These short texts were prepared for the ISEA2014 Education forum in Dubai. Ian Clothier, Executive Director of Intercreate, Deborah Lawler-Dormer and myself were invited to contribute a statement about interdisciplinary and cross cultural education and knowledge sharing from our region, which was delivered by Deborah.
Comment from Ian Clothier:
“I’d like to make a comment about culture and frameworks, about adaptability and recognising cultural constructs.
To begin, imagine if you will, two tall plinths standing side by side. One plinth is painted blue, the other is natural wood. On the painted plinth sits an unpainted gourd. On the natural wood plinth, sits a gourd painted blue.
This formation is of the minimalist aesthetic kind that is conventional in Western exhibiting. The layout is such that objects are isolated from each other in a simplified viewing scenario.
Alternatively, imagine the same objects but in the following set up:
The natural wood plinth lies on it’s side on the ground. The blue painted plinth stands upright, and the gourds are arranged to suit. This mixes up references in the work.
In the Maori context with the natural plinth lying on the ground, it can now be read as referring to Papatuanuku (sometimes referred to as having characteristics of Earth and Mother). The blue vertical plinth can also be read as referring to Rangi-nui (or the characteristics of Sky and Father).
The work to which I refer is by one of our students, Korenna Kidd and we had these readings checked by a master Maori artist who he confirmed them.
The thing is when the plinths are in the side by side formation, the Maori reading is not possible. It is indeed demolished.
The work I am discussing decisively walks a line between cultural frameworks, having two appearances which each refer to alternate cultural frameworks.
Consequently great care is needed when critiquing work, particularly work that straddles cultural boundaries. One of our tutors until recently was part of the changeover team at a local gallery and museum, and he thought the side by side version was ‘better’, ‘clearer’ and ‘stronger’. However he really meant that it conformed to Western expectations better.
There is an assumption that Western cultural values are ‘objective’ and ‘look the best’ and are more aesthetically pleasing. However these statements simply refer to cultural frameworks.
So what should students do to get a good education? They should seek to be able to see obscured assumptions clearly, while being flexible and adaptive.”
This was my contribution:
“The term education for me is vexed when considered in the context of cross cultural engagement and knowledge sharing, particularly when working with Indigenous communities. Formal education in the Australian school or university system is certainly relevant and important, but not necessarily where the impact resonates or where the opportunities lie.
My comments point to education out of the classroom and that which fosters mutual learning between cultures and disciplines.
In 2013 (incidentally the same time as the last ISEA), I was seconded to work for an Indigenous organisation in the Goulburn Valley region of Victoria – the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation. My remit was to deliver a two-fold project – develop an internal communications tool (an intranet), and implement a social media policy, guidelines and profile across a number of channels. Part of this role was also to support and train staff.
Yorta Yorta Nation does a lot of things – cultural awareness and language education in local schools, training, land management, research, climate change adaptation and much more. They work with many sectors and funding bodies – education, arts, Parks Australia, Vic Roads – the list goes on.
I learnt much in the 6 weeks I was there.
One of the areas of work I find particularly inspiring are the collaborative projects between Yorta Yorta Nation and university researchers, which focus on understanding the river country for sustainable land management and cultural awareness purposes.
By taking a community led approach, incorporating trans-generational knowledge transfer of culture, scientific knowledge, GIS technologies and climate change adaptation, a rich body of research is evolving. This research is useful in varied educational contexts – for young Yorta Yorta people, for researchers and more broadly the general public.
One of the outputs is the creation of a GIS based mobile phone app for walkers in the Barmah/Millewa National Park, a tool which enables even broader knowledge sharing. For a walker, many layers of information are linked and revealed, creating a rich story composed of cultural context, history and scientific knowledge.
Most significantly, I learnt that relationships come first when working with Indigenous peoples. Getting to know people, having conversations and building connections is really important. The Australian expression is yarning – being able to just sit down and have a chat. In a western context this focus on relationships is often not acknowledged, as the focus is on delivering the information/technology and ticking off on the achievement. Building trust, listening and being open to alternative ways of sharing knowledge is key to successful engagement. As the above example demonstrates, the mutual sharing of knowledge builds a richness that can not be achieved by one methodology being applied.
This sort of education does not come with a PhD, it cannot be measured so simply. My experience made me more conscious that an an educator, we need to be more flexible and open to different types of educational process and the value of shared systems of knowledge. In this context, the defined role of student and teacher become blurred as everyone has a role learning from, and, teaching each other.”