Lily Shearer said the performance was a king of healing for the amount of death in her community. (ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood)
Just after the last of the day’s light has faded, we stand on a hill and listen to the story of the woman with the suitcase, who gives birth to a stillborn child.
Her desperate face has been dotted throughout this performance, leading us every step of the way.
“She gave one last push and her little girl fell out from between her legs and into her hands,” lead artist Liza-Mare Syron recounts.
“Eyes shut, mouth closed … no sound, no cry. ‘Wake up little one! Wake up!’
“She put that little gurong into a suitcase and she went looking for that one old man that could give it a proper burial.”
As she recites the story, her luminous purple skirt flutters in the wind, and her face is lit by two broken glass graves.
“That’s a particular practice in communities of laying shattered glass on grave tops,” Syron says.
“That’s reminiscent of when they used to lay shells on to illuminate the grave when the sun hit it to show the spirit rising.”
This performance, named Broken Glass after those graves, is being held at St Bartholomew’s Church and Cemetery at Prospect as part of Sydney Festival.
“We’re located on this most extraordinary site on Darug country and there’s something about the way the weather and landscape interacts,” said one of the lead artists, Andrea James.
“It’s on this incredible hill and you get this most extraordinary view of a graveyard that just sweeps down a hill and then you see the horizon of the city and then you’ve got the M4 just doing what it’s doing on the side.”
The broken glass is designed to illuminate the grave when the sun hits it. (ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood)
‘We just go to too many funerals’
Broken Glass has been in development for four years and explores death and grief through the lens of Indigenous women.
“Some people think that grieving is a very private, individual thing, but actually for us it’s a very communal thing that has always occurred, so there’s something very special about that,” James said.
Throughout the development process, the artists grappled with their own grief.
Lead artist and dancer Katie Lesley speaks about the loss of her cousin Tina during the performance.
“It was tough for me, I suffer with anxiety and depression pretty roughly so it’s been really good for me doing this show … letting certain things go,” she said.
“Things are what they are and I can’t always hold those things inside of me.”
The artists said the performance was a good way to let their own grief go. (ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood)
By discussing their own grief, the women hope to highlight the large number of deaths that Indigenous people deal with.
Early in the development, artist Lily Shearer brought in the orders of service for all the funerals she had attended in her life.
They are displayed during the performance, on what is called the Wailing Wall.
“When we laid them out and put them on the wall, it impacted on how much loss and grief we suffer in our lives … it just really permeated the big losses in our community,” she said.
“We just go to too many funerals, too many people die too quickly and there’s the whole closing the gap issue that is being acknowledged but nothing’s really being done,” James added.
“There’s something profoundly sad about the way we lose so many people, so many of our young ones, so this is kind of a healing.”
A touch of the funny side of death
Lily Shearer lies on the table in the mortuary scene naked, except for her emu feather skirt. (ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood)
The performance also deals with more universal and light-hearted experiences when someone dies.
You are welcomed into a wake and offered sandwiches and biscuits and in the centre of the room — a cane casket adorned with native flowers.
But eventually the event descends into an argument over who will inherit the TV and microwave.
A mortuary scene details what is done to a body after death.
In it, Shearer lies on the table, naked except for her emu-feathered skirt.
“I hope they understand the loss at the disruption of our ancient practices,” she said.
“I also hope that there’s an influence to funeral services that if an Aboriginal like myself wants to get buried in an emu-feathered skirt and painted up in ochre and wrapped in bark to be placed in the ground not in a coffin, that that can happen.”
Robyne Jones from the Wolkara Elders group said the performance was an eye-opener.
“To come and see something like that it was amazing,” she said.
“My nanny died when I was about six and nobody ever spoke about our culture so I’m only just learning things now and I’m 63.”