Born from a weekly yarn around the tables at the Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA, the inaugural Maali Festival is set to wow Perth festival-goers during NAIDOC Week.

The festival will be held on July 9 and 10. Festival co-curator and Wilman Nyoongar man Ian Michael says Maali, meaning “black swan” in Nyoongar language, is a space made for Blackfullas, by Blackfullas.

“One day we were talking about accessibility in the arts and for our community in particular,” Michael told the National Indigenous Times.

“We talked about history and assimilation and why we don’t feel like (the industry) is safe or accessible (for Blackfullas).”

Michael says the idea sparked from that conversation in 2018 about creating an event that would celebrate Indigenous storytellers, artists and creatives. Now, he and co-curator, Yamatji Nhanda woman Chloe Ogilvie, are ready to launch the festival.

“It grew out of a little conversation about why we don’t feel safe or don’t belong, to a festival that is now completely about us and for us,” he said.

Maali Festival co-curator Ian Michael. Photo by Maryna Rothe.

The two-day festival in and around the State Theatre Centre of WA will have a jam-packed schedule, including a play reading of Meyne Wyatt’s incendiary City of Gold by Wyatt himself, an exclusive high tea with the City of Perth Elders Advisory Group, the return of WA’s longest-running play Bindjareb Pinjarra, and performances from musicians including Ziggy Ramo, Miiesha, and the Merindas.

Michael says the Elders high tea is an important event at the festival that will allow Elders to be treated “like the royalty that they are”.

“We wanted to create a space where our Elders could tell their stories in a space that would honour them,” Michael said.

“It’s also important to facilitate a connection in a meaningful way between the wadjelas (white people) and people in our community.

“It will be a privilege to witness and listen to those stories.”

Returning to Perth after recently performing at the Dreamtime game, Ziggy Ramo says he is thrilled to be playing Maali Festival.

“It’s going to be a little bit of a homecoming in a sense because my sisters and my nieces live there,” Ramo told the NIT.

Unable to see family and unable to perform his debut album Black Thoughts in full because of COVID-19, Ramo says doing both in Perth will “be so special”.

“Every show that I get to play feels so special. The beauty in them is that duty of caretaking and sharing in real time, and being able to offer that to people,” he said.

“I wrote Black Thoughts when I was living in Perth so it’s a full circle moment.”

Maali will also see the debut of Michael’s play, York, co-written with Chris Isaacs.

Telling the story of the land now named York, the play travels across time with characters who learn the colonial history of the town and what the area was like pre-invasion.

Michael and Isaacs wrote the play informed by both colonial and Indigenous accounts of the colonisation of York, or Ballardong Nyoongar Country, and use the real names of people who gave these accounts in the play.

Michael says he and Isaacs chose to name people for truth-telling and accountability.

“We felt that if we named them, we found that we were holding them accountable for the atrocities that they did to us,” he said.

“On the other hand, naming mob was about honouring us and acknowledging the truth.

“We hope that this one’s an opportunity to shed light on voices that have been silenced throughout history, and today as well.”

Michael says he hopes audiences leave the play the same way the characters do: unable to think about the past the same way they did as when they walked in.

“The way that we’ve written it, the characters traverse time over 200 years, and at the end of the play the characters that we see can’t look at their lives the same way as before they heard the stories,” Michael said.

“They are witnesses to the stories and truth.”

While York aims to promote self-reflection, Michael says Maali Festival as a whole is about “giving our community space, and space that usually wouldn’t feel like ours”.

Michael is excited about the conversation it will spark in the arts industry and across community.

“Maali Festival will be a time to celebrate, hold one another, dance, sing at the top of our lungs, and to have our history be acknowledged and heard,” he said.

“It’s for us, it’s ours.”

By Hannah Cross