Features/Music/Perth Festival

Stories that get to the heart of the matter

27 February 2023

With the ‘yes’ campaign for the Voice to Parliament just launched, Big hART’s latest shows are timely, writes Victoria Laurie, providing a reminder about the importance of gathering on shared ground to listen to one another.

When a group of women start talking about “deep abiding respect for your sister-in-law”, you know the sentiment emerges from a place far from Western culture. Jokes about sisters-in-law and mothers-in-law are legion, and they’re usually disrespectful. But the Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi women from the Pilbara town of Roebourne – or Ieramugadu – are genuine in their message.

Punkaliyarra: Sister-in-Law Dreaming Story has been created on country in the Pilbara for the 2023 Perth Festival, an intimate gathering of First Nations women, artists and musicians keen to share their outlook with a receptive audience. 

Initiated by award-winning arts body Big hART, Punkaliyarra emerged from a two-year program that brought together senior women, young women and artists, during on-country women’s trips that included workshops for young women in the Ieramugadu Digital Lab and audio workshops in Roebourne Regional Prison.

In videos they recorded by the banks of a reedy river, the women caress the water’s surface and drink from it. “You have to drink from the river so you can talk your language…that’s what the elders say.” They catch fish, and bake them on a campfire, exchanging stories and in the process enfolding the young girls in a firm blanket of inclusion. The show features these videos and eye-catching animations that weave a visual link between woman, river, turtle and aquatic plant.

a promotional image from 'Punkaliyarra' by Big hART, showing a woman in a water hole, flicking her hair back.
Big hART’s ‘Punkaliyarra’ enfolds young girls in a firm blanket of inclusion. Photo: Claire Leach

Michelle Adams, co-creator of Punkaliyarra, says the show is “an expression of our identities as Yindjibarndi and Ngarluma women, and our hopes for our community and young women”. In sight, sound and spoken word, “we express this strong journey we have been on together”.

Punkaliyarra’s aim is “to connect to culture and country, and explore stories of women’s strength”.  How many other women in their own communities would love just such an opportunity? Women-only book clubs seem like a pale substitute.

‘Punkaliyarra is an expression of our identities as Yindjibarndi and Ngarluma women, and our hopes for our community and young women.’

Over three days in Perth Festival’s final week, audiences can experience this tribute to women’s leadership and knowledge systems. Then Punkaliyarra will return to the Pilbara for more on-country development, because the Festival performances are only part of the story. Presenter Big hART is, as usual, aiming even higher – Punkaliyarra will grow into a substantial work that can be shared with national and international audiences over coming years, in the same way its epic show Hipbone Sticking Out toured widely.

Big hART co-creator and set designer Genevieve Dugard says Big hART’s aim is to “share learnings and invest in development – and these boutique audiences will experience a very special night with these women”.

Taking place just days after the “yes” side of the Voice referendum was launched, Punkaliyarra is a timely reminder that people gathering on shared ground to listen to each other is the most elemental path to mutual respect.

That precisely sums up the ethos of Big hART, the social justice arts outfit that has spent more than two decades bringing people together around the nation. Their Perth Festival contribution this year consists of two parts; the other, related event is an open-air Songs for Freedom concert to be held on March 5 at Point Walter Reserve, or Dyoondalup.

Roebourne community leaders, song-writers and narrator Patrick Churnside will host a concert event directed by Grammy Award-winning musician Lucky Oceans, and including guest appearances by John Bennet, Steve and Naomi Pigram, Angus Smith and Vikki Thorn.

Songs for Freedom, like Punkiliyarra, has been created over several years, but its content, the songs, have been largely created in workshops held behind bars. Roebourne Regional Prison houses many individuals whose real homes – and families – are situated just down the road or further afield in the Pilbara. Most of its inmates are Aboriginal men, and many are talented songwriters.

Big hART has worked with prisoners in penitentiaries from Tasmania to the Top End, but some of its most notable, artistically admired projects have come out of a decade of close engagement with the Roebourne community. Some of the women in Punkiliyarra have children or grandchildren who have taken part in diversionary projects created to keep them safe and out of jail.

A concert by Big hART - a group of First Nations people are on stage, behind microphones. Some have children with them. A few point joyously towards an unseen audience.
Big hART is a social justice arts outfit that has spent more than two decades bringing people together around the nation. Pictured here is their show ‘Songs for Peace’. Photo: Joseph Penipe Photography and Videography

One magistrate even ordered a young man to work with Big hART instead of serving time. “He’s never offended again,” says Big hART’s founder and director Scott Rankin. “It’s not magic, it’s a good quality, well-funded diversionary approach.”

Rankin says this year’s Songs for Freedom (it was also staged in the 2022 festival) will have special resonance for a number of reasons. This year will be the fortieth anniversary of the death in custody of John Pat, a 16-year-old boy from Roebourne whose death led to a Royal Commission into Indigenous Deaths in Custody. (It also inspired Big hART’s Hipbone Sticking Out). Four decades on, says Rankin, youth justice and high imprisonment rates of First Nations people remain a national talking point. And so does this question: “Why do we sent children as young as ten to jail in Australia?” 

I know it’s not fun to have your house broken into … but there should be diversionary activities – which are cheaper than prison – so that those statistics would come down over a period of years.

Says Rankin: “If we can get (Perth) families with strollers coming to a picnic and concert, and they listen to songs written in prison, they get a message: ‘Your kids are not going to end up in juvenile justice, whereas 51 percent of kids in jail come from three percent of the population.’

“It’s a picture of absolute waste at the heart of the country,” he adds. “I know it’s not fun to have your house broken into three or four times a week, but there should be diversionary activities – which are cheaper than prison – so that those statistics would come down over a period of years.”

Last year, WA Attorney General John Quigley attended Songs for Freedom and publicly committed himself to addressing “the obscenity” of children condemned to jail terms. “Whether I’m successful or a failure as Attorney General will be measured in numbers,” he told the audience. “Will we be able to bring down the Indigenous prison population?”

Roebourne-based narrator Patrick Churnside says Songs for Freedom “is essentially a campaign – we are singing for freedom of our country, for freedom of our children.”

Allery Sandy, one of Roebourne’s most respected artists and performers, will be taking part in both Punkiliyarra and Songs for Freedom. Asked how much has changed in her hometown since John Pat’s death, she sits in silence for a moment.

“I believe things have changed. At that time, we were not artists and Aboriginal kids were not performing. Seeing them now I get overwhelmed and (the girls) have been involved in something they created with their nannas, their mums. I say, ‘For you girls to be involved in this, you should be proud of what you’re doing.’”

Punkaliyarra: Sister in Law Dreaming Story plays Victoria Hall Fremantle, 1-3 March, as part of Perth Festival. The show is currently sold out but you can join the wait list.

Songs for Freedom is a free concert, taking place Sunday 5 March at Point Walter Reserve.

Pictured top: One of Big hART’s concerts, ‘Songs for Peace’. Photo: Joseph Penipe Photography and Videography

Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.

A woman with short cropped red hair, glasses and brightly patterned shirt smiles at the camera in front of a white backdrop

Author —
Victoria Laurie

Victoria Laurie is an award-winning Perth-based journalist and feature writer who has written extensively for national publications, including The Australian. Covering cultural matters and interviewing artists of all kinds has been one of her greatest privileges, and their contribution to Australian cultural life deserves far more prominence in the media. As a fan of Seesaw in responding to this challenge, she nominates her playground favourite as... the seesaw.

Past Articles

  • Arts funding lost in translation

    With peak bodies hit hard in the State Government’s latest funding round, Victoria Laurie looks at the cost for the arts and some of its biggest advocates.

  • Climate concern drives dance odyssey

    The urgent need for climate action lies at the heart of choreographer Annette Carmichael’s ambitious five-chapter work, which traverses 1000 km to blur the line between performance and road trip. Victoria Laurie gets the lowdown.

Read Next

  • Reading time • 10 minutesFringe World Festival
  • Carina Roberts and Gakuro Matsui in The Nutcracker How to watch ballet

    How to watch ballet

    16 November 2023

    If you’ve booked tickets to Christmas favourite The Nutcracker and you’re not sure what to expect, look no further! Rita Clarke has you covered.

    Reading time • 10 minutesDance
  • Reading time • 7 minutesMulti-arts

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio


Cleaver Street Studio