THE second Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival is about to begin, and for two weeks from today until February 16 the city will showcase some of the best work from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, musicians and theatre makers from across the country.

Aboriginal opera singer and festival ambassador Deborah Cheetham told the Star Observer the Indigenous community shares with the LGBTI community a need to explore identity through art. That thread runs throughout the Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival (MIAF) program.

“I think identity and also that need to belong or to know where you belong is fundamental to the human condition. But I would have to say that my first real adventure or journey into identity was coming out as a lesbian in the mid 80s in Sydney,” Cheetham explained.

“It was the connection to the gay and lesbian community in Sydney that first allowed me to explore my Aboriginal identity. It was the first time anyone had really seen my Aboriginal heritage as an asset. And it was the first time, in the gay and lesbian community, that my Aboriginal identity was celebrated. So really, I can see a very strong link in the reason why our narratives are so often about identity.”

Cheetham is opening the festival with a recital of story and music called Til the Black Lady Sings, charting her own experience through opera.

“Til the Black Lady Sings is a recital but it’s also a really intimate story, actually, of my own journey towards understanding myself as an Aboriginal woman, as a Yorta Yorta woman,” she said.

Cheetham’s journey through her own identity reflects the incredible diversity of the community on display throughout the festival. She said events like this and the LGBTI festival Midsumma were vital ways for both Indigenous communities and LGBTI communities to be shown as they really are.

“I think that the Aboriginal community is an incredibly diverse community, and within that diversity there’s a really strong lesbian and gay community as well,” Cheetham said.

“That’s why I think we need these festivals, to dispel the myth of the caricature, and to celebrate the great diversity that has allowed us to survive for all of these years, and more than that, to thrive.”

The Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival runs from 5–16 February, and Deborah Cheetham’s performance of Til the Black Lady Sings opens the festival on Wednesday, 5 February at 7.30pm. For more information and bookings visit melbourne.vic.gov.au/miaf.

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