Above: Alex Kelly with son Clancy at a Pine Gap protest organised by the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) in October.
By KIERAN FINNANE
“This maverick standout 21st century artist, producer, thinker, change-agent.” This is how Alex Kelly was described in her nomination for a prestigious Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship.
The Sidney Myer Foundation liked it – and the substance behind it. Last week they gave her one of their eight 2016 fellowships, worth $160,000 tax-free over two years, untied. It is there to support Kelly in whatever endeavour she chooses.
In 2015 she was travelling the globe, as part of the team behind Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything project, a film and book about climate change, which as the title suggests is no silo issue. It reaches beyond the interests of any one nation or group, whether environmental, economic, cultural, with potential devastation.
Kelly was involved as an impact producer on the project, a “dream job” for this dedicated and innovative social justice advocate. It meant using the book and film as conversation starters in all sorts of gatherings and settings, building bridges between social movements. The human response to climate change needs them all and developing that response will also address other divisions that wrack the world, such as economic inequality and racial injustice.
Left: Alex Kelly with Naomi Klein during Klein’s recent visit to Australia to receive the Sydney Peace Prize.
This wasn’t the beginning for Kelly. In fact it’s hard for her to pinpoint a moment, but the seeds were planted in childhood at the knee of her unionist mother. She grew up on a family farm in the Riverina from where her mother worked as a consultant to trade unions. Friends would come to stay, feminist unionists, whom mother and daughter are friends with still.
Kelly also recalls her father’s strong working class values and particularly his generosity. The family had its share of difficulty and conflict though and she learned a lot through that as well.
She studied arts, media and communications at Swinburne University in Melbourne and busied herself with political activism around the impacts of globalisation. This was in the late 1990s, early 2000s.
Then in 2004 she came into contact with Big hART, the art for social change company, and its director Scott Rankin. (Big hART would later initiate the Ngapartji, Ngapartji and Namatjira projects in Central Australia.)
It was Rankin who nominated Kelly for the fellowship. He recalled their early contact:
“She volunteered to work at the grassroots end of a Big hART project – folding blankets backstage for a complex performance project working with homeless people for the 2004 Melbourne International Festival for the Arts.
“Alex essentially walked off the street and put herself to work. She was soon contributing to building team life, ideas, media, communications, strategy and assisting with the complexities of working with a high-needs cast of performers.
“Although relatively young, Alex was clearly already experienced and talented. She was also raw, diligent and ready for intense new forms of working. It became clear she had collaborated on arts intervention projects and activist strategies in the past, and had skills in building consensus and democratic action. More than this, she was also savvy and entrepreneurial and able to break through dogma and the unnecessary rules and restrictions that can be hard to navigate in community based projects.”
Kelly next turned towards making herself useful to the Irati Wanti campaign against a then proposed nuclear waste dump for South Australia. She moved to Coober Pedy, having taken a Pitjantjatjara summer school in Adelaide so as to better communicate with the senior women who led the campaign. Rankin suggested that she meet the actor Trevor Jamieson who had a story to tell about the impact of the bomb tests at Maralinga on his people.
Above: Trevor Jamieson and cast in Ngapartji, Ngapartji teaching the audience to sing “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes” in Pitjantjatjara. Alex Kelly was creative producer on the project. Photo Sydney Festival 2008 Heidrun Lohr.
Out of that meeting Rankin, Kelly and Jamieson developed Ngapartji, Ngapartji, which would put Indigenous languages, and Pitjantjatjara specifically, at its core. (The project title means “I give you something, you give me something”.) This focus prompted Kelly to move to Alice Springs, home of the Institute for Aboriginal Development, the first Indigenous language centre in Australia.
Alice became the base for the project. Her intensive work on it lasted for six years and she remains a steward of its legacy.
This kind of locally-based deep engagement is in contrast with the high-octane global reach of the This Changes Everything project. Kelly thinks she’ll probably always swing between the two modes but for now the pendulum has returned to The Centre, where she has made her home.
“This Changes Everything was a great learning experience but I didn’t make a deep contribution. I was supporting other people to do that deep local work. I think I can do more if I stay still now and go deep.”
Staying still is relative. Just this month she has been supporting Naomi Klein during her visit to Melbourne and Sydney where Klein was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize and where Kelly helped her use the opportunity to draw attention to the campaigns against the Adani Carmichael coal mine and the Northern Gas Pipeline.
Kelly is also working towards the second Something Somewhere film festival, which had its first iteration in May this year, selling out every session. “Bums on seats” though is not foremost among Kelly’s measures of success. And at this point I raise the question of “courage”, which was one of things the Sidney Myer Foundation was looking for in its fellowship recipients (the other was “outstanding talent”).
Above: Alex Kelly on opening night of the Something, Somewhere film festival with filmmaker Robert Nugent.
Kelly prefers to talk about “risk-taking”.
“I don’t have a linear idea about social change anymore – that you can put the facts before people and change will follow. Now I have more respect for people’s sense of community and autonomy and know that when you put different ideas out there, you can’t control them. You have to take the risk that things will turn out as you hoped.”
With directing her first documentary film, Queen of the Desert, the risk was to be able to effectively tell a television audience this unusual story of inter-cultural friendship and exchange between the flamboyant transgender hairdresser Star Lady and the residents of the remote community of Areyonga. After it premiered on ABC2, Kelly and Star Lady teamed up for a feat of distribution. It went to over 40 film festivals around the world and Star Lady personally took out into desert communities some 800 USBs with the film and other queer and transgender stories.
In the Ngagpartji, Ngapartji theatre production, there was risk in getting an audience standing up and learning the children’s action song “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes” in Pitjantjatjara.
“It often made people feel vulnerable and awkward, but it also helped them think about how little we know of Indigenous languages and culture.”
In fact, she says, there’s always risk-taking involved in making art and story-telling – the risk that you may not find a way to effectively engage your audience, especially in a media-saturated world.
One thing that Kelly does not allow herself to become preoccupied by is the goal of engaging the so-called mainstream: “Sometimes people dilute their work to try to reach that elusive audience and it’s a construct anyway.”
The fellowship will allow her now to put time into devising another large project. It will be around climate change, but not a traditional environmental campaign, more arts-based. She’s been delving into “cli-fi” (branching off sci-fi) and may take her inspiration from this terrain.
Rankin comments: “She and I have discussed her deepening engagement with speculative futures and the role of creativity in building new narratives and ways of thinking about the future in the context of runaway climate change. I am tremendously excited to hear about the ideas for new large-scale community arts and cultural development multi art form works Alex is developing, exploring interdependence and connectedness rather than the dominant narratives of dystopia and violence that we see as emerging trends in this field.”
She’s also got more film projects on the go, as a producer, and wants to work on becoming a better writer. Her practice to date has mainly been in the form of press releases, newsletters and social media. She’d like to start writing essays.
“There are so many stories to tell. I put six years into Ngagpartji, Ngapartji, three years into This Changes Everything, I’ll run out of time. Writing is a good low-budget, low-carbon way of getting stories out there.”
In the meantime, her infant son is placing his own (happy) constraints on her time. I asked her how she felt about bringing him into a world facing so many serious challenges.
“I’ve always resisted the message of some environmentalists that they were campaigning for ‘our grandchildren’. For one, it doesn’t include everyone and it also seems to ignore what’s wrong right now.
“On the other hand I know people who don’t want to have children or who worry about it because of the state of things. And climate change will amplify all the other issues.
“But I’m a hopeful person, I don’t feel that way. And I’ve called him Clancy, an Irish name which means ‘red warrior’, a name to give him strength for the future.
“I’m looking forward to being more grounded, playing more and watching him learn about the world.”
Kelly was not the only NT recipient of a Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship. Darwin-based playwright Mary Anne Butler (right) was also one of the lucky eight. This follows on from her success at the 2016 Victorian literary awards, for her play Broken, which won not only in the drama category but also the Victorian Prize for Literature.
Alice film festival joins global movement