In 1983, British pop icon David Bowie released a music video with an unexpected focus. ‘Let’s Dance’, directed by David Mallet, was shot on location across NSW and kicks off with Bowie performing the song in a rowdy outdoor pub. But the music superstar is not the star of this particular film: instead, he’s a supporting player in the story of a young Aboriginal couple who discover a pair of red shoes, magically come into money, and have a lavish night out in Sydney.
According to poet Evelyn Araluen, a Bundjalung descendant raised on Dharug land, Bowie’s video challenged the way that Aboriginal people were being portrayed in both local and international culture at the time.
“People didn’t understand why he made this film clip,” she says. “People still, to this day, can’t comprehend how he entered into this particular space and sought out Aboriginal faces. It would’ve been a very strange thing: this musician from England, who was working in America, coming out to this tiny country pub.”
“You really didn’t have any kind of cinematic video that represented Aboriginal people as contemporary figures...”
The ‘Let’s Dance’ video was a huge influence on Daniel Browning, a writer, sound artist and arts commentator who is the curator for Urban Theatre Projects’ Blak Box. The ‘deep listening’ project invites audience members to step inside a giant pavilion (more of a white box than a black one, in actuality) and listen to a surround soundscape telling Indigenous stories through music and spoken word. Inside the box, theatrical lighting matches with the recorded soundscape to create a fully immersive environment.
The next edition of Blak Box (Nov 1-16) is called ‘Momentum’, and it uses the ‘Let’s Dance’ video as the starting point to consider the representation of Aboriginal people in our culture. The project brings together contributions from leading Indigenous figures including singer Ursula Yovich, Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch, artist Vernon Ah Kee, academic Larissa Behrendt and poets Lorna Munro and Araluen.
“At the time of ‘Let’s Dance’, you really didn’t have any kind of cinematic video that represented Aboriginal people as contemporary figures, as having fun, as resisting the roles that their oppressors are assigning them,” Araluen says.
Araluen’s contribution to the project includes poetry and spoken word about the significance of a particular Dreaming story to the women in her family, as well as her experiences as a young Indigenous woman at house parties in Sydney’s Inner West. She also considers the role that movement plays in Aboriginal cultures, and she attempts to give a sense of that through her words, tying in with the movement celebrated in Bowie’s music video.
At the time of that video, the Aboriginal art market had just exploded internationally, but Araluen says that didn’t come with any real understanding of the diversity or experience of Indigenous people.
“Alongside that art movement came this new international version of what constitutes an Aboriginal person, which is that you’d have to be sitting in the desert – and unfortunately these are the ideas that still prevail today – you wouldn’t have a job, you’d be an alcoholic, you’d be living off government welfare,” Araluen says.
“People really don’t know a lot about our struggle...”
“Most people internationally know Aboriginal people as a relic of the past or through their understanding of tourism. I meet a lot of international students who are coming to study at the University of Sydney, where I work. They want to ‘learn more about the Aborigines’, and they’ll tell me that before they came to the class they went and climbed Uluru.”
Blak Box, with its multiplicity of Indigenous voices and experiences, exists as an antidote to that ignorance and has, at its very core, an invitation to listen, be transported to wondrous places, and expand your knowledge about Indigenous lives and experiences.
“That lack of understanding and comprehension coincides with how politically silenced we’ve been, internationally,” Araluen says. “People really don’t know a lot about our struggle and the work that we’ve been doing for our liberation and for the continuity of our culture.”
Blak Box is at Barangaroo Reserve from November 1 to 16.
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