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Marrugeku's Jurrungu Ngan-ga

Who really is in prison here?

anti-racism block 13 choreography empowerment human family kings of joy lgbtqia+ making a difference queers of joy Feb 10, 2022

Marrugeku’s Jurrungu Ngan-ga. Photo: Prudence Upton, Sydney, 2022

After a number of days deep in the work of distinguishing and untangling the impact of systemic racism that was raised by the BIPOC members of my Kings of Joy Naarm group and had us withdraw our show Queers of Joy from the Midsumma festival due to the presence of institutions such as Serco, responsible for the facilitation of the incarceration of refugees, at Carnival Day, Chris and I went to see the show Jurrungu Ngan-ga [Straight Talk] by the innovative dance company, Marrugeku.

As stated on their website, "Marrugeku builds bridges and breaks down walls between urban and remote dance communities, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, and between local and global situations."

Jurrungu Ngan-ga embodied the lived experiences of the people we took a stand for just that week. Set within the walls of the incarceration and refugee detention centers that Australia has deeply rooted in our society, we witnessed the language, the stories, the impact, and the heart-wrenching re-embodiment of people's history - disproportionately Indigenous people and BIPOC refugees. This work asks the question, who really is in prison here?

Each and every dancer was not only an outstanding performer but also an incredible storyteller. The combined cast of Indigenous, non-Indigenous, trans, people seeking asylum, immigrants, and settler allies was a powerful force of expression that blew the audience away. Twice, we gave them a standing ovation. They had given us everything.

Marrugeku’s Jurrungu Ngan-ga. Photo: Prudence Upton, Sydney, 2022

It was wonderful to connect with people in the audience who have performed at Queers of Joy, showcasing trans and gender diverse artists, as well as watch the powerful presence of trans interdisciplinary artist Bhenji Ra who is a Mother in the Ball world and captivated us the moment she emerged on stage.

This work, co-devised by performers and facilitated by choreographer, Dalisa Pigram, and director, Rachael Swain, was three years in the making due to the disruption of lockdown and was the world premiere at Carriageworks, Sydney. Knowing that impactful art moves people, and that action is what makes a difference, Marrugeku included this collection of ideas for action in their program:

Ideas for Action

@Sisters Inside which advocates for the collective human rights of women and girls in prison where First Nations women and girls are massively over-represented.

@indigenousX 100% Indigenous-owned and operated, independent media, consultancy, and training organisation.

@Beyond Bricks and Bars: Trans Gender Diverse decarceration project - fundraiser

#Raise the Age Sign this petition to keep kids in community and kids as young as 10 (disproportionately Indigenous kids) out of prison.

The Westerman Jilya Institute for Indigenous Mental Health is committed to increasing the number of Indigenous psychologists in Australia

Writing Through Fences is a group of artists who are or have been incarcerated in Australia's immigration detention regime.

Asylum Seekers Centre, Sydney providing practical support to people who are seeking asylum

Dhadjowa foundation provides strategic, coordinated and culturally appropriate support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families whose loved ones have died in custody.

Please write to your local member of parliament and express your support for people seeking asylum in Australia and demand an end to the cruel and punitive border policies established and intensified over the last 30 years. Call for the immediate release of people still illegally detained by the Australian government; permanent visas for everyone suffering in limbo in PNG, Nauru and different locations throughout Australia; and compensation for those whose lives have been devastated by these Australian policies.

Support for your Wellbeing

Support Act First Nations dedicated support line

- 1800 861 085

Beyond Blue provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live

- 1300 22 4636

Wellmob Social, emotional and cultural wellbeing online resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

Please take action :)

Rich, deep and powerful, performer Emmanuel James Brown. Marrugeku’s Jurrungu Ngan-ga. Photo: Prudence Upton, Sydney, 2022

Interestingly, Marrugeku made the decision to withdraw from the Sydney Festival in light of the festival retaining funding from the state of Israel this year. In their statement, they said, "It is our responsibility to ensure that the strong voices within Jurrungu Ngan-ga: First Nations Australians, people seeking asylum alongside allied settler artists from diverse backgrounds can perform with clear liyan (spirit and wellbeing). It is critical that the dancers will be heard, particularly in these circumstances as Jurrungu Ngan-ga embodies the essence of solidarity."

Clear 'liyan' (spirit and wellbeing) is what we saw restored within our community when we moved forward independently with Queers of Joy. Given Queers of Joy is also home to and has a special relationship with Lucretia, Fahad, Festo and the LGBTQIA+ community living as refugees in Block 13, Kakuma, Kenya, as well as 50% or more of our line up each show being BIPOC artists, we needed to operate with a high level of integrity. Marrugeku's articulation of their decision, the stand of this group of artists and the work itself broke my heart open. I also had a personal story to share and a deep acknowledgment to give to Marrugeku.

Here is my letter to them and my declaration to you:

Dear cast and artistic directors of Marrugeku,

I have a confession to make. I’m a contemporary dancer. I trained at Deakin University, Rusden, twice a day in the late 90s. I was good. But when my feminist student activist friends came to see the shows I was in, they always asked me afterward, but what did it mean? Seeing the gap in my artistry and my activism, I gave up on dance. I decided it could not communicate what I needed it to communicate to people.

I want you to know that your new work, Jurrungu Ngan-ga, communicates. On all levels. Viscerally, visually, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and at a deep soul level as a human being. I want you to know that we got the message. You are heard, you are seen, you are gotten.

Your work as the living embodiment of the deep impact of systemic racism in our country was moving in the way that only true authentic art can move people. To action. Experiencing your performance was unforgettable. This was one of the most powerful works I’ve ever seen.

Congratulations. My heart is with you and I acknowledge you for everything it’s taken to stay the course and make manifest this work. You have birthed an incredible event. Your experiences have not been in vain. I promise to use the powerful momentum of your work to continue to dismantle systemic racism and never give up on art as a platform for communication about what truly matters.

Thank you.

With all my heart,

Danica Lani

Cast: Czack (Ses) Bero, Emmanuel James Brown, Chandler Connell, Luke CurrieRichardson, Issa el Assaad, Zachary Lopez, Bhenji Ra, Feras Shaheen and Miranda WheenPhotographs supplied by Marrugeku’s Jurrungu Ngan-ga. Photo: Prudence Upton, Sydney, 2022.

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