Voices from the past speak to the present
Article by Neha Kale
Sydney Morning Herald, 31 May 2018
Rhyan Clapham believes some places can reveal the connection between the present and the past.
Clapham, a jazz drummer and hip-hop artist, is among the artists whose work features in Blak Box, a sound pavilion launching at Barangaroo Reserve that brings together contemporary Aboriginal voices.
He wants to reflect the ways Barangaroo's Indigenous history and modern reality are irrevocably entwined.
"I recently returned from Brewarrina in Northern New South Wales and had this 15-minute recording of the Brewarrina River, famous for ancient fish traps, which are known in the Ngemba language as Ngunnhu," Clapham says.
"I wanted [the work] to bring that community together with this one through music. We tackle ideas of construction and dissonance, the sounds of the cranes and jackhammers and the sounds of the river. It was a beautiful process.
Blak Box is the latest initiative from Urban Theatre Projects, a Western Sydney theatre company that champions site-specific theatre and under-represented storytellers.
It's also part of a new partnership with the Barangaroo Development Authority that will see a suite of new art and sound installations return to the site for the next three years.
The structure was designed by Kevin O'Brien, an award-winning architect whose designs revolve around a connection to country as well as an Aboriginal understanding of space and time.
The box-like pavilion, made from a sustainable polycarbonate, gleams in the late-autumn sunlight, refracting light from the harbour. It feels as if it's always been there. Groups of 30 visitors at a time will be able to experience the inaugural program, called humechochorus and curated by Radio National presenter Daniel Browning.
It combines oral histories, performances and sound works by artists such as Bundjalung poet Evelyn Araluen, Gadigal language teacher Joel Davison and Curtis Kennedy, an emerging electronic artist who performs under the name Kuren.
For Rosie Dennis, artistic director of Urban Theatre Projects, it's an opportunity for Sydney to hear Barangaroo's untold stories.
Browning's program, which revolves around the sovereignty of water, also offers a chance for audiences to embrace "deep listening" – a First Peoples concept that finds truth in the land's gaps and silences.
"Blak Box is a space to bring people together to listen to these stories," says Dennis, adding that it was vital Indigenous artists occupied the project's key creative roles. "It came about two years ago when we started commissioning Aboriginal artists to write stories for podcasts and radio.
"We thought 'what would it be like to have our own recording studio?' Now, here we are on Stargazer's Lawn, a site with a big history that some people know about and some people don't. If you do know the history of this place, the box will ask you to listen to it in a different way."
Dennis says that listening can help us pay attention – especially in a world where we're often scared to ask questions about each other's culture or start a dialogue with people whose stories may be different from ours.
"Without art or story, it's so easy to keep running," she says. "We can protest, we can fight but sometimes it's about coming together with kindred spirits and realising that this is where we are as a city. When all else is stripped away and it's just the sound of the human voice, I still get taken somewhere. We've all got an hour to listen."
Clapham hopes Blak Box will help reclaim Barangaroo's pre-invasion history and think about what this slice of land by the Harbour means to modern Sydney today.
"We're all here because Dan wanted this piece to be curated and created by blackfellas," he says. "Especially now, with the casino in development and the noise of construction all around us, we can bring our ideas to this place. Black or white, we now have the chance to think about what Barangaroo really means to us and what it can become."
Blak Box will be installed at Barangaroo Reserve from June 2 to 24 (2018) before travelling around the country.
IMAGE: Urban Theatre Projects director Rosie Dennis with artists Rhyan Clapham and Curtis Kennedy. Photo: Brook Mitchell/Fairfax Media