Reimagining Australia: language, decolonisation, borderscapes, and belonging
December 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
This conference creates an important space for reflecting on key challenges in Australia today, and for thinking about alternatives. My notes are quite partial and rough, so I encourage you to look for more information on the speakers (and the panel sessions I couldn’t attend) on the conference website.
Kim Scott spoke in ‘Circles and Sand and Sound’ about the growth in support for the Noongar language, which is reflected in breakout text in the InASA conference program and the names of conference rooms. Despite the hostility of settlers to language, Noongar place names and language continue to inform the vernacular of the southwest where we live. We can bring the language alive by making ourselves instruments for it. His plenary threaded through the history of settlement, and the histories of Noongar culture and community, survival and the resistance to the boundaries drawn in sand by colonisers. We need to recognise that this land which we are on is stolen country, and has been through a long period of an apartheid-like regime, and there are now spaces in which Noongar culture and language is being celebrated and cherished. There is a power in sharing language and culture, but we also need to understand Noongar (and other Indigenous) peoples’ reluctance to do so.
Decolonising Australia: Reimagining and Reinhabiting opened with Mike Heald discussing his poem, ‘Land Grab’, a reflection on colonisation (and decolonising):
2016 and here I stand, here my house stands,
and my son-grown-tall, in Ballarat, in the aftermath,
on the ground-almost-zero
of pre-colonized plenitude, the last stands
of Swamy Riparian, Herb-rich Foothill, and Plains Grassy
Woodlands huddled along rail tracks and roads,
or captive in the deserts of private property
with a knife at their throat.
Soenke Biermann followed with Decolonise Australia: Unwinding Settler Coloniality. Biermann’s teaching, research, and community praxis is concerned with how we unwind privilege. In Australia, there seems to be an absence of words to talk about race. It is hard to unsettle privilege, and hard to navigate white fragility – many white students lack resilience when it comes to managing their discomfort around discussions. It’s important to understand the link between whiteness and possessiveness in Australia, as well as the processes of racialisation and whiteness that have shaped migration to Australia. Coloniality is upheld by different structures, including systems of knowledge production: we need to think about how this works in academia, through our research and our teaching. How can we shift our teaching practices and set up safe spaces without reinscribing privilege? Encouraging students to reflect on their own experiences, and to link them to theoretical perspectives, can be helpful.
Finally, Samya Jabbour spoke in Decolonizing the multicultural landscape about connecting her sense of hurt at Israeli satellite ‘management’ of the land her father was forced to leave to her understanding of what ‘land management’ means in Australia. The myth of terra nullius that underpins settler-colonialism in both Israel and Australia supports ongoing violence, and means that land management is a practice of dispossession. Decolonization requires embodied, collaborative work. Jabbour’s work attempts to come into a respectful relationship with land and with Indigenous people. She has found it hard to navigate her role as a ‘non-indigenous’ Australia: much of the privilege of whiteness is conferred on her, but the legacies of settler-colonial violence and dispossession also shape her life. Many of us sit in this liminal space: outsiders-within. We inhabit interstitial sites that might allow new practices and alternatives to emerge. There is also a bravery and power involved in privileged members of settler societies confronting the violence done by their own families.
Suvendrini Perera’s plenary Reimagining the Borderscape was anchored around seven key images that return us to the water. Drawing on John Bulunbulun and Zhou Xiaoping’s Dialogue, Perera talked about the ways in which borders have crossed and divided Indigenous people, and noted that the drawing of a border around ‘Australia’ forcible merged many different peoples into the grouping ‘Aboriginal’. Thinking about these histories and images allows us to understand the centrality of carceral islands to Australia.
Rather than operating as a singular and static line, the border is constituted through a multiplicity of shifting practices and institutions. In Australia, this creates a violent and unstable border zone, in which some geographical and temporal areas are excised and classed as ‘not Australia’ for migration purposes. At the same time, this zone becomes subject to increased surveillance and other forms of control in the name of protecting Australian sovereignty. The borderscape is a term that allows us to understand the various forms of direct and indirect control being exercised over the region.
The logic of deterrence, like the logic of excision, doubles back on itself. The development of an expansive and expensive model of deterrence actually supports the ‘people smugglers’ it is claimed to oppose. While deterrence is justified through claims that it will save people from deaths at sea, the lifejackets memorialised in Alex Seton’s someone died trying to have a life like mine remind us of deaths that were caused by active policy choices: members of Australia’s border force knew of and were monitoring the boat, and made the choice to let those on board die.
The Multicultural Encounters through Memory, Storytelling and Art panel drew together literature, art, poetry, and theoretical reflections. Speakers in this panel made powerful connections that were difficult for me to capture, so please excuse these brief notes! Rashida Murphy spoke on her use of autoethnography and the ‘masking technique’ of a reading group to explore migrant women’s stories. Murphy ended her discussion of her writing process by reading from her book, The Historian’s Daughter. Nadia Niaz talked about her current project, tentatively titled My Australia, which reflects on migration to Australia, language, and belonging. Niaz spoke beautifully on some of the ways in which we construct belonging, including the necessity of forgetting in projects of nation-building (as we ‘forget’ inconvenient histories). Leonie Mansbridge spoke about Place Ma(t)ps, her art practice exploring mixed identity, space, and place. Burcu Simsek’s use of digital storytelling as a feminist method use voiceover and images to explore new sources of connection and belonging. Through workshops, Simsek has been providing opportunities for women from different generations and migration experiences to share their stories. Finally, Matt Roberts reflected on his family history as white English-speaking South Africans, who migrated to Australia in 1989. (Odd for me to listen to, with my white Afrikaans family history, from which I’ve been largely disconnected, with my family who moved to Australia around 1989.)
The final plenary session of the day, Kimberley Cultural Renewal: Unsettling the Dynamic; Reimagining the Future, from the artistic directors of intercultural dance-theatre company Marrugeku, Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain, who were joined by writer Steve Kinnane. Pigram and Swain talked about using their art to address traumatic histories, with the challenges that come with navigating the politics of representation. In Broome, much of dance culture has been lost, but through respectful collaboration with elders Marrugeku choreographers learned movements that they could use. Pigram and Swain emphasised the need to understand the histories of suppression of dance practices in Australia, and to build dialogue in developing works. Now, through Cut the Sky, the company is exploring new ways of relating to country, regenerating, and healing.
Steve Kinnane talked about the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC Culture Camps), which aim to rejuvenate law, people, country and creativity. Kinnane noted that while there’s often a perceived divide between work to rejuvenate traditional knowledge and contemporary work like Marrugeku’s, in fact they overlap significantly: Aboriginal cultures are living, changing, creating cultures.