the truth telling. And if anything, it’s exciting to come out of this pandemic. I think that we as a nation have actually moved forward a little bit on that dialogue and questioned our behaviour, particularly institutions. And I just really hope it continues.
Wesley Enoch AM: As a little side note. I know that there was a lot of conversation around 2020 and the 250th anniversary of the Cook Journey. And lots of people were saying, oh, that would be a great moment for us to talk about treaty and sovereignty and move the discussion on about the colonial history, etc. But we missed that because of the pandemic.
Kerry O’Brien: I’m sure there are some who will make sure we come back to it.
Wesley Enoch AM: Oh, I think it’s gone.
Kerry O’Brien: Oh, I don’t know about that. I just want to ask you both, and it’s a big question. And I want you to try and do it briefly, if you can. I just want to hear how each of you was introduced to the arts and in the expression of culture and how it changed your lives. And then I want to then I want to quickly get a sense from each of you of how you have seen the development and the support for it and the penetration of indigenous art and culture through Australia. Rhoda?
Rhoda Roberts AO: Gosh, I was allowed to stay up to watch the ABC and a young actress called Justine Saunders was on the screen. Whenever a black fella came on the screen, we were allowed to watch the TV, black and white, and she was in Pig in a Poke and it was on at 8:30 or something.. And we were allowed to watch it because there was this incredible young actress and she was playing a secretary. She wasn’t playing an Aboriginal secretary. She was just playing a secretary. And I knew then that perhaps writing the story piece could change people’s opinions of what they thought of us. And so very encouraged, of course, by my parents. But they wanted me to do something more sensible, like go nursing, which I did. I think we from those early days of watching that. But when I think back to you know, we’ve just discovered through our National Film and Sound Archives in the last few days that Onus, this incredible man, was actually making documentaries that they found in the 1940s about our people. And so, he was possibly our first film maker. But sometimes this history gets, you know, uncovered. And it reminds me a little bit of what we face in the arts. And I think what my passion has always been, we come from a generation, I come from a generation where we watched our parents told they were outlawed to speak language, to do their dance, although they did, they did it in secret. They told us the stories. The language continued. I’m a Bundjalung woman. We’ve never lost our language. We lost elements of things, but they’ve just been sleeping. And as the old people say, they come at a time when you’re listening and seeing that Bill Onus film. I was reminded of going, oh, we wouldn’t have heard this a while back, but now we’re listening and going, how incredible, in the 1940s, he was working on some of Australia’s greatest film exports. And our film industry shows us that we can tell the true stories, we can tell the universal stories and the human issues that affect all of us show more people that we are like them. Same, same, but different. And this fear of who we are, the arts can challenge that. They can switch people’s opinions. I just think, though, that it has a two-pronged approach for me is the arts enables us to tell stories. It enables us to entertain, have fun, nothing like music, but also it enables us to continue the cultural obligations. We don’t want to be the generation that loses an element of the story that’s been told thousands and thousands of years. And in that story is the knowledge of how we’ll burn country or how we’ll find water. And I’m really excited about the future because I can see so much online about knowledge systems that are told through the arts. I think our artists are extraordinary. Most of them are old people who are knowledge holders. They tell those stories for nothing. They don’t get paid for it. We just have such a rich, rich, ancient, amazing culture with the first instrument in the world and in this country. It’s not considered a classic. Well, it is. And I think the arts enables that shift. And, you know, if we look at what we have now with Bangarra, with the Arts Co-op, with so many things, and I would have thought, the Courier Mail, our own newspaper, our own television companies, and really was an enormous breadth of pioneers and writers, as Wesley would know, like Oodgeroo Noonuccal and just so many people that pioneered and went before us. And I think what Wesley’s done in the in the face of festivals. And you’re so articulate, Wesley, if only I could be like that.
Kerry O’Brien: You’re not doing too bad.
Wesley Enoch AM: You’re doing alright.
Kerry O’Brien: You’re doing it so well that I’m going to have to interrupt you. Wesley, your story with the arts really, I think, began in working class Logan in Brisbane. What was it and how did that change?
Wesley Enoch AM: I was. Woodridge, Wesley from Woodridge. And this idea that was a very troubled young man, very violent young man, and the arts were actually a form of expression in many ways. I was on a destructive path, and the arts created a world where I could be constructive about my narrative and how I was in the world, how I could employ myself on the public storytelling. You know, I would do dances with my uncles and I’d do all that stuff and tell stories. But in fact, I found this conflict between society and my lived home experience. And the arts provided this way of me imposing myself on the public storytelling. And if I look back and I think about the intergenerational markers, the 67’ Referendum brought about this notion of, well, self-determination under Whitlam in particular, and that housing co-ops and legal services and health services went hand in hand with black theatre in Sydney. And that telling us story was just as important as the health and education and housing of our people. And then you jump forward. The next generation came about, came with the whole thing around 88 to 93. That five-year period, most of the indigenous arts organizations we see now were birthed at that time when we were introspective and thinking about ourselves as a nation and needing an indigenous voice to step up to help us understand our full history. Then you jump again to the Sydney Olympics and Rhoda Roberts AO, you know, she’s the unsung hero of the Sydney Olympics and the opening ceremony.
Rhoda Roberts AO: And Stephen Page.
Wesley Enoch AM: And Stephen Page. But, you know, own your role in this Rhoda, which was extraordinary. And again, we imposed ourselves on the public storytelling and people came in droves and understood us in a different way. And the next generation, what are we going to do now, 20 years on from the Olympics? What is it that galvanizes us? And it’s interesting in film and on screen, we’re seeing the investment from the 80s and 90s really paying off in terms of where we have maybe for the first time in history, a full cohort from young teenagers and people studying at high school all the way through to elders like, you know, Uncle Jack Charles, you know, someone close to 80. And you’re starting to see this full cohort of active professionals in the arts. And that’s because we’ve seen these markers and we’ve seen a thirst and hunger in society to understand what it means to be living in this country. And so, I’m interested in seeing what the next marker is, if you like.
Kerry O’Brien briefly, I want to take you back to the 90s. I think it was 94, 95, when you wrote the Seven Stages of Grieving with Deborah Mailman, which must have been very confronting for non-Indigenous audiences. It would be even now. But can you briefly remind us of the essence of that one woman show? And can you remember what you took from how Australian audiences reacted to it?
Wesley Enoch AM: Yeah, it was basically saying that indigenous history, it looked at the seven phases of Aboriginal history through from dreaming, invasion, genocide, protection, assimilation, self-determination, reconciliation, and saying that whole process was in fact and has been a grieving process to come to awareness and understanding. And it was interesting in the early days, especially, the critics in Brisbane were going, oh, not another black armband, storytelling about grief and pain. And it wasn’t until we returned back from London being the toast of the London International Festival of Theatre, that they went, oh, this is really amazing. This is a great piece of theatre. And, you know, and it’s always this international recognition that feeds our own sense of importance.
Kerry O’Brien: And we still can’t escape our cultural cringe, can we?
Wesley Enoch AM: Well, and to be honest, it’s time to say we are no longer a juvenile on the world stage. Our young country, we’re, in fact, one of the oldest living societies in the world. And we could be an elder on the world stage if we accepted all of the power of indigenous history and society and it’s weird.
Kerry O’Brien: You later rewrote the ending of seven stages to acknowledge the Sydney Bridge bridgework by more than 200,000 people supporting reconciliation in 2000 thousand and other bridge walks around the country. You wrote this is what you wrote at the end of Seven Stages:
“Who would have thought, aye. I guess we can’t go back now”. Now, given the mixed political reception for the Uluru Statement from the heart, as is one marker I used to fully confident we can’t go back now. I think we have regressed in many ways. I think we’re beyond reconciliation. We are now in a new phase of Aboriginal history. And that phase is about sovereignty and treaty and about. It’s no longer about trying to understand each other. It’s really saying understand the power and the authority of Aboriginal Australia. I think we have regressed. The Uluru Statement, one of the most generous, beautiful statements of purpose. And for it to be knocked aside because it’s not convenient is so wrong.
Kerry O’Brien: Rhoda? I mean, when you think about the breakthroughs that we’ve talked about today with the breakthroughs, the sort of bridge that’s being built through indigenous, through the storytelling, the various expressions of art, the breakthroughs and the connections that have been made. Do you agree with Wesley that we have gone backwards? Do you think that when he says we’ve moved beyond reconciliation? Because it would seem to me that for a lot of Australians, they are now ahead of their politicians. Don’t ask me how many, I don’t know, but I just my impression is that there is a significant body of Australians who want to see the meaning behind formal expressions and practical applications like the Voice to Parliament and so on, they want it and they just want the politicians to work out the form and get behind it. Am I reading that right?
Rhoda Roberts AO: I think you are. And I think it’s coming across varying generations of Australians. There are the allies there. They are prepared to stand side by side with us. But what they’re enabling is, it’s our voice. We’re going back to self-determination. And we have the authenticity and control on what we say and how we want to see it across the nation.
Kerry O’Brien: And the last question to both of you. It’s interesting to reflect on the new generation of First Nations artists emerging. They have the mentors and the inspirational role models in you two and other senior figures in the indigenous arts community, other figures, other leaders that may not have been there for you. This pandemic may be a big setback for them. But the bedrock is there now, isn’t it? Is that true? I mean, that this is a stage that has not existed for indigenous artists before, that you’ve got this generational, you’ve got a generation of mentors and leaders for the new generations to look up to and learn from and take inspiration from wisdom.
Wesley Enoch AM: Yes, I agree. And just as a as a little sign of that Kid Laroi, who’s a fantastic musician, is in his teens doing kind of collaborations with Justin Bieber and other kind of big pop names. You get a sense that there’s a confidence in this younger generation. They also have a confidence in the form they can go. Well, I can just slip through social media and technology, and there’s this real sense of mobility in the younger generation, and that only comes through confidence. And as you’re saying, you know, you look at the role models and the people who have gone before us and the ability to lift up this young generation. And I take my hat off to all the universities who are doing amazing work in lifting up the next generation, because when they have the tools, they just go gangbusters and prove that their quality of creativity and their imagination is going to actually mark the future as different. They’re not going to look at the past and say, I’m a prisoner of it. They’re going to say I’m going to create the world. That makes me feel like I’m in the centre of it.
Kerry O’Brien: Rhoda.
Rhoda Roberts AO: I think we have an incredible country where there are some young people across the community who recognize the point of difference that we have as a nation and they are elevating us, and I think there’s great things to come.
Kerry O’Brien: Rhoda Roberts AO, Wesley Enoch AM, thank you very much for taking part in this conversation. Thank you both.
Wesley Enoch AM: Thanks, Kerry. You’re pretty deadly yourself.
Rhoda Roberts AO: Yeah. Kerry, O’Brien, I’ve got to call you Uncle Kerry again. Thanks so much. You have been one of the great mentors in my life, and watching every interview you do is just extraordinary. So, yay the ABC.
Kerry O’Brien: Thank you Rhoda. And thank you very much, Wesley.