A man has his face painted
January 26

Photos of a Celebration of Indigenous Culture at Ngarrama

On the day before January 26, the University of Newcastle hosted an event centring the Awabakal and Worimi cultures and peoples, who are the traditional owners of the land that Newcastle is on. 

January 26 is an intense time filled with debate about how to best spend the day. But rather than getting into it with a relative or distant stranger online about it the night before, the people at Ngarrama are reflecting on Indigenous life before the First Fleet arrived through song, dance, and storytelling. 


Ngarrama is an event hosted by the University of Newcastle that celebrates Indigenous culture and is held the evening before Invasion Day. The event centres around the Awabakal and Worimi cultures and peoples, who are the traditional owners of the land that Newcastle is on. 

Two men walking towards crowd

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

A woman in body paint

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

A woman holds fronds

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Two men painting each other

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Man gets his face painted

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

A man helps a boy with a head dressing

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

“This is a way for us to showcase and celebrate our culture. And that’s something that as black fellas we can be really proud of,” Wiradjuri man and creator of Ngarrama, Nathan Towney said.

‘Ngarrama’ is the guiding principle of the night; a word from the Gathang language that translates to “sit, listen, and know”. 

“The whole event is about people coming together, bringing a picnic rug with their families and to actually physically sit … to actually slow down, to engage and listen. To then know new things is something that was really important to us,” Nathan said.  

Nathan and his team at the University’s Office of Indigenous Strategy and Leadership held the first Ngarrama back in 2022 with great success. 

“We thought if we get a couple of hundred people, that’d be fantastic. We ended up with almost a thousand…actually more, close to 2,000 people in that first year.”

“The feedback was really positive … that it really filled a void for a lot of people who don’t feel comfortable around the 26th of January and what that date signifies”.

Man performing dance

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Woman holds a bow

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

A bow crawls

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Men in a group dancing

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Men performing

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Nathan came up with the idea for the event after hearing about a non-Indigenous colleague’s experience at the Vigil event in Sydney – they said Newcastle needed something similar.  


“We wanted this to fill a void for our mob as well. And so we did a lot of engagement and consultation with our local community around what they might want to see at an event like this”.

Ngarrama begins with a Welcome to Country and a smoking ceremony by the custodian and next generation’s Elder, Theresa Dargin.

“As the next generation’s elder, teacher, Aunty, I promise you I will make sure I make a change to educate through the systems that we live upon. I need you to help me do that too,” Theresa said in her address. 

She went on to give the Welcome to the gathering at Ngarrama in her Gathang language.  

“We wanted to ensure that there was an opportunity to engage local people through art, song, dance, those types of expressions and use it as an opportunity to showcase some of the local talent and the local cultural practitioners and knowledge holders that we have,” Nathan said. 

The Wakagetti group wear white painted patterns across their body and face while performing songs and dances that tell stories from the traditional lore. Many of the performances come from different areas and nations, reflecting the diversity in the group.  

A man in body paint exclaims

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Man posing

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Men lock arms

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

“We do our welcome dances from different areas because that’s where we’ve travelled from and we pay our respects to Country and then to the traditional owners,” David Newham, a Wiradjuri senior member of Wakagetti, told VICE. 


He explained how lore is the foundation of the stories and customs that guide traditional Indigenous cultural practices and their performance.  

“Our dances are lore. The songs are lore. The paint-ups we have on our body is lore ... So everything we’re doing tonight that you’ll see when we dance is telling a very important story. Some stories will be about important animals such as fish, land-based animals, and creator spirits”.

Lore has been passed on among members of Wakagetti, especially from Elders such as Uncle Paul Gordon. David explained that knowledge-sharing is an integral part of their performance and they hope to extend this to the audience. 

“We want non-Indigenous brothers and sisters to respect and understand our culture, and we’ve got to share it. I’m going to bring them into the story”.

“This is what tonight’s about. It’s about coming together, unity, sharing, caring, growing relationships, and you do that by sharing story and knowledge and listening”.

Another group performed a rhythmic acknowledgment that took listeners on a journey. The music pieces used Indigenous corroboree rhythms from generations ago, and rhythms learned from elders, while incorporating Indigenous and non-Indigenous instruments to create both traditional and new sounds. 

“With this group, we retell those rhythms in an ensemble context, but we’re kind of informed to by the moment,” Gamilaroi man and percussionist in the ensemble Adam Manning said. 

A percussionist

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

A violinist

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

The ensemble recreates traditional methods for performing, where it is less about following strict musical structures and more about rhythmic instinct. 

“It’s kind of authentic, when you think back in the day no one was writing out music. It was told through ceremony and told through the moment and how people are feeling”.

Adam aims to bring Indigenous music, which has traditionally been overlooked and undervalued, into the public eye alongside modern instruments. 

“Injecting tonight this concept with violin, which is a hardcore European instrument, to try and provide a bit of discourse … But, y’know, there’s a long way to go, this is the oldest culture in the world. I mean, how the fuck do we not know about these rhythms? It’s like: fucking hell. I was taught every other rhythm except the ones that came from it, so there’s a bit of responsibility there to step up and do some work”.

Gigantic animal puppets operated by the Curious Legends Theatre Company are also used to retell Worimi stories. The sacred pelican and stingray fly across the crowd in a fluorescent haze while their stories are told in the background on the speakers. 

Light show performance

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Animal puppets

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Puppet bird

Credit: Blair Simpson-Wise

Despite being held on the eve of Invasion Day, Ngarrama does not suffer from the negativity around this time and provides an opportunity for all community members to come together and learn about the culture that predates the colonial project.  

“It showcases, regardless of what happened all those years ago, that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people are still here. Our culture is still living and breathing and we’re still very proud of that,” Nathan said.  

“The country could learn so much more if they listened to the value system and the knowledge that we have of this place. Historically, it wasn’t listened to, it wasn’t valued. So this creates a time and a space just to remember that”.