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Hand In Hand: Joanne Robertson on Kidogo’s Irish Aboriginal Festival

This weekend from the 17th to 19th of March, Kidogo Arthouse in Fremantle will host its third annual ‘Hand in Hand – Kidogo Irish Aboriginal Festival’. Coinciding with St Patrick Day’s weekend, this unique festival highlights and celebrates the connection between Irish and Aboriginal cultures.

Joanne Robertson is the curator of the festival as well as Kidogo Arthouse’s Artist and Director, I spoke with her ahead of the festival to learn about the festival’s origins and her ongoing work in promoting the history between the Irish and Australia’s First Nations people.

Tell me about the journey that brought this festival to life?

I’m from Ireland, I’ve been in Australia for about 32 years, and I came over here as a resident because of my art practice. For 23 of those years, I’ve been working at Kidogo and during that time I’ve worked with a lot of Aboriginal artists. I’ve been asking why their surnames are Irish and they tell me, “I’ve got an Irish Ancestor.” They’ve often got a story about their Irish ancestor but people only ask them about their Aboriginal background. It’s exciting that now many Aboriginal people are beginning to delve into their backgrounds and find connections not only with this country but with Ireland.

For example, Olive Knight who is a complete legend, blues singer, she toured 11 countries with Hugh Jackman, she came to a session of Irish musicians playing at Kidogo two years ago. She told me that when she played in Dublin with Hugh Jackman she got up on stage and felt this incredible and immediate connection to the audience. She had never known anything about Irish people, but she realised that in fact she has got strong connections to people from Ireland and relatives from there.

I thought if the Irishmen gave their names to the children they had with Aboriginal people, then they must’ve been proud of those children and that story hasn’t been told. We’ve got the same love of music and dance, the same belief in the spirit world and unexplained sort of things that is part of Irish storytelling and Irish mythology. It’s similar for Aboriginal people. In this festival we’ve got new songs that have been written telling the love stories that have never been told before about the Irish and Aboriginal people who have had families together.

You’re in the third year of the festival, how has it developed over this period?

I started this two years ago during COVID. We couldn’t get any artists [due to covid restrictions], so instead I contacted five or six, very famous artists in Ireland and I said, “Would you please make and record a song, then send me a video clip?”. There’s a stone wall on the Old Maritime Museum that faces Kidogo, it’s 10-metres high and I thought that wall was built by convict labor, built by Irishmen. But that wall, I’m sure, was also built by Aboriginal people who are not acknowledged who would have been slaves. I decided I wanted to project those musician’s videos from Ireland. I wanted to tell the story of convict and slave labor, that wall has also never had projection on it. I wanted people to look at the wall and I wanted the bricks of the building to show through the projections.

This year we have a stage on the sand between the Kidogo deck and the ocean. I thought let’s put the performers, as they’re telling their stories and reciting poems, with the sunset and dolphins behind them. It’s such a lovely setting and I’m excited to continuously use the space in a way that it’s never been used before, to tell stories that have never been told before like the camaraderie of the Irish and Aboriginal people. Stories that seriously need to be told.

Do you think we are arriving at a place of being more invested in telling stories from our past, such as the effects of colonisation?

I think we’re in we’re in an exciting time. Talking with my Aboriginal friends, they say there’s much more willingness to recognise them through Welcome to Countries, through collaborations, through filmmaking and there’s a lot more telling of Aboriginal stories. But also, you’ll notice in the world, there’s a lot more love of Irish storytelling. I feel like with this festival that Irish and Aboriginal people will understand the similarities between us.

Can you tell me about some of the people you have performing at and attending the festival?

I’ve invited several performers to the festival. Eddie Sherlock is a phenomenal songwriter from Dublin and he’s written a song based on a story a friend of mine, who is a 75-year-old Noongar lady, sent him via a video recording. It’s about an Irishman falling in love with an Aboriginal lady.

I also wrote to Manchán Magan, who is the number one expert in Ireland on the Irish language, he speaks all over the world on the Irish language. After the festival he’s going to come with me and some other artists on a road trip through the Kimberleys and we’ll go to Balgo to meet Elders there. Manchán will be able to distill the commonalities he’s learnt between the Irish ancient ways of connection to the land and language and that of the Indigenous people here. 

Where do you see the festival going in the future?

The interest around the festival is growing in Ireland and with musicians. I’ve got five artists coming over and the Musician’s Union of Ireland have posted about this on their website so all the musicians know about this festival. The people of Ireland are also really interested in Aboriginal art and their stories. Now the next step is to take the musicians, artists and poets that we’ve collaborated with here over to Ireland. I know that when Aboriginal people will go to Ireland they will be embraced, cared for and respected.

I was also delighted that a couple of weeks ago, Caroline Kennedy, who is the US Ambassador to Australia, came to Kidogo to hang out in the back studio and have a meal with the Irish and Aboriginal musicians and poets who are performing in this festival. The next time I meet with her, hopefully, we can talk about doing a cultural ambassadorship. Of course, her dad was the most famous Irish-Catholic, John F. Kennedy, who became president of the United States. So, she knows the story of Ireland, and the Irish people. Between all the artists here that I’m working with, we are building amazing networks to bring this story to America to Canada. We want to thank the First Nations people of all these countries, who looked after the Irish when in dire straits.

Hand in Hand – Kidogo Irish Aboriginal Festival is on:  Friday 17 March (St Patrick’s Day) 2pm-11pm, Saturday 18 March 3pm -11pm, Sunday 19 March 10.30 am to 11pm