words and photos – Karla O’Connor
Those of you Melbournians out there who still think Footscray is a ghetto should listen up and listen up good. The inner Western suburb has so much more than just the riffraff, crime and heroin many people know it by. But this is no big secret, it’s pretty well known that parts of Footscray are very much in the process of gentrification: the change that occurs when wealthier people buy or rent in low income or working-class areas. And this touches on just one of the reasons I’m excited to spread the love about Wominjeka 2013.
Wominjeka means ‘welcome’ in the language of the Kulin Nation, the traditional lands in which the City of Maribyrnong was largely built. Initially, Wominjeka was developed by the folks at Footscray Community Arts Centre as a way to celebrate Australia’s Indigenous artistic and cultural practices. Now, just two years on the event has grown into a full week of activities with a program of ceremony, gatherings, exhibitions, forums, floor-talks, performances, screenings, workshops, master class and celebration.
I went along to the opening ceremony this past Friday with a feeling in my stomach that it was going to be something special. Of course my learned self knows better than to go to an event with expectations but luckily for me, I was not disappointed at all. Not even close. I arrived to find a warm crowd gathering at the amphitheatre just outside the arts centre. And no, I didn’t find them warm because it had been 37 degrees during the day, I found them warm because of the abundance of long, drawn out hugs that were going on. I didn’t know why so many people were hugging, but I thought it was pretty lovely. Later I found out that many of the people there were family members that had made their way from all over country Victoria and as far as Queensland to be apart of the celebration. By this stage the hugging made sense. I found a place for myself on the grass and sat and watched as the crowd grew. The sun got lower, the air got cooler, and kids got rowdier chasing each other around with sticks from the trees. Music played a kind of cool ambient groove with splashes of bush sounds and pretty little blonde girls danced like no one was watching them. I found myself smiling a lot, even though the whole time I was being bitten on the arse by an army of ants.
The ceremony began with many a thank you and credit being given where credit was due. And then all of us attending were given a eucalyptus leaf as a symbol of welcome. Every part of the ceremony was conducted with such good feeling and harmony simply because we all share the commonality of spirit. Some Elders shared stories and I actually almost cried. And I am not a crier, people. But speaking as the last people and also the first people of the land, and sharing stories as a way to come together and celebrate the diversity of the communities through art was a very thought provoking experience for me. Art has the capacity to enable people to reconnect with their cultural heritage and the power to heal and inspire people to positively identify with their culture, and it’s not just about Aboriginal culture, but all cultures that make up the very multicultural suburb that is Footscray.
This is so important for a number of reasons, the concept of gentrification being one of them. To some, gentrification is a good thing: increasing property values, better access to services, and more convenient access to things likes cafes, bars and other signifiers of ‘culture.’ And by this culture I mean Western Anglo-centric culture. It’s a natural part of the market-driven system in which we live that businesses will seek to cater for their customers in the way that will generate the most patronage, and in turn, the fabric of the community changes. But what are we losing by watching Footscray become the ‘Richmond of the West?’ – ethnic on the outside and white underneath. Does gentrification always have to be another word for homogenisation? For me, Footscray’s most awesome quality is its richness of diversity.
But before I digress too much, my point is that gentrification happens so it’s celebrations like Wominjeka that are not only exciting to see visually, but vital to exist culturally. It’s a space to learn about the personal strengths that come from participating in cultural practices. A place very much about the healing process for the loss experienced by so many Aboriginal people, the exploration of identity, the restoration of the health and well being of the culture, and an opportunity to sample some of the most inspiring artistic outcomes to come out of the West from a range of uniquely community-focussed projects and creative practices. The work itself may have taken many months to make, but it took a lifetime to create.
Wominjeka hosts a range of different events. They include artist floor talks, Reflect Exhibition, Weave Exhibition, Hunted performance, a family day, the hip-hop academy showcase and more. They run until Saturday 19th Jan, however, some exhibitions will stay up until Sunday 24th March so check out the website – footscrayarts.com