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White Face – some notes from a fair-skinned Aboriginal

Carly Sheppard is performing in Melbourne as part of Next Wave. Gregory Lorenzutti

Carly Sheppard’s latest work, White Face playing as part of Melbourne’s Next Wave festival this week, is a contemporary performance addressing personal experiences as a fair-skinned Aboriginal person based in Melbourne. It’s a topic that gives plenty of scope for discussion.

Since European settlement of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have used public performances as a way to incorporate European audiences and engage with settler colonial economy. In this way artistic performance has functioned as both resistance and response to colonisation.

Traditionally, Indigenous public performances have been offered as a form of entertainment or cultural curio, and have acted as part of economic exchange. Dance has been a means to assert identity and political power as well as social status.

Performances have acted as an important focus within Aboriginal communities for the expression of cultural adaptation as well as innovation. New ways of knowing, ways of being, and ways of sharing information have thus been incorporated and re-presented to non-Indigenous audiences.

Carly Sheppard, White Face. Image Gregory Lorenzutti

Negotiating the spaces between non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities has become increasingly difficult as so many Aboriginal people now belong, at least in part, to both. I myself am a fair-skinned Aboriginal person who embraces hybridity at the core of my identity and thus have experienced these difficulties first-hand.

There are few Aboriginal families in settled areas that have not felt the impact of what is in the popular discourse described as the “stolen generations”.

Consequently experiencing life as a contemporary Aboriginal person in Australia can be fraught with challenges to identity, authenticity, and legitimacy.

As Indigenous author Anita Heiss wrote in her 2012 book Am I Black Enough For You?:

The Australian media have discovered a new crime, to charge them with: being too “fair skinned” to be Aboriginal.

In September 2010, nine Aboriginal people began legal proceedings in the Federal Court against shock jock Andrew Bolt and the Herald Sun over two posts on Bolt’s blog. Bolt’s articles proposed it was fashionable for fair-skinned people of diverse heritage to cherry-pick Aboriginality as a racial identity for the purposes of political and vocational influence.

Bolt was found to have contravened section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. The fallout from this can now be seen in the changes being proposed to 18C by Attorney General George Brandis and his recent claim that Australians have the right to be bigots.

Dance and choreographer Carly Sheppard is a descendant of the Wallangamma and Takalaka Tribes of North Queensland who has been training and working professionally in the dance industry for over eight years.

White Face is intended as an exploration of the experience of being a fair-skinned Aboriginal person in contemporary Australia.

Carly Sheppard, White Face. Image Gregory Lorenzutti

Highly personal and deeply intellectual, Sheppard’s two-years-in-the-making project still requires some refinement. While being a crafty take on a post Bolt-case Australia, Sheppard’s performance at times resembled Pilates meets Frantz Fanon, the French-Caribbean author of Black Skins White Masks.

Sheppard’s character, having re-enacted her discovery that she was of Aboriginal descent onstage, performs a monologue about her experience using an accent and mannerisms which indicate a low socio-economic background.

In this way, she equates poverty and disadvantage with her Aboriginality. It is as if she could never have found out she were Aboriginal, had she been born in Melbourne’s Toorak or Sydney’s Point Piper.

Sheppard’s piece is a clever and original exploration of Aboriginality in contemporary Melbourne. While attempting to make the audience think their way outside the tropes of black equals Aboriginal, this performance unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, replicates the paradigm of Aboriginal as interchangeable with disadvantaged.

Its shortcomings emerge not from the subject matter itself, but rather its execution and reinforcement of negative stereotypes.

Yet again we have witnessed an attack on the colour barrier; perhaps in time we might also begin to dismantle the class barrier.

White Face runs at Footscray Community Arts Centre, as part of Next Wave, until Sunday May 11.

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