Interview with Alicia Melonie Jones

Alicia Melonie Jones is the Producer of the First Nations program for Arts Ablaze, which is launching in about ten days. Recently we had the opportunity to talk about how she has approached building the program, her experiences of working with the local community, and the challenges of juggling the, at times, competing demands of a set event timeline with good community process.

One of the things that I found truly interesting was how, in one of our early meetings when you and your team met with Auntie Ruby at Kooralbyn, the whole conversation about what it meant to be inclusive and welcoming changed dramatically. As a non-Indigenous artsworker in the room, I was inspired by how differently the conversations unfolded when the voice of First Australians was prioritised,  and the realisation of how much we as non-Indigenous arts workers have to learn about core concepts of cultural safety, inclusive practice, and creating a welcoming space.

A little bit to the background story was the first group meeting that happened, where everyone could come down where they were going over the Expressions of Interest (EOIs). I was on South Stradbroke Island Indigenous Art Camp for Gold Coast City Council, so I couldn’t be there but I had read my EOIs and provided all my feedback online. After the rest of the group met to decide on EOIs for the conference, I went out to Kooralbyn with two other producers from Blakdance, myself, a few of the key Arts Ablaze managers and Aunty Ruby. We sat down, Aunty arrived and we listened to her. As far as we’re concerned, she’s the boss in the room. I don’t care who has the money, whose got the high title; she’s our boss and it’s her part of country and she has the lore, so nothing else really mattered in that room. Going on the tour later Wendy Mansell said, “That was such a different experience”. By contrast, at the EOI meeting where Aunty Ruby was the only Aboriginal person in the room, there were a lot of competing voices and attitudes, shouting and struggling to be heard. Aunty Ruby just sat back very quietly and didn’t say much at all.

She remarked at the difference when Aunty was given her rightful place, the information and spirituality that came out around Kooralbyn; there’s sacred stories there and we are mindful of that. Even the dreaming story we’re making the dance to, we’re not just putting on a show or a festival, we’re activating cultural lore there. That’s why it’s important to get it right, to do it as respectfully as possible, which is why I’ll go to every detail, to make sure all those people are looked after. It’s not my country. I’m honoured and privileged to be working with those people, that’s how I really feel about it, and they welcome me. I want to leave a good taste in their mouth. 

I understand that in developing the First Nations program for Arts Ablaze, you have focussed on every aspect of the arts programming being developed in genuine partnership with the Mununjali community and building legacy. Can you tell us a bit more about your process for developing the program? How did you determine priorities for the Arts Ablaze program?

Blakdance were initially approached in April 2019 to manage the First Nations content, so we had some meetings in the community. Aunty Ruby was on board as well as Bob Smith, who had been working with community for a long time so he had a good scope of what the needs were. He gave us a list of community; this was literally the process. I was given six phone numbers and some email addresses. I contacted all of those, then waited for responses and finally some came in.

I made the commitment to visit the Beaudesert township every Wednesday for meetings and conversations. In June is when the conversations started happening. When I first got there, people knew very little on Arts Ablaze. There had been no official consultation done. I said at that point “If you don’t want to have any part of this, totally fine, I’ll tell them you’re not interested. And if you’re not interested, then I’m not interested, I won’t do it”. People were like “No, it sounds like a good opportunity”. So it hasn’t been done the way we always ask it to be done; none of us are surprised about that.

What would be the best way? Consulting sooner?

Perfect! What tends to happen is that a lot of non-Aboriginal organisations will work with Aboriginal people they know. There’s a number of reasons for that; you work with the people, regardless of heritage, who are reliable, who get back to you, who do the application and call you back and I understand that. The community doesn’t work like that. You need to go visit them. You don’t send the elders emails; you find out who the cousin is, or the sister or the worker and you go and sort out the connections that way.

All these conversations are happening with these people and I’m working with a cultural community who don’t know me, need to trust me, before they’ll do anything. They need to watch me for a while, have their little gossips around town and find out information. Am I the real deal or am I just going to be another person who comes in and says all this stuff and then leaves without anything for them? Because that happens so often.

I was fortunate enough to employ a young choreographer, Mitchell Currie, who has family connects to Beaudesert and that was my godsend; he knows who is who so there was immediate trust and I could make headway quickly. He’s an emerging producer, wants to start his own dance company, so you have a layer of needing to do the work but you also have mentoring of a young person. It comes with all those challenges and the process is slow, so I have to keep reminding myself that it is the right process and to not buy into other people’s deadlines. Which is hard when you are using other peoples’ money!

The pressure is mine internally. It always happens in these producer roles when you are doing community development. I am at the mercy of 250 people and how quickly they get to me or how often they rehearse.

I can’t just listen to three people, or even 10 people; I have to have long conversations, teasing out what people need. I didn’t want to just buy in an artist from here, an artist from there; everything I do has to serve the community and that’s my own self-imposed responsibility.

I have to be respectful in how I serve this community, to bring in all the people that will actually come back. It’s not enough to bring the artist from Badu Island, because how often are they going to come back and exchange with the Mununjali, however that might be? Who has the knowledge, skills and access to really build this community the way that they need? I looked a bit closer to home, ignored the state borders and went, no; I’m going to go cultural borders, we need Bundjalung mob, just over the border. We need those people whom it only takes an hour to get into town, whom are doing the things like running the festivals and having small art exhibitions spaces, owned and operated by Aboriginal people. That’s what they need to see in the community. They’re the people that need to be able to come in so we can start working the South East corner as a strong region of Aboriginal artists. Our North and East coast are full of Indigenous Art Centres. We all want that down here, but all the money goes up there. We all understand and respect that, but we also have that need too because we don’t control the purse strings down here and are trying to work with councils. The great thing about the Mununjali community is that they have a supportive council, a community who is so welcoming. They are open to ideas and trying things; they just have to step it up.

What are some of the major things that people in the community identified as needing?

An independent artspace! With lots of empty shops in town, we’ve been scoping what might be possible. Also dance opportunities, so they have a strong traditional focus and still dance traditional stories. The community previously worked with Bangarra experience, so the community have a version of contemporary, but they want something else. We’ve got in Mitchell Currie who is a contemporary ballet and street dancer, who studied at the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts, and he does fusion – traditional, contemporary, street.

We’ve been working with several groups that are identified. There’s a group called the JJ’s, they are primary school aged kids. They go to an after-school homework club where they learn language through Mununjali House – big respect here..

There’s a group of Aboriginal students at Beaudesert State High School. They’re not just learning choreography, they are helping to devise choreography, which is an important part of the process. We didn’t want to come in and impose ideas, there’s no learning in that, no benefit to us. That’s the fly in-fly out kind of model that doesn’t work anywhere.

There’s a group of young men called the Mununjali Ngari, some employed, some unemployed; most of them get jobs at Dreamworld and do that kind of cultural stuff in the dream-time corroboree centre that’s fairly traditional. They wanted to learn a new style.

It all started off with those three groups. Out of other conversations with Germaine Paulson and Jarred Fogarty we met a fella called Moojidi Fogarty. He’s Lionel Fogarty’s son, the famous Aboriginal poet. He said, “..my dad knows a totem story that we don’t have a dance for yet, maybe you talk to him and maybe he’ll let us make a dance for it?”  So next thing you know, we are talking to Lionel Fogarty, which is quite an overwhelming thing.  He says “Yeah, let’s make this totem story” of Gullininni, who is the waterhen, because everyone knows Mibin, who is the sea eagle totem, but nobody knows the waterhen. This only came out a few weeks ago, we’ve been doing these workshops for eight weeks at the schools, figuring stuff and just making a bit of choreography and now we finally have a story!

When we met with Uncle, he said, “You know what? I’m sick of all these young ones getting the dance opportunities, us old ones need to get together, we need to have a corroboree before this event happens, and we’re going to make a dance around this”.  So everyone was like “What? This has never happened before! This is amazing!” and I hope that it all comes together, because this is massive for the community.  He’s not part of any of those factions, he’s one of the old ones who’s respected by everybody but does his own thing.  He said, “We have old ones who sit in wheelchairs, they should be in the corroboree, they should be able to come and do a thing”.

As these things always happen, we met with Aunty Levina Page and she told us one morning about this waterhen. I meet with another artist, Kim Williams, and she’s been living in community 30 something years. I said “Where’s all the women?” cause there’s this strong male presence there, all these male organisations and we couldn’t find the women; seriously for three months, I’ve been looking for the women! There are Aunties, but there’s no younger kind of generation that were visible and then Kim said, “When I moved here, the Uncles used to show us, we’ve got a waterhen dance”. I asked if she could help us out, so Kim has come on as the designer, is running workshops at the event and I couldn’t have done this project without her.  Aunty Levina even found the original costume that the girls had for the dance long ago and last week, we’ve got two girls now who are coming on board.  We were saying to the young men “Where’s all your sisters and your cousins?” and I don’t know why and how, but we’re three weeks out of the event and now we’ve got some female dancers. There’s lots of reasons I don’t even know about, that’s not my business, but they are coming and people are excited. They are meeting and holding their own rehearsals and there’s quite a number of people.

One of the things we discovered is that there’s the Murri football carnival. Massive right? It’s that week. These are like the biggest events in Murri communities, thousands of people are going and a good half of Beaudesert will be gone. Some of these dancers were devastated because they are so excited about dancing and we said “This is your battle, you’re going to have this your entire life. You can dance, or you can play footy? And at some stage you have to make the choice”. So what we did is that we started filming a series of dance films for those people who can’t actually be at the performance. We’re getting them dancing out on country to highlight not just the people of Beaudesert, not just have it so people come listen to a bunch of conversations, but that they pay attention to the place, the country. For us that’s what it’s all about, honouring country, so we are hoping to do that through films that will be a part of the showcase event.

We’ve had this CCD stuff going on, as well as trying to build the conference. What are the interesting conversations that are to the Aboriginal community? Who are the people they need to hear and listen to, but also, what do we want the non-Indigenous community to hear about? And making sure that on every official panel that’s happening on the main stage that there’s an Aboriginal person represented! All that takes a lot of time. It’s been amazing and it’s not until I have conversations like this that I go “Oh my God, we’ve really done a lot in that short time”.

Along with all of that of course has been connecting with the cultural artists that had applied through the EOI process and seeing what they need, what are their cultural needs, who do they need to meet, supporting them to organise their stuff etc.

Culturally what is required when liaising with different mobs?

A simple analogy would be like if your grandma was coming to visit. What are all the things you’d think about for her? Making sure that we’ve got food every day, that we’ve got transport for Elders, making sure the community are comfortable being at that place. This is a big resort, it’s out of town, most of them have never been to a place like that before. That is a big stereotype and generalisation I know that, but also it’s pretty accurate. Even just attending conferences, the price point knocks you out. It really is unrealistic for people to pay $500. They have to pay rent; they don’t care how many good speakers you’ve got there.

I care about who’s going to meet you at the airport. I want you to know their name, to have had at least one or two conversations before you get there. I want to know from the community who is going to welcome you when you get there, who’s going to be that Mununjali person to welcome you on country. Not the official ‘We’d like to welcome to country and pay attention to past, present, future blah blah blah’… Who’s going to greet you, give you a cuddle, say “It’s so nice to have you here!” and make sure that all your needs are attended to. That’s what I’m doing.

And what are your cultural needs? Who can you talk to? Are you strict on the men’s business/ women’s business?  Do you need to have something offsite, private before you come to the event? They’re all the things I take into consideration, more than just ‘Are you vegan?’

It sounds like it’s really about caring?

It’s simple. You need ochre? Are you bringing ochre? Do you need me to get ochre? How do you feel about the ochre? Do you care where it comes from? In some ways you make a lot of work for yourself. But I don’t want a gap; I want to close the gap. I want to make sure people come and feel welcomed and a part of it, and they feel important when they’re there. I want all of those Aboriginal people to have such a great experience that they want to come back to meet the Mununjali, to come back to Beaudesert and that they are so grateful and happy to have attended Arts Ablaze. I want their voices to be heard, I want their face to be seen, and I’ll do anything to make sure that happens.

That leads back into determining what choices to make. I’ve worked in this capacity now for a good fifteen years, and always left somewhere with unfinished business because something could have been done differently, or the powers that be of an organisation don’t act the way that they should. I don’t want to have that this time. I want to have the opportunity for new business with the Mununjali. They’ve got dreams and aspirations, and they need someone like me for a short period of time to connect them to the information they don’t have yet. That’s what I’m trying to do with this; I feel like I’m working for the Mununjali people, even though there are other communities coming in, I’m there for them.

How do you in your capacity please everyone when people have their different viewpoints within culture?

This is why this has also been the best job because I’ve walked into something that is funded, I don’t have to beg for money, with a late but willing community and a supportive outer team. In terms of keeping programming broad I’m all about challenging it, that’s why I’m keen not to program anything that you see everywhere. We’ve all been to NAIDOC and other events and it’s always the same.  I am not in the slightest bit disrespecting that, but the young people of these communities need to see a contemporary version of themselves. Whilst traditional practice is still quite strong, particularly for the men, they’re rappers and spoken word artists now, they’re playing with digital technology and street dancing; they don’t need to see people playing the clapsticks still. In my opinion, the perspective needs to be broadened so they can find and experience the arts and their culture in a different way. We never all agree with our grandparents or our own parents; you don’t know what you don’t know, you have to see it and these young ones, they have to see what else is out there.

I keep coming back to this, there’s something in it. It’s easy for me to say that, because I live, work and breathe in a cultural community.  But I’m also aware in some ways that I’m in a privileged position to challenge that kind of representation of culture, because in many ways traditional culture or that marketed version of Aboriginal culture is still romantic, still mythical. Within our own community, we need to show what else there can be or else they get locked in a time warp and can’t work anywhere else but Dreamworld doing ‘Shake a Leg’.

In many ways, I’m coming from a contemporary culture back to a traditional culture, that’s where I want to go. But I want to show these other ones that there’s more. You can do this, but you can also do this, and this. It’s the self-identifying, gender identifying, that kind of stuff. There’s other ways to be as well; we’re hoping to engage Corey March/Chocolate Boxx, the drag artist. You’ve got to show people representations of difference. One of the key things is we have such high rates of youth suicide, and that stuff is potentially a result from these internal confusions and challenges in family. Not self-confusion, not “Who am I?” or “What am I?”, but “How will the family or community accept that kind of stuff?”

Is there anything you wish you could have included in the First Nation programming but were unable to?

The other thing we’re working with, and we’ve tried really hard and just been able to program one thing around it is the youth justice stuff. We’d hoped to get some of the artwork and the young artists who are locked up, but that’s not been able to happen. We’ve still got a conversation around that kind of stuff with some key players though.

In some ways, that’s my only thing I was unable to actualise this time around. The other thing in terms of the programming I have done is challenging Aboriginal people on their own ideas. It’s all well to say ‘We’ve got all the answers’ but no, we don’t. We’ve got as much hang-ups as everybody else, so there’s one session that is around the Welcome to Country. The amount of Aboriginal people I see stand up and say ‘We’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land past and present, future and emerging’ and you go ‘What?! How is that acknowledging country?’. Country is landscape, country is the air. Country is not just about the people who are, were and there.

About Alicia 

My name is Alicia Melonie Jones. My cultural connections are to the Ben Lomond and Swanport peoples of Tasmania. I grew up and lived in Melbourne but have been living in Queensland now for 20 years. In terms of performing, I have been on stage since I was three, one of those dancing ballet kids, but I started to take it seriously when I was around 27.

I moved to Queensland to get into university as I wanted to be a schoolteacher. In 2003, I studied acting at South Bank TAFE. I got the lead role in a play and started working under Lisa O’Neill who was with Ozfrank at the time and we were doing Suzuki training. I then started training with OzFrank and got into university, where I did a double degree in education and performance, studying film and acting. I finished the first 2 years and Sharon Hogan, one of the main tutors said, ‘Don’t waste your time on education. Just keep doing the performing, you’re really great’.

Whilst I was studying, I was working with Access Arts as a performance facilitator whilst also working hospitality and having a couple of kids. My hospitality work always lead to management roles, so I had business acumen that I then married with the performing arts and now I am working on lots of projects.

How did Cre8veunltd (creative unlimited) come about?

Cre8veunltd came to when I was working at Access Arts. I was working with all these amazing people who wanted to be artists but depending on the knowledge and the training of their support worker, they would determine what their art practice was. It just came to me that through creativity, their experience was actually unlimited.

I was doing a lot of community development work, which applied to that as well, so it made sense. It is creativity that unlocks potential and connects people to their past. Creativity’s going to get you back to your culture, to education, unlimited as to where you can go.