Responding to Indigenous Art: Learning and Teaching

Sep 14, 2020

More and more, we, as learners and teachers are honing our sensitivities towards cultural practices that differ from our own. The heavy, and most often, brutal burden of historical colonialist expansion into lands that were deemed uninhabited, or unoccupied – and in Australia’s case termed “terra nullius” – has for centuries skewed our understanding of nationhood and First People’s rights to their birthland. What comes with this off-centre perception of ownership is a lack of sensitivity towards the deep cultural meanings associated with indigenous artefacts. These artefacts are often consumed by non-indigenous people in the same way that they might consume a product purchased from a shop – that the product itself had no relevance beyond what they consider necessary to possess it.

So how do we, as non-indigenous learners and teachers move respectfully beyond this point of uninformed consumption that progressively depletes any form of respectful engagement? One way is through art. But before this can begin as a genuine experience, there must be a commitment towards research. In fact, research, research, research forms the basis of all relationships between one culture and another. “Research” can take many forms. The best and most enriching happens when you as the learner, can engage with a teacher from that culture. A teacher can be an advocate, an elder, a practising artist, a co-operative of artists, or a cultural representative or cultural education officer from a gallery, studio space or cultural makers/exhibition centre. When this is not possible, look to print or digital media that has primary source credentials. Hear, listen and read the words from those who live their culture every day.

If I look to my own home state of South Australia’s relationship with Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) art and artists there is much to consider. My teaching practice began in the early 1980’s when small seeds of understanding about the difference between cultural respect versus cultural copying when teaching about indigenous art was just beginning to sprout, due in great part to the excellent guidance of an Education Officer at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Right from the start, we were prompted, as teachers, to consider first our own connections to the roles that stories and personal histories play in understanding an artwork’s meaning to us as makers, and then to our viewers as audience. When we came to view the work of selected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, we were encouraged to look first at the story of country that this work is telling, before we considered the work as an art object. This was a wise course of action, as it placed the aesthetics of the artwork after the meaning. In this way, we were connected to the cultural value of the work before we thought about how it looked as a work of art. In other words, we were committed to learning about cultural values that connect a work to a culture, rather than engaging in superficial opinion-making about an artwork’s aesthetics. Once this is understood, it is insensitive to encourage students to “copy” a cultural work by doing little more than imitating the artist’s style as a form of “learning”.

Decades have gone by since that first introduction to how to teach Indigenous art, but the need to continue learning through respectful engagement continues.  Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia has Tandanya, the oldest (30 years) National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Australia which is an Aboriginal-owned and managed multi-arts centre. Tandanya sits on Kaurna (pronounced Garna) land, and the Kaurna people are the traditional owners and custodians of the Adelaide Plains. Tandanya is the Kaurna word for “place of the Red Kangaroo” and refers to the City of Adelaide. If we follow the research, research, research model, Tandanya is an obvious point of reference for understanding and engaging with Aboriginal art from a primary source. Extrapolating further, what if I was to consider a way to respond to the Kaurna peoples “place of the Red Kangaroo” by considering my “place” in my own suburb of Adelaide that lies within the Kaurna plains? “Responding thoughtfully to” is the operative phrase for me and the way I like to learn and teach. It means that I’m doing more than simply replicating or imitating. It implies contemplation and consideration. So, after a site visit to Tandanya and further investigation of the Kaurna relationship to the Red Kangaroo, I start to examine my suburb. It is a place of tall gum trees, native reserves of wattle trees filled with bird life and a significant creek tributary. How could I tell the story of my suburb while paying respect to Kaurna culture? Research reveals that the traditional ways of the Kaurna people meant that they moved seasonally – up into the hills for winter and down to the sea in summer. My suburb, still on the plains but close to the foothills would have been a corridor for this movement, with water, plants and shelter available for making camps. Knowing this, I can begin to use my imagination to communicate this knowledge using visual language. I have the opportunity to use marks or symbols understood by me, rather than appropriating those that would be significant identifiers to the Kaurna people and that should remain specific to them. The same applies to colour. Colour need not be local or descriptive or an imitation of Kaurna culture – it can come from the well of my imagination and my connection to place.

Now I come to the idea of building a mind map of layered histories of place. Aboriginal artists have for millennia used a form of aerial perspective to map out significant landmarks important to their cultural narrative and vitally important to the survival of their people as they move through country. Every language group has their culturally appropriate means of visually depicting country as a form of storytelling. As I consider my suburb, I realise that the things important to the Kaurna people are those that still resonate with me – water, green spaces, trees and wildlife. So, it is here in this realisation that I have found my connection.

From this point onward, as I develop my artwork, I have a clearer understanding of my place, and the respected place of the Kaurna people, in the storytelling of my suburb. My artwork may become a painting filled with brush marks whose significance is only known to me and those who will listen to my story. Or it could become a sculpture or weaving, or mixed media expression of respect and custodianship for what I love and regard as important to maintain and celebrate between cultures. This is the reason for my placing “learning” before “teaching” in the heading of this blog. We never stop learning, and if we are open to all moments of teaching, we have the great privilege of sharing respectfully with others.

Wendy Muir

Art Eye Deer teacher

PS. ArtEyeDeer has some Dreaming Story lessons (with cultural context explained in the accompanying text for each lesson) that you might be interested to explore and expand upon in your journey of learning about Indigenous culture and art.