Q&A: Black Arm Band

Melbourne-based Black Arm Band was founded in 2006 as a project of the City of Melbourne, inspired by the late ARIA Award-nominated Indigenous Australian musician and writer Ruby Hunter.

The company aims to create flexible, artistically ambitious music and theatrical performances with a focus on the expression of Australian Aboriginal experience and identity. In addition to numerous international performances and highprofile artist collaborations, it has produced six large-scale shows to date – including the highly acclaimed dirtsong (premiered at Melbourne International Arts Festival, 2009) – and was featured in the London 2012 Olympics Festival (with Mamiath-Mother Tongue, directed by Lou Bennett).

Black Arm Band also tours to remote and regional Indigenous communities, in partnership with The Fred Hollows Foundation, using full-scale performances and smaller workshop programmes to promote and enhance holistic community health and well-being. Elizabeth Woollacott, the company’s executive producer and co-CEO, tells Mark Powell more about its work.

How would you define Black Arm Band’s general mission statement and creative philosophy? What are the main aspects of your creative approach and goals?

‘Celebrate’ and ‘revolutionise’ are two words that emerge over and over again in our work. The other one that keeps appearing is ‘hope’. Black Arm Band’s creative philosophy is about empowering and inspiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, but also about building cultural bridges for reconciliation. We started as a project to celebrate 40 years of protest songs by many of the pioneers of Aboriginal contemporary music. It was a completely new format – a large-scale music theatre production including Australia’s leading ATSI artists. Today, the success of this platform allows us to inform and educate audiences, and to share the breadth, depth and beauty of Indigenous cultural life while providing a creative meeting place for Indigenous artists and a broad range of non-Indigenous collaborators.

What is Black Arm Band working on as we speak, and what might a typical day for the company involve at the moment?

There’s really no such thing as a typical day: there are festival days, theatre days, school days, planning days, touring days, and trying-to-fund-it-all days. At the moment we’re a long way from Melbourne, doing remote community work in Papunya, a tiny Indigenous Australian town in the heart of the Northern Territory. Several artists have been engaging with the community in the local school for a few weeks, and tomorrow we’ll present the full-scale show. It’s the same show that we’ll be presenting in Singapore and Taipei in August, only this time the remoteness of the community is such that it’s going to mean 260km of dirt roads as we head north from Alice Springs (trying to avoid hitting roaming stock, camels and kangaroos), bringing in our own generators and even our own toilets. Our group of 19 can’t stay overnight, as there’s nowhere in town to accommodate them, and staying outside in the desert at night isn’t an option. Instead we’ll leave Alice Springs before sunrise and return after midnight, so it’s a very long day, but this is the best audience in the world – especially the children.

There’s one shop in town, a medical centre, and nothing else. We’ll be creating a magical space under the stars, with bonfires to keep everyone warm, and performing the soul-stirring music birthed in this town. The children are also included in the programme, singing the songs that they’ve written with our musicians about healthy living and the honey ant.

What are the main issues faced by Black Arm Band when creating work based around Indigenous Australian music and culture?

With the current changes to government funding in the arts sector going on, and also the forced removal of Aboriginal communities from their land, there is much concern that current and new creative works may not continue to get up and running – or, at least, may not get mobilised to the same extent.

As an Indigenous organisation we are representing work that comes from socially disadvantaged communities, and as such we don’t have a lot of supporters that would be able to engage in private giving or philanthropy. A lot of our work at home is not ticketed and our musicians are freelance, so we rely heavily on state and national funding. It’s time for us to think smarter about how we’re going to remain feasible financially while not compromising on our responsibilities to communities, or presenting anything less than the best in terms of our productions.

Read the full interview in Vol 11: Issue 12 of IAM here.