Reconciliation is not only remembering, but advocating for change

To mark National Reconciliation Week #InThisTogether2020 we dive into our archive to share some of the meaningful conversations along the reconciliation journey.

It is 20-years since more than a quarter of a million people walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in solidarity as an apology to the Stolen Generations. That same day, Sydney’s skies were emblazoned with the word ‘sorry’. It was a palpable moment, and one filled with hope.

Two years earlier, on 26 May 1998, the first National Sorry Day had been held, picking up on the momentum of the Bringing Them Home Report, tabled in Parliament the previous year. It acknowledged the mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who were forcibly removed from their families and communities.

The lesson was that we can – and must – all play a part in the healing process for our people and nation.

But 20-years on and we seem to be rolling backwards in milestones.

Reconciliation Australia have reported this week that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are still 10.6 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be removed from their families.

And in terms of reconciliation, three years has passed since the Uluru Statement from the Heart was delivered to Parliament, an outcome of the 2017 First Nations National Constitutional Convention (May 2017).

It asked for constitutional recognition of our First Nations people. But on 26 October 2017, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, issued a joint statement with the attorney general George Brandis and the Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion, rejected the statement.

Their replied: ‘The government does not believe such a radical change to our constitution’s representative institutions has any realistic prospect of being supported by a majority of Australians in a majority of states.’

Uluru-ku Tjukurpa or the Uluru Statement is on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). Image supplied.

While it is a mark of respect each May to remember, as a nation we need to move forward together – everyday – not just on certain calendar days. This has been the theme of this year’s National Reconciliation Week #InThisTogether2020.

The Reconciliation Committee said: ‘…every one of us has a role to play when it comes to reconciliation, and in playing our part we collectively build relationships and communities that value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, histories and cultures.’

‘We strive towards a more just, equitable nation by championing unity and mutual respect as we come together and connect with one another,’ they added.

The dates for NRW remain the same each year; 27 May to 3 June. These dates commemorate two significant milestones in the reconciliation journey – the successful 1967 referendum, and the High Court Mabo decision respectively.


To mark National Reconciliation Week and National Sorry Day, ArtsHub has taken a look back through its archive over the same 20-year period. Here are the stories our readers championed along that journey:

2019: First Nations leadership is about letting go, and holding on

Indigenous professionals discuss what First Nations leadership looks like in a Vivid Ideas panel, and why it might offer a more viable model for bringing authority to an Indigenous-led centre. Among them was Rhoda Roberts, a Bundjalung woman and Head of Indigenous Programming at the Sydney Opera House, who said she prefers to use the word custodianship than leadership.

‘My challenge, working in a western system, is ensuring that our voice, at a community level, is given the ownership [on projects and policy], and that they feel included.’ She continued: ‘When I am doing budgets I always put a fee under “cultural custodians”, and people would say “a what?” We need to pay people for their knowledge – these people are our bush professors; they are our guides, and that is a level of leadership.’

Roberts also makes the point that we have been schooled to respect community and Country, but fail to recognise is it not only remote knowledge, but also valuing what is in front of us.

‘People say, “It was so good going to visit that community because I was on Country”; hang on, everywhere is on Country. Or, “I don’t want your voice; I want a community member”; just because I am successful doesn’t not make me less grassroots. We have to be very aware of terms we are using.’

2019: An Aboriginal perspective on political correctness

First Nations writer Angelina Hurley takes an Aboriginal perspective on political correctness and humour.  She writes: ‘First Nations people’s lives are dominated by white opinion and voices. In this power relation, humour is of central importance. For Aboriginal people, ridicule, denigration and insult delivered under the guise of, or trying to be passed off as, humour is nothing new. Negative stereotypes of First Nations peoples constitute the humour of the dominant culture, which often dehumanises the marginalised “other”.’

2019: Facing the truth: ‘We remain a colonised country’

In her keynote speech at the Fair Play Symposium, First Nations curator Genevieve Grieves analysed what it means when we say ‘First Peoples first’. She says, ‘We cannot underestimate the strength of denialism in this county. It operates at a meta-level in our institutions and in our leadership, but also on our citizens who are taught to reject the truths in our history…’

2019: Blak writing you should be reading

In her opening address at the Blak & Bright festival, director Jane Harrison asked the audience to imagine a bookshop full of enticing offerings. ‘I want us to think and ask the question, “Have I read a blak book lately?”’

‘We need more blak books to be read in our kindergartens, primary schools, high schools and universities; on trains and at the beach.’ But are they getting out there? She cited a 2017 survey by the Australia Council that showed over 40% of Australians had read more than 10 books in the past year, with 92% reading at least one. She takes a look at how can we make sure that we are reading a broad selection of works, including those by First Nations storytellers.

2019: Do we need a National Aboriginal Theatre?

Dr Richard Walley OAM said at the 2018 Performing Arts Conference: ‘You have to take a step back and say, “Rather than us leading the Aboriginal cause, let’s just step back and see what the Aboriginal stories are and follow it for a while – and then we can walk together.”’

Carissa Lee agrees. A Wemba-Wemba and Noongar professional actor and writer, she says: ‘First Nations theatre isn’t always about educating or catering to a white audience who is more acquainted with seeing First Nations Mob in the context of a doomed narrative. Stories that have been written by and for Mob are, in my opinion, more important.’

‘Stories of heartbreak, stories of being something other than a pawn in a white chess game. If we want to tell stories about the travesties of history, we need to do this our way.’

2018: Nginha ngurambang marunbunmilgirridyu: I love this country – but do you?

Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist and curator, Jonathan Jones delivered the Keynote address for Artstate Bathurst, making the point that, ‘the battle is not over’.

‘It is really difficult to hear local council give acknowledgment to Country. Do they truly mean it? Do they truly understand their ngurambang?’ asked Jones.

Jones said that there is no longer tolerance for complacency, which only extends the colonial process. For him the answer was simple. ‘You work with your local Aboriginal community; you work with your local elders and knowledge holders to guide you through these stories that are part of us all.’

He believes that the experience of colonisation can bind us together in new and significant ways.

2018: ‘Blackfellas should run galleries’

Artist Vernon Ah Kee believes there is an endemic problem that sits core to our galleries and the way we talk about Aboriginal art, which can only be solved by empowering black voices. He started off his address at the 2018 Public Galleries Summit by saying:

‘I think blackfellas should run galleries … all of them. We could give a special place to whitefellas – maybe one gallery – and I reckon the way to give a space to whitefellas is you all talk amongst yourselves, form a committee and come up with some really good ideas about what would make a good space for white people, and then you present it to us. And if we don’t like any of them options, then bad luck.’

Playing the role of provocateur among his professional colleagues, Ah Kee’s comment – while partially in jest – was a wake-up call and a harsh reality long overdue in its reckoning.  

2018: The spectacle of Aboriginal Frontier War memorial research

Queensland artist Fiona Foley calls into question the ARC funded project Representation, Remembrance and the Memoria, saying that to witness another layer of revisionism in Australia is a shameful step too far.

2017: Budgeting for sorry business

First Nations theatre-makers have much to teach the sector when it comes to ensuring that our rehearsal rooms are culturally safe spaces. Yirra Yaakin’s Artistic Director Kyle J Morrison said that adding a line item to production budgets for sorry business was about ensuring cultural and spiritual safety in the rehearsal room.

‘Grief is something that we seriously plan for and we have no luxury of bypassing because it is a part of our everyday life, and it is also a part of our storytelling,’ he explained.

‘If you don’t deal with the grief outside of the room and you’re trying to deal with it on stage, you’re just going to start breaking people, and that’s what we don’t need in the industry – we need strong artists that can keep perpetually telling hard stories for the rest of their lives, you know?’  

2016: Come our end: closing the gap with Indigenous culture

‘Closing the Gap’ shouldn’t mean bringing Aboriginal Australians to some white standard but bringing all Australians to an understanding of Indigenous culture. A panel discussion at Artlands Dubbo was lead by Sydney Festival Director Wesley Enoch, who summarised the impact of the discussion when he said: ‘We constantly talk about funding but what we need, in fact, is less of that and more philosophy and ideas. The ideas this conference has raised has talked about First Nations in a way that no other conference in this country has talked about before.’

It underscored a foundation that was set by Waradjuri man Mark McMillan, Associate Professor at Melbourne University Law School, who in his opening keynote reframed the discussion between white and Aboriginal Australia as a discussion of how sovereignty can be shared in a two-way relationship.

‘How can non-Indigenous people locate their own sovereignty so it can be in relation to ours, not as trying to control it, not as trying to own it, not as trying to deny it – but in relation to it?’  McMillan asked.

We close the gap by you coming our end and learning and embedding in our culture because it is the heart of our nation. What set the Artlands conversation apart was an emphasis on the value of what Indigenous culture has to offer rather than on the problems faced by the Indigenous sector.

As Enoch said, ‘We think of closing the gap and deficiencies; we don’t think about what First Nations have to teach the rest of the country. The more we connect with the landscape, and the less we think of being on top of it, the more we will grow.’

2015: Art is reconciliation in action

Theatremaker Rachael Maza, Artistic Director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company believes that collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists was essential to the future of Australia.

She said: ‘But the other thing is just having your ears open the whole time and listening. There are wrong ways to do things like this, but there’s no right way. There are just different ways.’

2013: Aboriginal people are not a project

‘Aboriginal people are not a project,’ said Frederick Copperwaite, co-founder and Artistic Director of Moogahlin Performing Arts Company, at the 2013 MPA Education Network forum.

A Bunuba man of the Fitzroy Crossing region of the South West Kimberley (WA), he pointed out that when people go into communities they have a huge responsibility. They need to be interested in the cultural exchange taking place, and engage with sensitivity.

‘When working with an Indigenous community, be prepared to forget all your previous experience and knowledge because you know nothing about the issues in that particular community,’ he advised.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina