Vessels For Stories: Old Pathways to New Places

By Kelly-Lee Hickey

Kelly-Lee Hickey grew up fascinated by Darwin’s status as a ‘gateway to Asia’ - and the boats that once moved back and forth across the Arafura sea to Indonesia, following a centuries-old international trade route. Her new arts project, Vessels for Stories, aims to reconnect our severed ties with Indonesia through cultural exchange - and stories.

Driving up the Stuart Highway as a child, I was always excited by the ‘Gateway to Asia’ sign that appeared as we approached the outskirts of Darwin. In my mind they appeared gold-plaqued, swinging open to reveal a glistening bridge that led to islands laden with exotic flora and delicious foodstuffs. Although my parents refused my request to visit the gates, the image remained in my mind. As I grew, the vision contorted into a fenceline that jagged its way across the Arafura, boats of all kinds (and their cargo) ensnared in its wire.

A little over a hundred years ago, the South Australian government put an end to centuries of trade between the Makassan trepangers of South Sulawesi and the Aboriginal people of Northern Australia. After a few decades of imposing taxes, the distant colonial government officially overrode centuries of negotiated fishing rights by refusing to grant licenses to the fisherman. The year was 1906 and the decision severed our pre-colonial ties with Indonesia, leaving us floating, an island colony in the corner of the Pacific Ocean.

Researchers on both sides of the Arafura Sea have been charting the significant international trade route that exchanged goods, language and technology across vast tracts of coastline for centuries. Although the lens has been mainly historical in nature and anthropological in focus, the relationship between South Sulawesi and Northern Australia is of particular relevance to contemporary geopolitical discussion. Relationships with Indonesia navigated along our northern borders, long before the arrival of my ancestors, show radically different ways of brokering relations, both domestically and abroad.

This shared history became the starting point for Vessels for Stories, an international arts project promoting cultural exchange between South Sulawesi and Northern Australia. Working with collective narrative ideas in Central Australia, I witnessed first-hand the humanising role of stories and how threads of shared experience could weave together fractured communities. Applying these ideas in the arts, Vessels for Stories uses the iconography of the boat as a starting point for creative conversations between two countries. Through collaborative residencies, artists explore how we might mimic the boats, becoming vessels for stories negotiating the exchange of our cultural cargo.

‘It is as though we have met as old friends,’ said Anna Weekes, manager of Larrakia Nation Arts Centre in Darwin — and a fellow Vessels for Stories artist. During the inaugural residency in Makassar, the shared history between the two towns provided unexpected frames of reference for collaboration. Inspired by ‘Animal Pop’ an Indonesian dub-step dance phenomenon, we made jokes about pioneering ‘Trepang Pop’, mimicking the sea slugs’ wobbling manoeuvres until we exhausted ourselves with laughter. Stories shared over coffee became the raw data for our performance. A favourite childhood story from the Buginese epic I La Galigo inspired the closing scene: hundreds of paper boats rising up through the crowd, imitating the resurrection of a felled sacred tree.

On stage, boats and sails were polarised archetypes, undergoing a journey of transformation as they encountered each other. Off stage, they continued their travels. Over coffee, Makassan poet M Aan Mansyur and I discovered a more personal connection through boats. ‘My father left us when I was young,’ he said. ‘Now, when I leave the island to visit my mother, I always try to travel by boat, so I can see the world through my father’s eyes. This is another reason why I am interested in the Vessels of Stories project.’ His story sails close to my heart. I met my birth father at 25, only to discover that he was undergoing treatment for cancer. Swapping these intimate stories is part of an exchange that cannot be quantified – the quiet process by which two poets become a part of each other.

As Australia marches into the Asian century, there is still so much we have to learn about our closest neighbour. The images of Indonesia that confront me in Australia are a swirling mass of Balinese resorts and Javanese abattoirs, Yogajakartan hipsters and Papuan protesters. The complex history and identity of the archipelago seems inexplicably distant. When I try to expand my lens to see the whole of Indonesia, my mind is flooded with colours, and I can no longer focus on faces, places or names.

My only hope of understanding is slowly, one story at a time. So I start with simple things – the exchange of a coffee, a few words, a meal. Trade is an exercise in vulnerability: we must offer up some part of ourselves, be open to receiving something new. Our time in the Makassar was the first stage of an ongoing collaboration spanning oceans and years. The gateway to Asia is slowly being pried open again. The exchange of stories is the key.

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