Aboriginal performance art: How bizarre!

Zane Saunders, I, Alien, 2012
Zane Saunders, I, Alien, On Edge Festival, KickArts Contemporary Arts, Cairns, in collaboration with Nicholas Mills

There was a moment last night, when she was sandwiched between the two Finnish dwarves and the Maori tribesmen, where I thought, “Wow, I could really spend the rest of my life with this woman”.
Derek Zoolander[1]

A performance artist colleague told me that, technically, performance art occurs anytime an artist is engaged in an activity at a site, or in a space, at a particular time. When we talk of performance in an Aboriginal context it draws out a number of images and memories – dance, song, the choreography of a painter’s movements, acting, poetry, theatre and film performance. It has another form or appearance in the artworld. In fact, some would say art should be seen as an event rather than an object. This was the practice of “happenings” in the 1960–70s.

It was in the early 1970s when a contemporary dance group was established in Sydney that would eventually lead to the current NAISDA (National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association) and later Bangarra Dance Theatre (est.1989). It worked towards a fusion of “traditional” dance from across Australia, with contemporary practices largely from “Black America”, and the politics of the times. A ”Black Theatre” also started around then. Both tried to fuse the visual arts with creative, open and highly politicised theatre.

The ATSI (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) movements of the 1970s aimed to blend and integrate a wider field of intellectual endeavour beyond what their names suggested. And in a private conversation Stephen Page suggested he wished Bangarra had morphed into such a polyglot of practices. In the 1970s any politically activated Aboriginal person attempted some art practice; played didj, danced, painted or acted, wrote poetry. In a sense, what could be called “performing identity”. We struggled to reconstruct a society of previous times: we knew we were different, we were changed and we didn’t quite know what we would end up being, but we just had to be active and creative in some way. We were always drawn to what we thought was “the source”.

In contemporary art terms, art should always have a form of materiality (if only in the human body itself), a politic, and a context of why it is here and now. Historically or traditionally you may have knowledge from books, but in Arnhem Land I was told that you never fully understood until you’ve experienced a thing through an involvement or as seen in practice – otherwise you could not know.

At the 2013 City of Melbourne Indigenous Art Festival I argued in my presentation “The Creature From the Id” that the Aboriginal presence in Australian films was, until now, only present as a shadow figure on the fringe, a cypher or sign of the primitive.

For me, Aborigines are the most natural human beings: they live not in the past or in the future but in the present. They have a story and a meaning for everything.
Marina Abramovic[2]

After a sometimes-troubled residency among Aboriginal people in Australia’s central desert, Marina Abramovic used a living Australian diamond python, a gold-leafed boomerang, a central Australian Aboriginal “dot” painter, and a meditating Buddhist priest as cyphers or signs of spirituality in her durational work, her ritualised space in the 1980s.

At the 2013 Momentum Berlin event, an inconclusive panel discussion took place on what is the difference between theatre and performance art.[3] Given the propensity of ATSI people to be led to theatre, to film or television, where do “other artists” and “other visions” fit in to be taken seriously?

Sculpture occupies the same space as your body.
Anish Kapoor[4]

A performance artist colleague brought these points up. A theatre show is owned. Theatre deals with structured reality – it constructs something and tries to deal with it. Theatre-actors play with something given to them, a formal script. Performance art comes from inside. Performance art is more conceptual – those who do it are called artists rather than actors. It may involve durational performance as in the work of Marina Abramovic and her “ritualised space“.

In a largely non-religious area many artists would say they are in essence creating their own “rituals” that put their bodies on the line. The majority of performance art is not dialogue based – it is mute like a painting, it sits in the world of ideas of art and not in writing or spoken words. It is not resolved and is unexpected in its outcomes.

Most “Western” performance artists work from a secure cultural base in order to venture out to challenge and innovate. ATSI performance artists work from a more fragile, challenged, maybe not acceptably authentic base.

Every time I look around (Every time I look around)
Every time I look around
It’s in my face
How bizarre?
How bizarre,
How bizarre.

Marrugeku, Gudirr Gudirr, 2013
Marrugeku, Gudirr Gudirr, 2013, performer: Dalisa Pilgram. Photo: Terry Murphy and Helen Fletcher-Kennedy


  1. ^ From the film Zoolander (Dir. Ben Stiller), Paramount Pictures, 2001.
  2. ^ Tim Douglas, ‘How myths are made: Marina Abramovic remembers Lake Disappointment’, The Weekend Australian Review, 2 April, 2013. 
  3. ^ Panel discussion, ‘Curating Performance Art’, Momentum Berlin, 2013: http://momentumworldwide.org/berlin-index.
  4. ^ Words of Art, Inspiring Quotes From the Masters, Adams Media, Avon, Massachussetts, 2013, p. 150.
  5. ^ 'How Bizarre', lyrics, Paul Fuemana, Alan Leo Jansson, Polygram Music Publishing, 1995. 

Djon Mundine OAM is a member of the Bundjalung people of northern New South Wales and has worked as an arts advisor, curator and arts writer.