Before colonisation around 1835, when white settlers first began turning Melbourne into an urban space, it was an important gathering place for Aboriginal people of the Kulin Nation. Since then there has been the familiar pattern of displacement and marginalisation of Indigenous peoples, a story often submerged and avoided in public policy and creative discourse. The lack of a landmark capital city-based arts festival led by First Nations artists in Australia was one symptom of that political situation. In 2017 Melbourne hosted the YIRRAMBOI First Nations Arts Festival, which was led by an Elders Council of Kulin leaders.
The festival presented the continuing culture and diverse contemporary practice of First Nations artists through 100 events and programmes produced by 260 creatives. It was shaped by four underlying principles: Indigenous leadership; new work; visibility and dialogue; and international collaboration. In its first year it reached audiences of 25,000, with a media reach of half a million, and works developed are now touring to other cities.
In the run up to a second event in 2019, the festival will drive a continuous cycle of work through three flagship programmes: The Knowledge and Industry Network (KIN), which connects First Nations independent artists with each other and the industry; Blak Critics, which includes more informed, diverse voices in the conversation around performance; and Dhumba Wiiny (fire talk), a process of inviting audiences to talk about the performances they have just seen. There will also be monthly lectures by Elders of Indigenous Arts at ‘The History Salon’, aimed at creating a ‘living encyclopaedia’ of First Nations artistic work.
YIRRAMBOI, which means ‘tomorrow’, will continue to run every other year, providing a platform for new work by Indigenous artists, allowing them to thrive and develop their practice.