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Marrugeku at the ORIGINS Festival

Dalisa Pigram in GUDIRR GUDIRR (ORIGINS 2013)
by Prof. Helen Gilbert

Very few of the international events in which Marrugeku participates have a dedicated interest in Indigenous arts, but when they do, opportunities for different kinds of cosmopolitan encounters are brought into play. I witnessed some of these first-hand in 2013 when the company toured to Britain for the first time to stage GUDIRR GUDIRR at the ORIGINS Festival in London, a biennial celebration of the world's First Nations. Organised by intercultural arts company Border Crossings, in dialogue with Indigenous advisors, this two-week gathering typically features theatre, music, mixed-media installations and film at selected venues across the city, together with talkback panels, workshops and discussion forums. The festival opens and closes with ceremonies (often led by London's sizeable diaspora of Māori and Pacific peoples) that anchor the event in time and place, paying due regard to the politics of its location in the erstwhile centre of British imperialism. With this approach to programming, ORIGINS provides formal and informal platforms for nation-to-nation congress among Indigenous participants as a crucial part of its "festival fare".  Such congress can lead on to powerful interventions in normal festival dynamics by shifting the focus away from individual products that need to be explained across cultural borders, and towards actions that foster robust international circuits of artistic production and experiment.

In the festival's 2013 edition, live performances included a political drama by Tlingit playwright Diane Benson (Alaska), concerts by Navajo-Māori duo Indigie-Femme and a number of offerings from Australia, among them a lecture-demonstration by Yorta Yorta opera singer Debra Cheetham, a stirring keynote by Badtjala visual artists Fiona Foley, and Big hArt's show NAMATJIRA, honouring the life and legacy of the famous Arrernte painter.  Many festival goers also participated in Day of the Dead commemorations hosted by the local Maya and Nahua migrant communities and a guided walking tour highlighting the hidden heritage of London's Indigenous denizens, past and present. For its part, GUDIRR GUDIRR played at the city's premier contemporary dance venue, The Place, in repertoire with another solo work: COPPER PROMISES: HINEMIHI HAKA by Victoria Hunt, which traces the Sydney-based artist's long journey to connect with her Māori heritage. Both shows received standing ovations along with highly appreciative feedback, and seemed to me to activate in their audiences something akin to the "constellations of co-resistance" that Leanne Simpson advocates.  Each artist also contributed to ECOCENTRIX: INDIGENOUS ARTS, SUSTAINABLE ACTS, an exhibition which I curated in conjunction with the festival to explore how the ephemeral moment of performance can endure across cultures and time. Hunt staged a live art piece called DAY OF INVIGILATION, while Pigram presented a rendition of "Lingo story" from GUDIRR GUDIRR to mark the event's opening. An installation of Marrugeku's earlier work, in the form of costumes and visual materials from MIMI, CRYING BABY and BURU, featured elsewhere in the exhibition, among dozens of offerings from Indigenous performance-makers in Australia, the Pacific, South African and the Americas.  In this context, the touring stilt figures and other material remains of the company's shows took on a different kind of theatrical life, as staged in the presence of "fellow" exhibits and in dialogue with the play of light, shadow  and sound in the historic warehouse building.  Visitors praised the quality, complexity and political bent of the exhibition and one summed up the overall effect in precisely the terms we would have wished: "Globalisation gripped by the Indigenous dispossessed!"

As part of their participation in the ORIGINS Festival, Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain spent many hours with Indigenous performance-makers from around the world, watching their shows and sharing their insights.  I see these interactions not just as networking in the conventional sense, but also as helping to fashion a trans-Indigenous public sphere that potentially circumvents mainstream cultural hierarchies.....    The task of diplomacy is to excite the public imagination. Marrugeku tends to do this ways that are less deconstructive than reconstructive. By this, I mean that the work of dismantling colonial stereotypes, important though it is, constitutes just one part of the company's decolonising art, as this brief account of GUDIRR GUDIRR's international journey shows. Simultaneously forging both new intercultural connections and cosmopolitan spaces of solidarity within, beyond and around the fleeting moment of performance has proven equally critical to the company's project of Indigenous cultural rebuilding and empowerment. No doubt this is "soft" power at work, but its accumulation across many projects, across time and across place is a form of diplomacy that may eventually make a difference.  

(Extract from Gilbert, Helen; Pigram, Dalisa & Swain, Rachael (eds): MARRUGEKU - TELLING THAT STORY. Aberystwyth, Performance Research Books 2021.  Reproduced by kind permission of the author)