“I have always found the art scene in Adelaide to be very white, with whiteness not limited to this place, but a particular kind of white (free-settler) conservatism associated with the history of wealth and art in Adelaide.” — Ali Gumillya Baker
Saturday arvos in Adelaide. What to do? Maybe brunch, a walk in the park, call in to a mate’s house. Do nothing. In the City of Churches, Sunday is often the day of rest. Town is dead. I’ve often found myself walking through the CBD, a lone figure weaving through the streets that make up “Light’s Vision”, occasionally seeing a few more people. Yet this particular Sunday saw me hopping in a friend’s car and heading towards the Crown and Anchor Hotel, a familiar dive bar I frequent for live music. Another friend: “It’s weird to be at the Cranker when the sun’s still up, much less for a gig!”
We’re here to see Divide and Dissolve play their second show in Adelaide. Their first-ever performance on Kaurna country happened the night before at a community warehouse space. It was packed out. According to an insider, these shows were put on with barely a month’s notice, promoted furiously, and finally prompted a mad scramble to provide equipment. As an outsider, I could barely tell. I was here for the first-ever POC (People of Colour) only bill I’ve ever encountered in my five and a half years of residence. Suddenly I’m not one of three other POC in the room—I counted us in the majority. Lots of people have brought their kids.
Activist Dominic Eliseo started the event with a Welcome To Country that was not only wrought with emotion, but humour. The intention that suffused the gig was palpable—by taking over the (usually) apolitical space that was the status quo for most gigs in Adelaide, the entire atmosphere was bound with an immediacy, galvanising disparate groups together. Eliseo continued with a spoken word piece, ‘Rainbows Don’t Land On Missions’, a snarky critique on whiteness, and the stage was set.
Many critiques of white supremacy often zoom in on how land, and consequently space, is taken up by whiteness and settlers alike: it’s a myth-making project, in which new histories are created at the expense and erasure of native ones. In writer and revolutionary Franz Fanon’s formative text The Wretched of the Earth, he states that “the settler makes history and is conscious of making it.” In other words, stories that arise from nation-building are directly an inversion of what came before, “not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves.”
As such, the atmosphere of the show took precedence: it was an attempt at reclaiming, through music and art, a space traditionally seen as white in the South Australian imaginary. It was this space that propelled industrial duo Ventilation Episode. Their glitchy, experimental synth sounds saw Olivia Bellow and Bryce Morriss use distorted loops and vocal effects to subvert conventional melody, forming a backdrop that was at once monstrous and reassuring.
“South Australia was the highest incarcerator of Aboriginal peoples on the continent in the last ten years. Building momentum toward decolonisation through anti-policing and prison abolition, institutions that continue to enslave First Nations peoples across the world, is hence a movement crucial to the survival of Aboriginal peoples particularly on Kaurna Land and is one that Divide and Dissolve actively facilitate. Their music, their ability to create safer spaces and centre the voices of First Nations, Black and POC communities at their shows, and the distribution of the radical messaging on their merch collectively contributes to the agenda to keep the air in the lungs of Black Women like me.” — Latoya Aroha Rule
In a roundtable discussion on the state of the arts in South Australia, held in 2017 and later published in Art Monthly Australia, artist Ali Gumillya Baker referred to the prevailing, uniquely South Australian colonial mentality in a conversation on belonging and place. The state’s free-settler history has been especially lauded within mainstream circles—directly oppositional to the convict-settler states in the east coast and ostensibly better-planned and more progressive—yet simultaneously swept under the rug. It has trickled down to the many ways cultural production is perceived, and who is considered deserving of a platform, deserving of acclaim, deserving of legitimisation. As Baker pointed out, this is not limited to Adelaide, however it is certainly more visible.
In this context, Divide and Dissolve’s performance was groundbreaking. As much as their music is often connected to punk and metal subcultures, their politics brought out a significant amount of people who were perhaps not immediately or intimately connected to those subcultures. Who cares? Contrary to the clique-minded and insular nature of punk and metal scenes, the event brought about a totalising dynamism that underscored two simple facts: that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to isolate art from politics, and that political art is meant to be universal, not exclusive.
Guitar player Takiaya Reed began Divide and Dissolve’s set with an acknowledgement of the country that her and her bandmate were on, and asked non-Aboriginal folk—if they could afford it—to donate money to a few causes, emphasising that one of the practices of allyship involves addressing interlinked race and class inequalities wrought by a capitalist system. Despite the catastrophic-sounding music that the duo soon performed, easy smiles were given. It felt like a non-aggressive exercise, subverting the prototypical angry demeanour that many punk and metal bands perform, myself included. There’s anger, of course, and despair, but there’s an overarching sense of care and compassion too.
Divide and Dissolve build on the critique of white supremacy, taking back false histories to create new meanings. There’s an implicit invitation for the audience to do the same, and as Reed has mentioned in the past, their music acts as “maps to guide slaves—all forms of slavery—towards freedom.” This audible geography sees drummer Sylvie Nehill hitting with precision and force, and Reed conjuring crushing guitar riffs and haunting bass clarinet melodies. It’s a sonic miasma that undercuts traditional ideas of what doom metal entails, yet uses its very force to imagine new ground—it’s re-appropriation that borders on apocalyptic, an attempt to raze current dominant structures to the ground, in the hopes that a more collaborative ethics rises from the ashes.
Songs like ‘Assimilation’, ‘Resistance’ and ‘Indigenous Sovereignty’ are laced with undercurrents that sound immediately haunting, but also pressing, feeling like a gentle call to arms. When I spoke to fellow POC who were in attendance, they echoed similar opinions. Similar to how Reed and Nehill drenched Captain Cook’s statue in piss prior to their tour, it’s a praxis that is both serious yet playful. Taking the piss (literally and figuratively) and running with it.
“I’ve been to a lot of gigs on Kaurna Yerta, mostly bands made up of skinny white boys moaning about not getting enough sex. Honestly, I find their work reductive. There are so many incredible Aboriginal artists and other artists of colour—they are transforming spaces and provoking social awareness and change. Their art is important because it celebrates the profundity of cultures that are not white and western. Divide and Dissolve received death threats from people in so-called Adelaide because of their video, their art and messages. Not only is this racist and misogynistic, it also shows that the white boys are nervous; they know we are changing shit up.” — Dominic Eliseo
In 2016, incarcerated Kokatha and Wiradjuri man Wayne “Fella” Morrison was brutalised by prison guards and then later died. This incident spurred his sister, Latoya Aroha Rule, to begin organising national rallies to bring attention to his unjust death, as well as point out the high rates of Indigenous incarceration—in South Australia in particular, as well as nationwide. Later, at an Invasion Day rally in Kaurna Yerta in 2017, Rule shaved her head in protest and mourning for her brother and her community.
Rule got on stage after Divide and Dissolve’s performance to remind the audience that the prison system is deeply tied to white supremacy and capitalism, as well as implore everyone to continue challenging these forces within a politics of care and resistance. Indeed, it’s clear that the state creates reasons to unfairly incarcerate Aboriginal people in this country, much like how it is with Black folk in the United States. Programs like the “Suspect Targeting Management Plan”, used in New South Wales to justify stop-and-frisks of (largely Aboriginal) youth as young as eleven, as well as the many Aboriginal deaths in custody, remain a glaring, unaddressed fact.
Multi-disciplinary events like this one, with the aim to foster political action and inspire thought, are hopefully the first of many in Adelaide. As Rule remarked when I expressed delight at the event: “This is resistance.” And unlike empty sloganeering often found in many alternative subcultures, a potent brew has begun.
Cher Tan is a freelance writer based in Naarm/Melbourne, via Kaurna country/Adelaide and Singapore. She writes mostly on tech, identity, politics and culture. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, i-D, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Swampland Magazine, amongst others. She is the author of cultural criticism food/book journal Cooking The Books and can also be found at @mxcreant.
Top photo by Tasha Tylee. Garments by Jason Tran.