De-Essentialising Indigeneity: Locating Hybridity in Variously Indigenous Performative Texts

Sibendu Chakraborty, Rabin Mukherjee College, Kolkata                


Australian Indigenous literature in general and theatre in particular has been found to chart a trajectory of self-reflexivity. What I mean to show in this paper is this sense of inherent scepticism which indigenous theatre unfolds in course of its identity formations. The politics of inclusivity and ‘othering’ that regulate the domain of identity formations seem to stereotype essentialised identity around specific fantasies of exclusivity, cultural alterity, marginality, physicality and morality. The articulation and representations of full blooded Aborigines, half-castes and other successive generations of culturally diluted Aborigines problemetises the notion of indigeneity resulting in a complex interplay of inter-racial, socio-political, economic and cultural dialog. Thus Aboriginal theatre often grapples with these crosscurrents of diversity of identity formations along essentialised and hybrid representations of Aborigines. By decoupling indigeneity from certain fixed phenotypical traits I seek to uncover the hybridity of indigeneity as articulated through variously indigenous performative texts.

Key Words: stereotype, cultural alterity, Aboriginal theatre, hybridity, de-essentialising indigeneity, performative texts

“The continual questioning of who we really are is the essence of Australian nationalism.”

(Lattas 1990: 54)[1]


“It seems to me, then, that generalizations about Aboriginal literary discourse must be grounded in a reading of individual Aboriginal (inter)texts which will reveal their destination, their less or greater openness, in terms either of an interethnic or of an intraethnic dialogue.”

(Riemenschneider 1997: 177)[2]

Australian history writes itself into performance by utilising the double narrative threads of inclusion and exclusion, attraction and repulsion, idealisation and marginalisation. To contextualise its relevance to the notion of the Derridean ‘difference’ we need to scrutinise the essential ambiguities that accompanies the nation-building endeavour. The dominant trope of politically, culturally, economically marginalising the Aborigines by imposing on them a supposed tag of inferiority and inconformity is counter balanced by a corresponding ideology of identifying them as timeless and spiritually dominant or sacred. Hence, “white Australians displace Aboriginal cultures and bestow on themselves an antiquity and historical past which their recent arrival and colonial status precludes” (Dibble and Macintyre 1992: 93). This essentialist strategy of demeaning the Aborigines on one hand and simultaneously qualifying them for homogenous sacred affiliations on the other opens up spaces for critical attention and subsequently loads the discourse with an indulgence of looking for crosscurrents that might somehow tilt the balance towards ‘hybridity’. What I mean to show in my paper is this subtle interplay of discursive strategies which while making way for one kind of ideology engages itself in a performative gesture of articulating another range of essentialist interpretation.

Negotiating Indigeneity and Postcoloniality

Vitally connected to this issue of double narrative is the presence and application of rituals which directly or tangentially make theatre presentational, representational or manifestational. (Gilbert and Tompkins 1996: 55-60) The reception of Aboriginal theatre cuts across such diverse anticipations of actor-audience relationship expanding or contracting the gap to adapt itself to the desired mode of dramaturgy. But before going into all those details let us look at the term ‘indigenous’ to locate its significance in the discourse of Aboriginal performativity. The adjective ‘indigenous’ has the noun form, ‘indigines’ taken from the Latin ‘indigenus’ denoting “‘born in’, ‘native to’” (Hodge and Mishra 1990: 25). Hodge and Mishra go on to mention that “[m]any Aborigines prefer one of the names from heir own languages, Koori, Murri, Nyoongar, names which signify the plurality of nations of the Aboriginal people. In Australia the coloniser’s name concedes the whole case: the white ‘bastards’[3] do not after all try to deny the priority of Aboriginal rights” (1990: 25). Kevin Gilbert grappling with this task of defining Aboriginality notes:

But what is Aboriginality? Is it being tribal? Who is an Aboriginal? Is he or she someone who feels that other Aboriginals were somewhat dirty, lazy, drunken, bludging? Is an Aboriginal anyone who has some degree of Aboriginal blood in his or her veins and who has demonstrably been disadvantaged by that? Or is an Aboriginal someone who has had the reserve experience? Is Aboriginality institutionalised gutlessness, an acceptance of the label ‘the most powerless people on earth’? Or is Aboriginality, when all the definitions have been exhausted a yearning for a different way of being, a wholeness that was presumed to have existed [before 1788]? (1978: 184)[4]

Indigenous identity in the twenty-first century might be strategically divided into ‘Indigenous One’ and ‘Indigenous Two’. Richard Borshay Lee makes critical elucidation while he notes

[1] Quoted in Brian Dibble and Margaret Macintyre 1992. ‘Hybridity in Jack Davis’s No SugarWesterly 37(4): 93.

[2] See Dieter Riemenschneider. 1997 ‘Aboriginal Literary Discourses and Australian Literature’, Aratjara: Aboriginal Culture and Literature in Australia (Cross cultures 28; Amsterdam: Rodopi). 177.

[3] See Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra 1990 ‘The Bastard Complex’ in Dark Side of the Dream, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, pp. 23-49. Hodge and Mishra notes that: “The complexities of what is at issue here can be seen in the curious of the word ‘bastard’ in Australian male colloquial speech. …but it can also express high solidarity between male ‘mates’ … It is the solidary meaning which is most worthy of note, because it is this usage that is definitionally Australian: only a true mate can call his ‘mate’ a ‘bastard’” (23).

[4] See Adam Shoemaker 2004 ‘Aboriginality and Black Australian Drama’ in Black Words White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929-1988, ANU E Press, doi: <>

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