Well, hello, and Happy New Year. No, not from the sunny climes of Sydney’s inner western suburbs, but from the biting, frigid temperatures of New York City.

What am I doing here? (Aside from freezing my proverbial off.)


What does this mean (I can almost hear you ask)?

Firstly, I will inform you of the umbrella event in which this uniquely-spelt durational installation sits. Coil Festival, run by PS122, doesn’t seek to package itself in one neat compartment, instead the current (and departing) director Vallejo Gantner seeks “living, breathing, complicated, flawed and wonderful experiences. Profound and unpredictable. Difficult”. (see link below).

Now in its 12th year, Coil regularly showcases Australian artists, including this year’s Antony Hamilton & Alisdair Macindoe and Nicola Gunn, whose virtuosic solo Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster I caught in between one of my own as part of the same lineup on Performance Space’s 2016 Liveworks festival.
Back to the real purpose of my visit.

I am in the midst of a momentous occasion for First Nations people here in Mannahatta, the original Lenape place name for this significant island. Over the past two days a small selected team of speakers (see below) gathered together over a meal of smoked salmon and tundra tea (plus the usual New York bagels, goats cheese, wine and baklava of course) to discuss the importance of acknowledging, of honouring the original inhabitants of the land.

We realised the task ahead was ambitious and that the proposed topics up for debate were going to be challenging for an island that was once the major port for newcoming settlers to this country. The well known catch call, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”** summing up this city’s narrative as the gateway to refuge for the world’s needy, would be difficult to shift.

The day of Umyuangvigkak Long Table and Sewing Bee began with a welcome to country… of sorts. Yup’ik choreographer Emily Johnson, curator and director, let slip that the Lenape elder she contacted may not be present or may actually phone in his welcome in lieu of turning up in person.
What the hell?

This was a new concept, which initially felt like being granted entry to someone’s abode via telecom, only to find the house empty. For myself, having conducted many such acknowledgements, it is an honour to speak the original language name of country and to share the sound of a place that comes directly from it, emanating from its contours.

When the Elders did finally speak my uneasiness was allayed. The Elders chose to direct their address to more pressing matters. Instead of welcoming us specifically, they referred to the state of crisis the land is currently experiencing, due to exhaustive mining practices and general human overconsumption. They referred to Standing Rock, which has garnered international exposure and support from the world’s indigenous populations and environmentalists alike. The import and gravity with which they spoke, coupled with the knowledge of the sheer numbers who have actually gone to Standing Rock, leads me to believe that this movement of continued resistance somehow encapsulates a turning point in regards to the crucial place for indigenous processes and knowledges for the future well being of the planet.

The ensuing event was advertised as a long table discussion broken up into four parts. Each segment commenced with a provocation around a theme concerning First Nations American people. These included: the notion of perceived invisibility and the second titled Indigenising the Future, focussed on the continuance of specificity in aesthetic, processes of invention and ceremony. The third was given a unique title, My Dad Gives Blue Berries to Caribou He Hunts and the fourth and final Radical Love, referred to the capacity for love after atrocity and its associated generative effects. (For which Nelson Mandela and Bishop Dr Desmond Tutu immediately came to mind.)

It is the curious title about berries and caribou which encapsulated the day. It began with Emily retelling a poignant personal history about “a good kill” and led to a conversation that encompassed the custom of demand sharing, of reciprocity or the current general lack thereof within a fundamental capitalist system. It was at this moment the talk turned to the importance of process in hand – of the dual action at hand, our hands busy at work, busy making a quilt.

The talk talking was all about finding the right rhetoric, finding the same page, to describe, accept and find the ways and means to make a considered space for a more conscious indigenous presence within the greater urban social fabric. The act of sewing together, placed us there, together.

While my blind eyes floundered, persisted and finally intuited the eye of the needle, I meditated on the subtle differences between American First Nations and myself as an Australian Aboriginal woman. My mouth self-censored unnecessary banter, as my needle bound the fabric squares together in progressively neater back-stitches. It’s just harder to talk rubbish.

While constructing my patch I thought of its meditative effect. I was reminded of Briwyant, the work I made inspired by and paying homage to the act of painting. In the research in the lead up to making Briwyant I discovered that the busier the painting, made more dazzling and intricate with numerous painstaking dots or crosshatched lines, the more powerful and sacred it became; imbued with ancestral magic.

I aspired to recreate this transformative process and each night a river was constructed, made from thousands of playing cards, each individually glued to resemble a three dimensional painting. Its scale almost overwhelming in execution (not dissimilar to Emily’s overall quilt design). I was caught unawares and ultimately dismayed when somebody asked me what was more important, the dance or the river? I had failed to clearly demonstrate the crucial importance of both aspects of the work in equal measure.

Umyuangvigkaq was such a day dedicated to doing. Doing as being and as a means of subtle transformation. I am in awe of Emily’s ability to weave the best practices of both cultures together to generate a new platform. As our collective hands worked the cloth I realised we had all become simultaneous performers and witnesses. Emily had managed to inject a working contemporary indigenous agenda, inspired by past instillations consisting of traditional customs of feasting, skinning, sewing and performing with fish skins, but on a much larger scale. This was and is multi arts at its best.

As I walked the streets from the Ace Hotel on West 29th Street back to my old (and new temporary) digs on the Lower East Side, contemplating the Lenape stomping grounds beneath me, the other more familiar choreography of the Australia Council-hosted Red and White party rolled onwards.

Leadership Council and Provocateurs chosen by Emily Johnson:
Sm Loodm ‘Nüüsm (Dr.Mique’l Dangeli), Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin, Karyn Recollet, Vicki Van Hout

*Place to develop ideas

**Emma Lazarus’ famous poem The New Colossus is graven on a tablet within the pedestal on which the Liberty statue stands.

Vicki Van Hout
FORM Dance Projects BLOG