This article is part of our June theme, which focuses on Indigenous People and their human rights. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.
Sarah-Jane Norman – an interdisciplinary Aboriginal artist and writer, originally from Sydney – offered a new, intimate exploration of Australia’s lost Indigenous languages in a performance piece entitled Bone Library, which ran from 23 to 27 May as part of the 2012 Next Wave Festival. Acting as both artist and performer, Norman collaborated with Production Manager and Creative Associate Annaki Kissas to produce the work.
For the five days during the festival, Norman occupied a room of the Melbourne City Library where she engraved a small, collective dictionary of “extinct” Indigenous Australian languages onto prepared sheep and beef cattle bones. The intricate craftsmanship and the individuality of each bone symbolised the uniqueness of the many different Aboriginal dialects of Australia.
When I visited the performance space, the plastic sheets that covered the glass door of the library from the inside, together with the workbench – still with the fine bone powder on the floor around it – created a true sense of intimacy. Norman built a deep connection with her audience throughout the performance’s five-day genesis.
To be a bone librarian is an empowering experience that causes audiences to think about what individuals can do with their lives.
On the final day of the installation and the Next Wave Festival, the audience were invited to become public trustees of the bone collection. With the blessing of each Indigenous language group’s living descendants, each bone artefact was placed in the care of an individual audience member. A national registry, detailing the whereabouts of each bone, is to be created for the public record. Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people were invited to become bone librarians.
To be a bone librarian is an empowering experience that causes audiences to think about what individuals can do with their lives. It brings the challenge to a wider scope of people, going beyond the artist herself. In this way, there is hope that each artefact will be given the chance to continue its influence after the audience has left the workroom.
The bone librarians are necessarily involved in the act of being personally responsible for what our culture chooses to remember.
The words Norman recorded on the bones are everyday words one could find in any language; they are words everyone can relate to. “Older brother”, “sister” and “greedy”, are some examples. These are words that have the power to resonate with everyone, regardless of their cultural background.
Sometime in the future, Norman plans to bring the words back together. This will also, inevitably, bring back the volunteers who became custodians when the bones were inscribed. The bone librarians are necessarily involved in the act of being personally responsible for what our culture chooses to remember.
The number of audience members who accepted a bone and its carved word is a promising sign that, through Norman’s inclusive artistic performance, these forgotten languages can continue to live on in the future.