Self-determination in the creative arts: Ben Graetz

Ben Graetz was born and raised in Darwin, Northern Territory (NT) and is a descendant of the Iwaidja, Malak Malak clans in the NT and Badu Island on the Torres Strait Islands. Ben has been working in the performing arts sector for close to 25 years and has established himself as one of this country’s most dynamic and influential arts makers, working as a performer, director, producer, writer, MC and artistic director.

A testament to his creativity, community activism and leadership, Ben was awarded LGBTI Person of the Year in 2018. He is the Co-Director of Party Passport, a company that creates events that celebrate diversity and inclusion. Ben is the founder of BRG Production, an 100% Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander owned business offering creative directing, MCing and producing services. Ben is currently the Creative Director for the National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMAs) and Co-Festival Creative Director for Sydney World Pride 2023. Ben was a fellow of ISPA and contributes to First Nations cultural conversations and forums globally. 

In this interview with Tiwi Islander and Producer, Libby Collins, Ben reflects on best practice as a First Nations perspective on time and the process of creativity, highlights the risks (and opportunities) of rapid changes in the arts sector after decades of stagnation, and creating a seat at the table for First Peoples from a diversity of First Nations.

Can you tell me what you see as best practice in your field, when developing, engaging and approaching First Nations content?

I think best practice is always about ensuring that the voices and the inclusion of First Nations people is front and centre, particularly if you’re bringing Aboriginal Torres Strait Islanders into a project – that they are really leading the process.

I think for non-Indigenous people or allies, it’s about being able to support that process and then standing back and let the First Nations people really lead the work, whatever it may be.

Best practice is very much about respect; it’s about listening; it’s about creating opportunities; and it’s about following correct protocols

Would you say that that’s largely been the case that those elements of best practice that you mentioned are present in the arts and cultural sector? Do you see that exhibited in work that you’re involved in?

To a certain extent. I think particularly in the last few years, I think that there’s been more accountability in arts organisations and arts workers around best practice. But I still think that there’s a long way to go.

I think that the reason why there’s a long way to go is because we are still living in a deeply colonised country and we are still dealing with the effects of what happened 250 years ago. Because of that, there’s a lot of western processes that are in place and practice and there’s a real neglect and a real lack of curiosity around other cultural frameworks – and I think that this is not just First Nations but other culturally diverse practices as well.

We are very siloed as a country and I think that we have incredible opportunities to be able to embrace such diverse practices and processes. I think we’re just at the very start of that, really.

Can you talk about yourself as an artist and as a creative? How do you try to exhibit best practice in your work?

As First Nations people, we’ve been practising that for a very long time because we’ve had to be able to work in a particular way. We’ve had to bring our processes to western frameworks that are really not inclusive of our practice. So, I think that for First Nations people, we are the role models for how to operate in best practices because we are able to operate in the two models.

One of the challenges with western forms of arts practice is the understanding of time and understanding of how to build relationships and how to be able to be really authentically responsive to the practice and the process. I think there’s a lot of attention put on getting an outcome before you’ve really been able to delve deeply into the process of creation. I think that in a lot of ways, it’s really back to front and I think there’s a lot of things that could be learned from the way that First Nations practices are around valuing time, listening and building relationships.

You’ve had a long career and been fully entrenched in the sector. Have you witnessed changes over those years? And can you talk a little bit about what you saw in the beginning, any trends in the middle and what you see now?

It’s an interesting journey because I have had the opportunity to be able to be a part of the sector for such a long time. And when I say that, it was from 1995, when I really started my formal training.

But before that, as a young person, I had the opportunity of being around incredible Aboriginal movements with the fight for Land Rights and my mum working with Galarrwuy Yunupingu.  Being front and centre for all of the kind of things like the Barunga Statement, all of the Treaty conversations back in the 1980s… Speaking for myself, I feel like I’ve got to a point where I’ve seen the possibility back then, when I was a 13 year old, and then to see that actually not a lot has changed, it’s hard. I think the statistics have actually gone backwards since then.

The thing that is kind of upsetting for me is that I feel there was much more hope back then, that there was a lot of promise and passion and energy. And over the years, it’s been really hard, because we’ve lost a lot of our Elders and we’ve lost a lot of our knowledge keepers. Because of that, we have lost a part of our momentum. And I think, as First Nations people, we are exhausted. We’re tired. I just feel sad because I think that we’re moving really slowly.

But at the same time, I feel like the younger generation is really smart. And they have the passion, they have the fire and they have the fight.

I feel like in a way we haven’t really come that far in the last 30 years of me being in the art sector but there have also been some incredible moments. We have some incredible models, like Yirra Yarkin and Bangarra, but that’s really it. And we should really have more and we should have our own major cultural institutions.

I do also get concerned that we are also now moving really quickly. In the last three years, we have been moving quickly in terms of our visibility and our place as First Nations people.  Particularly people now want RAP plans and acknowledgments and welcomes and it feels like people are taking that on board, but I do get afraid wondering, is it done authentically? We have these big organisations just getting Black mob to design their stuff and then to kind of mass-produce it and for us to kind of lose that ownership of it, and all of the hard work that’s been done over the years to ensure that we have the ownership of that and the sovereignty of that.

I get fearful of the ones that are falling through the cracks or that aren’t shiny and glittery because I feel at the moment that’s what people are connecting with, the shiny and glittery stuff.  There’s people that are falling between our cracks that are that have been advocating and that have been activists in our creative sector for so long and I do get a bit fearful that the younger ones might forget that the opportunities that they have now are because of our Elders and our Ancestors that fought so hard so they’re able to be there.

We have to really remember that the fight’s been going for a really long time; it’s fine and good to be all shiny and sparkly now, but that shine and sparkle came out of blood, sweat, and tears.

We have been talking broadly and at a national level but it would be great to talk specifically to what needs to happen in the NT to create positive change in the sector?

We need training. We need capacity building. We need to start to give the decision-making back to First Nations Mob.

We need more executive decision-making roles out there for First Nations mob because at the moment we’re not allowed to drive the decisions around our own art and our practice. And I think that comes all the way from government to boards to advisory groups. We need much more representation and that’s only gonna happen if we flourish in our sector.

We need to start to look at different ways of engaging mob – like our young people – we need to actually invest in culture and give the young ones hope, empowerment and inspiration because at the moment all we’re doing is throwing more money around detention centres policing them and actually  that’s not working. Let’s actually start to invest in arts and culture and get young people engaging with culture, again, and dance, and song and music and ceremony. I think  that would really shift our landscape up in the Northern Territory.

Can you talk about some of the challenges faced by mob in the creative sector? That lack of representation at an executive, decision-making level stands out as a primary one, but some other examples of barriers faced by mob?

We are an extremely diverse group of people in the Northern Territory. We cover so many different language groups, clans, land, from saltwater to freshwater to desert, and people really need to understand that we don’t all come under the same bucket. We’re very diverse and I think that a big part of it is understanding that and being really bespoke around how you engage in terms of Aboriginal arts and culture and Aboriginal artists and not lump us into the same basket.

There’s a big bit of work that needs to be done in understanding that but also understanding process and understanding people’s needs and the different types of arts and performing arts. It’s hard because the system is set up as a very Western system. So even the way we access money or even the way we access grants is very Western and it’s very hard for all the diversities of our mobs to be able to engage with that. So I think that’s very challenging.

I think the big thing for me is: build capacity, empowerment, training and then hand it over to mob. I think the biggest thing at the moment is that a lot of the First Nations events, festivals and so on still don’t have First Nations people running them and we really, really need to be able to be running those now.

Can you talk about a project that you’ve been involved in, where you’ve seen best practice exhibited?

I’ve seen it when there’s been a majority of First Nations mob working on an event. So, as an example, this year’s NIMA (National Indigenous Music Awards) awards, it just felt so great because we had NITV, we had a First Nations production events company doing the stage management. We had a First Nations cameraman. So, it just felt really safe and how it’s supposed to be. There were also a lot of comments from people who attended that there was a shift this year and I think it came down to the fact that we did have a lot of First Nations mob working on it.

Also being a part of the First Nations Advisory Group for Browns Mart Theatre established by the CEO, Sophia Hall. The great thing about that was Sophia really understood that she had to do the work. So, we were really there to give her advice on best practice and it was up to her to do the homework to make the changes and come back to us and go: Is this what you mean? Yes or no. And it was the first time I had experienced working in that way and it was such a relief. Because it  empowers you and it also didn’t lob us with all the work. We could give her advice, and she would go and do that and present it back to us. And so it was amazing to be in a position where she really understood that it was up to her to do the work. You know, not the other way around.

What are you hoping to see in the future?

I just hope that we get properly supported and that we are able to be at the table when decisions are made about us. Really, we need to be the ones at the table, as the majority, making those decisions.

It’s about being able to start to put into practice everything that we’ve been saying over the years around cultural practice, protocols, how we need to work together as non-Indigenous and Indigenous mobs. We need everyone, at all levels, to really start to take that on board and make those changes.

For me, I’d be happy with just seeing the shift of majority, creatively controlled by us. Allowing us self-determination, that’s what we all strive for. I do see great hope and I just hope that it’s done in a really authentic and meaningful way and that people do really understand that there is another way of doing stuff.  I’m all for self-determination but allies and non-Indigenous mob need to do the work to support that. It’s not about taking the foot off the accelerator; it’s about actually turning it up.

Brown’s Mart First Nations Artistic Advisory


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