Dancing Up Circular Quay: Indigenous Australian Popular Culture, Hybridization and the Local Performance of the Global

Dancing Up Circular Quay: Indigenous Australian Popular Culture, Hybridization and the Local Performance of the Global
Vassilios Adrahtas

Almost three years ago, in early 2003, I was walking up and down the galleries on level four of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The occasion was an exhibition of paintings by Dorothy Napangardi, an Indigenous artist from the central-north of Australia.1 To be honest, I was quite impressed by her abstract topographies of sand and water; I knew of course about the work of Emily Kngwarreye,2 but Napangardi seemed less ‘raw’ or more ‘cooked’ as a ‘modernist,’ Indigenous Australian artist. Her sand and water dreamings were refined, disciplined, almost mathematical, and at the same time, rhythmic, gentle and almost sensational. Contemplating her work, I thought for a moment that this is what one could call ‘high culture’ or ‘true art.’
The same day I visited Napangardi’s exhibition an Indigenous dance was being performed at the forecourt of the Museum of Contemporary Art. The organizers had advertised it as Women in Red – Warlpiri Dancers of the Desert, but actually it was a yawulyu ceremony3 of the kana-kurlangu jukurrpa (digging stick dreaming.) The Warlpiri women, painted up in their personal designs, enacted the story of their ancestors. Once again I was impressed; the ochre on black skin, the coordinated movement and the wailing songs conveyed a feeling of an age-long tradition that had reached artistic perfection and therefore exemplified authentic culture. After all, this was the intention of the organizers; to display ‘pure’ Indigeneity.4
Although my aesthetic experience at the Museum of Contemporary Art was a strong one, I left the place wondering why was it that
1 ‘Dancing Up Country: The Art of Dorothy Napangardi’: on exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2003.
2 J Green: ‘The Enigma of Emily Ngwarray’ in M Charlesworth, F Dussart and H Morphy, editors, Aboriginal Religions in Australia: An Anthology of Recent Writings, Ashgate, 2005, 185-92.
3 For yawulyu, see for example D Bell: Daughters of the Dreaming, Sydney, 1993.
4 For a debate on the issue of Indigeneity, see Oceania, 1992, vol 63, issue 2.
Buddha of Suburbia
Napangardi’s exhibition did not attract a huge crowd of visitors or the
Warlpiri women’s yawulyu an enchanted audience. But then I thought
that true art or authentic culture is not to be judged in terms of
quantity or audience reception; it is quality that matters and art for
art’s sake. This way, however, I was caught up in the old problem of
quantity versus quality and the vicious circle that it generates.5 Even
worse, I was caught up in my Western pre-understanding
(Vorverständnis) of what art is supposed to be. It seemed as if my
only option was to answer a simple question: are Napangardi and
yawulyu really about art?6
My reflections were interrupted some two hundred metres away from
the museum towards the Circular Quay wharves. Unexpectedly, I was
compelled to stand still. An unusually large crowd had gathered in
front of the cafés and restaurants and resounding from the midst of it
was a didgeridoo. I got as close as I could and saw a group of
Indigenous Australians getting ready for some kind of performance; a
corroboree, if you like. There were four, three men and a woman, all
in their late twenties, and one could readily see this was not their first
appearance as a group. The men were almost naked; wearing only a
piece of red cloth around their waist and thighs, while the woman was
wearing a plain white T-shirt and a denim skirt.
By applying some sort of white paint, which certainly was not any
traditional ochre, the men quickly and almost randomly drew a set of
designs on their bodies. Then one of them came forward and stood
between his mates and the crowd, while the rest sat down in a row
facing their keen audience. In the meanwhile, the woman had
arranged the microphones, put some Indigenous music CDs on
display and sat a bit further along holding a carton box for the
expected revenues. When everything was ready, that is, when the
stage was prepared, there was a pause; the performance was about
to begin. The performers were relaxed, while the crowd, composed
mainly of tourists, was tense with expectancy.
5 Here we have in mind the insightful K E Papapetrou: Peculiarity as A Problem of
Ontological Ethics, Athens, 1973.
6 With regard to the problematic application of the category of art in the context of
Indigenous Australian life-forms, it has been argued that ‘art does not have an
independent existence in traditional Aboriginal societies, but a vast amount has been
written on the art of these societies, which include music, poetry, song, and visual art,
all of which forms have’ a ‘religious context…’ (my emphasis) in T Swain: Aboriginal
Religions in Australia: A Bibliographical Survey, New York, 1991, 32.
Dancing up Circular Quay
The didgeridoo man was now playing his instrument forcefully and
skillfully. At times the sound was the otherworldly one which is so
typical of the didgeridoo. At other times it switched surprisingly to a
jazz-like or even a rap-like repertoire. In the front was the dancer;
expressive and attentive in his movements, awesome and weird in
his impact on the crowd. His technique reminded me of some
Indigenous dances I had seen on television documentaries and
video-recordings, but there was something rather imitative in his
performance. The third man was the eldest and, while he seemed to
be confined to the role of a clap-stick player, it in fact was he who
directed the whole performance through his facial expressions. The
young woman in turn was not paying any attention at all to the dance
or the music, but instead was preoccupied with the rearrangement of
the CDs she had already put on display. Finally, none of the
performers was singing in English, Kriol or any Indigenous language,
but that simply did not seem to bother either them or their audience.
The crowd was getting bigger and bigger, staring at the Indigenous
quartet with interest and surprise, thoughtfulness and respect. Of
course there were also those who stopped for a moment, took a look,
and went on with their afternoon stroll along the buzzing wharves;
perhaps they had already seen the performance. Nevertheless, those
who did attend the performance enjoyed the spectacle, took
photographs and commented among themselves on the peculiarity of
this sightseeing attraction. For them it was part and parcel of their
cosmopolitan tourist experience, one of the best things that they
could have asked for and taken out of Sydney as a lasting souvenir of
Australian Indigeneity.
I had the opportunity to witness the same performance several times
on different days and at different hours of the day. I thought that this
enactment was a socio-cultural text worth reflecting upon, since it not
only attracted my own attention but also the attention of the majority
of the people who happened to be at the Circular Quay wharves
when the members of the Indigenous group gave their performances.
I also thought that this (enacted) text was a signe of what living in
Australia is all about;7 a signe which, apart from its specific denotation
7 For the structuralist concept of signe, see F de Saussure: Cours de linguistique
générale, Paris, 1955.
Buddha of Suburbia
to recall Roland Barthes,8 made me consider a wide range of
connotations in relation to the (post)modern experience of the
relationship between the local and the global.9 To put it differently, I
started asking myself: Who are these Indigenous people? What is
this crowd/audience they are addressing? In what ways is their
performance a meaningful event? Is there a deeper link between an
event like this and the Australian way of life? Why is it so attractive
and at the same time so trivial and everyday (Alltag)? To be sure,
these questions could not be properly addressed without some sort of
reference to the intertextuality and the broader contextuality of the
Indigenous corroboree.10 So in order to get some answers I had to
attempt an analysis of what was at the same time a puzzle and a
familiarity to me.
Before the analysis, however, I should note that for me this staged
performance at Circular Quay stood in stark contrast to, let us say,
Mudrooroo’s literary version of Noorak’s corroborree. While the latter
is imagined as an instance of Indigenous alienation, the former
emerges as an example of Indigenous self-determination or, at least,
self-appreciation. In Long Live Sandawara, Noorak:
allows himself to be bought; allows himself with some others to be
collected together to stage a makeshift corroboree. In front of a
group of chatting foreigners, he slouches waiting to display his
culture. He feels totally alienated: an actor, a performer – a monkey
pantomiming for bananas. An ape, he postures… Jacky Jacky’s got
a thirst to satisfy and knows that a few tired jigs’ll bring in enough
brass for a dozen bottles of sweet wine and that is all he wants…
Another like himself drones out a sacred song turned blasphemous;
others like himself join in, hands beating the flat earth. Pum, pum, a
8 For the denotation/connotation distinction, see R Barthes: Le degré zéro de l’ ecriture,
suive des eléments de sémiologie, Paris, 1965.
9 For the global/local dialectics, see U Hannerz: ‘Cosmopolitans and locals in world
culture’ in M Featherstone, editor, Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and
Modernity, London, 1990, 237-51; J Friedman: ‘Being in the world: Globalization and
localization’ in M Featherstone, op cit, 311-28; A Appadurai: ‘The production of locality’
in Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis, 1996, 178-
99; A Dirlik: ‘The global in the local’ in R Wilson and W Dissanayake, editors,
Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary, Durham, 1996, 21-
45; A Cvetkovich and D Kellner, editors: Articulating the Global and the Local:
Globalization and Cultural Studies, Colorado, 1997.
10 For an introduction to the categories of intertextuality and contextuality, see T
Schirato and S Yell: Communication and Cultural Literacy: An Introduction, Sydney,
2000, 53-4, 106-24, 173-4.
Dancing up Circular Quay
passive rhythm without life – or hope… The white men sit to one
side in the shade watching and smiling at the antics of the blacks.
The song becomes captured by laughter and ends. The performers
feel their isolation and shame. Even a white woman stares – at the
sacred dances hidden and secret from all females. Now, no more!
What had they done to separate themselves from their ancestors;
what enormous crime had they committed to offend the lawgivers
and to bring on such a terrible punishment?11
Now it seems that the Indigenous performance I observed is only one
among a number of similar practices that involve Indigenous
pragmatics. Let’s consider for instance the selling and buying of
boomerangs, didgeridoos, and other Indigenous artifacts at
Harbourside; the Indigenous art market that is scattered all over the
Rocks; or even an educational or recreational visit to the Yiribana
Gallery at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In other words, the
performance I observed reflects and conveys the commodification of
Indigeneity in Australia.12 As such it is not just normal to come across,
but also symptomatic of the post/colonial mentality of appropriating
Indigenous memories, signs, and cultural capitals in order to
construct as comprehensive13 a national ideoscape as possible.14
After all, it is only through such an ideoscape that a particular locality
can be accommodated within the frame of a global (imaginary)
At the same time, however, this ideoscape stands in disjuncture with
a corollary financescape. More specifically, the Indigenous
Australian quartet observed was not some group of professional
performers, but a typical example of the socially and economically
marginalized population that has to survive, even if that entails the
commodification of their heritage or identity. On the other hand, the
infatuated crowd/audience consisted of ordinary consumers who
11 Mudrooroo: in C Johnson: Long Live Sandawara, Melbourne, 1987, 69-70.
12 For a pertinent discussion of the wider context of this phenomenon, see for example
T Smith: Transformations in Australian Art: The Twentieth Century – Modernism and
Aboriginality, Vol 2, 2002, Sydney, 144-67.
13 For the White appropriation of Indigenous Australian cultural capitals, see S Cramer:
editor, Postmodernism, A Consideration of the Appropriation of Aboriginal Imagery,
Brisbane, 1989; R Butler: editor, What is Appropriation? An Anthology of Critical
Writings on Australian Art in the ’80s and ’90s, Brisbane and Sydney, 1996.
14 For the notion of ideoscape, as well as mediascape, ethnoscape, finanscape, and
disjuncture used in my analysis, see A Appadurai, ‘Disjuncture and difference in the
global cultural economy’ in M Featherstone, op cit, 295-310.
Buddha of Suburbia
execute their choice or freedom to spend money in order to achieve a
sense of subjective/ideological expansion. In other words, performing
a corroboree enables the former to survive and the latter to enjoy a
spectacle15 or a ‘good life.’16 But in this way it seems that the memory
of a certain locality (Indigeneity) becomes the locus of an aspired
globality (multiculturalism).
If the performance I observed is located or, better, dislocated within
an intertextuality of compatible phenomena, we have to bear in mind
that it also belongs to a specific contextuality. In particular, the latter
is the transactive complexity and idiosyncracy of what has been
dubbed the ‘world city.’ More than ten years ago, Ulf Hannerz may
have had some reservations about counting Sydney among the truly
‘world cities’ of the global condition,17 but now days I think that if there
is a truly world/global city, it is undoubtedly Sydney. As such, one
could say that Sydney has emerged as a field of deterritorialization
and dislocation for a significant part of its population. Thousands of
inhabitants who have come and are still coming from elsewhere carry
with them their spatial and temporal otherness, and strive to
reproduce their cultural selves in a new space and time. In this
respect, the Indigenous Australians playing music, dancing, and
selling their homemade CDs to a group of familiar strangers are, in a
sense, completely out of place and time. For what is the otherworldly
sound of the didgeridoo, the painted naked bodies, or the dancing
steps of the ‘ancestors’ doing on a wharf next to ferries and yachts,
and in the midst of the flashing cameras of tourists?
On the other hand, this group of Indigenous performers fits
completely in space and time. If Indigenous Australians are going to
be somewhere, where else could that be but in Circular Quay? And if
the ethnoscape of Australia is going to claim some kind of
distinctiveness, how is this to be justified without an imagined
Indigenous referent? I think that the artist who has, in the most
poignant and at the same time ambiguous way, addressed the issues
that these questions presuppose and entail is Trevor Nickolls. His
‘Dreamtime – Machinetime’ artistic resolution has achieved the
15 For the notion of spectacle, see G Debord: The Society of the Spectacle, Detroit,
16 Here we draw on U Hannerz: ‘The cultural role of the world cities’ in A Cohen and K
Fukui, editors, Humanising the City?, Edinburgh, 1993.
17 Ibid, 128.
Dancing up Circular Quay
unachievable; the discharging of the dreaming from all its ‘natural’
signifiers and its recharging with all sorts of ‘cultured’
symbolizations.18 In other words, he has managed to render the
Indigenous Australian Sacred meaningful within an urban condition of
experience by embodying the invisibility of the dreaming in
(post)modern life-forms. What I want to say is that a group of
Indigenous youths performing a corroboree in downtown Sydney
would be for him a first-class occasion for re-imagining the
significance of the dreaming.
Returning now to my questions, I would dare say that the issues of
being Indigenous and being a non-Indigenous audience cannot be
treated separately. Within the (post)modern global mediascape, to be
Indigenous is to be acknowledged as such by an audience of
difference; to be mediated as a spectacle. But is this meaningful? To
be sure, it did seem to have a meaning for both the Indigenous
Australian group and their audience: at least for a moment. Moreover,
it could be argued that it is meaningful to the extent that a relative
locality and a relative globality are interdependent and intertwined.
Perhaps this is not yet a fullness of meaning, but that does not make
it meaningless or less of a challenge for the pursuit of a deeper, more
pervasive and more persistent meaning. Besides, regardless of the
exoticness of an Indigenous performance taking place next to the
wharves of Circular Quay, it is not about something that confronts us
as a shock. Quite the opposite! It is one with the hybrid culture in
which we are gradually learning to live and navigate our lives.
Hybridization19 after all seems a viable alternative when you have to
reconcile the universal and the particular, the global and the local and
the national and the Indigenous. In other words, we might be
witnessing a fin de siecle, but then we just have to take the risk and
enter a new age; an age where everyone and everything is part of
everyone and everything.
18 See ‘1990 Venice Biennale Australia, Artists: Rover Thomas – Trevor Nickolls,’ Art
Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 1990, 30-54.
19 For the theoretical debate on hybridization, see R C Young: Colonial Desire:
Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, New York, 1995; P Werbner and M Tariq,
editors: Debating Cultural Hybridity, London, 1997; S Whatmore: Hybrid Geographies:
Natures, Cultures, Spaces, London, 2002; J Nederveen Pieterse: Globalization and
Culture: Global Mélange, Lanham, Maryland, 2004. For an interesting discussion of
hybridization in relation to the Australian experience, see I Ang: On Not Speaking
Chinese: Living between Asia and the West, London and New York, 2001, 163-201.
Buddha of Suburbia
I know, it might seem crude to compare Napangardi’s paintings and
the artistic quality of the yawulyu with the Circular Quay corroboree,
but if I could not resist such a comparison, I would say that the former
suffers from an imposed ‘high culture’ labeling, while the latter thrives
through an exposed ‘popular culture’ liveliness. If one could detect a
problem here, Napangardi and yawulyu are not to be blamed;
Napangardi performs her dreaming subjectivity creatively in her own
country and the yawulyu have a fundamental bearing within their
Warlpiri context. Rather the problem lies in painting etiquette and art
conventions: put simply, in our museum culture. In its popularity,
however, the Circular Quay corroboree manages to be positioned
within the spontaneity, challenge and experimentation of everyday
life; it stands or falls in the face of the global/local tension and the
dialectical paradoxes of intercultural hybridity. Moreover, it suggests
that if we are to experience Indigeneity we will have to look for it in
our local bushes and deserts or even allow it to prove itself within our
‘world cities.’