Blog contributed by Michael Walling, Artistic Director Origins Festival of First Nations. London 2013
Ceremony – a heightening and ritualising of human interaction – is crucial to the way in which indigenous cultures conduct themselves and their relationships with others. This means that for the Origins Festival, bringing indigenous artists to London for a process of exchange, sharing and (we hope) healing, ceremony has to be the starting point. But it is also problematic. In a culture that has lost, indeed betrayed, its relationship to land, and which has little sense of spiritual identity, there are no appropriate indigenous forms through which to welcome our guests. In this, as in so much, we have to learn from them.
In the first two Origins Festivals, London’s Maori community, Ngati Ranana, gave us the framework of the powhiri through which we could welcome our guests with the decorum and ceremony they expect and deserve. In 2009, we were particularly lucky that the great actor Pete Postlethwaite, who had an interest in indigenous cultures, was able to take on the role of an Elder of our artistic community, and offer something akin to a Welcome to Country. Uncle Pete sadly passed in early 2011, but his example has remained important to what we do in our opening ceremonies – using the framework of an indigenous protocol to facilitate speeches of welcome by the people of these islands to artists and other festival guests who have travelled from far away.
For this year’s festival, we worked with the GAFA Arts Collective – a London-based Samoan group that performed in Origins – to create an ava ceremony of welcome in the Bargehouse space. But we also wanted to find a way of bringing our guests and our audience into the space itself. I was delighted when Merindah Donnelly said that she, and the group of young indigenous Australian artists and producers joining her at the Festival, would be able to contribute a smoking ceremony to do this.
It’s no small matter to perform such a ceremony, and usually it is done by Elders. No Elders were travelling to us from Australia, so Lorna Munro obtained special permission from the Elders of her people to perform the ritual, and likewise, Alison Murphy Oates had permission from her elders to sing the songs. As the ceremony ended, they called forward the many indigenous people from around the world who were present to share in the smoke and purify the self ready for the cultural work ahead – and spontaneously a mystic spiral of Native Americans, Maya, Maori, Samoans, First Nations Canadians and many others formed around the shield. It was an astonishing symbol of indigenous unity – of the movement that is growing across the planet towards mutual understanding, justice, and reconciliation. It was, in the fullest sense, an Opening – for the Origins Festival, and so much more besides.