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Future Shapers Arts Nakkiah Lui
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Time Out's Arts Future Shaper: Nakkiah Lui

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

Written by
Divya Venkataraman

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

Nakkiah Lui is
 a Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman, and a writer, commentator, actor and director for screen and the stage, who has emerged in recent years as one of the most dynamic, incisive and relevant artists of her generation. As a champion for First Nations communities, much of Lui's work explores contemporary Aboriginality through her darkly comic commentary on Australia's systemically racist power structures. She is an expert at repurposing pop-culture tropes to both demystify and amplify these conversations. In 2018, she won the NSW Premier's Literary Award for Black is the New White, produced by the Sydney Theatre Company – a provocative rom-com confronting cross-cultural prejudice, over dinner. Her play Blackie Blackie Brown used comic book superheroes to explore the desecration of First Nations lands and the complexities of reconciliation. 

She has also hosted two podcasts with Miranda Tapsell, Pretty for an Aboriginal, which delved into contemporary Aboriginal culture, dating and race, and Debutante: Race, Resistance and Girl Power, which explored both the colonial history and modern importance of debutante balls for young Aboriginal women.

Beyond the theatre, her voice carries powerfully into the mainstream on screen. She is the writer and director of the ABC sketch comedy show Black Comedy, and has just wrapped on filming Preppers, a new, end-of-the-world comedy TV series which she also co-wrote. She has made several appearances on Q&A where her skills as an orator and commentator on First Nations issues and beyond have cemented her voice as a crucially important one in a country still deeply rooted in its colonial past.

Follow Nakkiah on Twitter here.

On working across (and consuming) all kinds of art

I love every project I get to work on, and I think they inform each other. I write for theatre and for screen, I direct for theatre and for screen, and I've moved into publishing and editing. I have had two podcasts, and I also do lots of social commentary in a variety of mediums.

I consume heaps. I read a lot, I watch a lot, I listen to a lot, I talk to a lot of people. I'm just really curious about the world. When I originally started working in theatre, my first instincts as an artist were to try and understand the world. How do I understand the community around me? And how do I try and create hope and create change within that? To me, the arts has been the best way to do that.

On inspiration as coming from community and culture

My inspiration comes from a lot of things linked to my identity: from my community, my Aboriginal community, other writers, especially writers of color and performers of color, a lot of activism. But a lot of the time, my work comes from questions. With all of my work, I always feel like I'm trying to figure out a question. And by the end of the project, I usually have answered it and have like, 10 more questions. My play Blackie Blackie Brown, you know, this idea of how you can ever find justice... within a community with the legacy of colonisation. What is justice? What is hope? What does a dream look like out of that? I would say that my podcast Debutante looked at similar things, and asked similar questions, but just in a very different way.

On the contemporaries that inspire her

Shari Sebbens is doing really amazing things as a director, with the conversations and material that she's choosing, and how she's developing and working with new artists, like in Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. I think that conversation between different diasporas and the First Nations is really interesting – we don't really ever see work by people of colour that are non-Australian; a lot of the new work that we have from different artists is from white artists. Also, Declan Greene is doing amazing, amazing things. And Meyne Wyatt and Ronny Chieng. And we have a lot of great Aboriginal visual artists, like Tony Albert. He's incredible. And Adam Briggs. There are lots! 

On the importance of stories

I think stories are there to create understanding between people. How can a community ever know its future if it doesn't know its past? In essence, we need to speak with each other. We need empathy. Stories are so incredibly important to how we function. And that's why you find in some of the darkest moments of political histories, people quite often try and silence people's stories. And that is so evident in Australia's history, in its relationship with First Nations people. 

On whether Sydney's theatre scene changed after BLM went mainstream in 2020 

The Black Lives Matter movement has been happening around the world for decades. And it's been happening within Australia for decades... And there's a big discussion that's been happening within theatre, especially led by First Nations people, for many decades.

I think that there's a lot more [mainstage companies] can do – but that conversation has been happening for years and years, because the fight for equality for people of color, especially First Nations people within Australia, has been happening since 1788. 

Change takes a really long time, but I think radical change can happen quite swiftly when people are brave, and can make big decisions. One of the only reasons why I think that I'm able to have the career I have is because of the history of Black theatre within Australia, you know, the National Black Theatre, which was Bob Maza and Gary Foley, which was very much linked to the civil rights movement.

So much of what I do wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for a lot of the Aboriginal people who've spent years and years and years, decades, advocating and using the arts as a way to create change within Australia. Yeah, so that has changed. And is it swift enough? No. Is it fast enough? No, but it's happening.

In response to the BLM protests, I got to be part of The Whole Table, a TV show by STC and NITV with Shari Sebbens as host, which was a watershed moment in theatre. It was a screen/theatre collab that interrogated the power of stories – especially with political advocacy – speaking to leading First Nations and Black artists around the world.

On what she would love to see in the future of Sydney's arts industry

I would love to see a Black woman as the artistic director of a mainstage [theatre] company. I would love to see more First Nations people on staff for companies with artistic roles. To see people of color getting executive positions where they get to make substantial shifts to culture. To see the diversification of audiences... It would be great, too, to have more independent theatres, where people can learn how to do things without the pressure of mainstage company audiences. And: community. Local communities having access to theatre, and every company having a responsibility to make theatre accessible to our local communities, is really important to me. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and conciseness. 

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