WORDS BY HEATHER GRIDLEY AND TRISNASARI FRASER

Most of us are all too aware that the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying restrictions have been particularly tough on the arts world.

Artists, performers, curators and arts workers who have lost income, work opportunities and sheer human connection with one another and with potential audiences have every right to be feeling distressed, fearful and even angry, or maybe just flat and somewhat lost.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performing arts practitioners, along with other Bla(c)k artists and People of Colour (BIPOC), are simultaneously navigating the ripple effects of the global and local Black Lives Matter movements. While the shared community outrage evident in these movements offers some hope of change, every death, every shocking media image can reactivate people’s pain from their own experiences of racism, discrimination and violence.

Community psychologists see wellbeing as a shared concern, inseparable from its political and systemic contexts. The real work is in cultural change, and the arts are at the centre of this work.

Effective cultural change happens from all levels of the system. There is incredible work happening within the community (Footscray Community Arts Centre, The Boite, Artists Of Colour Initiative and Still Here to name just a few among many wonderful organisations and initiatives), and the work of organisations such as Diversity Arts Australia and Multicultural Arts Victoria is critical in amplifying these grassroots efforts.

In this space BIPOC communities are leading the charge, but this must be a shared agenda for real sustainable progress. A recent open letter to UK Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies makes this challenge crystal clear.

In Melbourne especially right now, the picture seems bleak, but there is great richness in BIPOC communities and indeed within the arts world itself.

Cultural concepts such as connection to spirituality, place, extended family and community have been identified as protective factors that can help to moderate the impact of stressful circumstances at individual, family and community level.

According to Mandy Nicholson, leader of Wurundjeri women’s dance group Djirri Djirri, First Nations art is not a relic culture, it is happening now and “enriches our lives and others who experience it”. In this sense, arts practice is front and centre in facilitating wellbeing at a community level.

For Mandy, music, dance and language are key. “Dance is more cultural when language is sung alongside it. It reawakens a culture and language that has been sleeping for too long. There’s nothing better than hearing Woiwurrung floating around the streets of Narrm (Melbourne).”

Artists have been at the forefront of raising the spirits and collective morale of disaster-affected communities and in wartime, so why not use those same skills within the arts community itself?

Already we have seen some amazing creativity as gigs move online and initiatives like the VABT’s The Curtain Will Rise Again offer support to fellow artists struggling to make ends meet.

Faced with such enormous and yes, unprecedented upheavals in our daily lives as well as our emotional states, we should be mindful that such challenges can bring up all manner of responses in ourselves and others.

Strategies and tips

Here are some tips and strategies to help manage whatever you are finding hard right now:

Don’t fear your feelings

This pandemic is a highly unusual situation. It IS DIFFICULT – it’s okay to feel worried, angry, unmotivated, confused… let yourself feel whatever it is you are feeling .

Focus on what you can control

So much about lockdown leaves us feeling frustrated and helpless, but some things ARE in OUR CONTROL – e.g. we can choose to walk off our stress, experiment with different routines, or join an online project or campaign. Or maybe opt out altogether for a day or so.

Focus on the present moment

It’s the only one we can be sure of right now. If you notice your thoughts tending to go to the worst case scenario, practise self-talk like “This is temporary”, “I can get through this”. By accepting whatever presents itself in the moment, we allow ourselves space before reacting.

Connect

We’re social creatures and we often feel better when we reach out to others. It can also give us perspective that this a SHARED PROBLEM, particularly when it is one that disproportionately affects our particular group or community. It might be time for collective action. As folk singer and activist Joan Báez once said, “Action is the antidote to despair”.

Remember

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or distressed for more than two weeks it might be worth seeking advice from a health professional.
Mental health resources for BIPOC communities:

vahs.org.au/yarning-safe-n-strong-media/

embracementalhealth.org.au/community/mental-health-services

startupvictoria.com.au/resources-in-support-of-black-indigenous-and-people-of-colour-bipoc/

supportact.org.au/wellbeinghelpline/first-nations-dedicated-support-line

The Support Act First Nations Dedicated Support Line is a free and confidential service specifically catered to First Nations people, providing help with your mental health and wellbeing.

Simply call 1800 861 085 between EST 8 am – 6 pm Monday to Friday to make an appointment. Remember: If you, or someone you care about, is in crisis or at immediate risk, dial 000.

Resources and research about cultural diversity in the arts:

diversityarts.org.au/tools-resources/

westernsydney.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/978817/diversity_of_cultural_expression_report.pdf

Information about Community Psychology:

psychology.org.au/for-the-public/about-psychology/types-of-psychologists/Community-psychologist


The artistic work of BIPOC communities can be transformative at a societal level, and the social cleavages that have been laid bare during this strange time underline the importance of this work.

Remember to be kind – to others and to yourself.

Transformation is a process that requires rest and reinvigoration from time to time.


Heather Gridley FAPS is the APS Manager (Public Interest). Heather was a founding member of the APS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Psychology (ATSIPP) Interest Group and was the manager responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of the of the APS Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Heather is a community and counselling psychologist who has published and presented widely. Heather is an Honorary Fellow in the College of Arts at Victoria University.

Trisnasari Fraser is a psychologist with an interest in the wellbeing and fulfilment of artists, performers, creatives and all those who follow their passions. As well as assisting clients manage challenges of working in creative industries and life in general, she is also completing a PhD. She blogs and has a podcast at iamreadypsychology.com

This article appeared in Spotlight, the Arts Wellbeing Collective magazine: