Culture and heritage

Big skies: Bebe Backhouse in Aboriginal Melbourne

2 May 2023

A lifetime’s worth of creative thinking infuses Bebe Backhouse as he works to shift power back to Aboriginal communities in Narrm.

Even as a child growing up in a tiny town on a remote peninsula in the Kimberley, a powerful force called Bebe Backhouse to Narrm.

“I was not made for small-town life, I can tell you that!” Bebe said.

He loved the soft soil, ancient gorges and magnificent mountains found in the country of his mother’s ancestors, the Bardi Jawi people. And yet his father’s big-city lineage also spoke to him.

“My dad loves to tell a story from when I was five or six years old: I said that one day I was going to live in Melbourne.”

He now leads the important policy and strategy work of City of Melbourne’s Aboriginal Melbourne branch.

A person leaning against a fence with the city in the background.
Bebe Backhouse in Narrm

Talent and transformation

From a very young age, Bebe kept his eyes on the horizon: pushing himself to “search the world for intricate purpose”.

An interest in music gave him a way to frame the world differently.

From the age of nine, an older nun taught him classical piano and the art of performance: whenever he faces a challenge, he summons the Sister’s advice and takes three deep breaths before walking to meet his future.

In turn, Bebe taught music to local Aboriginal kids. This work won him a West Australian Youth Award.

“Being a pianist was the experience of a lifetime. I travelled, I saw, I grew; the first man I ever loved fell in love with me as I played.”

Two people standing with their arms around each other, smiling and wearing rainbow lanyards and ribbons.
Bebe Backhouse and partner Jeremy Oliver

Coming home with purpose

It felt weirdly like a homecoming when Bebe arrived in Melbourne to study at the Victorian College of the Arts.

“I was returning to where I was from. But it was a conflict for me as my Aboriginal heritage wasn’t from here. Was I battling imposter syndrome? What I did know was that I belonged here.”

Unsettled, he took flight to work and travel overseas, before Narrm called him home again more than 10 years ago.

Loaded with purpose, he’s been here ever since, building a reputation as a creative producer and director of festivals, public art and theatre projects.

And yet, his relationship with the arts was beginning to shift.

“I always thought I’d be working in the creative industry, continuing with arts. But there’s more to Aboriginal people and culture than just our art.”

“I knew that the work I wanted to do for my people, for Aboriginal communities … being here in Narrm would allow me to make the change I desired to see.”

He took a leap. Sharpened his executive thinking in pediatric public health, and began to transform influential organisations from the inside.

“Especially workplaces that work with vulnerable communities, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

Enter City of Melbourne.

“When this role came up, I realised it included reconciliation, health, wellbeing, homelessness, employment, rough sleeping. All these factors that affect Aboriginal people.”

He could see that Aboriginal Melbourne was already leading important and exciting work in its relationships with Traditional Owners.

As he settles into his new role, he looks forward “to seeing how this evolves, what this could mean from their perspectives, and how we can work towards being an Aboriginal city.”

Two people standings next to each other smiling.
Bebe and musician Bumpy

Shifting power back to communities

Bebe encourages us to ask the big questions in a systematic way.

“Right now, we’re focusing on how we have worked with Aboriginal communities. Asking what worked and what the challenges are. What can we reinvent and how can we shift the power back into the community.”

Initiatives such as National Reconciliation Week are crucial along the way.

“There are significant gaps in the quality of life between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” Bebe said.

“National Reconciliation Week presents an important opportunity for City of Melbourne to shine a spotlight on what some of these issues are. It gives a voice to the community on how we can move forward productively and effectively.”

Honesty is required to observe relationships and history. Bebe is also convinced it requires the on-the-ground experience of being with Aboriginal people.

“Aboriginal communities are starting to remember that they’ve always had the power. That’s where my mind is focusing with my work at the City of Melbourne.”

Looking to the future takes courage. It takes creativity.

“That requires trust. It requires transparency. Historically that’s what’s been missing between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.”

Find out more about Aboriginal Melbourne or read more of Bebe’s story in the anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, and his new book, more than these bones.

A person holding a microphone and using their other hand to gesture.
Bebe Backhouse

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