Blak, gay and poz: Jacob Boehme shares his HIV journey through theatre and dance
An artist and activist, Jacob Boehme steps forward and digs deep in his performative work Blood on the Dance Floor to examine bloodlines and memories, and the need for community and identity.
Returning home to Australia after performing Blood on the Dance Floor in Canada, Boehme is excited to perform this deeply personal project surrounding his life as a First Nations, HIV-positive man.
“By sharing my personal story, unapologetically, of being Blak, gay and poz, it’s an opportunity to create a space for our mob to have a voice in the dialogue around HIV,” Mr Boehme said.
A Narangga and Kaurna man, born and raised in Melbourne, Boehme would visit country often with his father.
“We were back and forth from country all through my childhood, up until Mum and Dad divorced when I was five. I lost contact with that side of the family other than a few of my Aunties.”
“I didn’t really speak to Dad much until I was 14. The reconnection was tricky, he had a rocky road. We spent many years all through my late teens into my early adulthood trying to get an understanding [of] one another.”
The pair found connection through Boehme’s studies at the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA).
“The one thing that did connect us was when I started going to NAISDA. Dad could tell me bits and pieces but because of his upbringing there wasn’t much cultural business he could pass on; he was a very cultural and spiritual man, but he was still learning as well.”
“He used to come to Sydney and visit me, he loved that I was learning cultural dance and song and language and story, he was so proud of me.”
“He was pleased I was getting the education he missed out on.”
The years at NAISDA gave Boehme a strength and foundation in his art.
“Working with song men and women as a community artist and then working with mob all around Australia, learning ceremonial knowledge, that is the thing that’s been the foundation for my theatre practice.”
“It’s not necessarily what you see in terms of it looking traditional, it’s not that at all – it’s the way you make it and what underpins [it]. The foundations are there culturally, what you see sometimes is very subtle.”
In 1998, at just 24, Boehme was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
“It was so scary back then for me. I had to console the doctor who gave my results, he got all teary on me and said he’d never had to do it before.”
“I was referred onto an HIV specialist. I was freaking out and I asked the receptionist, ‘Where can I go have a durry?’ I stood out on the balcony having a cigarette and one of the patients at the clinic came out onto the balcony – he was so sick.”
“He had sores all over his body, he was balding, and he came out to have a cigarette in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank attached. Between cigarette puffs, he was taking oxygen. I looked at the poor guy and thought, ‘Is this my future?’”
In 2000, Boehme sat down with a community outreach worker at a clinic.
“I had gotten into my head, that this was going to kill my aspirations, my love life … everything including my physical body … I was going off the rails, alcohol, drugs, sexually risky behaviours, I was going to kill myself and not let some disease do it.”
“I went to this clinic and saw this worker; his name was Marcus. He sat me down and asked me what my favourite cake was. I said, ‘I guess Blueberry Pie goes okay.’ He drew a big circle, ‘This is blueberry pie, this is you.’”
“‘Delicious, lovely, sweet, gorgeous and we’re going to divide it. So, what are you?’ He started cutting up this pie, into these pieces, one was a son, one was a brother, one was a dancer. He kept asking me about my hobbies and passions.”
“In the end, there was a tiny slither left, he pointed at it and said, ‘That’s HIV’. That was a moment for me. I realised it didn’t have to define me. I realised that I am more than this.”
“I am so grateful I had so many people around me who loved me, my family, the friends that stayed with me, colleagues in my industry who supported me. I’m so grateful that people kept putting faith in me, even when I was at my worst, and making sure I knew they always believed in me.”
Blood on the Dance Floor was one of the first projects in which Boehme reflects on his HIV diagnosis.
“I started writing it around 2013 and finished in 2015. Going on that journey and having to write my autobiography and write through those moments, it’s been so cathartic and a healing journey in terms of dealing with my HIV-positive status.”
“I am so thankful for my collaborators who have taken it on and the funding bodies who supported the work to get up. I am grateful for those who’ve backed getting a story like this out there.”
Boehme has a star-studded resume, being the founding creative director of YIRRAMBOI First Nations Art Festival, and now the Australia Council for the Arts’ First Nations Fellow working on his own project, Blood Library.
“With YIRRAMBOI the intent was to create an event that at its heart had Indigenous leadership and self-determination, so that everything about business was determined and decided by us.”
“[The] Australia Council Fellowship … is a total honour. I also have been creating a series of work with our mob around the country who are living with HIV – creating a blackfella artist-led, HIV-positive archive called Blood Library.”
“It’s about building a community, so that our mob who are living with HIV don’t feel isolated anymore, because it can be so isolating – especially in our community.”
“The detection rates in our mob have shot up, we’ve become a high-risk group. We need to start having conversations and creating dialogue about safer sexual health and the evolution of HIV prevention and treatment.”
Travelling across this country and many others, Boehme has collected countless memories and connections that have enriched his journey and driven him to continue moving forward.
“I’ve worked with First Nations artists from Canada to the USA, from Norway and Finland then down into Taiwan and Singapore. What we have in common is … our values and ethics are similar in terms of our relationships and responsibilities to land and family and our place. We are the same in that respect no matter where we come from in the world.”
“I think the thing that drives me most is being able to watch other people step into their truth and to shine. I think it’s driven me for most of my career, it was one of the things we were taught early on as young artists, it’s all well and good to be forging a path ahead for yourself but it doesn’t really mean anything unless you’re reaching behind you.”
“It’s always been about that and I think we, as Aboriginal artists, have something special and unique. We have this responsibility where every step forward we take, we are aware of the effects it will have on those who take steps behind us. So constantly as we walk forward, we are looking back making sure that someone is coming through – you don’t see that everywhere else.”
“I could only imagine what the world would be like if everyone could take on that kind of value. These are the values I take into my work whether it’s community work, a creative festival, those values are about carving space for those coming after, that’s what I take with me in all I do.”
Blood on the Dance Floor is showing at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio on August 20-21 in celebration of the Big World, Up Close series, and at Bunjil Place in Narre Warren on August 22.
For more information on the Arts Centre show, visit: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/festivals-and-series/big-world-up-close/blood-on-the-dancefloor
For more information on the Bunjil Place show, visit: https://www.bunjilplace.com.au/blood-on-the-dance-floor
By Rachael Knowles
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