Dr Vicki Couzens and Dr Priya Srinivasan
In this dialogue, we (Vicki Couzens and Priya Srinivasan) think through decolonization from the place of praxis and cultural artistic exchanges in the Australian context. We interrogate archives of our bodies and living voices/people/stories to challenge Western/colonial models of museum archives as disembodied intellectual spaces. Having performed in Australia and several international venues including site specific works in museums, theatres, galleries, and universities, we have personal experiences of the inherent contradictions and difficulties of this kind of performance work to reimagine archives in these spaces. Our cultural practices are rethought as embodied sites through which histories can be interrogated and critiqued through intercultural feminist engagement in which our praxis both honours our shared and divergent positionalities.
We base our thinking on the concepts of “neighbouring” by the Argentine theorist, Marta Savigliano1, and Indigenous methodologies and Aboriginal ways of “Knowing, Being and Doing” based on the works of Lester-Irabinna Rigney2 and Karen Mirraboopa Martin3 Rigney and Martin’s thinking enable a modeling of the ideas of knowing and being/doing into new processes. We are also interested in attending to feminist praxis in the collaborative space of performance where practices are constantly shared and in circulation simultaneously. Savigliano’s notion of “neighbouring” as a verb enables the understanding of the entanglement of bodies in proximity and in permanent negotiation in encountering others. We use this concept to understand relationships in performance that are based on decisions that are constantly shifting and moving.
We frame this piece on the contradictions of our double histories of colonization (Australia and India) through our respective performance practices of Indigenous Australian and Indian cultural practices. We work towards decolonizing our performances, specifically through the nationalist, postcolonial and so called “traditional” training in Bharatanatyam,4 a classical dance genre and experimental choreography that Priya is trained in and the various Gunditjmara traditions of visual art, songlines, oratory, translation and performance that Vicki is trained in. Our divergent experiences of colonialism enable us to present this dialogue via feminist praxis and performative tools that are both intra- and inter-cultural. We also consider the utopic possibilities that emerge between women artists who bring together performance as a decolonizing encounter to rethink the terms of visibility and performativity. We access our intuitive knowledges that can blend together, run into each other without losing integrity of each story while maintaining each cultural practice. We suggest that performing and creating together is what enables solidarity between First Nations and Peoples of Colour. There are divergences of course in our experiences of decolonization. For example, although India’s colonizers left, the Indian diaspora is deeply colonized in mind, and migration has diminished the sense of family, connectedness and belonging. However, in Australia for First Nations people the colonizers have not left but family and land is primary. So decolonizing is a continuing process.
Our writing follows a dialogic exchange of ideas and practices and lays bare the performative encounter between us. Sometimes we agreed, and sometimes we did not, but the pleasure in the encounter allows us to continue these dialogues as the years go by.
Vicki: How can we use the term decolonization when we’re still in the colony? Artist and critical thinker Paola Balla recently posed this statement in a forum panel I was facilitating. She said ‘…we are still in the colony…’ and so we are still being colonized and treaty hasn’t happened yet? Decolonising is a state of being …we can’t become ‘decolonised’ because we are still in it.
Priya: That’s a great question. I think of decolonizing as a process and not an end result. In the Indian context, although our colonizers have left, we are still deeply colonized. We have yet to even work out the appropriated histories of our artistic practices and it’s when I see your Mob and others like you that I realize how much we need to decolonize our minds and practices. Moreover, the current government in India, for example, is using the discourse of decolonization as they take pages out of our colonizers’ books and silence minority groups. Your sense of family, community and belonging is powerful and it’s something we had, but is harder for us to maintain now especially after migration from villages to the cities or across countries. I came here from India as a young child and I remember being surrounded in a sea of whiteness. The only stories I held onto here were the Indigenous stories because your Mob looked like me, your music and dance sounded like mine and I felt a deep affinity with you and it somehow allowed me a small space to belong. This started a decolonizing of my mind from a young age as a possibility of something that didn’t subsume me under whiteness. But it was also my dancing, growing up dancing Bharatanatyam in Naarm (Melbourne) as an act of difference that was deeply symbolic in maintaining a space away from assimilation and allowing me a connection to my culture across the seas and finding my way as an artist as I grew up. I rarely saw much of your Mob here growing up but I knew and felt the potency and connection to your land, unceded Aboriginal land.
Vicki: Yes, our land is unceded, and yet we still have a long way to go to assert our rights; or rather, to have those rights recognised and acknowledged. I am making a start in my work in my own Country, through language revitalisation and the reclamation and reinvigoration of cultural knowledges and practices in our contemporary context. It is through reclamation and revitalisation we continue our resistance to colonisation and assimilation as you mention. Unlike you I was not brought up with my cultural dance, song and ceremony. Although I was immersed in our family, community and aspects of cultural expression, those elements of song ceremony dance and language were missing. So, our journey has been one of reclamation and reinvigoration of knowledges and practices that have been ‘sleeping’. This sleeping of our practices was a forced thing, it didn’t happen by choice. Our grandparents and Ancestors were punished for talking ‘language’ and any form of ‘traditional’ cultural expression. So our resistance to assimilation was through continuing connectedness to family kinship networks, Country and story. Story and remnants of a practice such as basket weaving, and our Ways of Being have sustained our Identity, our sense of self and our inherent birthright status as First Peoples. We have taken a ‘no compromise’ position to date in resisting the ‘colonisation’ of our Country and heritage, yet again. It’s our unceded territory. So we could do a blockade to stop them, like our Brothers and Sisters in Canada who are stopping the gas line there.
Priya: This is what I mean by how to decolonize even when colonization continues. You are having an actual effect. That is really powerful!
Vicki: I hear what you’re saying about decolonizing mind and practices. We are able to bring forth, centre and privilege our knowledges, our being and re-assert our Story, the first Story of this Country. However, even through all the work that has been done by our Old People to get us to this space, when it comes to the bottom line, ‘the colonial system’ changes the goal posts, propose changes that are about their priorities and what privileges their agendas. We are still living in a place that continues to be colonized, that’s where we need to overtly assert and insert our presence and knowledges and express them; our work we have been doing together. We express resistance, we assert sovereignty, we decolonise ourselves and the places we inhabit or are present in at any given time. We express our identities and our shared stories in key performative moments whether it is through writing, or actively attending a meeting and being the only person of colour. This then challenges the norm. I do believe there is a revolution going on with people of colour; we are storming institutions and breaking them down. I am thinking of our work at a Melbourne institution, Priya, and how we took it over. You drove this work, from somewhere deep within, especially in the beginning and gave us, the rest of the performers, the opportunity to collaborate, to share, to learn and to extend ourselves in ways we might not have before. Through this work we created an amazing and enthralling experience from both sides; ours as performers and the audience. You have spoken about the awesome and profound feedback we have all received after the performance of that work.
Priya: That was a remarkable moment when we performed our Indian Indigenous all female collaborative work, Serpent Dreaming Women. The museum changed as a result of us taking it over. I really loved the way we all worked together to create the Serpent Dreaming Women project by bringing together stories from Indian and Indigenous cultures around totemic creatures such as the eagle (Ngeeyangkarra/Garuda), snake (Mowang/Vasuki), Whale (Koontapool/Matsya) to share ideas about environmental care and protection, as well as contemporary stories of the stolen generation and intertwining with racist anti-Asian memories of childhood in Naarm.
Vicki: And we did it in the Museum, one of the ‘whitest’ and old school mainstream institutions that you could think of. We activated energies of healing and called out to the spirits of place that this is a living space. Performing and creating like that is what creates relationship, where we neighbour. It’s a different and immediate sense of the idea we are on the same side, in the same boat when working with people of colour with shared stories. We are coming from a similar place. I feel connected to people of colour even though I may look white. Here in South Eastern Australia colonization was very violent as you know, and we are not as visible. I understand what it means to come from a non-European background. As you dig down there are divergences and even understandings of interconnectedness between people of colour. I’ve worked with Indian diaspora before and been to India and experienced the culture in different ways. I think there’s a connectedness there with Australia that is more direct than other cultures by blood, bones and DNA as opposed to shared histories of colonization. Some of the stories we worked on together with snakes, water, eagles: the connection is so potent and deep. Intuitive knowledges that can blend together, run into each other without losing integrity of each story; without losing the intention of each cultural practice.
Priya: Do you think our work disrupts understandings of who we are for ourselves? I know things were not always easy for us to work together especially in the beginning. It took time for us to trust one another, for you to trust me and let go. For us to understand different senses of time and different issues with our families. I am glad we persisted despite the struggle. It meant in a way our communities could connect on a fundamental level in the present regardless of the overt racism still present in Australia. Our work may not really be for mainstream consumption; the white structures are there but they are not the centre. Don’t you think now we can create for ourselves to move and centralize our needs rather than what is expected of us because we are working together we have a lot more power?
Vicki: I agree in the beginning we were getting to know each other to understand, learn some insights into our different “Ways of Being, Doing and our different Knowings.” This was transformative for myself, Yaraan, my daughter, and Gina, my sister in law, on a very deeply personal level. It was transformative in the context of extending, disrupting, our sense of our own selves and the excitement in the discovery of the shared-ness and potential interconnectedness of our Stories. Individually we all learned and grew through this work and we know the impact on our audiences was very deeply felt and experienced too.
Priya: For me there was a deep power and drive that came from visions I had of a red earth. I had left Australia for a long time and it was these visions that brought me back and a commitment to solidarity with Indigenous rights and practices. What also guided me over the years were little bits of evidence that kept coming up about Indian traders, kings, women, dancers coming to Australia (far north and Western Australia) but that these were all exchanges and not about conquest or ruling each other. Then more evidence came up with DNA being intermingled and large chunks of Tamil and Dravidian vocabulary in indigenous languages in Australia. Even in our own work we kept finding those connections in words, ideas, symbols, stories. That was just incredible. We knew both intuitively and via the evidence that these connections were not just a one off. To me the idea of exchange, giving gifts of culture, coins, knowledges, songs, dances between cultures that had existed between our peoples was the most exciting concept I held on to. Particularly because of the colonial misnomer that Australia is a “young country” when in fact it is the home of the longest living culture of people anywhere in the world going back 80,000 years. Therefore the idea that it had healthy productive oceanic encounters and engagements with its neighbours and in the region made really good sense. India-Australia encounters are therefore not a few decades or hundred years old but in fact thousands of years old and offer new models of intercultural exchange that are not steeped in genocide and violence. That is what really excited me about our collaborative work to unlock that potential by telling stories of encounters very differently to come alive in the lived archives of the past.
Vicki: Asserting and sharing those connections in a public way interrupts mainstream understandings of who we are. Serpent Dreaming Women is really radical in terms of what the museum is set up to do as a colonial disembodied intellectual space. We enacted a performative living archive as a continuum. With our oral/aural practice and traditions all those archives are living and reanimated in that space. We are awakening our own knowing within our own bodies in our own minds and spirits. For Gina, it was a complete activation for her of her innate song and dance story as a proud Yuin and Bidjera woman. She comes from a tradition of oral and performance traditions, it awakened something in her and reconnects her. For me, it’s reclaiming, reactivating from a cellular level right through to that spiritual universal energy.
Priya: I love the idea of reactivating and reclaiming at the cellular level that you mention. In a way that is the activation of the archive to enable an experience of it as living and embodied. Audiences were inspired and enthralled and caught up in it because they wanted to be a part of it. We brought the audience with us by moving them around the space with us. We also activated all their senses, touch, smell, sound, visual. I remember many of the audiences in the after-talk were shocked about our combined smoking ceremony where we had eucalyptus leaves mingling with jasmine flowers and incense. People were not expecting the sensations it would create to inhale those combined smells together and I remember one producer even said he could not ever imagine white people having smoking ceremonies with Indigenous people. I told him that’s because both our cultures already had fire and smoking ceremonies built into them, so intercultural exchange was created on common ground despite our differences. We actively thought about engaging audiences and activating all their senses to experience things on all levels. By moving people they are engaging with other senses.
Vicki: Some of it is a deep desire of humans to be connected to spirit, which is missing in Western life and lifestyle. This disconnect is prevalent and thinking and actions have separated themselves from it. Our Work is a gift and a learning we can share. We are activists in creating healing especially in places like Museums because of the violence of what they are holding.
Priya: I also remember how beautiful that moment when you and Uthra sang together and it made me cry every time and stirred something deep. A moment where Gunditjmara song lines and carnatic ragas entwined together. Voices coming together from deep time but also from the now.
Vicki: The chant was “Earth My Body.” It was about how we are connected to the mother, and universal energy in such a simple way. I learned it at a women’s camp, led by a senior Aboriginal medicine woman Aunty Anne Thomas(dec). It was that song that I thought could be varied, especially with Uthra who could extend and elaborate on that melody. The meaning in the song gave me a way to speak to Country with love. The words of the song are: Earth my body, Water my blood, Air my breath, Fire my Spirit. Language is a living archive because if I speak to someone from my Country 5000 years ago it would definitely mean something different. Adapting and adopting the song into our cultural practice is an act of adaptation, of survival and ‘thrival,’ we have used it in ceremony before. That’s what a living culture does, it’s not a static song in the archive.
Priya: Yes! Uthra was bringing ancient chants from India intertwining with your song but she also used melodic improvisation creating in the present yet using ancient frameworks to do so. Those notes and words activate channels in the body in that deep time cellular bodily level. Your idea of adapting in order to enact the “thrival” is a powerful, potent concept for all of us to consider. It is best expressed in the notion of the contemporary and the ancient intertwined. It is precisely the contradiction that we find missing in western artistic practices. For us there is no schism between past and present because the past, present and future interweave in space/time.
Vicki: I felt an authentic connection—its truth! Your spirit knows these connections. Entwining the song together with the raga built a deeper resonance. Language gives it power, and singing with Uthra, I integrated this new strength into my practice. In that context she is a vessel, portal, and a woman of high knowledge. She’s been schooled and taught by others like herself.
Priya: I understand what you’re saying about the transmission of knowledge for us but we too have been colonized and there has been significant interruption and transformation in our practices even while some continuity has existed. In the process of nationalism, the hybridity of our practices become hidden. As I have discussed with you before, some of our practices are appropriated from minority voices and the issues are complex and need much unravelling. But when we live and work in your country, our situation becomes different as we become racialized minorities here. How do we grapple with different power positionalities when many of us don’t even understand our own histories?
Vicki: History is a colonial concept. Some of our learnings are not directly from person to person. We’ve had to, in our reclamation process, be guided by our Ancestors and Old People in connecting through our embodied intuitive voice, to bring those things forth. That’s why it’s a work in progress in recreating our ceremonies and dances and songs. Not all of them are taught directly step by step to us by our Elders. Our Elders guide us as we become the initiators and creators, we are creating new archives, using old knowledges into new manifestations. So that being a vessel or portal is not a passive state of being, you are not just a carrier you also transmit, so the process is active and transformative. There’s a connection with the Indian diaspora, your Mob, that’s largely unexplored or unexplained here. We may not know exactly how or why. We don’t need to be the same or the same stories but we know they are all connected. Like the 7 sisters that go around the world. I just enjoy it. There is an imperative in sharing in both our cultural contexts that allows for us to ‘meet’ and create a space to share and learn. This reciprocity is founded in the sacred geometry of the circle; a circle of giving that is inclusive; a circle that holds and embraces; a circle that enfolds and nurtures and pays respect to the same of things and honours our differences.
Priya and Vicki: We have in our collaborative work developed a space where we can recognise and express a reflection of ourselves as neighbours and not perpetrate the othering that happens in the mainstream setting. A deep connection and desire to collaborate and know each other better in order to know ourselves. It is the impact of creating ripples in the pond, making a difference; a better world. All those things strengthen interconnections. It’s an affirming thing to work together, to “neighbour” as an active verb, of knowing, being, and of doing… Words are not needed.
Dr. Vicki Couzens is a Gunditjmara woman from the Western Districts of Victoria. Vicki acknowledges her Ancestors and Elders who guide her work. She has worked in Aboriginal community affairs for 40 years Vicki’s contributions in the reclamation, regeneration and revitalisation of cultural knowledge and practice extend across the ‘arts and creative cultural expression’ spectrum including language revitalisation, ceremony, community arts, public art, visual and performing arts, and writing. She is Senior Knowledge Custodian for Possum Skin Cloak Story and Language Reclamation and Revival in her Keerray Woorroong Mother Tongue. Vicki works at RMIT as a Vice Chancellors Indigenous Research Fellow developing her Project ‘watnanda koong meerreeng , tyama-ngan malayeetoo (together body and country, we know long time)’ (The key objective of this Project is to produce model/s, pathways and resources for continuing the reinvigoration of Aboriginal Ways of Knowing Being and Doing with a special focus on language revitalisation. The Project investigates and examines how revitalisation of cultural knowledges and practices affect healing in Aboriginal individuals, families and communities and builds resilience and capability towards sovereign nation building aspirations, opportunities and a realised living legacy.) Vicki is rebuilding the Gunditjmara Grammar to facilitate a new phase of language learning through immersive experiences and home based, self-directed family clan learning. She is currently writing plain language resources for this community learning.
Dr. Priya Srinivasan is a performer/artistic director/writer who lives and works in the lands of the Boonwurrung people in Melbourne Australia, combining theory and practice to work towards social justice issues through art. She is the co-Artistic Director of the highly successful Sangam: Performing Arts Festival and Platform of Diaspora (sangam.com.au) supported by The Victorian Government and in partnership with MAV, Abbotsford Convent, Drum Theatre, Bunjil Place and Dancehouse enabling a single platform for classical, contemporary and experimental forms. Her own performances prioritize feminist decolonization processes making visible minority women’s histories. Her experimental, postcolonial site-specific work rooted in South Asian classical dance practice has been presented in major festivals and venues such as universities, museums, galleries, and theatres internationally in USA, Europe, China, India and Australia. With a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, Priya is the author of the award winning book “Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labour.” Her intercultural collaborative work with First Nations artists “Serpent Dreaming Women” and “Churning Waters” toured India for Australia Fest. She has curated and choreographed several solo, duet, and large scale projects in partnership with Hermitage Museum Amsterdam, Berlin Wall Memorial, Rockbund Art Museum Shanghai, Dakshina Chitra and Spaces Chennai, Adishakti Puducherry, Highways Los Angeles, DCA Darwin, MAV, Bunjil Place, Drum Theatre, Abbotsford Convent, and Dancehouse. Currently she is working on an experimental, anti-violence feminist dance/theatre project with a Carnatic Women’s Choir “S3:Sthree” with Artshouse.
- Marta Savigliano, “Worlding Dance and Dancing Out there in the World”, in Rethinking World Dance Histories, edited by Susan Foster (New York: Palgrave, 2009), 163–191. ↩
- Lester-Irabinna Rigney, “Indigenous Australian Views on Knowledge Production and Indigenist Research”, AIATSIS, 1:3 (2003), 32-49 ↩
- Karen Mirraboopa Martin, “Ways of Knowing, Being and Doing: A theoretical framework and methods for Indigenous and Indigenist research”, In K. McWilliam, P. Stephenson & G. Thompson (Eds), Voicing Dissent, New Talents 21C: Next Generation Australian Studies (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2003), 203-214. ↩
- Bharatanatyam emerged as a hybrid global form masking its own modernity in the early to mid twentieth century. It has a complex layered history especially in response to colonialism, nationalism, patriarchy, and caste-ism within the Indian context. The form is in transition as a contested site of practice because of its appropriation and silencing of hereditary artists. Due to the emergence of brave hereditary artist voices such as Nrithya Pillai, Yashoda Thakore, Aniruddha Knight and others, we are in an exciting moment in history when multiple voices from the margins have emerged to question the politics of the form and its futures. Decolonization is one key unexamined aspect to the contested practice of this form in India and worldwide. ↩