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Naarah and the arts

“I was singing before I was talking and dancing before I was walking.” Bachelor of Music alumna Naarah Barnes on performing the biggest roles of her life.

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When Alumni magazine interviewed Naarah (pronounced: Nay-ar-ah) Barnes (BMus 2019), she was back in Western Australia’s Kimberley, seeing the house she bought on the very same day she was offered a supporting lead role in the Amazon Prime series Deadloch.

There is no doubt Naarah’s life will change when the series airs internationally next year. “It didn’t hit me while we were filming, but I know it will hit me when the show comes out,” Naarah said.

“There are some huge Australian television names,” she said of the cast of Deadloch, written by comedy duo Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney and produced by Guesswork Television. “But it also showcases Tasmania and the talent we have down here.”

While in Wyndham, Naarah helped her mother, a Gija woman from the Kimberley, with community work and volunteered at the local primary school, singing with the local Aboriginal students and encouraging them in their studies.

“I want them to know they can have a brilliant future, full of opportunity, and achieve everything they aspire for,” Naarah said.

“I tell the kids, you can pursue what you want to do if you put your head down and find your own pathway.”

While encouraging the students to work hard, she explains that she failed music in college and didn’t get an ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank), but went on to study music at university thanks to a University of Tasmania Global Leaders Scholarship in 2016.

“Four years later, I won the top prize at the Conservatorium,” she said.

Naarah was the first in her family to go to university, and, while there, made the most of every opportunity, whether playing in the University Indigenous Games or travelling overseas on exchange. She travelled as one of the G50 (Global 50) scholarship students to Vietnam as part of the University Leaders Symposium and then went to England to the University of Southampton, which she describes as “life and career changing”.

“I recreated as a human being and solo-travelled through Europe,” she said.

On return to Tasmania, Naarah won the Ossa Music Prize at the University of Tasmania.

Named after Tasmania’s highest mountain peak, the Ossa Music Prize is generously provided by alumnus Dr Rod Roberts and Mrs Cecile Roberts.

“I discovered just how much I loved the performing arts and realised I could make a career out of it.

The year I graduated, 2019, was the hardest I’ve ever worked.”

And the hard work has paid off.

Naarah Barnes (BMus 2019)
Naarah Barnes (BMus 2019)

Naarah had been about to audition for a role as an extra in Deadloch when her agent called to tell her “you’ve got it,” speaking of the role she almost gave up on and her first on-screen part.

Largely under wraps until it airs on Amazon in 2023, Naarah describes the eight-part series as a “murder mystery with a side of comedy.”

Deadloch was filmed in southern Tasmania, where her parents moved before she was born. Part of the series was filmed in the old University refectory at Sandy Bay.

Naarah recently returned from living in Brisbane where she performed in Queensland Theatre’s production of The Sunshine Club, playing eight shows a week at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC). It was a leading role that acclaimed Indigenous writer and director Wesley Enoch flew to Hobart for a 45-minute meeting to invite Naarah to portray.

“It was a huge role – I was the character that everyone was rooting for in the audience,” Naarah said.

She said she enjoyed “digging into the history of Brisbane in the 1940s, into post-war Australia”. It was a time when clubs were ‘white only’ and Boundary Street divided Brisbane’s population based on race.

Naarah did a TikTok clip about how few people in Brisbane today know the history of Boundary Street, dividing black from white. “It was my biggest ever piece of content – it received 50,000 views,” she said.

In 2020 Naarah began touring Australia, fresh out of her degree, performing in the award-winning musical The Sapphires, playing the humorous role of Cynthia in the story of four Yorta Yorta women who sing classic soul music during the Vietnam War.

“I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to represent my culture, tell stories and entertain people, which is
what I love to do,” she said.

You can follow Naarah on Instagram @n.a.a.r.a.h

Written by Katherine Johnson for Alumni Magazine Issue 53, 2022.

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Top of page: Naarah performing onstage | Photo: Brett Boardman