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First Nations arts

Group shot of twelve people.
The 2019 National Indigenous Arts Awards. Back row, L-R: Ali Cobby Eckermann, Rhoda Roberts AO, Vicki van Hout, Aunty Lola Greeno, Rachael Maza, Uncle Jack Charles, Jacob Boehme, Jenna Lee, Vernon Ah Kee. Bottom row, L-R: Thomas E.S. Kelly, Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin, Wesley Enoch.

Australia’s First Nations arts are diverse expressions of the world’s oldest continuing living culture. They are a source of great pride to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and a reflection of cultural strength, resilience, innovation and artistic excellence. The Australia Council is committed to long-term support for First Nations arts as one of our strategic goals and in keeping with the functions of our Act.

The Council undertakes a broad range of activity to support First Nations arts and cultural expression, including investment through project grants and multi-year funding; targeted investment through the Chosen and Signature Works programs; capacity building and strategic development nationally and internationally; the National Indigenous Arts Awards; and research that investigates the First Nations arts ecology and promotes greater access and participation in First Nations arts experiences by all Australians.

Investment

Our investment is underpinned by First Nations decision-making. Our First Nations strategy panel comprising senior arts leaders provides expert advice; and our dedicated funding to First Nations people, groups and organisations through our grants program is assessed wholly by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peer assessors.

The Council invested $13 million in First Nations artists and communities in 2018–19. We are seeing strong First Nations-led projects funded through all areas of arts practice. First Nations artists and arts organisations supported by the Council created more than 2,600 new works and reached audiences of 2.4 million. A record number of First Nations artists were acknowledged through the Australia Council Awards and fellowships as well as the National Indigenous Arts Awards.

Signature Works Innovation Lab 4 was held in Hobart in March 2019, a four day immersive workshop with the aim of developing new First Nations works of scale. Fourteen artists and four mentors participated, with six successful pitches awarded $10,000 each. Signature Works story production investment of $25,000 each was awarded to six artists, including Andrea James for Sunshine Super Girl.

The Chosen program supports intergenerational artistic and cultural transmission through community-led cultural apprenticeships and residencies. In 2018–19, Chosen supported ten projects with an investment of $454,000. First Nations communities value this strategic program due to limited funding opportunities for intergenerational knowledge transfer between Elders and youth.

We continue to invest in international exchange opportunities for First Nations artists and companies. In 2018‑19 we continued our support for the Global First Nations Exchange during the New York in January performing arts events, and established a new partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts to support touring and exchange for Australian First Nations artists in Canada.

In its second year of a strategic partnership with the Sydney Opera House, Badu Gili continued to showcase First Nations artists at the most prominent place in Sydney and the first point of call for international tourists. Sydney Opera House received over 242,000 visitors for Badu Gili and this project.

Research and advocacy

In 2018, the Australia Council commissioned a detailed research project to uncover the needs of the First Nations community for the development of a First Nations Leadership Program. The research indicated a critical requirement for a First Nations specific leadership program and the Council is working with the First Nations arts sector on its development.

Other research in 2018–19 included fieldwork for Creating Art (forthcoming), exploring how First Nations performing arts are created and reach audiences; International Arts Tourism: Connecting Cultures (November 2018) highlighting the power of First Nations arts to engage international tourists; and publication of our evidence-based submission to the Closing the Gap Refresh in an accessible online format (July 2018).

We continued to use our evidence base to advocate for ethical trade of First Nations arts, the critical role of arts and culture in Closing the Gap, and in submissions highlighting the importance of First Nations arts in Australia’s tourism strategies and soft power. We commenced a review of the Protocols for Working With Indigenous Artists, in collaboration with Terri Janke.

National Indigenous Arts and Cultural Authority (NIACA)

The Council is providing interim secretariat support to the First Nations arts sector for the development of a National Indigenous Arts and Cultural Authority (NIACA), including the facilitation of a national consultation process. A total of 44 consultations were conducted from October 2018–June 2019. The consultation will culminate in a national gathering in 2020.

The need for an independent NIACA has been identified by the First Nations arts and cultural sector as a significant gap in the existing structures and has been discussed for many years. Momentum is building nationally in support of an independent central peak body for the First Nations arts and cultural sector, providing First Nations artists and cultural organisations with a national voice across all areas of practice.

Telling uniquely Australian stories

The Australia Council supports all stages of the creative process to bring Australian stories to life. The Council’s 2017 Signature Works innovation lab led to a successful pitch to support development of Andrea James’ theatre work Sunshine Super Girl about Wiradjuri tennis champion Evonne Goolagong.

Sunshine Super Girl is a quintessentially Australian story about a Black girl from the bush who, with the unlikely support of an outback farming town and her loving family, rises to become a world tennis champion in 1971 at the tender age of 19 – making Evonne Goolagong a household name.

The Council supported the second phase of creative development of Sunshine Super Girl in December 2018. Produced by Performing Lines, the development brought together artists and collaborators, and culminated in a showing with invited guests including Evonne and her husband Roger Cawley. With commissioning support from 10 presenters, the work will now head into production and hit stages in 2020.

In a rehearsal room. A woman pretending to swing a tennis racket and a man pointing to where the ball would make contact. Five people sit in the background watching.
Creative development of Andrea James’ Sunshine Super Girl. Image courtesy of Performing Lines.

Cultural strength supporting wellbeing, education, employment and community connections

First Nations arts engagement supports empowerment, community connectedness and wellbeing among First Nations Australians.1 Arts provide opportunities for First Nations peoples and the broader Australian community to connect with the living stories and landscapes of Australia’s First Nations, and with each other.

Milpirri Jurntu is a partnership between the Lajamanu community and the NT’s premier contemporary dance company Tracks. A bilingual, bicultural, intergenerational project, Milpirri culminates in a spectacular sunset community performance that brings together dance and music, young and old, past and present. The 7th Milpirri was held in November 2018. In a remote community of 608 people it featured 141 local performers and an audience of around 520, demonstrating whole community engagement.

An independent evaluation found the 2018 Milpirri fostered partnerships across community health, education and the arts; enhanced community organisations and employment; improved participation at school; decreased shaming among the school attendees; improved social, emotional and cultural wellbeing; and increased cultural continuity and cross‑cultural learning.2

1. Australia Council 2017, Living Culture: First Nations arts participation and wellbeing.

2. Marshal A 2018, Milpirri Jurntu 2018 Evaluation Report.

Rows of children crouching, wearing colourful clothes, in front of colourful artworks.
Tracks Dance Company. 2019 Milpirri Jurntu. Youth dancers. Credit: Peter Eve.