POPSART: Bec Mac chats to Merindah Donnelly: “Why should first people be first, when we consider the cultural future of Australia?”

Yirramboi First Nations Festival kicked off in Melbourne on the 5th of May for 10 days bringing with it a city wide ‘blakout’ of more than 60 events, including dance, music, visual art, film and discussions in laneways, art spaces and public places.

As part of the program the “The National Indigenous Dance Forum” was held with over 200 black dance practitioners attending to discuss current situation affecting Indigenous dance practice within communities in Australia.

I caught up with incredibly articulate, passionate Merindah Donnelly, Executive Producer of BlakDance at the Arts Front “First People’s Planning Workshop”, which she was presenting at, along with other esteemed Indigenous leaders such as Lydia Miller, Executive Director, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Art, Australia Council for the Arts, and Nancy Bamaga.

In my interview featured here, Donnelly shared her experience of the National Indigenous Dance Forum, Yirramboi Festival and her insights into “Why should first people be first when we consider the cultural future of Australia?”

I could feel the energy emanating from Donnelly as she shared with me what a very visceral powerful experience the “Closed” opening ceremony for The National Indigenous Dance Forum was. With only Indigenous people in the room, the usual presenter landscape of indigenous people performing culture and ceremony for an audience shifted to performing ceremony on country, a completely different and very special experience.

It became clear over the 3-day conference that the needs and wants of the indigenous dance community were very diverse. With the main priorities emerging as International and Intercultural collaborations and exchange, culture and dance as medicine and healing, protocol frameworks and education.

Donnelly’s response to the question “Why should first people be first when we discuss the cultural future of Australia?” was “If we don’t put first nations people first it’s continuing colonisation and cultural genocide and Australia will continue to perpetuate the lie that was Terra nulls”. She referred to the “cognitive disassociation” of some mainstream Australians who know the history of this country but refuse to address and acknowledge it.

When asked what her dream future would look like she wanted coexistence in which “indigenous people have the right to participate, maintain, preserve, conserve our culture our artistic expression as well as participate, preserve, conserve our artistic expression within the colonial construct that was imposed on us.”

She wants this coexistence to be visible “So we can clearly see that there are an indigenous arts and culture industry and there are an Australian art and culture industry that clearly centres Indigenous people.” Most importantly this co-existence is what Australians want because they see the value in it.

HEAD HERE for more details on the Yirramboi First Nations Festival