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Hope is Action

The Australian Museum Mammalogy Collection holds ten specimens of the Bramble Cay Melomys collected from 1922–24, when they were in abundance. One hundred years later, a familiar photo of a wide-eyed, mosaic-tailed Melomys, the first native mammal to become extinct due to the impacts of climate change, greets me as I enter the Arts House foyer. A small, nocturnal mammal with a heavy title, rising sea levels lead to the destruction of their secluded habitat, as saltwater intrusions ate away at the coral cay (small, low island).[1] Losing 97% of the herbaceous vegetation, which would have provided the Bramble Cay Melomys with protection and food, through inaction and political floundering, we sealed their fate.[2]

Performance

Ghenoa Gela with Force Majeure in association with Ilbijerri Theatre Company: “Gurr Era Op”

Place

Rising festival, Arts House, Melbourne, June 13, 2024

Words

Gracia Haby

Ghenoa Gela, Force Majeure, and Ilbijerri Theatre Company's “Gurr Era Op.” Photograph by Prudence Upton

While it might be too late to save the burrowing rodent with a prehensile tail tip, who coexisted with many shorebirds (noddies, boobies, and turns), it is not too late, to speak up for those that remain, like the green turtles and other bird species[3], whose nests are being washed away. It is not too late, urges Ghenoa Gela, the creator, writer, and performer, of “Gurr Era Op”, to write a letter to the Minister for the Environment asking for stronger “environmental laws to protect our lands, plants and animals from extinction.” Gela’s personal message in the foyer sets the tone. To my left, the Bramble Cay Melomys fixes me with an imploring look, as I am offered tea to help warm myself from the inside out. “My Ata (Dad’s Dad) used to live with them on our sacred island. It’s just devastating that they will no longer be there but also that their extinction is a telling sign of the seriousness of the rising waters here in Australia.”

And so “Gurr Era Op,” produced with Force Majeure in association with Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s Amy Sole, is Gela the Storyteller’s call to action. It is in every part of this work, dance, conversation, prompt, presented as part of Rising festival, because that is what storytellers do: they speak to us, openly, and encourage and remind us to play our part. “Gurr Era Op” in Meriam Mir translates as “the face of the sea,” and it is Gela’s ‘something.’ “You too can do something!”[4] Whether that is calling your local member or signing Our Islands Our Home[5] petitions for seawalls across the Torres Strait to ensure that homes, fresh water supplies, crops, burial grounds and sacred cultural sites are protected, you too can do something.[6] You, too, need to do something.

Ghenoa Gela, Force Majeure, and Ilbijerri Theatre Company's “Gurr Era Op.” Photograph by Prudence Upton

With the illuminated, colourful fishing nets and traps stacked in moveable towers, set designer, Katy Moir, and lighting designer, Kelsey Lee, have brought the Zenadth Kes Torres Strait Islands to the North Melbourne Town Hall. But, for me, it is magnetic performers, Gela, joined by Taryn Beatty and Aba Bero, three mainland-born Torres Strait Islander women, who truly bring the warm buzz of community to life as they ask: “What would you do if you could never go home? Is your culture bound by place or by self? What happens to your identity when the physical place that holds your ancestral foundations disappears?” Forms are described in relation to the petals of the frangipani; a stingray is evoked with a gentle tilting of outstretched arms feeling the water; a totem dog with the slight lifting of the head upwards, to read the message carried by the breeze; a crocodile’s (kodal, in Meriam Mir) scales by an angled limb. Nature is not a separate entity. It is interwoven, like a fishing net, family, life. It is also interrelated. Created in conversation and with the permission of Elders, Cultural Consultants, and Advisors, Anson Jack Gela, Annie Gela, Agnes Santo, Meo Sailor, Mua Sailor, Nancy Nawie, Patricia Dow, Sarah Gela, and Joshua Thaiday, “Gurr Era Op” continues to sound the alarm from the frontline of the climate emergency, if nothing else, take note: “your home is next.”

Ghenoa Gela, Force Majeure, and Ilibijerri Theatre Company's “Gurr Era Op.” Photograph by Prudence Upton

Composer and sound designer, Ania Reynolds, together with sound associate, Carl Polke, help evoke the sense of water lapping, crashing at the door. None more so as when Gela, Beatty, and Bero drag and alter the sculptural formations of the fishing nets and traps, as a seawall barrier and to indicate the erosion of the coastal outline as it recedes. Reading the theatre like the tide, seeing something over my shoulder that I will never be able to comprehend, they drew me in. It felt as though they took everyone seated in the theatre in under their collective wing, such was their grace and spirit. Connection to place is imperative; it is beneath the skin. With a sobering ‘once you know’ conclusion, with love and generosity, the story has been told. As someone echoed in the Q&A session that followed the performance, guided by Luke Currie-Richardson, when you could no longer hear the footfall of the trio on the stage, there was an overwhelming sense that the island was now submerged.

Gela, Beatty, and Bero drawing an increasing larger table laden with shared meals and memories, at the foot of the stage, will surely spark more and more climate change warriors to action; because hope is an action, and action means a future.

Gracia Haby


Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.

footnotes


  1. In 1983 it was reported that the cay located on the north-western edge of the reef, was moving towards the north-west at a rate of 0.44 m per year and in time could “drop off the reef flat into deeper water.” Available evidence indicates that the anthropogenic climate change-induced impacts of sea-level rise, coupled with an increased frequency and intensity of weather events that produced damaging storm surges and extreme high water levels, particularly during the decade 2004 to 2014, were most likely responsible for the extirpation of the species from Bramble Cay. The Minister approved the listing advice and transferred the species from the Endangered to Extinct category, effective from February 22, 2019. Threatened Species Committee Listing Advice for the Bramble Cay Melomys (Melomys ruicola), https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/species/pubs/64477-listing-advice-22022019.pdf, accessed June 14, 2024.
  2. Ian Gynther, Natalie Waller and Luke K.-P. Leung, “Confirmation of the extinction of the Bramble Cay Melomys (Melomys rubicola) on Bramble Cay, Torres Strait: results and conclusions from a comprehensive survey in August–September 2014,” https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/55651146/bramble-cay-melomys-survey-report, accessed June 14, 2024.
  3. Brendan Mounter, “Torres Strait artists give extinct native rodent new life while flagging first climate change loss,” ABC News, August 19, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-08-19/bramble-cay-melomys-revived-through-art/100386670, accessed June 14, 2024.
  4. “Gurr Era Op,” Force Majeure website, https://www.forcemajeure.com.au/gurr-era-op, accessed June 13, 2024.
  5. Our Islands Our Home is a campaign led by Torres Strait Islanders to protect their island homes. On September 23, 2022, the Torres Strait 8 made international legal history after the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the Australian Government is violating its human rights obligations to Torres Strait Islanders by failing to act on climate change. The landmark decision obliges the Government to do whatever it takes to ensure the safe existence of the Torres Strait Islands. It also sets a precedent for Indigenous Peoples all around the world. https://ourislandsourhome.com.au, accessed June 14, 2024.
  6. Take Action, Force Majeure website, https://www.forcemajeure.com.au/take-action-gurr-era-op, accessed June 13, 2024.

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