Close to Home with Amrita Hepi
Award-winning First Nations artist and choreographer Amrita Hepi is many things. Just don't call her an activist.By Rose Howard
Ok, let’s just get this out of the way. Amrita Hepi is impressive. She’s all ENERGY. She knows how to put big ideas into action, and how to hold two opposing ideas comfortably in the work she creates. As an award-winning First Nations artist and choreographer, she has toured the world, from the Sydney Opera House to the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, and was also once named one of Forbes Australasia’s 30 Under 30. As I said, impressive.
We caught her over FaceTime from her house in north-west Melbourne to chat life in lockdown, volunteering to feed residents in Melbourne’s government housing towers, and learning to create chatbots in the name of art.
Let’s get straight to the elephant in the room... how are things going down there in Melbourne’s lockdown?
It’s day four of the new six-week lockdown - and to answer this question, I am going to bash my hands against the keyboard and see if you can catch the feeling that comes out: lkdssuksg;gfdjkkjdgkdlkfuvih. In all seriousness though, it’s a bit grim. I miss my family, and human touch; as I am very much flying solo right now.
Is there anything — a book, an idea, a hobby — that’s been helping you cope?
I recently read a great essay in a collection called ‘Intimations’ by Zadie Smith. This stood out: “By comparing your relative privilege with that of others you may be able to modify both your world and the worlds outside of your world - if the will is there to do it. Suffering is not like that. Suffering is not relative; it is an absolute.” Being able to hold two opposing thoughts like this is important to me, and I guess, to my work too.
Can you tell us about what you’ve been working on?
I recently built a textbot for AGNSW called Cass which involved writing a “script”, learning how to code and how to make flow charts work. I’m also working collaboratively with the Psychiatrist and Neuroscientist Samuel Lieblich on building another more intelligent AI chatbot for ACCA open. This one will incorporate a denser AI and be a Socratic questioner. That is, seeking to answer the big Q of “How does IT feel?”.
Otherwise, for balance, I’ve been working on a project with RISING festival, a very small bit of advocacy here and there, cooking for myself, and scheming on ways of connecting that don't involve Zoom.
Speaking of advocacy, I saw the recent work you were doing with AMSSA Youth Connect to feed residents living in the locked-down Melbourne government towers. How important was social media as an organising tool?
Social media was crucial. It came about because the flats are near my house. They’re my neighbours. And if I’m honest on another level, I was scared. We were about to go into lockdown 2.0. I wanted to take action, to do something, and to know that I could help. In a way, I was using my choreography skills in a new form, as well as making use of my relatively small platform and arts network.
How about the response?
The response was very generous. At this point, North Melbourne, Kensington and Flemington were locked down and anyone caught entering or exiting could get a fine of $1600 so we were trying to minimise that risk. People really came out and donated and were very calm; we sorted through things with the help of many volunteers. AMSAA were incredibly nimble in their huge efforts to serve the community. And really, I only had a small hand in a much bigger operation. While I don’t want to get overly sentimental about it, there were moments when I got that “orb” feeling of community - and it was real special.
Many people were doing the service, the shopping, the giving - and my hunch is that they were very willing to because they knew, after having their own experiences in lockdown, that what happened to the Melbourne housing towers was classist, racist and unjust.
Would you call yourself an activist?
No. So often I think having an opinion and also being indigenous or from a marginalised group is seen as a political act - any opinion or expression that comes from that identity is seen as activism. And while I think I am not culturally or politically neutral, my small efforts are compared to activists of the past, who faced physical violence, incarceration, pepper spray, and whose lives were at serious risk.
What would you say to those who want to do something (or post something), but are feeling unsure of themselves?
Do it, or don't do it. But don’t fret on it. Social media is an access point, a new POV, a tool for organisation. It’s also a time suck, it’s a signifier, it's run by tech billionaires, it can be hilarious, a way to share, a way to see things. I guess you can pick your poison based on how you would like to suffer (or prosper) with it.
It’s interesting how you describe your choreography skills as a kind of transferable social organising tool. Has your career taken you to unexpected places?
I’m still trying to figure it out, and I’m petrified someone will come and take my “career” away from me. But also I work very hard (and in a very odd way) so I’m sure no one else would really want it. Really, I got into this because I like bringing people together, I like being a little on the knife’s edge of exposition; it is something to do, it fills my time, it helps me navigate the map of myself.
I have a broad interest in dance and performance, and that’s the hole I have carved out with my lot in the world. In a roundabout way, I’ve ended up wearing a few different hats within it. Today, for example, I wear an Akubra which is to say: I am assessing a lot of art applications involving performance and I need extended wear in unforgiving conditions with the cattle of things. Tomorrow, hopefully, a more elegant hat.
For someone wanting to use food to serve the community, where could they start?
There are lots of food organisations that need help packing things, delivering them or will take donations of goods. You can find some of those here.
Where have you been going for inspiration?
The internet, psychoanalysis, AI programs, my friends, Ariana Reines, brisk angry walks, sad slow walks, recipes, participating in other people’s work, remembering old ways of working, dancing, watching dancing, youtube, reading. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll give you another list. I should also add ‘lists’ as well - they inspire me when I’ve hit a wall and need to finish things.
And what are you currently cooking?
Lots of salty dishes! And also recipes I can take my time with - throw Julia Busuttil Nishimura’s Greens Pie on the above list.
What’s next for you—in the kitchen, at work, and in pushing for social change?
Releasing the chatbot with ACCA open, and a few other projects that are re-calibrating.
Figuring out where to live and stay living in these times!! Making a successful fish pie. And as for the last Q, trying to be responsive.
The last thing I ate was…
Beans on toast with chilli oil and a pear
My top 5 songs to cook and dance to are…
Check my soothsayer playlists for this answer…
My favourite takeaway in Melbourne…
Right now, I’m watching and reading…
Reading: Zadie Smith - Intimations
Watching: Indian matchmaking/Gomorrah
Advice to someone wanting to do what you do...
Inspect your neurosis and run with it.