How can you bring indigenous communities into mainstream Australian performing arts? Ibijerri Theatre’s Kamarra Bell-Wykes reflects on the importance of creating new opportunities, building an education programme, and how the UK arts scene compares to Australia
Walking in different worlds
Kamarra Bell-Wykes participates in the Ibijerri John Bolton Creative Lab with other indigenous performers. Photograph: Darren Gill
I'm currently running the education and learning programme at Ibijerri Theatre Company, which covers a whole gamut of things. It's an advocacy and education-based resource which delivers workshops in schools, works with different university groups and develops the curriculum. It also creates opportunities for the indigenous community to engage in the performing arts through workshops. I've been doing this for almost three years. And then on top of that, I'm a playwright, predominantly writing health education and learning programmes.
I fell into playwriting through on-and-off experiences growing up with drama groups, and I'd always enjoyed writing. It's hard to sustain a full-time career as a writer – you need a variety of tools. I did an education degree because it came with a scholarship, and did some teaching and youth work in the Northern Territory. I was approached to relocate back down to Melbourne and work with Ibijerri – who I'd worked with before as a playwright – to build their education programme from the ground up.
"Visiting England as an Aboriginal woman was very interesting"
In a lot of ways, it's scary and exciting because the programme didn't exist before. I'm making up a lot of it as I go along based on instinct, opportunity and ideas. I'm in uncharted territory and I have a lot of autonomy. My job is different every day and I work with a lot of great people across different sectors. I get to walk in a few different worlds, which can be really exciting and amazing, but also quite overwhelming at times.
Australia has recently made the history and culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a cross-curriculum priority. That means teachers have to find a way to embed understanding across all subjects. That's great in theory, but the issue is that many teachers have a limited education within these concepts themselves. They may never have met an Aboriginal person, and the knowledge and history within mainstream Australian society is very limited. There's a huge fear barrier for teachers trying to meaningfully and effectively teach these things.
We're trying to support teachers, and create opportunities and resources for them to be able to do that, at least within the scope of drama. One of the other big challenges is then balancing that with providing opportunities for the indigenous community to access the performing arts.
That's another issue; performing arts are a great tool for the indigenous community, but there are limited opportunities. Those two things are at different ends of the spectrum. It's a challenge to bring them together, and to create those opportunities.
"Performing arts are a great tool for the indigenous community, but there are limited opportunities"
I visited the UK as part of the ACCELERATE leadership programme, which is a partnership with the British Council and the Australian Council. Visiting England as an Aboriginal woman, who also has English heritage, was very interesting, because it is seen as the country of our coloniser. I had some preconceived ideas about what it would be like.
I found that I was very surprised by what I saw as really genuine diversity and inclusion within the UK. It felt like the UK was miles ahead. I'm aware that there are still issues in the sector about representation of different diverse groups – but it's miles ahead of the Australian scene and I was surprised by that.
One of the things that struck me about the UK is just the amount of work being made – there are so many different organisations! I really feel that the tapestry and the ecology of the performing arts sector in the UK is much more vibrant, diverse and representative of the different community groups living in the UK.
In Australia, we're still a very small sector. There are lots of exciting things happening in the UK: it's a different dynamic and a different demographic, and there's a lot of risk-taking. In Australia, particularly within the indigenous sector, there isn't as much space for failure. We always have to be doing things right the first time. We're in a very similar funding situation, where there have been lots of cuts across the arts. We're really only beginning to see what the lasting impact of that is going to be.
Kamarra Bell-Wykes is the MARGUK Manager, Education and Learning at Ibijerri Theatre Company. (MARGUK is pronounced Mar-gook and means to share/unite in the Boon Wurrung language.) She was also part of the British Council's 2016 ACCELERATE programme. ACCELERATE is a tailored leadership skills development programme for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working within the creative industries.