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Garrmalang Festival And Our Cultural Surplus

May 21, 2014

Cultural festivals are a powerful space for supporting local community governance structures and participation in decision-making, and a stimulating new festival recently held in Darwin is doing just that.

The Garrmalang Festival is the first major Indigenous festival of its kind in Darwin and the first ever Indigenous festival to be held at the Darwin Entertainment Centre (DEC). Garrmalang is a multi-arts festival celebrating our culture from a cross-section of genres including music, visual arts, cabaret, dance and public forums.

Garrmalang is the creation of artistic director Ben Graetz who recognised the need to bring our culture to the forefront in Darwin and particularly to celebrate the culture of the traditional owners, the Larrakia people. While speaking to Ben about the success of Garrmalang he aptly pointed out, ‘It’s really interesting that there has never been a major Indigenous festival in Darwin before, considering 30 percent of the NT population is Indigenous and there’s such a big presence in Darwin’

Festivals continue a tradition of coming together on country to engage in our ceremonial exchanges of song, dance and ceremony and ensuring continuation of our rituals throughout generations. Festivals operate beyond the stereotype of “deficits” and push the wealth of our cultural wellbeing. In economic terms festivals enrich our cultural assets and develop capacity in arts development.

Graetz himself has been on a long journey in the arts development sector. Both a performer and producer, he is also part of the Indigenous Producers Mentorship program, an initiative of the Australia Council for the Arts. Despite only starting his position at DEC in June last year Ben landed a host of strong acts.

Garrmalang featured Larrakia artists such as Gary Lang with the debut of the very moving MOKUY, well-known local Ali Mills performed and Miranda Tapsell represented as festival Ambassador. Along with other artists from around Australia like Djuki Mala (The Chooky Dancers), Archie Roach and Black Magic performances by Mis Ellaneous and Constantina Bush. The artists were able to showcase stories defined by their own paradigms and as Graetz comments, ‘It was so important for our people to have the stories of the Larrakia as the major focus of the festival’.

The word Garrmalang itself is the Larrakia word for the Darwin area. The local mob were supportive of the festival and are already looking forward to Garrmalang growing in the future, ‘The Larrakia community were full with pride and everyone was saying it’s about time this festival happened and it’s well overdue’.

The festival drew in a range of audiences with 4000 people attending over three days.  Festivals like Garrmalang provide opportunities for cross-cultural negotiations and a unique experience of the minority asserting dominance over the mainstream.

Cross-cultural negotiations also support genuine partnerships rather than continuing the faded motif of cultural appropriation. Garrmalang worked in partnership with the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation and the opening included a welcome and smoking ceremony amongst the wanga[1] with performances from the local dance group Belyuen Kenbi.

Despite Garrmalang and many other festivals proving the potential of the Indigenous festivals sector, it remains vulnerable to the perennial problem of inadequate and insecure funding to establish professional support organisations and related employment.[2]

But our cultural stores will never experience a deficit. The rate of our cultural exchange as dictated by us will never decease in value and will continue the ongoing manifestation of our cultural traditions into perpetuity.

[1] Dancing ceremony.

[2] RMIT (2010). Indigenous Cultural Festivals: Evaluating impact on community health and wellbeing, p 8. At (viewed 9 May 2014).