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Power trip

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A richly detailed painting of a young proud Aboriginal woman flying away into the distance in a red sports car. She looks back at two police officers on white horseback. In the distance a jet plane flies over a starry night and array of objects lay on the earth including open and closed graves, surveillance towers and outdoor furniture.

Ryan Presley, The Dunes (How good is Australia) (2021), oil, lapis lazuli and 23k gold leaf on Hoop pine panel, 100 x 53 x 2 cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

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I watch the power lines run along the side of the Stuart Highway as I cruise into Mparntwe-Alice Springs, through the Gap. Power seems to be continuously tripping in visible zones, over visible bodies, around visible histories. I turn on the hose and start watering the ground on Arrernte Country as sweat pours down my back.

Power relations are being produced and reproduced in colonial societies everyday. They appear in so many forms that I don’t recognise them when I am face-to-face with them. Some days they take familiar forms but I am tripping over complex relations and colonial illegitimacy everywhere I go: at Eastside IGA and outside Alice Plaza, that I don’t always meet them eye-to-eye. I walk past the Supreme Court to buy some bandaids. As non-Indigenous people we are all complicit in sustaining colonial relationships(1) I remember again and again, searching for waterproof bandaids for a gaping wound.

Outside, the lawns swell with people, allowing rest and resistance, a place of vicarious resilience in the centre of town. The lawns swell like the Lhere Artepe after big rain and then disappear. Every bit of green under shady trees is a spot for someone. There is a powerful and intangible past and future, too strong for those who wield momentary power while hiding behind uniform.

On the other side of town the power plant is on fire tonight. The emergency line says it is to burn off excess gas. The colonial fantasy is fuelled by exploitative industries that have settled here to mine, acquire land and dispossess, while the state sanctions violence in an attempt to control the lives of Aboriginal people in new and old ways.

In the foreground of my grandfather’s stories are the brilliant railways of India and how great it is that we all speak English. The unsettling background is that violence is the “natural state”(2) of colonial rule.

The power card is out of credit again. The meat is going off. We just want to make a cup of tea and put a cowboy movie on this week.

Cop cars patrol the streets, disproportionate to the number of health workers, hospital beds and RAT tests. Sometimes we see a cop car inside the Saltbush, kicking dust around. The Saltbush does not hide the absurdity. Sometimes cops are cooking a barbeque outside the cinema. Sometimes cops are asking you over and over and over again:

“Are you buying this for yourself?”

“Are you drinking this alone?”

“At this address?”

Power feels fragile in these encounters, ballooning with violent potential. The questioning harbours a threat of arrest, controlling movement and access.

These repeated encounters are a reminder that there have been 517 Indigenous deaths in custody in the 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Don Dale has not been shut down in accordance with the recommendations from the Royal Commission and Board of Inquiry into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory (2017).

It seems like the colonial fantasy of liberating people from monsters is playing on repeat on the streets of this town. There are new actors role-playing monsters, saviours, kings and queens. The Intervention policies have officially ended this year but not all the signs at the 73 ‘prescribed areas’ have even come down. The fantasy appears to be continuing.

This town is haunted by the collective potential of young people. Flames of resistance are burning around each of them. Their very existence challenges the colonial illegitimacy that shapes this town. Tabloid newspapers splash headlines about youth crime in futile effort every morning. The youth challenge a system that has built no future for them. There is cathartic release in knowing that it is the young people that hold the collective imagined futures of this town. They have remained powerful through every iteration of control and countless attempts to contain their potential in their homes, on Country, on the streets, within institutions and as they are, completely free from the futile attempts of ongoing colonial failure.