Take This, For It Is My Body

S.J. Norman, Dark Mofo, Hobart, 19 – 23 June, 2019

My friend and I shivered in the darkened Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, nipaluna[1]/Hobart. In the midst of Dark Mofo—David Walsh’s Tas-gothic fantasy—we had joined a small group outside the wrought-iron gates of Tasmania’s Government House, in anticipation of SJ Norman’s performance piece, ‘Take This, For It Is My Body’. On paper, the event was described as a traditional spread of tea and scones, a domestic ritual with which I’m well acquainted as a white, colonial-descendent Australian. Norman, a Koori artist of Wiradjuri descent, may have borrowed these familiar semiotics, but their ‘teatime’ would be far from any I’ve known.

The neo-gothic sandstone building before us, with its vestigial battlements and clock tower, was lit up red and eerie as our guide led us up the palatial driveway. They eagerly told us the estate was not usually open to the public, reserved for functions and formalities, and that the Tasmanian governor still actually lives inside. But the grandiose Government House itself was not to be our destination. Instead, we were led to what must’ve once been a stable—also colonial sandstone—tucked discreetly away from the main complex. Our guide knocked brusquely at the wooden door.

Our hunger grew as we waited outside this door in the dark. From within the shack, a knock was returned, and the door swung open. There stood two performers—Carly Sheppard (a Murri artist of Kutjar descendency) and Naretha Williams (a Wiradjuri woman and experimental artist)—dressed in simple white work dresses and aprons. While absent on the night I attended, trawoolaway performer Sinsa Jo Mansell was also a part of the cast. Their faces set sternly, they gestured in silence for us to enter. As promised the steel table was set for a British-style tea. The rest of the room was spare, both sterile and run-down. Above the worn fireplace hung a ram’s skull. The whitewashed walls peeled and crumbled at the corners. A harsh light shone from above. Our group of eight shuffled awkwardly to our chairs, and our performers began solemnly pouring us cups of tea, laboriously wheeling a cart to each setting, service without the smile.

An austere tension drifted across the room, our once-merry group turned silent, submissive. Before entering, our guide had impressed the importance of reading our place cards carefully. I was glad to have reading material, feeling restless, and followed these instructions diligently.

One side of the card recounted the history of Aboriginal genocide, beginning with the Frontier Wars. In blunt facts and figures it detailed officially sanctioned massacres, Christian assimilation policies, poisoned flour in ration packs sent to Missions, the Stolen Generation, forced domestic labour. Norman quoted the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1909, which defined Aboriginality as any ‘full-blooded aboriginal native of Australia, and any person apparently having an admixture of aboriginal blood’. [2]

The other side of the place card revealed the true nature of the scones our servers now set before us. Norman’s great-grandmother Sally was ‘known for her scones, and her temper’. [3] Norman’s mother recalled watching Sally’s bleeding knuckles knead the dough she would later serve to hungry farmers on the sheep stations of far-western New South Wales. According to our place card, our scones, too, contained ‘an admixture of Aboriginal blood, a quantum of 1/16’, given voluntarily by the living descendants who served us this family recipe. The placard invited us to ‘consume, keep or refuse this offering as you see fit’. [4]

The strict custom of scones, jam and cream were a cornerstone of my own upbringing and remind me of being scolded for using a napkin incorrectly, or learning which spoon is the right spoon, and what is the proper way to spread with a knife. Learning, I guess, how to be ‘civilised’. Defaulting to this deep-seated British politeness in my own blood, I smiled and politely thanked my servers as they poured my tea and placed the grisly cake before me. As a blood phobic, I suddenly became very aware of my own wrists, and tried to focus on breathing. I tried not to look at the scone too hard, and instead glanced furtively around at the others, wondering who would choose to eat theirs. All of us at the table—all white, all visibly uncomfortable— were busying ourselves with drinking tea and reading our place cards and trying not to look like we were too morally compromised. Nobody spoke.

True discomfort is hard to come by, but nothing cuts to the heart of it like food rituals. To refuse food is an offense in most cultures, especially in a formal setting, especially when the ingredients have special meaning to your host. Traditionally, afternoon tea is a domestic framework upheld by women, as an act of hospitality towards the men who consume it. I recall dieting as a teenager, defiantly resisting the cakes and desserts offered at family gatherings, the apparent concern and underlying insult in my hosts’ eyes. Because food is more than just functional, it’s transactional. Food is love, or labour. Norman’s notes on their great-grandmother elicit Sally’s resentment toward the farmhands she was baking for. Norman’s scones, then—given voluntarily—were an inversion of this power dynamic, a kind of transubstantiation: a sacramental offering borne from generations of begrudging servitude. The placard told how Norman’s mother was raised reluctantly Catholic, ‘the residue of the communion wafer in her mouth… the incantations of the Latin mass… the voice of her Granny, who sang the now lost songs of her Country.’[5] Sacrament, in Catholicism, means accepting the suffering that allows you to live free of sin. The spilling of blood—as Norman’s place card detailed— negates trust; Norman’s blood pact reinstates it. And so, should one eat the scones?

My companion broke the table’s silence by refusing service from Williams. ‘No thankyou,’ he said, pointing to the place card. ‘It says I can refuse’. But she would have none of it, and spoke sternly—‘Your plate, please’. He was unwillingly given his scone. Later, another audience member would tell me she’d found this moment particularly harrowing—‘consent just went right out the window’. I wasn’t sure of this. While my friend was given the scone, he was not forced to eat it— he was explicitly given the option not to. Meanwhile, Aboriginal sovereignty has not been ceded, and non-consent on a grand scale continues to abound here in Australia.

It’s too easy to distance oneself from colonialism; to delegate it to the past; to absolve oneself of the ways in which we benefit from it. But this was not possible when confronted with the scone, and the question of whether to consume or refuse it. To refuse seemed to be a denial of our collective participation in the ongoing colonial project that is Australia. And yet, to eat the scones—and the blood of our Aboriginal hosts—would mean owning up to it, perhaps even approving of it.

My mind did laps around this question, and by the end I had to admit that I was just hoping teatime would finish. Two of the members of our group did take a bite, and though we all though we all pretended not to watch in abject fascination (it’s rude to stare, after all) this moment in the silence was immense.

It was over with the same formalities in which it had begun. A metal bell rang from outside the room. Williams and Sheppard grimly gestured towards a second door. This led us through the kitchen, and proved the blood was very real as we watched Norman themself pouring the rusty fluid from medical vials into the dough, ready for the next group of stand-in ‘masters’. Unable to bear the sight of raw blood for too long I passed through to the stables. On my swift exit I clocked a steel chair and bench laden with syringes and empty vials, grisly evidence of the haematological exercise that had taken place before our arrival.

I should note this was the first time ‘Take This, For It Is My Body’ was performed in nipaluna/Hobart, where Aboriginal massacres were notoriously explicit and brutal. As I stood outside waiting for the rest of the group I looked back up at Government House again. The sandstone buildings in town still proudly name themselves ‘oriental’, ‘imperial’, ‘colonial’. I recall my trawlwulwuy friend once telling me Aboriginal burial grounds were used to make the cement that hold these buildings together. I wondered where the cement for the looming Government House had come from, whose bodies it encased.

Norman’s performance is undoubtedly aimed at confronting a colonial audience, and in that sense my friend and I were perfect targets. We were thrust in blindly, and while the content was extremely confronting and perhaps caught us off-guard, I’d argue that you can’t create true horror without an element of surprise. The discomfort and internal conflict experienced in the moments sitting at that table brought our country's sordid foundations to life in a way I’d never felt so personally before. Norman’s scones placed the onus of acceptance, forgiveness, compliance, on us. On me. I could walk away from Norman’s performance, and choose not to eat the scone. But from scones to sacrament to sandstone, it seemed no part of Australia was not baked in blood.

 

[1] The written form of palawa kani—the resurrected language of Tasmanian Aboriginal people—uses only lower case letters.

[2] Take This, For It Is My Body (S.J. Norman, 2010), Dark Mofo, nipaluna 2019.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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S.J. Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body, 2019. Performance documentation.

Elliot Hughes

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S.J. Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body, 2019. Performance documentation.

Elliot Hughes

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S.J. Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body, 2019. Performance documentation.

Elliot Hughes

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S.J. Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body, 2019. Performance documentation.

Elliot Hughes

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S.J. Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body, 2019. Performance documentation.

Elliot Hughes

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S.J. Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body, 2019. Performance documentation.

Elliot Hughes

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S.J. Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body, 2019. Performance documentation.

Elliot Hughes

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S.J. Norman, Take This, For It Is My Body, 2019. Performance documentation.

Elliot Hughes

Jess Cockerill is a writer and illustrator who haunts various coastal suburbs of Australia and is interested in the intersection of environment, culture and technology. Through a mixed journalistic, critical and creative practice, Jess explores our tense yet intimate relationships with the nonhuman world.

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