When Jacob Nash was designing the set for Bangarra’s recent work Bennelong, he had a number at the forefront of his mind. “In Australia’s history, there is a number, which is 1788, which seems like it is the start of the book. But really, it’s not. It’s just a number that doesn’t even exist in Aboriginal culture. What is that number? What are those letters? It’s nothing. How do you reclaim that number, through Black eyes? How do you break it, and just go, ‘fuck you, you’re not a number’?”Bennelong’s centrepiece ended up being a large red 1788, with deep grooves chiselled into the deconstructed figures. This set, Nash says, “is a protest. But then, at the same time, you’re seduced by the colours, and the red, and the markings on them. You go: am I looking at numbers? Am I looking at traditional scarring? Is that a weapon? What am I really seeing?”
This chance to play with symbolism writ large seems a dream career for the art and architecture enthusiast. Did young Jacob know a job like this existed? He laughs. “It’s not something that the career advisor puts up as a possibility.” A Murri man from Brisbane, Nash moved to Melbourne with his family as a five year old, and his art teacher parents ensured that the family visited galleries or sculpture parks every weekend. His love for architecture, art and design came to a head when he found himself visiting his now-partner in Sydney at the same time that a graduate design show was on at NIDA. He found himself thinking: “Oh my god, maybe this is what I should do.” After graduating from NIDA’s design department in 2005, Nash worked as a set designer with major theatre companies including Belvoir and Sydney Theatre Company. He found casual work at Bangarra through flatmates, and his talents were quickly recognised by the artistic team. He began designing their sets and other artistic output (including video work for Vivid Festival) and became their head of design in 2011.
“I look back at designing plays previously, and I think: plays have a different set of rules. There’s a script, and there’s characters and actors that have to do things. I think [theatre makers] get locked into ways of doing things, and we just break a lot of rules [at Bangarra]. That’s the really exciting thing to do.” Nash works closely with artistic director Stephen Page in the devising of new work. Page pinpoints the focus of the work, and the emotions behind it, then Nash must find visual references to support that emotion, usually linked to the traditional country from which the story originates. “It could be a landscape, or a gorgeous sunset, or the haze over the harbour at the end of the day.” From there, the designer asks himself, “how can I transform this into something that feels ‘of today’? Each year I have to create a new visual language that suits the show, so you have to dig deep in creation.”
Nash rejects any firm label when it comes to his work. “I don’t fit in a western box of what theatre is, in a pigeon hole. Maybe the question’s wrong: the perception of what Aboriginal design should be. Why should it fit in a box of needing to fulfil the idea of what installation is, or what we perceive theatre to be? Bangarra has created its own visual language, its own music and choreography. That all grows out of 60,000 years of culture, and this is a contemporary expression that celebrates our culture.” Jessica Bellamy