'Exorcising Colonial Demons with a Blak Mass' by Angelina Hurley

This piece was produced as part of Blak Critics—a YIRRAMBOI initiative giving voice to First Nations writers and critics, and has been co-published with YIRRAMBOI. To read more work by this year's Blak Critics, and to find out more about this incredible festival, visit YIRRAMBOI's website.

Image taken by James Henry for YIRRAMBOI

Naretha Williams’ experimental electronic performance Blak Mass was a truly mesmerising experience. Drawing on data from traditional Aboriginal Songlines, she composed a musical sequence woven from the pattern of her own DNA.
 The work of Wiradjuri woman Williams, born in Melbourne, forms part of her ongoing series Cryptex, which began back in 2017 at the inaugural biennial YIRRAMBOI festival of First Nations art and culture with her piece Circle. Introduced at the opening of the 2019 festival by artistic director Caroline Martin, Blak Mass nicely followed on from Caroline’s dedication to the strength and talent of First Nations women.

Encompassing themes of identity, place and body, Williams’ pieces have been performed at both festivals late at night. The first on at an outdoor venue and the second at an indoor venue—the ambiance of which married well with the sentiment of Caroline's welcoming and acknowledging all First Nations peoples and reminding us of the importance of being able to walk on country in our own right.
 In this spirit, Caroline celebrated the fact of Williams’ work being performed with a distinct purpose to decolonise. Hence Blak Mass was performed in the epitome of colonial venues, at Melbourne's old Town Hall, ripe for decolonising.

The musical score was designed from the sequence of Naretha's own DNA pattern. The digitally and electronically created composition spoke to the legacy of colonisation, a commentary made all the more powerful by harnessing the voice of the venue’s historical instrument, the grand organ. But it wasn’t only the medium of sound through which this decolonisation occurred. It also took flight through extremes of colour and light.
 Two strategically placed spotlights trained on the organ resembled giant eyes, with the glowing bottom row of the keyboard taking on the appearance of a mouth, as if the face of a 147-year-old man patiently was waiting for his audience to arrive. A haunting blue mist caressed the stage to the backing sound of soft bells.
 The audience sat with placid anticipation at this vision, with a stark red light projected on the stage matching that of the Aboriginal flag atop the organ, with the yellowish beady-eyed spotlights and a Blak stage strewn with dots. The lighting of Blak Mass perfectly complemented the show. One minute the stage was totally engulfed in that dramatic red, the next decorated with light streams, which, to me, resembled the rarrk strokes of an Aboriginal painting.

The haunting old grand organ provided a heartbeat to Williams’ avant-garde, gothic techno music. Her overarching contemporary electronic score resonated with the nostalgia of a sci-fi movie, with the familiarity of a Doctor Who-type theme popping up in one section making me smile. As did distant clapstick sounds in the background. Williams moves so calmly through her performance, that its complexity look effortless.

The inauguration of a festival should hit you with an experience of anticipation, excitement and fun as YIRRAMBOI 2017 did me. A city wide Blak out, going from venue to venue to see an abundance of First Nations performances was amazing. I couldn't wait to return.
 The meditative experience of Blak Mass set me in good stead for YIRRAMBOI 2019. I gleefully cruised through the festival with a more conscious intake of the wonderful diversity of Indigenous story telling and performance. Both years have left me with a feeling of nothing but pride and joy. Here's to YIRRAMBOI 2021, bring it on.

Angelina Hurley is an Aboriginal woman from Brisbane, and from the Jagera, Gooreng Gooreng, Mununjali, Birriah, and Kamilaroi nations. Daughter of renowned Aboriginal artist Ron Hurley, her career spans Indigenous Arts, Education and Community Cultural Development. She's an emerging writer whose debut was her short film Aunty Maggie and the Womba Wakgun produced by Screen Australia's Short Black series in 2009. In 2011 she was awarded the Australian-American Fulbright Commission's Indigenous Scholarship. She is working on her Doctoral studies at Griffith University. Angelina is also co-host of the popular radio show Wild Black Women with Associate Professor Chelsea Bond on Brisbane's 98.9fms Let's Talk Program.