The business of reconciliation; Work imitates art for Ian
With acclaimed playwright Jack Davis as a grandfather, Ian Wilkes was probably always destined for the stage.
As a kid Wilkes learnt the traditional Noongar dances from his father, prominent West Australian academic Ted Wilkes, and uncles, and began performing them.
Later, the theatre beckoned as it had for many others in his family such as the late Davis, whose plays include The Dreamers and No Sugar, and Wilkes’ aunt Lynette Narkle, a WA film and theatre director whose acting credits include The Sapphires.
“It kind of comes down in the family,” the 26-year-old says. “It must be in the blood, you know.”
At the age of three Wilkes would copy his father’s and uncles moves.
“Some of my earliest memories would have been of my father and uncles getting me at a young age and painting my face with ochre and with 10 or so of my older brothers or cousins dancing out in the bush around the fire, camping or up on the stage at a NAIDOC event,” he says.
“As a kid it was just fun and a way of being around your cousins and your brothers. There was that sense of family around it.”
Wilkes studied Aboriginal theatre at the WA Academy of Performing Arts in his late teens and after graduating worked with dance groups such as Wadumbah before moving into theatre with the Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company in WA.
One of his most moving experiences was acting in Davis’ play Honey Spot at the Sydney Opera House.
In recent years Wilkes has turned his attention to directing.
He says what began as child’s play has grown into something deeper — the importance of keeping the Noongar stories, dances and traditions alive.
It is something he works hard at.
As well as his theatre and dance commitments Wilkes also works full-time as a water cart operator for civil and mining contractor Brierty, constructing the new billion dollar Perth stadium, which will be the home to all West Coast Eagles and Fremantle Dockers games from 2018.
The company supports his cultural endeavours, giving him time off to tour with the dance and theatre groups. Wilkes for his part says he promotes reconciliation with Brierty and works hard onsite and for the company.
“Brierty has a great Reconciliation Action Plan, where they are really focused on indigenous employment,” Wilkes says. “I’m one of their reconciliation champions and promote a lot of reconciliation with Brierty as well, so it works both ways.”
For its part Brierty, which has operations in WA and the Northern Territory, says it is proud of its track record with the indigenous community.
It was the first corporate sponsor of the Clontarf Aboriginal College in WA, works with Aboriginal businesses and its Aboriginal Reconciliation Plan (RAP), introduced four years ago, allows for cultural diversity and flexibility for indigenous workers in its workforce, which makes up anything between 12 and 15 percent.
When Brierty was granted elevated status for its RAP in May last year, it was one of only six companies rated outstanding by Reconciliation Australia. Others include business heavy weights such as Westpac, National Australia Bank and KPMG, who have since been joined by the likes of Richmond Football Club, Qantas, Crown and Sodexo.
The company’s involvement with indigenous Australia goes back to its co-founder Alan Brierty who had a leaning towards Aboriginal advancement and engagement.
It was a natural fit for the company’s current managing director Peter McBain — who has a long history of working on country with Aboriginal people — to carry on the tradition when he took over as MD five years ago.
“I look on it on a whole number of levels,” McBain says. “We brag about being multicultural in Australia but most of us know bugger all about our first culture. And if we are going to be multicultural then surely we should understand the first culture of our country.”
At one of Wilkes recent performances, Brierty bought up 20 seats to the show.
And there are more shows to come. In May, Wilkes will appear on stage in a Yirra Yaakin production, So Long Suckers, at the Subiaco Arts Centre.
In October he will direct a dreamtime story, Boodjar Kaatijin, for children as part of Perth’s Awesome festival.
His ultimate goal is to direct a play about his father.
“My knowledge of the amount of things he has done for the Noongar people is incredible,” he says. “If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t have the Aboriginal Medical Service, that’s not just here in Perth but in the Kimberley and the communities. He’s done not just a lot for the Noongar people but for Australia and the world.”
Wilkes has also started his own traditional dance group to ensure the next generation is in touch with its culture. His three-year-old son is already acquainted with traditional dance.
“A lot of my younger nephews don’t know how to dance on stage or feel too ashamed or embarrassed,” he says. “I think we’ve lost that a bit in my family. I think the role has fallen on me to teach my younger nephews the way I got taught at a very young age, and that shame factor is no longer a part of it.”
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