Navigating the waters of mining sponsorship [opinion]

Could I really accept money from a mining company to fund a project about Indigenous soldiers? Doesn't this raise questions on integrity? Yes, but sponsorship and integrity can co-exist, writes Wesley Enoch.

Artists are by their very nature ratbags and fringe-dwellers, dissenters and protesters. They are the lone voices on the progressive edge of a society.

But since time immemorial, the artist has relied on the largesse of the tribe to allow them space to practise their craft. To be excused from the day to day gathering of food and collective survival responsibilities so that they can perfect their skills and reflect on tribal cultural needs.

This need for patronage – from royals, from governments, from wealthy individuals, from corporations – has long been a source of tension.

When I was 24, I ran an Indigenous theatre company in Brisbane called Kooemba Jdarra ("Good Ground"). Deborah Mailman, Wayne Blair, Leah Purcell and I – along with a huge range of other artists – worked with the company over the years.

In the mid-90s, we were hoping to expand our work and needed increased financial support. Our all-Indigenous board was discussing options to raise funds, and our attention turned to sponsorship. You can imagine the issues that arose around taking support from a fictional alcohol company, or a hypothetical mining company. We talked about approaching the Commonwealth Bank and one board member pointed out the role of that bank in the Queensland stolen wages saga of the 20th century.

The theatre company was ultimately in pursuit of mythical "clean money", but in the end it was hard to identify what exactly was meant by that term. Even the idea of needing money and speaking English was a contestable assault on Indigenous sovereignty. We hit a kind of paralysis of integrity. Concepts of brand association and personal integrity were preventing us from doing our work and telling our stories.

Flash forward 20 years. I am back in Brisbane and running the Queensland Theatre Company. We have a project that is so big that there is no way we can afford to do it alone.

Enter Silbelco, a family-owned company with mining interests across the globe.

One of those mines is a sandmining operation on Stradbroke Island (which I call Minjeeribah, my tribal Lands). I must admit to feeling conflicted about this potential relationship. On one hand, it brought up the conversations I'd had at Kooemba Jdarra two decades earlier. But on the other hand, my family have been engaged in Silbelco's sand mining business since it began on the island. My father talked about how he and his father did test drilling when he was a child. As one of 13 children, my father gave up schooling at age 10 to help provide for the growing family, and when my grandfather died, leaving his brood to fend for themselves, it was the church, the charity Legacy and the sandmining business that helped get them through those first few years.

The project that the Queensland Theatre Company needed the money for was a show of immense importance to the nation's history called Black Diggers. It told the stories of Indigenous soldiers who went to and returned from WWI. But even with the support of the Sydney Festival and extra support from the Australia Council, its future was dubious.

I remember my great aunt Kath Walker Oodgeroo Noonuccal saying to me once that traditionally, the natural landscape is there to feed us and feed our art. (A convenient memory, thanks Aunty Kath!) I also talked to elders and community members about this issue. I can tell you now there is no consensus. Blackfellas are like a pack of whitefellas sometimes – no one can agree who should be the leader, who has the numbers, and what policy is the right one to dump.

In the end, I stood by the decision to accept the support of Sibelco, because ultimately the intent of Black Diggers was to express an Indigenous perspective and celebrate the contribution of those Indigenous men who served and sacrificed.

Sibelco was a fantastic supporter. They didn't try to tell me what to do; they didn't try to make propaganda or corrupt the intention of the artistic vision. They were also not deaf to the concerns in the communities in which they work, and they attempted to create more value for those people they work with – not to assuage guilt, or mediate bad press, but because they believed that was a responsibility of a corporate citizen. 

To many, my decision was a betrayal of some rainbow alliance of green and black, but it is not for others to decide what is right for me.

Last year, I wrote about the boycott of the Sydney Biennale by a number of artists in 2014. I respect each person's right to navigate the minefield of association and sponsorship as they see fit; it is a complex issue and I do not know all the arguments involved. But I personally feel that the Biennale boycott was more about a battle of brands than it was about making a difference around a social concern.

The silence of the artist is an abrogation of our basic role in our community. If you believe in an issue enough, make your art a reflection on the issue. If the sponsor is not making demands on the work, why can't you accept its support while at the same time create work that promotes alternative views to those of the sponsor?

For me, that is the key. This "arm's length" approach is what helps us accept monies from a government that we may or may not agree with. A government of a country that has systematically disenfranchised Indigenous Australians, promulgated obviously racist policies over the years, and proven themselves ineffectual advocates for change. I will accept their support in order to challenge them and give voice to the opposing side of the debate.

*Wesley Enoch is a Nunuccal Nuugi man from Stradbroke Island and since 2010 the artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company.



This article originally appeared on the ABC, and is republished with Wesley Enoch's permission.

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