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Melbourne International Arts Festival

Ngapartji, Ngapartji: sharing language

Rachel Maher

Ngapartji Ngapartji Ngapartji Ngapartji
photo Jesse Marlow
Attempting to describe Ngapartji Ngapartji, I feel a tangible sense of the effort it takes to ‘get it.’ And indeed it takes some commitment to understand what is essentially a unique, complex and unprecedented project, and that commitment is one of its integral elements.

Ngapartji Ngapartji is an ongoing, arts-based community development project facilitated through the national arts company Big hART. It engages young people with their language, culture and elders, and reveals itself in a Pitjantjatjara language lesson and stage performance. Its processes are hybrid—neither straight arts, welfare, academia nor linguistics—and seek to meaningfully engage the public with an Indigenous language, culture and story. According to its creative producer, Alex Kelly, Ngapartji Ngapartji explores the notion that “if time is taken to learn elements of a language, and a performance incorporates those elements, then the experience of the show will be much richer.”

The concept at the heart of the work is embodied in its name, which means ‘I give you something. You give me something.’ It’s a core principle of Pitjantjatjara society; a comprehensive idea and practice that, according to the project’s language advisor and teacher Lorna Wilson, makes English words like ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ unnecessary.

Despite the difficulty in wrapping the public’s head around the scope of the project, Ngapartji Ngapartji, as a work-in-progress, found success at the Melbourne International Arts Festival with sold-out performances on each of its 5 nights. Many of the seats were occupied by people returning night after night to gain the full experience. Lorna Wilson, though not trained as a performer, presented a series of increasingly dynamic language lessons around 4 elements of Pitjantjatjara society: Anangu (person or body), Ngura (country or home), Waltja (family) and Tjukurpa (dreaming and stories). Incorporated in each lesson were short videos—the results of workshops with young Pitjantjatjara speakers in Alice Springs. These digital pieces (which can be viewed online) are compelling, entertaining and very informative about contemporary Pitjantjatjara culture.

The show itself is a series of short chapters in the family story of principal performer Trevor Jamieson, whose father’s country in Western Australia was part of the site of the notorious Maralinga nuclear tests. Trevor incorporated Pitjantjatjara words (“my waltja... my ngura”) in his telling of the tragic events around the tests—and how the international political climate of the early 20th century has left a distastrous legacy for his people and country. Young people and elders joined him on stage in a performance that was collaborative and at times highly emotional. From these short stories, says Alex, “the show is being developed into a more elaborate performance that fleshes out the themes related to this episode in Australia’s colonial history. The full-scale version of the show will be performed almost entirely in Pitjantjatjara language with the inclusion of English words that have no translation, such as Cold War.”

The festival showing was just the beginning for Ngapartji Ngapartji—the future is looking very busy. Building on the favourable responses of Melbourne audiences, Alex Kelly and writer (and Big hART co-founder) Scott Rankin are developing a comprehensive online language course and 75-minute touring performance which will debut in Alice Springs in June next year. “After June, we are hoping for Ngapartji Ngapartji’s return to the Melbourne Festival, possibly a show at the Sydney Opera House and one in Perth, with the potential to travel to the United States in 2007. We are also discussing a weekly language program on Indigenous Community TV, satellite broadcast from Alice Springs,” says Alex.

Undertaking the online course is not compulsory for attendance, but will certainly deepen an appreciation of the performance. Alex, in consultation with Lorna has been developing the language instruction. “The course will feature 24 lessons, taught by young people and elders and run for 6 months leading up to the show. It will require a commitment of around one hour per week, and there will also be forums and means of communicating with tutors.” Enrolments will commence in March in 2006 via the website.

Ngapartji Ngapartji experiments with ideas of exchange between audience and cast, and the nexus between education and entertainment, community development and performance. The risks involved in developing and presenting such a multi-faceted project were evident during the Melbourne season in some spontaneous on-stage moments, and will undoubtedly continue to shape the project. For example, the 6 young Aboriginal people who had participated in the workshops travelled from central Australia to the city for a live performance in a completely unfamiliar environment. While these young people are all multilingual, they are inexperienced teachers and stage performers, and they occupy spaces on society’s fringe as a result of poverty and systemic cultural marginalisation.

In Ngapartji Ngapartji these young people give students and audiences rare insight into their identities. Alex, and Suzy Bates, the arts mentor who worked with the young people in Alice Springs, notice how the experiences affected the performers: “At first they were overwhelmed, but the positive response of the Melbourne public had such an obvious impact on their self-esteem, confidence and cultural pride. The vision is that they will keep working with us over the next 2 years and they will continue to get a greater belief in themselves.”

The community development aspect of the project is central to Big hART’s purpose. The company uses an arts platform to “develop sustainable possibilities for those socially marginalised or at risk, especially young people, and creates opportunities for them to re-engage with broader society and increase skills in the areas of literacy and communication”, says Alex. Ngapartji Ngapartji involves the participation of senior Pitjantjatjara women and young people along with digital media producers, musicians, local artists and social services workers in a dynamic long-term collaboration. “We foresee the outcomes of the project lasting much longer than the duration of the touring show. Ngapartji Ngapartji hopes to preserve and share the Pitjantjatjara language and culture, and be a meaningful exchange between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians.”

Big hART, Ngapartji Ngapartji, Screen Pit, ACMI, Federation Square, Oct 11-15 Parts of this article appeared in the Melbourne Festival ArtsZine. Rachel Maher assisted with documenting the Melbourne performance of Ngapartji Ngapartji.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 8

© Rachel Kent; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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