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September 17, 2020

Despite 2020, Tandanya will survive

Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute has weathered a closure by pandemic and funding cuts already this year, but, in spite of the challenges, the organisation is excited to reopen next month.

  • Words and pictures: Angela Skujins

The Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute should have spent the better half of 2020 celebrating its 30th anniversary, but it has instead been keeping the South Australian Indigenous community safe.

Survival mode meant connecting through new mediums, like socially-distant projects and videos, and pivoting towards new streams of income.


253 Grenfell Street, Adelaide 5000

Everything but the gift shop is currently closed to the public.


“There has been a sense that if we stayed active and not idle while we were in this period of closure, hopefully it just means that once the doors do open again, people can slowly start to gather,” Tandanya performance and events creative producer, Sasha Zahra tells CityMag.

When the threat of COVID-19 materialised in the middle of March, general manager Gemma Page says a number of Indigenous artists dropped out of performing at Tandanya’s Adelaide Fringe First Nations hub.

As a result, the organisation closed to the public. The exact date was Sunday, 15 March: the tail-end of the Adelaide Fringe Mad March period.

During Fringe, Tandanya operated as a First Nations performance space, hosting live music gigs, drama performances and the iridescent installation Yabarra – Dreaming In Light. The idea was to build momentum for its 30th birthday during those crazed first months, with more events to follow throughout the year.

Tandanya has always put the health and safety of its community first, so when COVID-19 hit, it shut its doors.

Aboriginal Australians are particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. We learned early on the virus could kill and severely affect the elderly and also those living with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or asthma, which are more common among Indigenous Australians.

“That’s why we were one of the first places to actually lock down and close and we have been one of the last major organisations to reopen,” Gemma says.

The South Australian government managed the COVID-19 situation effectively and swiftly, Gemma says, but the organisation’s role was to make sure “everybody was in a safe space very quickly.”

In May, two months after Tandanya closed, the organisation was notified it was unsuccessful in receiving its usual four-year Australia Council for the Arts funding.

They have obtained this federal financial support since their inception, and the most recent allocation was a four-year contract starting from 2016.

“To lose our four-year federal funding has had a massive impact [on Tandanya] but we’ve just had to look at other ways to move the business into different areas and other grant and funding opportunities,” Gemma says.

“Tandanya’s role, really, moving forward as well, is to be able to support some of those smaller organisations, and that’s what we’re really focusing on, too. So, yes, it’s awful that we haven’t got that cashflow in the second half of this year, but also, we totally recognise that we’re in a much more fortunate position than some other organisations.”

Throughout the shutdown, the Tandanya team worked to diversifying its income stream, the building’s floors got a new lick of ochre paint, and the exhibition hall and exterior pavers were thoroughly washed.

It was a time to improve the venue, but Sasha also wanted to continue paying musicians and creatives.

She asked Larrakia rapper Jimblah to direct ‘Still Stylin’ 2020′: a work in celebration of survival and culture.

Still Stylin’ is a seven-minute musical montage – reimagining four songs by Torres Strait Islander pop musician Christine Anu – recording First Nations dancers, rappers and artists, moving around the Tandanya space and on country.

“Obviously people talk about that and that’s a positive thing,” Sasha says.

“It was also about engaging with a broad range of South Australian First Nations artists – both established and emerging, from a number of art-forms, creatively activating and utilising the many spaces and resources within the Tandanya venue.”

While the broader community has been temporarily kept out of the venue, Tandanya has also been gearing up for its next exhibition, titled Atnwengerrp, Our Apmere – Our Place, which will launch on 2 October.

This is the first Tandanya exhibition available to the public since the closure, and will feature black and white paintings by four generations of Atnwengerrp artists – a community in the Northern Territory.

Gemma explains that when Tandanya first opened in 1989, artworks from Utopia, the region where Atnwengerrp is located, hung on the walls. This will also be the closing event for Tandanya’s 30th year.

“Back when they opened Tandanya there was a huge big event, with the street closed, Bangarra dancers, Yothu Yindi played multiple nights in the theatre,” she says.

“For this opening, although it’s all going to be impacted by COVID restrictions and responses, we’re doing something similar in that we’ve got this beautiful exhibition on the walls.”

Despite the challenging year, both Gemma and Sasha are optimistic about the future.

Gemma says she feels very supported by state and federal funding bodies, and also welcomes public support to keep the place alive and thriving.

“Tandanya’s got two streams of paid membership,” Gemma says.

“One being the Friends of Tandanya, which is for people who are not of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, and then the paid membership for members of Tandanya, which is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which also gives them a voice and an ability to attend the AGM, to vote, or to nominate to become a board member of Tandanya.”

Sasha says the creative sector is “pretty resilient”; most of the industry’s workers are used to adapting to changing environments, “working hard and fast”.

She’s also is confident Tandanya will last another lifetime.

“While this has been here for 30 years, I think there are a lot of people who don’t realise that it’s such an institution and an amazing icon nationally,” she says.

“It’s really unique in that it’s one of the only Aboriginal spaces of its kind in the country and it’s such a treasure.”

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