Ngapartji Ngapartji: wangkiny, inma, ninti: using performance to

‘Kura, yeye borda, bulla gnulla boodjar, moort, karla’:
yesterday, today and in the future our country, family
and home fires burn deep.
A paper prepared by:
Dave Palmer with Geri Hayden and Pilar Kisat
Murdoch University and Community Arts Network of WA
March 2011
Introductions and recognition of country
Geri: Koor, koora.
Nidja Nyoongah mai.
Ngaardanginy boodja
Boorda nidja
Kalyakoorl mia ngaardanginy boodja.
Long time ago
This was Nyoongah homelands and hunting grounds
And long into the future
This will always be
Nyoongah home and hunting grounds
Kaya, wandjoo. Nyung Geri. Noonook Dave. Baal Pilar.
Hello and welcome. Geri Hayden, Dave Palmer and Pilar Kisat have written this paper. Geri is a
Noongar yorga (a Noongar woman) and my father and mother’s clans are Ballardon/Wilman. She
is the Coordinator of CANWA’s Southern Wheatbelt Project. Dave Palmer was raised in Kaurna
country on the Adelaide Plain to British parents and teaches in the Community Development
Programme at Murdoch University in Perth. Pilar Kisat grew up in Chile and is the General
Manager of CANWA.
In this paper we want to tell a story about an arts-based project that has recently started in the
Wheatbelt region of WA. The project is being hosted by the Community Arts Network WA
(CANWA), a not-for-profit organisation that sets out to help build health and community wellbeing
by using arts, performance, photography and cultural development. CANWA’s work is premised
upon the need to involve local people in processes that track the past, understand and critique
the present and use their imagination to consider how things can be different in the future. They
host projects that both use the arts as a way to invigorate community and community involvement
to invigorate the arts.
Projects within the project
Four years ago CANWA began an important project in the Eastern Wheatbelt region. They
started by carrying out arts-based workshops with Noongar and other Aboriginal people living in
towns like Kellerberrin. These workshops led to a range of larger productions and community
celebrations. It helped create beautiful photographic books, films, starting up an annual ‘Keela
Dreaming’ community celebration. It also produced some wonderful oral histories and radio
shows. Perhaps more importantly, it helped support the leadership of the area, create jobs in the
arts for local people, bring the community together and give people a sense of hope and
Out of this project came a request for CANWA to stretch its involvement into some of the towns in
the Southern Wheatbelt. Early in 2010 CANWA set out on what its hopes will be a three-year
project with people from the Southern Wheatbelt communities of Narrogin, Pingelly, Brookton and
Wagin. This work has become known as the ‘Strong Culture, Strong Community in the Southern
Wheatbelt’ project.
The project followed requests from Noongar in the wider region to extend CANWA’s work in the
Eastern Wheatbelt. In particular, it has been shaped by the community distress experienced in
Narrogin as a result of multiple youth suicides, very public and long-term family feuding and the
lack of economic and employment opportunities in the region.
One local person describes the genesis of the project in this way:
A year before CANWA started work I attended a meeting in Perth to talk about what
people called the ‘Narrogin troubles’. We sat around the table with a lot of managers and
funding bodies. Myself and two or three other Noongar were there. People talked about
the family feuding in town and painted a pretty awful picture. I was waiting for people to
tell us what they could offer or what they were going to do to support things in Narrogin.
Not one of them actually stepped up to the plate. This was early 2009 and nobody
wanted to touch it. I got really disheartened, was feeling really disappointed.
People were still crying out for help in 2009 when CANWA stepped in to get involved.
They had the two trainees and then had FTI filmmaking and photography classes going
on. The photography workshops had people from the two main family sides involved
working on the project together. It was the main stayers on both sides. They were distant
from each other but the fact that they were there on the same project together is a
powerful sign that something important is happening. Even when they started others
were criticising. The police were even skeptical. They didn’t want us to have events
because they were frightened that this was going to cause a big brawl.
During the first year of this work, string of art projects were used as a way of engaging, healing
and creating ‘common ground’ between local people. Photography workshops were run in
Brookton, Pingelly, Narrogin and Wagin with nearly 100 people learning the technical and artistic
aspects of digital photography, including the elements of design, composition and ways to use
light. This gave people the chance to work on their artistic ability with others from their town.
People used digital cameras to experiment with new ways of thinking about their connection to
important local places, relationships with others and their experience of ‘belonging'. The work was
showcased in local exhibitions and then in a beautiful book. In this way it helped bring out
people's sense of pride, confidence and nourished hope and an imagination about what is
This was followed by filmmaking workshops with 26 people working with professional filmmakers
from the Film and Television Institute (FTI). Over a series of sessions people learned a range of
aspects of film production including concept development, story boarding, script writing, acting,
filming, lighting, sound and editing. Each community produced a 10-minute film, capturing,
celebrating and sharing local Noongar stories. A DVD of the three short films made in Narrogin,
Brookton and Wagin was produced and is included as part of the Voices of the Wheatbelt
One of the films had young people and elders going out to old local places of importance to many
Noongar, many of whom were raised on a local reserve. Students interviewed elders who used
the exercise to pass on their stories. At Wagin students interviewed a local woman who was one
of the ‘stolen generation’ children taken to Carrolyup Mission. They also went to Brookton to
interview one senior man, capturing his story about the importance of football, growing up as a
Noongar and working for the local farmers.
In addition, hip hop workshops ran over 10 days in the April school holidays and culminated with
a disco in the town centre. This was undertaken in conjunction with a Perth-based youth arts
company and hosted by a popular hip-hop musician and artist (Scott Griffiths aka MC Optamus
from Downsyde). Each workshop attracted 20 to 40 young people. Out of it came the formation of
Narrogin hip-hop collective called ‘New Balance’. The group wrote the lyrics and worked with
Scott to perform and produce a song and film clip, a debut single called ‘Come Along’. During
May and June CANWA worked with people from the ‘Drumbeats program’ to offer workshops in
the Narrogin Senior High School. The 8-week program involved 24 students participating in
workshops combining learning of rhythmic and percussive skills with personal and social
development sessions. Recently this project has been extended to include young people from
four regional high schools in the production of music video clips. The ‘Wheat Beats’ booklet, DVD
and CD has just been launched, celebrating the songwriting, recording and performance skills of
young people between 11 and 15.
Also during May and June 2010 public artist Jahne Rees worked with CANWA staff member and
Noongar man Ross Storey and 15 young men ranging from 14 to 22 years old on a public art
project. Together the team built and installed three seats in a local park. They worked through all
aspects of production, including creating artwork designs on each seat depicting the six Noongar
seasons. They made the concrete, poured the moulds, applied necessary sealers and finally
installed the completed seats in various locations along the Aboriginal walk trail in Gnarojin Park.
Jahne, Ross and students from Narrogin Senior High School and TAFE built these beautiful
boomerang shaped seats. Other community members came down and helped them. Koorlangka
(children) from the local ‘Best Start Program’ (children) got involved with their parents, painting
their little prints on the seats.
Another project involved the production of a sound-scape featuring community stories of
reminiscence and recollection, pain, distress and conflict and healing. The ‘Narrogin Stories’
piece was directed by Catherine Simmonds of Brunswick Women’s Theatre. She worked closely
with the community for five weeks, recording a beautiful soundscape with visual images. This
piece featured the moving voices of community with accounts of their collective struggles and
hopes and aspirations for the future. ‘Narrogin Stories’ was presented to an enraptured audience
at the official launch of the project in June. Since then CANWA has produced a DVD disc of the
soundscape and the New Balance ‘Come Along’ video clip and held another event to offer it as
another gift to members of the community.
In this way a variety of arts projects were used to involve many different age groups in the
community. Grannies (grandchildren) and the ‘old people’ (seniors) worked together to pass on
skills and knowledge about culture. Literally and symbolically ‘concrete’ things have been built for
the community, put together as signposts for Noongar culture, Noongar family and Noongar use
of country. These projects have allowed people to quietly and slowly work together on music,
stories, dance, film and performance. This has happened in a safe and comfortable way, often
bringing together people who have been in considerable conflict, frequently encouraging senior
people to ‘hold’ and pass on their knowledge of language and culture. It has also given people a
chance to speak about the past, the things that have been lost by local people while also moving
on to talk about overcoming the feuding and combating the poor picture of Narrogin that has been
created in the minds of outsiders.
The launch of the project was possibly the most successful in this regard. Comic and musical
performer ‘Mary G’ took on the role of moorditch (solid) MC. The event also included
performances by local youth hip-hop collective ‘New Balance’ and traditional dance by Olman
and John Walley. The ‘Narrogin Stories’ soundscape was screened and everyone attending was
given a gift of a beautiful book, a photographic collection of the work produced by community
participants called ‘Voices of the Wheatbelt: Our Place, our Stories photographic book’. This
included a DVD of early film work.
Over 200 people from the community turned up in droves, ending up being pretty squashed in a
local hall. People described the event as “really exciting and moving”. One local Noongar yorga
(woman) noted that ‘during the evening number of people were moved to tears by the various
performances’. Another said, “we were overwhelmed with Mary G’s entertainment and it was a
night of happiness, caring and sharing.”
Making a difference
As well as producing stunning arts and performance work there are good early signs that the
project is starting to have important social consequences. Community feedback in this regard has
been very positive. Local people have made it clear they really love coming together, celebrating
their strengths, enjoying each other’s company, seeing their ‘grannies’ (children and young
people) get involved, produce things of consequence and laugh together. Examples of what
people have said include:
‘Beautiful! Really lovely and made a smile from everyone. It was the best thing out. We
want to meet more. Not just do it once, say meet like that every couple of months.’ Pop
Revel Kickett, Narrogin
‘I was proud to be part of this truly fantastic occasion. Stay strong and proud my people
and stand together as one. Thanks to all the organisers.’ Charlie Hayden, Brookton.
‘Congratulations to Geri, Sonia, Ross and all the team at CAN WA. Really enjoyed the
night. Just the beginning we hope.’ Priscilla Kickett, Narrogin.
‘This was a fantastic event and hope there’s more to come. Privilege to perform here.’ John
Walley, Perth.
‘It was a very pleasant evening. I enjoyed every minute and I can’t wait till we come back
again.’ Olman Walley, Perth.
‘Excellent. Well done by everybody.’ Nan Merle Mead, Wagin.
‘Thanks for an excellent night on behalf of the Narrogin Police.’ Sgt. Mick Williams,
‘Awesome night. Narrogin is worth the effort.’ Emma Needs, Narrogin.
‘Great effort. Great project. Great future together.’ Anonymous
‘Kaya! Moorditch! Fantastic job you fellas.’ Anonymous
“The strong part was the coming together, all coming together. People talking the Noongar
way. Seeing how the elders were … it just touched their heart to see everyone together like
that.’ Ross Storey, Narrogin.
‘This is how it should be, this is how it always should be.’ Aunty Janet Hayden, Brookton.
The level of involvement of local people has also been impressive. At the very least this stands
as evidence that they are exercising trust in each other. It is elementary community development
practice that people need to develop trust before they will start to think about change (see
Tesoriero 2010, Kenny 2010). In this way the project work has assisted ‘bringing people to the
table’, involving them in conversations and relationships in preparation for future undertakings.
CANWA’s influence has been in getting people to do things together, getting them to talk, having
them share food, good times and enjoying company across generations. The project has helped
bring together families that have had a history of feuding. It has brought together kids, elders,
young people and middle-aged men and women.
For example, on the evening of the project launch two hundred and twenty or thirty people
attended. This represents a large proportion of the town’s Noongar community. This was
particularly impressive given that he night of the launch was the coldest evening for the whole of
winter. More recently CANWA hosted an event to give back to the community a CD of the sound
installation and the hip-hop group’s song. Over a hundred people came along to this event. This
is a strong sign that people are keen to deal with problems in a town where people have been
very publicly fighting.
Another consequence of the work is that people have asking CANWA to respond back to the
community. Since the launch people have started to come up with ideas of what they want to do
next. They asked to bring back Jahne Rees to do some work around the local creek. They have
asked CANWA to help make possible a return to the community artist and doll maker Nelda
Searers. Nelda worked with women many years ago to generate a wonderfully rich movement of
doll-makers. Senior people are asking CANWA workers, ‘so what are we doing next, what’s
happening, what can we do now?’ This has allowed work to continue with young people through
traditional and contemporary dance and rap, and more screenings of films produced in Wagin,
Narrogin and Brookton.
Also important has been the trust that has been created between CANWA, outside artists,
different families and a number of other organisations who have started to join in. Trust is an
important currency. People have demonstrated trust through the act of continuing to come along.
For example, there were four young men who started with the seat-making project. They then
threw their support behind the launch by helping with planning, chasing around for wood, fires,
kangaroo and tools and doing the hard labour and behind the scenes work on the night. They
helped plan the event where CDs were given to the community. They are now back and working
on the next stage of the creek restoration project.
Another important consequence of the work has been that local Noongar have been employed.
Indeed, all three staff based in the region are Noongar. CANWA has also adopted the practice of
contracting a number of part-time Noongar artists and employing people for casual work to staff
events and workshops.
Ingredients for the success of the project
There are at least three conceptual ideas that Noongar have taught CANWA. These ideas have
been instrumental in the success of the project. The first is what Noongar call ‘moort’ or family
connections. The second is what they call ‘boodjar’ or country. The third is what they call ‘karla’ or
These three Noongar concepts are important to understand if organisations want to share with,
create lasting relationships and help make a difference with Noongar. They are important not just
because they offer important insights into culture and life but also because they are tied up with
how Noongar get things done.
 Moort: Using art to bring the community together.
As soon as people stepped into the hall on the night of the launch it was obvious that the event
was a family affair. Things were set out so that people could sit as families at large sets of tables.
In other settings, often the older people will sit up in the front tables, young families a little further
back and young people hang right in the back where they can get out easy. In this case people
sat in family groups, with ‘grannies’ sitting on the laps of their pops and nannas and young people
mixing it up with others in their families (see Foster 2007 and Haebich 1988).
The event started when Mary G. was introduced. Soon after she invited a number of senior
people to welcome those present. Geri’s mum, Aunty Janet Hayden, gave a moving address.
Ross, one of the local CANWA workers explained her address in this way:
She is an elder and she welcomed us with such feeling. It touched her heart to see
everyone together like that, all together. She remembers Narrogin when she was growing
up; the old people loved one another and looked after one another. It was good. It was
happy times. And when she got up and started talking she became very emotional. I think it
took her back because everyone was together again. She said, ‘we lost a lot of Aboriginal
people; we haven’t got many elders, only a few. As time goes on the younger generation
gotta listen and respect.
She then started to speak in language. When old people get really emotional, they start
speaking language. Language is the way ancestors come through and speak to us. When
they start speaking language, the old people, the old spirits are right there and they are
speaking that language for them. That’s why they get emotional. They remember the old
people, when the old people spoke in their language.’ (Ross Storey June 2010)
And it reminded her of how in the old days Noongar would gather as families; gather in a way that
brought warmth, both physically and spiritually. As Uncle Revel Kickett said:
Once they got seated down in the middle of that hall they got real warm … inside them.
This is how it always used to be. Old Aborigines never went so far away from one another,
they stayed together. Its true unna. They always used to be close together around the
campfire, in little shelters and lots of people in houses (Uncle Revel Kickett).
From this point it became a more intimate event. The venue became both symbolically and
literally warmer. There were ‘old people’, lots of kids, families sitting together, a venue that had
been transformed with the work of the artists to evoke warmth and there were fires burning hot
Mary G’s sensibility and style helped people feel right at home. Her use of humour and a
smattering of Noongar language had families wailing in laughter at their tables. She encouraged
the customary Noongar joking and teasing between the generations, helping people let their
guard down and relax in each other’s company. Mr Kickett captured this well: “first when she
started they didn’t know whether to laugh or not. Then Mary G. got them all laughing and
softened them up.”
She also used Noongar humour about relationships, love and intimacy, having people in stiches
using the shared sense of intimacy and jocularity to cleverly introduce important people. She said
things like, “where dat luvly Mr Revel Kickett ere? Oh dere he is, he so luvly, I wan him to be my
mans … no don’t youse Noongar yorgas be jealousing up. I’m not gonna steal your mans …”
Uncle Revel Kickett captured this clever use of Noongar humour to bring different generations
into each other’s company.
What’s his name, what’s her name? Mary G. When she said that the womans were all
jealous, the kids … they all teasing me around town. They was saying, “oh you got a
girlfriend now.” But that is coming good because it get all the kids in, instead of them
swearing and carrying on, they having fun with me (Uncle Revel Kickett).
Boodjar: The importance of country
Boodjar or country is of central importance to the lives of Noongar. Indeed, as Len Collard (2007)
says, Noongar cosmology is related to their boodjar or country.
Pop was always keen to share his stories … He would explain in Noongar and English,
and sometimes somewhere in between, the Noongar term for land or country, saying that
the boodjar is the ground, earth, sand, dirt. He went on to tell me many times about our
moort, which, he explained means families, extended family, or kinship (Collard 2007, p.
Boodjar is important to Noongar because it is a means through which human relationships can be
connected, the past, present and future can be sustained and people’s physical environment or
land can be managed and handed on.
In times past and arguably still today, Noongar had systems of putting people into groups.
Anthropologists call them skin groups or classificatory systems. Everyone was born into one of
these groups. What you could do, who you could relate to, where you could go, was all set out
according to what group you were in. This extended to everything, not just humans. The rocks
and trees, the animals the plants and flowers all have a skin group. This means that boodjar or
country is part of moort or family. Both are living. The koorlya or frogs, the kulbardi or magpies,
the beeliar or waterways, even the boya or stones are related to people in the same way one’s
nephews and nieces are related. Noongar are taught to protect their land, to live off the land as a
life force and food source. Responsibility to boodjar is, in part, motivated because for Noongar
country is a relation, a living and intimately connected being.
One way of thinking about the Narrogin creek area (the centre of much of the project work) is to
see it as mother for the community. To look after this area, to build projects that clean it up, bring
its stories out and encourage people to go and sit and walk around is the same as going to your
mother’s place, helping tidy things up, looking after her and keeping her healthy. This is why the
‘old people’ say that looking after country is also keeping themselves and their family healthy (see
Marshall, 2001, Palmer 2010, Palmer and Collard 2006, Palmer 2006, Walsh and Mitchell 2002,
Trudgen 2000). This is why when Noongar ‘old people’ get sick they like to go back to country. It
is also why t is so important to take their ‘grannies’ (grandchildren) with them. Boodjar then is
“medicine for the community.”
For Noongar the Narrogin Creek and its water has been important for many reasons. It has been
and is the symbol of life and sustenance. It has long been a source of food. It is also a source of
creation, providing a living reminder of the presence of the old Waugal, the creation spirit of this
country. The Waugal made this creek and the waterways. This area is where many of the main
rivers in the southwest start. It has many birthing places around it too. Our Noongar old people
lived along that creek and that creek nourished them. There are important men’s places around,
there is a corroboree ground, a women’s place and an important story for the creek. The local
Noongar organisation, Kooraming, sits on one side of the creek.
The creek has been neglected for generations and it has got sick. As has been mentioned, the
connection between health, family and country stretches back generations. So when the creek
gets sick so do the community. On the other hand, if local people start to take care of the creek
and it gets healthy then they will get healthy as a community.
Ross, who is one of the CANWA workers, has been doing work around the creek for twenty or so
years. He is continuing this with creating artwork on three beautiful concrete seats and carefully
installing them in different parts of the creek area. This work is due to continue with a team of
young people restoring a set of totems built in the early 1990s, cleaning up introduced weeds and
extending a pathway into the area.
According to local people, boodjar is already responding. As Geri said, “the other day I had joy in
my heart. For the first time in 9 months I came across a boyee, a longneck tortoise, swimming in
the creek. I was so overwhelmed by this. To me it was a sign that we are doing a good thing for
this creek, we want it to be flowing so that our boodjar is healthy and our community are more
happy and work together.”
Karla: The place of fire
Karla or fire has also played an important part in the project. It has regularly featured in the
creative work including photography, film work, the soundscape, in dance and in many different
ways as part of the project launch event. It has been used to keep people warm, bring people
into the company of others and give people a sense of safety and comfort.
The important part fire and smoke plays in Noongar life was evident in a range of ways
throughout the project launch. The day of the launch was in the heart of winter. Narrogin, sitting
as it does in the beautiful forests of the Darling Ranges, was experiencing a record cold morning
The bush was ‘steaming off’ as the heat from the trees and the ground lifted off into the morning
air. This makes it look like the ‘breath’ of the country is rising from the earth’s lungs that sit
underneath. It looked like the breathing that people do on a cold, cold morning, pushing out a
sign of the life and the heat of the person as it hits the sharp and contrasting air. Uncle Revell
Kickett describes country’s response to the cold in this way, ‘see this is like the smoke coming out
from boodjar (country), letting you know that you are safe to travel through this place.”
This provided clear, strong start to the day; the soil and the living things in the bush floor were
giving off steam in a really strong and powerful way. The light was clear and gold, incredibly
beautiful, deep brown moss covered logs that were warming up the air. Steam was around the
base of the trees, the little green undercover plants. Shafts of light running through the trees
made the steam look more real and thick.
CANWA’s Noongar staff members had already gathered in the town park for an early morning
wangkiny (yarn) with a group of Noongar including a senior man and his artist son. They were
already talking about the important task of gathering wood to create fires for the evening event.
In the turf club hall (the venue for the launch) along the front stage area sat a little papersculptured tableaux of hills, warmly painted and cutely positioned to symbolise the way the town
is nestled in the ranges. The tableaux was painted in the colours of fire, colours of orange, red
and yellow. White paper lanterns, created in the simple shape of lovely little bungalow houses
were carefully positioned at the base of the hills, a road running through the midst of the town
landscape. Each lantern had a candle to light it from within.
As members of the community came into the hall to begin their preparations they were struck by
symbols of the heating and healing influences of boodjar. The light from the sun shot into the
room from the north so that as people walked they were met with the bright glow of the morning.
Rich orange, red and yellow light hit the tableaux to lift the spirit of the room, the colours of heat
reflecting throughout to make it look and feel warm.
The morning light also shone to make the little white homely paper lanterns more translucent.
This gave the appearance of energy emanating from within the houses, alive, light and shining. In
the room of the turf club there are floor to ceiling glass windows on the north facing side. The
room was arranged so that when guests arrived they would be facing this wall and look out
across the turf club, the trotting track and at angle to the hills. Those hills are echoed in the little
model. The real houses and hills sit out directly behind the scene constructed by artists and
Throughout the day fire and smoke shaped the way Noongar went about planning for the event.
There were relationship protocols to maintain. CANWA staff made sure family business was
looked after. During the day they brought people together, made sure elders were taken care of,
had rides and were introduced personally to key CANWA staff and production crew. Fire was
central to the way this cultural business was attended to. Fire was brought into the event, to
protect people, to make things safe, to be used for welcoming and to help people feel warm and
secure. Quietly and without much attention Uncle Revell and Ross, saw to it that fire was rallied.
He took on the role of a Director for Fire, giving instruction to his younger nephew, who organised
a trip out bush to collect the appropriate fuel, grass trees. In a way Ross acted as the Producer
and Stage Manager for Fire.
Revell had earlier arrived and stayed outside until the production meeting was called. As he stood
in the cold air and looked out towards the hills he described what needed to happen.
See out here, we gonna have all these fires. The boys and me are gonna go and get the
fire drums (specially made forty-four gallon drums used as a base for the fires) and we
gonna light fire all along here. I’m gonna be getting yonga or kangaroo and cooking
kangaroo for the thing tonight. We gotta keep that fire burning to keep wordarchie (bad
spirits) away. We gotta keep the bad ones away. Like we used to do in the old days. Yep
… we gotta get that smell of black boy (name for the local grasstree) going.
This helped create an atmosphere that was friendly, warm and safe. People could feel and smell
the burning fires. Although they were sitting inside, senior people, families and kids could all see
the glow of fires burning close-by outside, experiencing something evoking a sense of being
outside next to karla. There were all these elements together, making the evening a beautiful,
peaceful, warm, friendly place.
This was of great consequence to the ‘feel’ of the evening, helping create an environment
conducive to a positive and healthy ‘spirit’. Revell explain why this was necessary.
It was very important that the fires were lit to smoke all the bad spirits. There was nothing
like it. It just all came together. And the love of the people was beautiful. It was like the
warmth inside their homes. Even though it was a cold night it was very warm. It was warm
for all my family to be together around those fires.
As Sylvia Hallam said in her wonderful book about the importance of fire to Noongar, fire has
been “integral to long-established ritual and mythic as well as ecological patterns in the Southwest” (Hallam 1975, p. 113). Its use over the past few thousand years has helped shape the
ecology, land and land-use over the area we now know as the South West. Noongar life has
routinely drawn upon fire for sustenance, nourishment and healing. It has continued to be used
as a means of cooking and sustaining diet, a means for keeping warm, a tool for hunting, a
regenerative force for boodjar or country, a technology for ‘farming’ and ecological change, a
symbol of one rights and interests to certain areas, a way to keep children safe, critical in
religious and cultural practice, in artistic forms, and a way of maintaining a relationship with
people and country (see Southwest Aboriginal Land and Sea Council et al 2009, p. 41, 143).
So important is fire to Noongar that the word karla (fire) is often equated with one’s attachment to
country, place or land. To speak of karla is to talk of where the home fires burn and to signify
attachment, love and family (Hallam 1975, p. 112-113).
Fire has left us all with a legacy, much more so than we often imagine with our European
sensibilities driven by fear of its dangerous and destructive forces. As Hallam points out, nonNoongar too have gained much by the ritual use of fire. Fire practices have left us with much of
the ecology that is now amongst the country’s most productive. It had shaped “Australian life,
legend and land. We are ineluctably its heirs.” (Hallam 1975, p. 113).
The carefully selected beautiful balga (often known as ‘black boy’ plants) bushes were used to
inject powerful sparks of light and create a strong smell of the forest. There was a moment, just
after the fires were lit outside, that smoke started to fill the room and the smell of eucalypt burning
offering all present the healing sensation often associated with natural disinfectant and healing.
This is how it has always been for Noongar. It is around the fire and the smoke that they have
long carried out business. Over the centuries it is around these kinds of fires that Noongar meet
to catch up, carry out plans, pass on knowledge and look after each other. People have noticed
this for a long time. In the 1830s one Wedjela noticed that the main social activity for Noongar
was ‘conversation around their fires at night’ (South West Land and Sea Council et al 2009, p.
131). Sociologists have often noticed this connection between fire, food and fellowship when, for
example, people see in others ‘a warm person’ (in the sense of ‘sociable’). Here we are often
talking metaphorically. However, when we share food we have prepared then this is made literal
(cited in Sennett 2008 p. 129).
The importance of arts in helping connect moort, boodjar and karla
The use of arts and performance has been critical in both understanding these Noongar concepts
and opening up opportunities to draw them into the work (see Foster 2007, Haebich 1988,
Palmer and Sonn 2010, Palmer 2010). In large measure this is because art goes back a long way
for Noongar. When Geri was a young person the ‘old people’ would often make art in the sand to
help tell kids stories and pas son knowledge. Although many are now gone or hidden, in the past
old paintings were made in the hills around the southwest. Middar or dance was something that
happened every time ceremony time came. Noongar have never given up their love of singing.
Many still sing out to country to introduce themselves. They sing out to the ‘old people’ that have
passed on. They sing to teach grannies. They sing for fun and sing to heal. Many have been
singing in church too, keeping their spirituality maintained.
Art, dance and performance have continued too, shifting and reconfiguring with the influence of
new media and technology. Many ‘old people’ were taught to paint in the Carrolyup tradition. Men
and women have continued this distinctly southwestern style of painting. Some of the most
accomplished artists of the southwest have been strongly shaped by this style. Dancers (such as
Geri’s sons) have had dance passed on to them, traveling the world sharing middar. Noongar
also have had much influence on the stage and in film.
Anthropologist William Stanner observed that Aboriginal life is rich in ‘mobile-rhythmical’ and
artful practices, ceremonies, creative ways of settling grievances, acts that jollify humdrum and
humorous activities to “lift life, and to lift it zestfully and rewardingly” (Stanner 2009 p. 194). Long
has ritual, art and performance provided people with the means to transcend, ‘to make acts of
imagination so that one can stand ‘outside’ or ‘away from’ oneself, and turn the universe, oneself
and one’s fellows into objects of contemplation (Stanner 2009 p. 63).
Others, such as Magowan and Nuenfeldt point out that Indigenous performance has never been
merely for entertainment. Rather acts such as singing, dance, ceremony, painting and walking
get used to create connections between the living and the dead, establish social bonds, educate
young people and demarcate and consolidate kin and group boundaries (Magowan and
Nuenfeldt 2005 p. 1).
Talking about the way singing gets used to strength people’s connection to country amongst
Djangka’wo in Northern Australia Magowan (2005 p. 61) explains,
Singing over objects is a way of converging with the land and emplacing identities within it,
just as singing about the white clay on dancers’ faces and bodies is a means of emplacing
the signature of the country on their bodies … As they walk upon the land and leave their
footprints, the motion of their walking imprints the land with the rhythm of their singing, and
in its future invocation is the potential for the procreation of the land.
Similarly Yolngu performance poetics don’t simply act to entertain, or even create a historical
narrative to pass on to children. Rather dance and song are used to animate the past and bring it
into the world of the present. Evoking the old people (ancestors who dwell in country) through
song and dance allows a “metaphorical movement back and forth between ancestors as people
and people as ancestors” (Magowan 2005, p. 69).
The social consequences of this use of song, art and performance are well recognised. Play,
particularly where it involves movement and dance, teaches us how to be sociable. It channels
cognitive development in ways that establishes the importance of rules at the same time as
allowing people to be creative and experiment (Sennett 2008 p. 269). Regular exposure to music,
and especially active participation in music, stimulates development of many different areas of
the brain – areas that have to work together to listen to or perform music (Sennett 2008 p. 269).
Learning to play music excites cognitive function. Likewise drawing stimulates the visual cortex.
The emotions experienced in playing, drawing and listening to music are associated with activity
in specific regions in the brain. As Sennett (2008, p. 274) puts it, “the more neuronal stimulation,
transmission, and feedback occurs throughout the global geography of the brain, the more we
think and feel.”
Oliver Sacks (2008) reminds us that listening to and playing music does not just stimulate our
brains auditory and emotional functions, it helps make our motor functions work as well. Citing
Nietzsche (Sacks 2008 p. xii) he writes that ‘we listen to music with our muscles’. This becomes
even more active when we dance, sing and perform.
The therapeutic benefits of music are also well documented. Musicologist William James wrote
about human’s ‘susceptibility to music’, and notes that music affect us in a multitude of ways,
calming us, animating us, comforting us, thrilling us, and organise and synchronise us at work
and in education. As a consequence it can be an especially powerful and great therapeutic tool
for people with a variety of neurological conditions (Sacks 2008, p. xiii).
Music and dance have many educational benefits too. Wong showed that bodily engagement
with music where it ‘resonates through their vocal chords’, helps students to integrate and
assimilate otherwise disparate fields of study, find points of connection between the arts and
sciences and make creative turns necessary for problem solving (Mackinlay 2005, p. 127).
Catherine Ellis through her work in the 1980s with CASM (Centre for Aboriginal Sound and
Music) found music very useful in bridging cultural differences between Aboriginal and nonAboriginal Australians. She found that sharing music encouraged “free movement from one
culture to another; to understand the music of other groups; and to appreciate and re-evaluate
the music of one’s own culture in the light of direct musical experience in another person’s
culture. Aboriginal students could shift from silence to voice by becoming musically literate” (cited
in Mackinlay 2005, p. 127).
The arts have also long been used as a powerful means of bringing people together. In part this
is because many of the practices used in performance are also practices we use in our daily
lives. In Renaissance Europe it was widely accepted was that the social world was much like a
great theatre, what in Latin was described as a theatrum mundi. In William Shakespeare’s (15641616) well cited play, As You Like It, the character Jacques puts it this way: “All the world’s a
stage; And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and entrances; And one
man in his time plays many parts. … Everyday life was theatrical” (cited in Schechner 2002 p. 8).
Sociologists, such as Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), have long noted that rituals, performances,
music and cultural practices create and sustain the social. They help people make themselves,
create relationships, build social structures and maintain ‘social solidarity’ (Schechner 2002 p.
50). This is because the playfulness needed in arts practice “gives people a chance to
temporarily experience the taboo, the excessive and the risky … Ritual and play both lead people
into a ‘second reality’ separate from ordinary life. This reality is one where people can become
selves other than their daily selves. When they temporarily become or enact another, people
perform actions different from what they ordinarily.” Thus, ritual and play transform people and
their social worlds (Schechner 2002 p. 45).
Children, young people and their families of Narrogin have thrown themselves into the arts-based
projects hosted by CANWA from the moment workshops were offered. People have been keen to
see their family performing, making music and producing film, photographs and art work. This
they have been able to do at public events, in books, in CDs and on film. They wanted to see the
project shape work that was celebrated and launched. They wanted to see Narrogin and they
wanted to see children develop hope. People wanted to see their grannies (grandchildren)
perform the hip-hop, dance some of the old dances and sing new songs. They were keen to see
country in films, films that involved young people getting the old people to talk to them about
Kura, yeye and boorda (the past, the present and looking forward to the future).
One could say that this work (the dance, singing, film and photography) is acting like tinder that is
helping spark the karla (home fires), so moort (family) can sit down together and regenerate
boodjar (country).
People are still talking and laughing about the launch. It really brought people together. Nine
months on there are other projects that are starting to happen in town, not CANWA projects.
Sport and Recreation events are now being offered. There are a lot of kids going to them.
Families and mothers and carers are coming. Basketball is back in town. Noongar people are
involved in these committees. The young kids are starting to come together. When you see the
young people and you are talking to them and the eyes are lighting up. This is the excitement that
is happening.
This doesn’t mean that everything is fixed up and right in every way. There is still trouble between
some people. Some of the fighting is happening again. People are coming in from out of town
and starting things between the families. However, what is different now is that some local people
are busy with work to clean up country, get the stories out there again and bring back the spark to
the ‘old people’.
Recently Geri was talking to one of her ‘old people’ in town. She said, ‘hullo my girl, I heard you
doing something down at the creek. What you fellas doing is bringing heart back into Noongar
families.’ Geri said, “them old Noongars doing something, the home fires are back burning.’
Community Arts Network WA (CANWA) is a not-for-profit organisation setting out to support
communities by using arts, performance, photography and cultural development to help build
health and community wellbeing.
CANWA’s work is premised upon the need to involve local people in processes that help them
track the past, understand and critique the present and use their imagination to consider how
things can be different in the future. It encourages projects that both use the arts as a way to
invigorate community and community involvement as a way of invigorating the arts.
Recently CANWA began hosting an important project in the Southern Wheatbelt region of
Western Australia. This has involved carrying out arts-based workshops with Indigenous people
living in the region’s towns. These workshops then shaped creative development work leading to
a community celebration and project launch. This event was hosted by the comedic personality
Mary G and included performances of young people’s song writing and recording, film production,
and a soundscape produced in conjunction with many important local Noongar. Everyone
attending was given a gift of the first of CANWA’s publications from the region, a beautiful
photographic collection of the work produced by community participants, including a DVD with
early film work.
This paper is based on conversations between CANWA’s General Manager Pilar Kisat and
Southern Wheatbelt Project Manager Geri Hayden and academic and project reviewer Dave
Palmer. They reflect upon some of the lessons learnt about important Noongar concepts and the
use of art in work to improve the health and social conditions of people living in regional Western
Australia. In particular they will discuss how the relationship between the use of arts, new media
and performance and three important Noongar ideas and practices. Understanding and drawing
upon moort (family), boodjar (country) and karla (fire) provided opportunities to bridge the
conceptual, cultural and social distance between Noongar and an arts organisation keen on
improving the health of community.
Dave Palmer
Dave Palmer teaches in the Community Development Programme at Murdoch University in
Perth. He also spends a fair bit of time in remote Australia, looking for examples of projects that
are having a positive impact on Indigenous people’s lives. He’s come to the conclusion that to
work successfully with complex communities you need to be artful, use a repertoire of creative
methods and learn to improvise. Dave often gets to travel with his partner and two gorgeous
boys, lugging around swags, books, cameras, a Mac Book Pro, a diablo and poi.
Geri Hayden
Geri Hayden is presently the Coordinator of CANWA’s Southern Wheatbelt Project. She is a
Balardong/Willman Noongar and was raised in Brookton, Western Australia. Geri has a strong
history of work in culture and the arts and has had years of involvement in projects to help
maintain and restore Noongar moort (family), boodjar (country) and karla (home fires).
Need some more on Geri
Pilar Kisat
Pilar is the General Manager of the Community Arts Network of Western Australia. In this role
she has traveled widely within WA and assisted many communities and organisations with their
cultural development plans and helped shape some dynamic community cultural development
projects. This includes the ‘Voices of the Wheatbelt’ project. This work in the Wheatbelt region of
Western Australia involves CANWA carrying out work with Noongar communities in towns from
Kellerberrin to Wagin. This work includes working in conjunction with local community members
to run a series of art and cultural development projects using photography, film, dance, fine art,
public sculpture and performance. She especially loves the work that CANWA does with young
people and Indigenous communities. She considers herself passionate about diversity, the right
to self-determination and freedom of expression. The establishment of CANWA offices in
Kellerberrin and Narrogin has been particularly rewarding for her.
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