From Darwin to Ormiston Gorge… Sang Mei-Chuan shares her Paiwan traditions with the NT

— by Kate Rendell

Sang Mei-Chuan 桑梅絹 with Quetzal Guerrero and Basidi Koné at the Acapella in the Gorge performance at Kwarte Tweme (Ormiston Gorge). Photo by Zoe Teng.

Paiwan performer Sang Mei-Chuan 桑梅絹 recently spent six-weeks in the Northern Territory as part of our exchange program with the Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre in Taiwan. Here she speaks to our Communications Manager Kate Rendell about her first international residency and how she can’t wait to come back. This live interview was translated in-situ by Zoe Teng.

You’ve been in the NT for nearly 6 weeks and it’s your first international artist residency. What are your immediate reflections?

So for the first two weeks in Darwin we have been scheduled to see some visual art exhibitions and my first impression was that this art from Australia is very different from Indigenous art from Taiwan. It is very rare to see dot paintings and I initially felt quite different and also a little uncertain about how to connect such different art forms to my own creations. And then afterwards we went to see the Indigenous Music Awards and some other performances and the ideas became more clear and I was able to connect and become inspired by the art I have experienced here.

In Taiwan I have worked with Theatre before and if there is an art exhibition I would perform according to the theme of the exhibition. It’s very common for artists to work together across different fields, no matter if it is visual arts or performance arts there is space to collaborate. Working in Alice Springs with a range of people was like this. It was very spontaneous and flexible.

I want to ask about the new music you have written in Darwin. In the NT what have you felt particularly inspired by?

The lyrics are about thanking the land here in Darwin for allowing me to feel like home, to feel like my local community, and when I go back to Taiwan I hope that it’s not forever, that I will be back again. To these lyrics I added a bit of traditional ballads from Taiwan as that’s what I am missing of home, but also to suggest the missing of Darwin and Australia when I go back.

Alice Springs seemed to have a really major impact on you. What was it about Arrernte country or about that place that affected you in that way?

I feel that the time was too short in Alice Springs. The final performance at Ormiston Gorge was special. When I was performing there I really felt that I was home. Because when I am in Taiwan I often create music next to a creek. The landscape, the water there was very similar. And I also felt that if there had been more time in Alice Springs I would have been able to create something new because the inspiration and the creative process was all immersed in the experience and time spent with local musicians and the environment.

It’s interesting that you say that the place felt familiar, because I don’t immediately think of mountainous Taiwan as similar to the central desert landscape…

Only the colours are different! (laughter) In fact the early name of my community was ‘desert’, for some reason. But there are also creeks, rivers, waterfalls, pools where I live. That’s why I felt very much at home. And the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir – they are very much like the Elders in my community. The Elders of my community also gather together to sing sometimes. And sometimes I will be conductor. They started singing every Wednesday – they sing traditional ballads. It’s quite different from what the Women’s Choir sings as they sing Church songs – I really like those too and the choir have really special voices too.

Do you have any thoughts or reflections in regards to First Nations connections made in Australia?

I don’t have anything in particular. I feel that that Indigenous peoples are the same, we are Indigenous. There is just something unique between Indigenous and First Nations people – there is an instant feeling that we are very close. If I see Maori people on the street, and the patterns of their tattoos, I feel such a strong connection that I have to go up to them. I can’t help, I just have to do it.

And you’ve said that you’re really keen to come back…

I hope to be back soon! To any festival that will have me. I don’t want to go home yet… although I would like to swim in the ocean! I appreciate that you guys have looked after me, given me space and freedom. The Desert Song Festival in Alice Springs was an especially special experience.

The Taiwan-Australia Indigenous Artist in Residence program is a collaboration between Artback NT and the Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre Taiwan, generously supported by the Northern Territory Government, Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Australian Office in Taipei. The program presents a unique opportunity for cultural exchange between First Nations artists.

Read more about Sang Mei-Chuan’s residency or find more info on the Residency Program