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Reading lists and Playlists: On Lisa Bellear and Laura Mvula

  • Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this article contains images and names of deceased persons.

An exhibition that pays tribute to the life and work of Lisa Bellear opens on Thursday 6th April at VU MetroWest. The exhibition was developed by the Koorie Heritage Trust mid last year. As I wasn’t living in the land of the Kulin Nation then, I feel lucky to have another opportunity to see it.

I have written frequently about the influence Bellear has had on my own creative practice, and I am reminded how it’s important to continue to acknowledge our Sisters, Aunts and Grandmothers.

Bellear, born: Melbourne, 1961, passed: Melbourne, 2006, was a Minjungbul/Goernpil/Noonuccal/Kanak activist, photographer, radio broadcaster, poet, feminist and academic. Close to you: The Lisa Bellear Picture Show shows some of the Bellear collection of over 30,000 images, a documentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Melbourne community life accrued over 25 years.

Dreaming in Urban Areas, Bellear’s poetry collection, published as part of UQP’s Black Australian Writing list in 1996, remains one of my favourite books of all time. It was the voicing of my intersectional feminism, the rising that lead to the formation of my own words that will come to push me into a position of strength as a woman, a queer woman, a Murri woman. Now part of Melbourne’s black diaspora, I connect with Bellear’s work further through her cutting observations of this place: see ‘Beautiful Yuroke Red River Gum’.

Red river gums are replaced
by plane trees from England
and still
the survivors
watch.

My move from my home and community in Queensland has been swift and dislocating. I have left most of my books behind, including Dreaming in Urban Areas and so it feels as if an erasure of influence has occurred. When asked what my favourite texts are, my mind falters. These books are no longer readily available to be drawn out when I’m needing strength. Reading of these works have settled both my spirit and my writing.

Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birth Year (1995), a meditation on Ojibwe motherhood, seasons and writing is one of those books. Erdrich, who has written extensively over non-fiction, fiction and poetry, has been such an influence that I am not sure I would be a writer without her. Reading Erdrich’s novels is so stimulating that earlier this year Steve Dragswolf was prompted to write ‘I Can’t Read Louise Erdrich’, describing how a creative abandons Erdrich to hurl themselves headfirst into their own work.

Recently read and remembered loves include Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, published in 1977 about the experience of trauma through a Laguna Pueblo lens and oral traditions and ceremonial practices, and Nhã Thuyên’s immersive poetry collection words breathe, creatures of elsewhere, (translated from the Vietnamese by Kaitlin Rees) which breaks my heart in two places on every page.

I bought Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) last week. I had been anticipating the experience greatly, and yes, Citizen does also make it to my best-of-all-time list. It is worth reading it just for the Serena Williams sequence, in which Rankine, in painful detail, describes the career-long war against Williams’ black body on court.

What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like? Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘I feel most coloured when I’m thrown against a sharp white background.’

Citizen sits on my new bookshelf, and I’m sure new sources of comfort will soon join. I am ‘blacking up’ this space, slowly, and at the same time, the absence of my feminist library brings me to music.

My listening includes the Afrofuturism playlist A Body Full of Stars: An Afrofuturism mixtape put together by Irish-Nigerian sociologist Emma Dabiri and music journalist Ian McQuaid in 2014, which provides an essential framework for Afrofuturism music. Dabiri says in the accompanied essay, ‘Afrofuturism carves out a space for black people to write ourselves into speculative pasts and futures, to reimagine our identities beyond and before human history and form.’

Laura Mvula

This recasting is shown in the repeated lyric ‘Who made you the centre of the universe?’ in British black artist Laura Mvula’s ‘That’s Alright’, one of the shining tracks.

I will never be what you want and that’s alright
‘Cause my skin ain’t light and my body ain’t tight

Engaging with Afrofuturist and Indigenous futurist art and non-white voices is the conversation enabling personal truth. I continue to return to Sovereign Trax’s March 2017 playlist SOVTRAX 4DATIDDA$ which features ‘women’s biz from da tiddas and female/femme identifying mob’ including Electric Fields, Emma Donovan, Christine Anu and Thelma Plum. Between the headphones, between the pages, the fire burns.

 


Ellen van Neerven
Ellen van Neerven is a young Yugambeh woman from South East Queensland. She is the author of the poetry collection Comfort Food (UQP, 2016) and the fiction collection Heat and Light (UQP, 2014) which won numerous awards including the 2013 David Unaipon Award, the 2015 Dobbie Award and the 2016 NSW Premiers Literary Awards Indigenous Writer’s Prize. Ellen is currently the Nakata Brophy writer-in-resident at Trinity College, University of Melbourne.

 

Images:
1. Lisa Bellear (Minjungbul/Goernpil/Noonuccal/Kanak), The Black GST Protest, Camp Sovereignty, 2006, colour photograph, 10 x 15cm, Lisa Bellear Collection, Koorie Heritage Trust. PH 5512.5152
2. Lisa Bellear (Minjungbul/Goernpil/Noonuccal/Kanak), Protestors with the Aboriginal Flag, Parliament House Steps, Melbourne, c. 1996, colour photograph, 10 x 15cm, Lisa Bellear Collection, Koorie Heritage Trust. PH 5152
3.
Lisa Bellear (Minjungbul/Goernpil/Noonuccal/Kanak), NAIDOC march, with a police officer looking at the photographer, Swanston Street, Melbourne, date unknown, colour photograph, 10 x 15cm. Lisa Bellear Collection, Koorie Heritage Trust. PH 5792
4. Lisa Bellear (Minjungbul/Goernpil/Noonuccal/Kanak), Lisa Bellear with recorder and microphone, c. early 1990s, colour photograph, 10 x 15cm, Lisa Bellear Collection, Koorie Heritage Trust. PH 5370
5. Laura Mvula ‘Sing to the Moon’, 2013 cover art