Content warning: This piece contains the names of Indigenous people who have died.
Jimi Bani is among the country’s best-loved performers. Since graduating from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in 2007, he’s played the legendary land rights activist Eddie Mabo in the 2012 ABC telemovie MABO. He’s revisited his childhood in the Torres Strait Islands for My Name Is Jimi, an acclaimed play presented in 2017 by the Queensland Theatre and the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair that chronicled four generations of his family. Bani, who is currently starring in John Harvey’s The Return at Malthouse Theatre, traces his lineage as a storyteller to his upbringing on Thursday Island, where he grew up surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles.
His life changed when he came across Myths and Legends of Torres Strait (1970). The book was compiled and translated by Margaret Lawrie and featured images by his late grandfather, Adhi Ephraim Bani Jnr. It paved the way for the theatrical force he would become.
Your late grandfather Adhi Ephraim Bani Jnr was the seventh traditional chief of Wagadagam and one of his paintings features on the cover of Myths and Legends of Torres Strait. What does this book mean to you?
I was born and bred on Waiben (Thursday Island) and my bloodline runs back to Wagadagam, Mabuiag Island on my father’s side and Erub Island on my mother’s side. I remember seeing that painting at my grandfather’s house. He was an amazing man – he was an ambassador for the Torres Strait Islands, a professor in linguistics and an advocate of keeping the language alive and passing it down. The painting tells a story from Mabuiag Island about Amipuru the pelican, which was told to us over the dinner table. When I started reading about the stories in the book, it blew my mind to realise they were recorded. It was a confirmation of the stories told to me by my grandparents and uncles and aunties, of what our people used to do back in the day. That book came to me at a time when I was starting to find out who I am.
Do you remember how old you were?
It was in my teenage years. I grew up with my mum’s mum. Her household was very Christian, very disciplined. Sundays were about getting ready for church and praying. I had spent the majority of my life studying the Bible, so to understand this other lore, this value system, took me to a crossroads. I had to understand the story of the Christianity movement in the Torres Strait. I ended up finding out that Christianity came to the Torres Strait in 1871. The book got me saying, “Who am I, where do I come from?” I’m this Torres Strait Islander man in society. What is my job? What is my role?
Your grandfather was a great linguist, a champion of culture, who envisioned the Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island. How does he inform your work?
My grandfather would put on re-enactments. On Good Friday we would re-enact the story of Jesus on a cross and we would be the soldiers. He would retell this story for the community, and he would emcee and walk and talk. He would get me to stand in front of the 8mm camera to test what a body would look like. I didn’t even realise we were acting!
He would make paintings, drawings, and he was a filmmaker too. When they were young, my uncle and my father would shoot films and he would edit them. He used the arts as a platform, took the opportunity to teach our language, teach our cultural lore, our values. He knew that our language was dying out. One of his many sayings was: There is a fire, a bright flame that was lit in the past, it is still burning but the woods are burning out. My job is to put new woods in to keep the fire burning. He was ahead of his time.
Myths and Legends of Torres Strait features illustrated stories from the eastern, western and central islands. One cultural story about Dogai I, a female demon who kidnaps a misbehaving girl and gouges out her eye, was part of your play, My Name Is Jimi. What stories in the book do you find yourself returning to?
One of the stories that really stuck out to me is of Kuiam the warrior. The legacy of Kuiam the warrior speaks to all of us men. Hearing it, my cousins and I had goosebumps all the time.
Kuiam would defend Gumu, his homeland. He would fight hundreds of warriors by himself because he was a loner, and he only had his uncle with him. In Torres Strait Island culture, the aunties and uncles teach the young boys, the young girls. They show them the ropes before they go to the parents or grandparents. The relationship between Kuiam and his uncle Toemagan is key to our lore and Kuiam wouldn’t be who he was without the guidance of his uncle. It speaks volumes to me about being confident within myself. The majority of my films are warrior films and that story gave me permission to be a man.
You’ve played Indigenous cultural heroes who’ve fought to have their rights recognised – such as the resistance fighter Jandamarra and Eddie Mabo, whose courage informs the struggle for land rights. To what extent does your grandfather’s legacy inform your choices as an actor? You’ve been drawn to stories of strong and complicated men.
Absolutely! Being part of a leadership bloodline is a responsibility. I found my place within this industry by continuing to put wood on the fire, by creating shows such as My Name Is Jimi and Othello. It is my responsibility to put our stories on stage, keep the stories alive.
It comes down to my spirit. I’m in a complicated position and must navigate through that. I connect with Jandamarra through spirit. You can imagine the passion of the late Uncle Eddie Koiki Mabo. It was deep enough that he followed it through to the end. When you start to figure out what your purpose is, you have to follow it through all the way.
You are starring in The Return, a play by Torres Strait Islander playwright John Harvey that draws from Yorta Yorta man Jason Tamiru’s time as a repatriation worker. Your grandfather famously visited Britain to repatriate artefacts stolen by the anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon. How did his experiences help you prepare?
It all came down to listening to my grandfather when he talked about the trip and the importance of laying artefacts to rest. That’s why you go over and fight. When Alfred Cort Haddon took all the artefacts, the land was disturbed. When you take our people’s bones back to Country and lay them to rest, you have peace within the community, you have peace within your heart. I think about what the lockdown did for us, for the land, for nature. Nature has had some healing processes. Hopefully the story speaks for itself. In Australia, it is perfect timing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Jimi Bani".
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