Amrita Hepi: Dance Dance Revolution


Watching Monumental, one might anticipate a voiceover reminiscent of documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis—an iconic, constrained, British cadence—entering the fray. The four-minute video intersperses a dance performance with grainy archival footage of bodies in movement and snapshots of news reports, presenting a collage of what artist, dancer and choreographer Amrita Hepi describes as “an economy of images”. Imagine a Curtis-esque narration again: “Their aim was to create a new world, one which…”

But Hepi’s art isn’t about the creation of just one world: what’s different about Monumental is that it leaves room for plurality of thought while interrogating the idea of monuments as sacred throughout Western history. As a First Nations woman from the Bundjalung and Ngāpuhi territories, these questions are not merely rhetorical for Hepi, who is concerned with how monuments are often objects unduly charged with meaning: “I wonder about destroying symbolic things, but then what’s left and how [do we] document it? Pathos doesn’t necessarily equal catharsis in the destruction of a thing. How can you continue to document something after it’s destroyed without continuing some kind of violence or neurosis?”

The time is ripe for the toppling of monuments. Following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, cities across the world have witnessed scenes of revolt involving the defacement of statues erected to commemorate violent acts of dispossession. As I write, fresh red paint has just been poured over the statue of James Cook at Catani Gardens in Melbourne.

Amrita Hepi, Monumental, 2020 HD video, 16:9, colour, sound 4 minutes. Copyright Amrita Hepi. Courtesy the artist & Anna Schwartz Gallery.


But even as Hepi is thrilled at the groundswell of rebellion and solidarity, she emphasises that Monumental—conceived before these events became a hot-button issue—is not purely reactive. She is mindful of a certain sanctimony that can result from acts like these. To her, destruction is only the beginning, following which it “needs to be replaced by the body, and surrounded by other parts of history that support this action”.

While researching Monumental, she considered the Place de la République in Paris as a site of occupation during the Nuit Debout protests in 2016, similar to the Occupy protests in the United States, as well as the sacking of the ancient city of Teotihuacán in 600 A.D., which saw the structures and houses of the elite looted and burned in an uprising. These events prompted Hepi to question how protests become their own narratives, who gets to tell them and the ways in which they capture the collective imagination: “How far can the story go until it’s so [multi]layered it almost becomes a different kind of mythology? How do you continue to tell a story of victory?”

Hepi’s rise in the art world has been meteoric, guided by her ethos of camaraderie. As a child in Townsville, she loved dancing, attracted to its many accoutrements. And because she was raised within a tight-knit First Nations environment, there wasn’t the Eurocentric pressure to be “the best”, instead encouraging her to think about movement more laterally. At 20, after working at a dance studio in Sydney, she studied at the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association, and then at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York. At these places she began to see the intermingling of theory and praxis, where the Bla(c)k body politic was the focus, teaching her non-hierarchical ways of art-making.

“There’s definitely a ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ which I see happen a lot [in art spaces], where nobody wants to say what they actually desire,” explains Hepi when talking about her approach to art-making. “They’re [artists] too scared for it to look as if they’re taking control of the situation, but really what it requires is somebody to actually voice how or why it is they’re going to make a decision, or what they actually want.” To Hepi, making art isn’t about absolute control or visibility; rather it is about asking new questions, finding solidarity (which, to her, is simply friendship rather than an overarching “community”) and daring to take risks while holding space for others.

Amrita Hepi, Monumental, 2020 HD video, 16:9, colour, sound 4 minutes. Copyright Amrita Hepi. Courtesy the artist & Anna Schwartz Gallery.


It’s a tricky balance to achieve, often in a Eurocentric art world that prides a moralistic obsession with “doing the right thing” in a way that can be self-aggrandising and tokenistic. But gaining experiences outside of that bubble has proven beneficial. In 2013, after returning from New York, a friend asked Hepi if she wanted to teach dance classes at the now-defunct GOODGOD Small Club in Sydney.

While initially a job opportunity for a broke graduate, the regularity and size of those classes (thrice weekly, with 240 people over three sessions each night) made her realise an interest in teaching, particularly as she was dissatisfied by certain teaching styles as a student. “I would get everybody to do an Acknowledgement of Country with me and I would talk to them about things around their body… I could have a conversation with people in this really nice way; trying to make it feel like everyone in the class knew me,” Hepi reminisces.

I was lucky to encounter this first-hand. Last year, Hepi and I were involved in EASY RIDERS, an experimental performance work critiquing the exploitative nature of the gig economy, led by artist Eugenia Lim. Most of the performers—including me—had no previous training. Some had never even been on a stage. As we worked through movement techniques, Hepi, as choreographer, would notice my tenseness and remark in her jovial manner, “You’re not just a brain, you’re a body.” Her effervescent nature helped us non-professional performers relax; there would often be laughter and conviviality.

In Monumental, this is evinced in the typical Hepi way: deadly serious, but with a wink. The culminating moment in the video shows her and six dancers eventually destroying a white foam figure—a monument— with cricket bats, putting their bodies in its place, only for everything to be abruptly reversed. Hepi is ultimately thinking of what happens after a monument is toppled: “If we’re understanding a little bit more about sovereignty, about ourselves, about joy but also pain, about history, then what’s next? How do we continue to be interested in the work of ourselves without going into aphorisms? How do we supersede the expectations of what is expected of us?”

Perth Institute of Contemporary Art
19 February—24 April

This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Cher Tan