Dance and readings in “Blood” performance

Ngioka Bunda-Heath. Photo by Pieter Clarke
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A Melbourne choreographer and dancer collaborated with her mother to explore their Queensland Indigenous heritage. Pieter Clarke reports.

Ngioka Bunda-Heath’s movement is jarring as she crosses the studio floor while performing her latest composition at the Yirramboi arts and culture festival.

The piece, Blood Quantum, is a collaboration between the dance of the Melbourne choreographer and dancer with the spoken word readings of her mother, Professor Tracey Bunda, against a backdrop of carefully chosen projected imagery from their people’s past.

It’s a piece that Ngioka has been working on for two years. She has shown excerpts in Arts House in Melbourne, Los Angeles and Brisbane. The recent Yirramboi performance was the first full length exhibition.

The show features motifs of race, Aboriginal identity, the stolen generation and a familial resilience through storytelling and remembrance.

“My mentors gave me this opportunity to have a voice and create a work for the first nations festival here in Melbourne and I’ve always been interested in presenting a show based on the constructs of race and identity,” said Ngioka, who is of the Wakka Wakka, Ngugi lineage from Queensland through her mother and Biripi, from New South Wales, through her father.

The melting pot of Ngugi and Wakka Wakka Indigenous cultures creates a unique experience that takes their audience on a journey into the lived experiences of these first nations people’s histories.

Throughout the exhibition Tracey read stories from their familial past including the story of an ancestor tied to a farming tool like an animal and the tale of when her mother was taken away from her home by Australian authorities.

“I don’t feel like I could tell my story and talk about my identity without telling the story of my mothers and my grandmothers,” Ngioka says.

Despite the raw emotion passed on through these stories, this retelling is an act of defiance against cultural assimilation as Tracey passes the stories onto her daughter to prevent them being forgotten.

Tracey describes this opportunity to collaborate with her daughter as “a real honour and an amazing experience”. “I would recommend any parent that if they get the opportunity to work with their child on something like this to go for it,” she says.

While Tracey narrates events throughout the piece that have happened in the past, Ngioka describes the show as also being about the real discrimination that still occurs today that she has experienced first-hand.

“When people meet me and hear my Aboriginal name, I often get immediately asked about where I come from and my identity and people don’t realise that I find this problematic and confronting,” she says.

“While I think most of Australia knows about the stolen generation and what occurred we don’t talk about it and while we are making progress there is still more that needs to be done to fight racism today.”

Blood quantum comes at a time when racism and animosity is on the rise in Australia with a recent 2018 survey finding that within a six-month period 33 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders had experienced verbal abuse based on racial prejudice within their community.

Indigenous Australian respondents to this study also advised that 12 percent had been refused entry to a shop and 14 percent had experienced physical violence based upon prejudice.

Ngioka feels that her work is in touch with these issues as she describes herself as being “unique in that I have a solid foot in both the coloniser community and the Indigenous community which gives me a better understanding of both I feel”.

Brunswick resident Jack Kelly, who attended the exhibition, described it as “an intense opportunity to hear stories shared by an Indigenous elder that I had never heard or considered before”.

While Ngioka has been considering taking the show to a Darwin arts festival she thinks she might retire it for a bit in order to work on something else.

“While this composition has allowed me to look at my heritage from my mother’s side and what has occurred there, I think I would like the opportunity to explore my father’s heritage and work with him for a bit.”