Big hART works with regional and rural communities to tell their stories and push for social change, through art.

Story By Matt Davis

A crash course in language opens the show as the all-female choir teaches the audience how to sing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes in Pitjantjatjara. Smiles and then giggles pass across the crowd as this light-hearted lesson precedes the controversial story of British nuclear testing in Central Australia.
The scene is a performance of the critically acclaimed Ngapartji Ngapartji, the flagship theatre production of Big hART, an organisation that works with regional and rural communities to develop theatre, film, television, painting, photography, dance, new media and radio. After a tour to capital cities last year, the cast – most of which had barely trained in theatre previously – returned to their Pitjantjatjara homelands at Ernabella, SA, for two shows on a creek-bed stage, sharing the limelight with camp dogs.
Created in 1992 by Scott Rankin and John Bakes on the north-west coast of Tasmania in response to the decline of the Burnie pulp mill, Big hART came of age last year when it won the prestigious Sidney Myer Performing Arts Group Award.
Ngapartji Ngapartji producer Alex Kelly, from Alice Springs, describes Big hART’s role as telling “the great untapped stories of our country”. “We often think of the city as where art and culture can be found but we are about tapping into unknown communities, unknown stories and revealing the great cultural riches that abound,” he says.
Working with both Indigenous elders and youth from Alice Springs town camps and remote communities such as Docker River and Ernabella, Ngapartji Ngapartji has taken its performers around the country, sharing the story of the Pitjantjatjara people’s brush with the Cold War.
Ngapartji Ngapartji means ‘I give you something, you give me something’, an idea that’s been raised with more than 30,000 people who’ve seen the show. Elder and choir leader Pantjiti McKenzie, from Ernabella, says the project is wonderfully collaborative. “We all get together to work on Ngapartji Ngapartji, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, all working as friends,” she says.
Ngapartji Ngapartji lead actor Trevor Jamieson says there are other arts companies that work across regional Australia and marginalised communities, including Indigenous. “But there are not many that work at the grassroots and then take it to the high forums to ultimately push for policy change,” Trevor says. The Pitjantjatjara man is a strong advocate for the protection of Indigenous languages. “It’s strange how Australians can go to the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and say ‘hello’ in the local language, but here, at Uluru, Australia’s greatest landmark, people can’t do the same,” he says. (For the record, it’s ‘wai palya’.)

This story excerpt is from Issue #66

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2009