By Jacqui Fetchet. This article is part of our April and May focus on Art and Human Rights.
“For me the idea of a blank canvas is one of the most empowering things – the thought that you can do anything, go anywhere, say whatever you want. It is freedom of speech. For my people it can open locked gates to our country. It can let us speak our languages that have been oppressed to the point of being forgotten. The blank canvas doesn’t come with prejudice and this to me is empowering.”
– Warwick Thornton, director of art+soul
The human relationship to art is a timeless, resonating connection that transcends place and encapsulates identity. Like any great narrative, Indigenous artwork takes us on a sensory journey through generations, across landscapes, tracing stories between the myriad of lines, dots and circles that engulf that once blank canvas. For the viewer, these colours, patterns and textures are evocative and mesmerising; for the artist, the process of creation can be empowering and meditative.
Art is perhaps the most canonising symbol of Indigenous culture in Australia – indeed it is one of the few aspects we celebrate. As a tangible representation of the connections of people to culture and land, it has become commodified through tourism and revered as tokenistic showpieces in galleries and homes of the wealthy. Indigenous art itself has been romanticised by constructed ideas of desert paintings, rock art and the isolated artist working in remote areas. Dot-paintings are hawked along George St in Sydney, printed on tea towels and preserved in coffee-table books. Yet our history reveals that it was art that in fact brought social, and legal, recognition to Indigenous Australians. Albert Namatjira was the first Indigenous person to receive citizenship, his acceptance into Australian society due to his painting fame. Today, art continues to act as a medium between cultures.
throughout Australia it is the smaller-scale, community-based programs that are driving true change and empowering people individually
The non-Indigenous glorification of art seems somewhat contradictory when juxtaposed with the reality for many Indigenous people today. Higher rates of incarceration, chronic disease, unemployment, substance abuse, domestic violence – the media and the government continue to recite disturbing figures in the hope that institutional investment will break these systemic patterns of socio-economic disadvantage and deliver prosperity to all. Today, three-quarters of Indigenous Australians live in large rural areas or major cities yet face significantly disproportionate issues in comparison with the non-Indigenous community. Whilst comprehensive initiatives such as Stronger Futures attempt to address these systemic issues at the Federal level, throughout Australia it is the smaller-scale, community-based programs that are driving true change and empowering people individually. Most importantly, such initiatives are providing holistic responses, with positive outcomes based on engagement, connection and capacity-building. Many of these exist within our own communities.
Behind the statistics, the media and the politics, there are other stories that remain untold. Equally deserved of recognition, these narratives depict the ordinary lives of women – strong, creative, empowered women who are personifying the reality of Indigenous art in today’s urban society. The group is named Ngala Nanga Mai, which signifies “we dream” in the Dharug and Iyora language of La Perouse. Beside the coastal bushland, overlooking the industrial development of Kernell, in the same location that the First Fleet landed, the women meet twice weekly to gather, paint and connect.
Developed in 2009 as a community health program for young parents of Aboriginal children, the purpose of the group is to use art as a tool to facilitate access to health and educational services. Since its inception, it has been an accessible and popular program within the community, bringing together mostly young women from lower-socio economic backgrounds that face issues of social isolation and disadvantage, which have previously restricted them from using these essential services.
The Project Coordinator is Michelle Jersky, who has fostered the growth of the program from a small, informal gathering to lead a highly successful, award-winning and regularly exhibiting group. Her role works in collaboration with the Aboriginal Health Education Officer and other practitioners from the La Perouse Aboriginal Community Health Centre.
Each session is dynamic and purposeful, made interesting by the diverse participants in the inclusive space. Often, guest artists will attend to lead workshops that expose the women to different artistic techniques and cultural experiences. Tutors and educators come weekly to assist those who have enrolled in TAFE, distance (OTEN) or other courses. Student volunteers participate through the Muru Marri Indigenous Health Unit at UNSW or through Aurora internships. Sometimes, the group will go an on excursion to places such as NSW Art Gallery, the Jewish Museum or local picnic areas. Such exposure to diverse experiences is broadening the perspective of the women and promoting social interconnectedness.
The project is about women and children and their access to health, education, art and social interaction. Art is central: it is about the process for the individual as an integrated being
The focus of the group is on creation and the creative process – each session the centre table is filled with paints, oil pastels, paper, fabric and canvas, providing an array of materials with which to work. As the women sit down to create, conversation evolves, initially as quick gossip, sometimes to reflection on their art, but often topics such as identity, culture and history, emerge as directed by Jersky and discussion develops into a sharing of experience and viewpoints.
Outside, small, wide-eyed and giggling children run around amongst a spread of toys, books and soft balls that have been strewn across the play area. For the women, these meeting times exist in a space that provides a momentary respite from the role of mothering, where they can focus on the project before them, be removed from their circumstances by immersing in the present and learn about themselves through the process of education and expression.
Human rights cannot be separated from art in this context, Jersky tells me as we sit in her tiny, windowless office, piled with paper and folders, the walls plastered with art and Indigenous posters. The project is about women and children and their access to health, education, art and social interaction. Art is central: it is about the process for the individual as an integrated being – in this way it is transformative and empowering. We discuss how art gives shape to identity, pain and discovery as it taps into the unconscious. It connects the body, mind and spirit, allowing the opportunity to create and then step back and reflect. It is this holistic process that promotes the greatest right: human dignity.
In 2010, I spent six months volunteering weekly with the Ngala Nanga Mai Parent Art Group. During this time, I was privileged enough to become a part of the community, to be accepted into the group and to be an active participant. It was a fascinating experience on numerous levels. As a late teen at the time, I was the same age as some of these mothers and I found it confronting to remove myself from my self-focused world of second-year university to see the realities of my peers.
I came in with a constructed idea of development, grounded in theory and an abstract conception of “poverty” and “human rights” that exist in foreign places like Africa or Latin America. Participating in this project corroded my notions of development to reveal that the most powerful change occurs in our own communities everyday, driven by motivated individuals who empower those around them. Similar disadvantage, which at university we had theorised out in Brazil, is present several kilometres from the campus.
Human rights and social change are about access, motivation, community and connection – these exist within our own neighbourhoods. On a personal level, it was the relationships that I formed during my time with the group that truly defined the meaning of rights; indeed, the resilience, strength and creativity of these women continue to inspire me today.
In the past four years, Ngala Nanga Mai has grown into a strong, unified group that continues to prosper. Engagement with health services has increased for the participants, which has resulted in healthier families and improved lifestyle habits. Several individuals have pursued further education or skill development, with some obtaining employment. Overall well-being has increased, contributed to by a greater sense of purpose, social connectedness, self-confidence and belonging.
Creatively, the group has held several exhibitions. Most recently, the group was involved in a collaborative photographic project that documented their lives, stories and experiences through photography as an initiative to promote Indigenous recognition in the Constitution. Their work is currently on display in Bondi Junction. Beyond the socio-economic statistics, it is this level of human development that will have a resounding impact on the lives of these women.
Art will forever remain one of the most effective mediums of expression. As blank canvases are filled with colours that depict stories, identities and lives, art will continue to inspire and empower change, growth and reflection. Initiatives such as Ngala Nanga Mai reveal the potential of art as a tool for promoting human development, building community and fostering well-being. Whilst law, policy and large-scale government intervention lack the capacity to ensure holistic change on an institutional level, it is vital that more creative ventures emerge that foster artistic expression, human rights and social empowerment. With motivation they are not only possible but sustainable.
Link to ‘Underexposed’ art project blog: http://underexposedantarnsw.tumblr.com/
The author of this article acknowledges the traditional owners of the Dharawal land on which this article was written and pays respect to the elders past and present. Acknowledgement and gratitude are also given to Michelle Jersky and the members of Ngala Nanga Mai Parent Art Group, La Perouse, NSW.
Jacqui Fetchet is in her final year of Law/International Studies (Development Studies) at UNSW. She has interned at the Indigenous Law Centre and is currently Vice-President of Social Justice in the UNSW Law Society. She is passionate about women’s issues, the promotion of Indigenous rights and participatory community development.