In a rare incursion into the nation’s political life, Australia’s premier Indigenous dance company has backed the Yes campaign for an Indigenous Voice to parliament, in a move that is likely to prompt some of the country’s major arts companies to follow.
The board of Bangarra Dance Theatre and artistic director Frances Rings have urged Australians to “step forward and walk together in the spirit of truth, reconciliation, and equality for all”.
Bangarra said people should trust that recommendations for constitutional recognition and a Voice to parliament had been a result of a process that was collaborative, careful and intensely thorough.
“By supporting the vote for Yes, we not only pay respect to the truth of the past, we state our vision for our future as a nation that values equity and fairness and acknowledges the rights of Indigenous peoples,” Bangarra said in a statement to be issued widely on Monday.
“We hope for a peaceful and constructive process towards change, and that the resilience and courage that has underscored the survival of our First Nation peoples inspires all Australians to step forward and walk together in the spirit of truth, reconciliation, and equality for all.”
With the referendum for a constitutionally enshrined Voice expected to be held as early as August, ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ campaigns have begun rolling out across the country, neither side funded by taxpayers or parliament.
Consensus has yet to be established among some Indigenous communities and in parts of the wider Australian community for the Yes vote as the two major parties largely divide along party lines.
Bangarra’s board encourages every Australian to “inform themselves, listen with an open mind”.
“We also recognise and respect the importance of empowering our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and storytellers to define and communicate their individual views on this issue,” its public statement read.
The position offered moral leadership, and was not intended as an instruction to staff, donors or audiences, Bangarra chairperson Phillipa McDermott said.
Members of its board, staff and performers, she said, held different understandings of the Voice to parliament, and not all would necessarily go on to support the Yes case. “But that’s not our job. Our job is to educate and inform.“
In briefings last week, staff had been offered access to information and resources about the referendum in a neutral forum and had been encouraged to talk to kin and communities. But other major arts companies were likely to take their lead from Bangarra and offer support in the coming weeks.
Rings said she believed that the Voice was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change and for our nation to come together and do better”.
“It’s going to have its teething problems, I’ve no doubt, but what else do we have?” she said. “It’s personal for me. I have two sons and racism exists out there, and I still have family members dying far too soon, and the weight we carry and the pain through lived experience and what we inherit feels insurmountable, and, yet, we have to have hope.
“I just want to believe my sons can have a future that is illuminating and affords them every opportunity for a fulfilled, healthy life as is afforded other non-indigenous Australians.”
Founded in 1989, Bangarra stages powerful works of theatre from oral stories handed down by elders of the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
With Yuldea, her first production as artistic director, to open at the Sydney Opera House in June, Rings said Bangarra found the language in dance to express what words could not. “That’s our power,” Rings said.
“We are not politicians; we are an arts company, and we’ve had the privilege to work with more than 100 communities who have entrusted their stories to us and I can see how empowering that truth-telling is for us and our audiences.
“We want to afford their young people a future in the arts so they can dream big and their dreams can be realised and so it’s important to us to release this statement. But we also respect everybody’s different opinions and absolutely acknowledge that it’s down to the individual and their experience as to how they vote. For Blackfellas, decisions are not made on their own. It’s kinship.”
McDermott, who is the director of First Nations Talent for Deloitte Australia, said she had come to a personal position of support just three months ago following a period of intense research.
“I hope the Australian people will understand that this modest proposal is not at the cost of other Australians. It hopes to enhance and build a better future by us being able to have a say on our own affairs. That’s all.”
A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. Sign up to our Culture Fix newsletter here.
Most Viewed in Culture