Ziggy Ramo Invites Us To Walk Through Australia’s Shame Together

ziggy ramo

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Ziggy Ramo is one of the most important artists in Australia. 

He doesn’t shy away from truth-telling and shining a light on this nation’s horrific history. He isn’t afraid to start conversations most try to avoid. Ziggy’s first album, Black Thoughts, was a sweeping body of work that explored the architecture of oppression. His second album, Sugar Coated Lies, was a personal exploration of how intergenerational trauma impacts mental health. 

I’ve found a lot of power in Ziggy’s work. The long lasting effects of dispossession and the Stolen Generation can be found in both our family histories. I’ve always been in awe of Ziggy’s ability to pour so much emotion into his work. To so clearly spell out how the history of Australia has caused so much pain in our communities. I’ve found solace in his grief, compassion, and sometimes his rage. 

Ziggy’s latest project takes all of this to another level. He has created a dual memoir/album titled Human?. The work is a tapestry of both Ziggy’s story and the collective history of Original Peoples (his preferred terminology for First Nations Peoples). Human? invites readers to confront the reality of colonisation and their own biases towards it. 

Junkee caught up with Ziggy to discuss this project and how it came to be.

Ky Stewart, Junkee: What inspired the memoir/album?

Ziggy Ramo: When I wrote my first album Black Thoughts, it was about 7,000 words. That’s dense. A manuscript is like anywhere between 70 to 80,000 words so I had this idea of taking each song and turning that into a chapter because it meant you had so much more space and room to dig into the context. Your family and my family are part of the Stolen Generation so there’s a certain level of knowledge that we’re coming into and engaging with, whereas for 97 percent of the audience, there are gaps and baggage in what they might be coming in with. 

The whole idea of taking a book, an album and visual art to explore these kinds of central themes and ideas was trying to give people a three-dimensional experience to remove any hurdles or obstacles to engage with the work. The people who might be interested in picking up a book and the people who might be interested in listening to music might be very different audiences. But the hope is that when you find your way into one, you’re enriched because there’s this whole other medium you can dive into. The third layer is that my attention span is pretty wandering at the best of times and depending on the minute of the day, what is gonna hold that attention is pretty different. So the hope was that the different mediums just sit in your body in such a different way. Kind of pick your own adventure and if you’re not able to focus on reading a book, you can explore the themes through music, if you want that kind of space and time. We just are in the throes of finishing the audio book and it’s like 10 hours. 

Tell me more about the title Human? 

To me, that’s the root issue we have to reckon with. One hundred and twenty three years ago, in 1901, the Federation was established on the basis that some people were human, and other people weren’t. That’s why we hear the likening to flora and fauna, because under the guise of Doctrine of Discovery, and Terra Nullius, our community and our ancestors were seen as occupants, and not owners. Ultimately, by only viewing us as occupants they put us in the same category as flora and fauna. That elicits the question mark over our humanity, which is then compounded into intergenerational trauma. And so then we see the symptoms of high incarceration rates, high youth suicide rates, lower life expectancy, we see all of these symptoms from this intergenerational trauma. This is colonisation as a global story. It’s happened in many places. It’s continuing to happen in many places. We need to really reckon with the fact that we are a collective human species. And as we are faced with the very urgent issues of sustainability when global warming comes knocking on our door… I don’t think global warming is going to discriminate against whoever it decides to wipe off the face of this earth. 

We come from this oral culture that has knowledge that has sustained and been in a symbiotic relationship with Country for millennia. We currently exist in a system that’s about unlimited growth. But the thing about that is it doesn’t really account for a give and take relationship with Country. Because we’ve not been seen as human, our knowledge systems haven’t been given the same amount of respect. It’s been seen as inferior. The core of [society] is still upholding a system that doesn’t celebrate and nurture our humanity. It kind of erases it and teaches us to be dominant rather than compassionate and empathetic.

You have a chapter in Human? titled ‘Shame’. The concept of shame is very different in our culture than it is in settler culture. The chapter itself very carefully details the shameful past of Australia’s colony and slavery, flipping the concept of shame back onto those who inflicted it. Why was it important for you to create that truth-telling space? 

That’s such an astute and really interesting question, so thank you for that. I think for me, it’s something that I’ve grappled with and reckoned with. My lineage and history is the combination of all of the story so I obviously have coloniser lineage, as well as colonised. It’s something that I’ve been grappling with my entire life and trying to make sense of. We, as the minority, are forced to grapple with that shame and intergenerational trauma. There’s a line in the book that says “privilege is not just about what you have, it’s about what you also don’t have to go through”. And 97 percent of the population have had the privilege to not have to reckon with this. 

There’s so much context and history and scope you can dive as far into this as you want. I’m not trying to position myself as an all knowing historian. Any parts of history I refer to are obviously biased to my lived experience. I think not everyone has to be an expert. I actually think it’s simpler. It’s about unlearning as much as it is about learning. It’s about unlearning the myth that some people are human and other people aren’t. There’s another chapter in the book ‘April 25’ — in it, the whole thing is lest we forget versus get over it. When we are taught to respect, admire, hold reverence for people, and understand the significance of history we are completely capable of doing that as a country. But we’ve been taught that shouldn’t be applied to our community, that is literally what we’re indoctrinating Australians to do. 

What I’m offering for these projects is that we need to reestablish the system in which we live. That’s not an easy thing. And it’s not an individual action it’s going to be lots of actions, lots of voices, lots of motivated people. I hope the way to tap into that is to appeal to our humanity because not only is it about making a difference for our community, it’s about making a difference for humans. When we look at what we are subjecting humans to here, far and wide, I think your head would have to be so far in the sand to think that we’re doing a good job. If enough of us can come to an understanding we could renegotiate the contracts of engagement and understand that systems are created by people and upheld by people. 

There’s a quote in ‘Shame’ that has stuck with me since I read it: “My relationship with this country simmers with toxicity. Everyday I wake up and I want to escape, yet this is my home, and my people are suffering; I can’t leave. Every day is a constant reminder that, in this system, we will forever be subhuman.” That’s a tension I feel every day. How have you found ways to cope with that? 

It used to almost defeat me, feeling like all I can do is what I can do and I want to change everything and I wish I could do so much more. [But] I’ve been able to look at that from another angle. If all I can do is control what I’m doing, then I gotta let go of what I ultimately can’t control. So what can I do? This is what I can do. I can absolutely dedicate my art and life to trying to help community and Country and that is my North Star. We’re quite centrist in how we view ourselves at times. We’re all a little bit of main characters and I think at times it’s really helpful for me to think of us as a blip in a very circular history. While I’m here and I have the opportunity to try and reawaken people’s humanity, I’ll just do the absolute best that I can do. With this project, for example, it’s confronting, it’s challenging, but I poured so much love and care and energy into something that I think can really help. We’ve probably got like another 60, 70 years, if we’re lucky, and you try to leave your mark. It’s just returning to what we innately know coming from our community and culture that our job is to care for Country. I really care about this. I really care about humans and I care about Country and so to put that care into the memoir is helping to try and keep me aligned in moving forward in the best way possible. 

How has making this project connected you to our culture and to our ancestors? 

I write about that in the book [actually] because of the official government legislation of removing us from our families and Country, there are a lot of us who are displaced or dispossessed. My dad has always been very conscious and attentive in helping us understand that dispossession and displacement is a state rather than an identity. A state that was forced upon us, not through choice. Through the work, it’s about trying to connect to what is innate in that oral culture. We literally survived through communicating and embedding knowledge in story and educating through those stories. For me, the journey of creating art is about reconnection to what I haven’t necessarily had access to. I’m not maybe singing or sharing my ancestral song lines, but I’m trying to capture and detail the songlines of dispossession and displacement in the same way that our ancestors were capturing at songlines for hundreds and thousands of years. 

So it’s really an interesting thing because you go back and dig up all the trauma and re-traumatise yourself in the journey. But then there’s this healing aspect of when you get to actualise intergenerational trauma into these physical pieces of work, it starts to take shape and exist outside of your body so you can make sense of it with an element of distance. I’ve been thinking that this project is more like prerequisite reading versus ‘this is the opinion you should have and how we’re going to fix it’. It’s more, ‘now you understand the place that I’m coming from’. With that information, as humans, how do we chart a path together forward? I think that innately connects to what we had been doing for centuries. 

Human?, the memoir is out now.

Ziggy Ramo is a curator for Melbourne Writers Festival, taking place from 6-12 May. 

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and Multimedia Reporter at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.