A meeting of two great ancient cultures: Deborah Cheetham

In sync: Deborah Cheetham with pianist Toni Lalich  

For someone of her stature, one expects Deborah Cheetham to have chip on her shoulder. But, she turns out to be extremely grounded. A soprano, composer, actor, and playwright, Cheetham is as humble as the aboriginal culture she was taken away from and later came back to. “They say, ‘give me the child for the first seven years, and I'll give you the adult,’ but, I think that that is not a measureme that I can apply to myself, because there is so much about my identity and who I am, a Yorta Yorta woman, which I was unaware of. As a child, I grew up in a very loving family who adopted me.They were not aboriginal. They were not musical at all. My adopted parents were extremely supportive, but little did I know that my aboriginal family, who I was taken from, were all performers,” says Cheetham.

Cheetham's maternal uncle was Jimmy Little, a musician, actor, and teacher, and a world-renowned aboriginal star on the Australian music scene. “My grandmother was also a singer, so songs have been in the family. It is education along with genetic make-up that has led me create a special path for myself,” she adds.

The six-month long Australia Fest came to a close with a spellbinding performance by Cheetham and others, weaving notions of nation, identity, and belonging. For Cheetham, her identity as a Yorta Yorta woman and a member of the Stolen Generations has narrated most of her musical journey. For the Australia Fest finale, Cheetham chose “Songs of Belonging”, comprising of arias from the great operatic tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries, with music from a much older tradition. “Much of the repertoire that I sing has had a certain resonance for me. The ‘Songs of Belonging’ are quite evocative.They are of my own experience of knowing the world through art and the longing to understand what belonging could be. After years of going to the opera in Sydney, I realised I had never seen anyone of colour, which even now is a rarity,” she says.

Often, Cheetham has called out Australia's intolerance against the world's oldest living culture. “I was not cast for any of the opera companies in Australia.They will not cast aboriginal people. Because I did not want my exclusion from some of the most elite circles to stop me, I would create my own company and give opportunities. I do not isolate myself as an artiste; it is life. It is the way indigenous Australians know themselves, and give meaning to things. To me, it is a responsibility, as natural as breathing, really. The world is not set out for artists, we have to carve and scrape every bit to create. We have to understand and ask, but do governments want their people to understand? Maybe not. A population that understands might ask more of a government,” she remarks. Cheetham founded Short Black Opera, an indigenous non-profit organisation in Melbourne that specialises in training and performance opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performing artistes.

“Songs of Belonging” also featured Cheetham's latest composition, “Woven Song: Article 27”. This enthralling work, written for soprano, tabla, woodwinds, percussion, and piano, is a setting of the 27th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was inspired by the art and language of Pintupi artist Nanyuan Napangati, and the magnificent tapestry created by the weavers at the Australian Tapestry Workshop. “Songs of Belonging” also featured Australian and Indian performers —pianist Toni Lalich, tabla master Pandit Ashis Sengupta, and the members of Rubiks Collective, one of Australia's contemporary art music ensembles.

“ ‘Article 27’ is second in a series of nine compositions, all inspired by tapestries at the Australian Embassies all around the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone in the world has the right to freely participate in their cultural activities and work their community. The original painting is of Napangati's culture painted on to the canvas, which she sold so she could raise money for a dialysis machine for her community,” says Cheetham.

More than a medium of expression, her music has given her answers to a few convoluted questions about her identity and life as an artiste. The ignorance of the people around her drove her music in more ways than she thought. “Everything I did was driving me towards where I belong, how I fit in. It comes from generations of lived-culture on the continent of Australia. I realise that from my experience of life, I have been searching for belonging, not knowing how to do that, until I reconnected with my aboriginal family and Yorta Yorta culture about 15 years ago. I am a more complete person because of that , ” she adds.

Isn’t it time we woke up to a more neutral world that acknowledges the history of its people? “It is well past time, but we are still living with a very colonial view. It is about working towards maturity, and we have to do everything we can to make it work. These six months of Australia Fest saw incredible, courageous and inclusive programming. I wish Australians could come and see it in India too and get a better sense of what the country truly is. It is the meeting of two great ancient cultures, and two modern cultures that survived the ravages of colonisation,” she concludes.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 4:26:05 AM |

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