The past couple of months have been very valuable in regards to providing time and space to think deeply about my creative practice, my cultural identity and ‘place’ in the world.

Daydreaming at Govnik beach near Korpúlfsstaðir
Daydreaming at Govnik beach near Korpúlfsstaðir

Julia Bennett’s article Gifted places: the inalienable nature of belonging in place (published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2014, volume 32) is useful for thinking about the multilayered notion of belonging, a recurring topic for me in the context of my personal life, creativity and research. For example my Masters thesis explored the role of the souvenir in articulating a sense of identity and belonging, whereas one of the sub-themes of my PhD studio work explored notions of unbelonging, displacement and disconnection.

Bennett states in the introduction of her essay:

My starting point for examining belonging is place and
people’s relationship to place. This, I contend, plays an integral role in who we are, and, consequently, how everyday life is lived (Stevens, 2012, page 588). Place can be understood as simultaneously imagined and embodied, an active site for social practices through history, memory, other people, and material things (Bennett, 2012). Miller (2002, page 217) describes the three cornerstones of belonging as history, people, and place.

It is strange to say, but after a relatively short time in Iceland I feel a very strong connection to this place, in particular the coastline where I have spent many hours walking and watching. It has reminded me of the strong connection I feel to Nightcliff beach, a place I spent a lot of time as a young teenager. Yesterday I came to the realisation that perhaps this has been the first time in my life since my teen years where I have had the opportunity to be alone with the coast and its beauty. As I drew in the fragrance of the salty air I felt a deep sense of connection. The ocean has always been special to me.

During my time in the Nordic lands I have been close to the sea: walking along its shores, watching the changing tides, riding on top of the waves by boat and sleeping to the gentle rocking of the water.

At times the sea has challenged me – bringing fear and a sense of vertigo. It has been a powerful teacher and one that demands respect, reminding me of the cyclic nature of time and our vulnerability as humans.

It is strange to think that I have not yet even arrived to my ancestors place of birth. I am not sure what emotions that will bring to the surface for me. It is the first time in my life I have gone to an ancestral place. I wonder if I feel any sense of belonging, or will I still be longing?

Over the past couple of days I have read some very interesting quotes and articles which explore belonging/unbelonging. The first quote belongs to the much-loved Icelandic writer Málfríður Einarsdóttir (1899-1983). Einarsdóttir is also inspiring because she was in her 70s before her first book, an autobiography, was published. She writes:

Ætíð hef ég átt samastað, að minnsta kosti hefur aldrei farið svo, að ég hafi þurft að vera hvergi.

(I have always belonged to a place, at least I have never had to dwell nowhere.)

There are many places where I have felt I belonged – as I mentioned the beach close to Korpúlfsstaðir is one of those places. Another very important place to me is Nightcliff beach in Darwin. The Taranaki area of Aotearoa New Zealand has also become very special to me as well as the beautiful river country, Dhungala, of the Yorta Yorta people. Now some of these places do have history for me and most of them are special because of a connection with people. But these are places not of my birth, my genealogy or familial ties.

I have also come to realise that some of the places I have lived for extended periods of time are places where I feel I don’t belong. For example, my home town of Brisbane has a strange connection for me. Despite, being born in Redcliffe, having close friends and family there and knowing the place so well: I have never ‘felt’ comfortable there, even as a child. It was this feeling of disquiet, unbelonging and disconnection that partially led to my performance work Scalpland in the mid 1990s. If you follow my blog, you will know I often refer to this work as being significant on many levels.

Scalpland, "Shock of the NEw" Insititute of Modern Art 1996
Scalpland, “Shock of the New” Institute of Modern Art 1996

The same could be said to some extent of my current home in Canberra, where I live and work. My immediate family lives there, I have some very good friends and I do find it a beautiful place, albeit too hot or too cold at times. More recently I have sought to make a stronger connection to the region, through a greater acknowledgement the land by building relationships with Ngunnawal Elders and local community groups.

Sometimes I think that perhaps it is as uncomplicated as heeding the siren call of the sea to truly feel a sense of belonging. Or perhaps it is as simple as being welcomed onto country, to be considered a part of a place and the community that resides there. I think there are many factors at play.

More recently, I have started to realise that belonging is not necessarily dependent on the external accoutrements of history, place and people. A sense of belonging could be defined as finding peace from within oneself, by trying to live in a way that embodies respect, especially for oneself. It is almost a spiritual thing for me: of being mindful of where one is, taking care of one’s physical, mental and emotional health, paying respects, acknowledging ancestors and treading lightly on the land. Perhaps it is idealistic but this approach seems to work for me.

I came to this conclusion by doing a lot of work on myself. Personally speaking, my migrant identity has long weighed heavily upon me. As I have written in earlier posts that link to notions of belonging, I felt uneasy walking on the land, knowing that my ancestors had belonged to a cultural group that was responsible for so much pain to the sovereign First Peoples of the country I was born to. My first trip to Aotearoa and meeting Máori Elders and iwi was transformational for me on this level. Elders taught me the importance of right intention and that I did have a right to stand on the ground, if I did so with respect and mindfulness. It is difficult to explain how powerful and healing that acknowledgement by the Elders felt.

Recently, I was moved by an article published by Luke Briscoe on the NITV website titled How can we help White Australia connect with an Indigenous mind. In the article he said a number of things that resonated for me. He states:

Reflecting on NAIDOC Week this year, and doing some recent work filming the stories of the Dordogne Caves in France with the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network (WISN), I get a sense that western society are eager and hungry to learn more about what is means to be Indigenous.

My first thought on this notion was that western society doesn’t deserve to reconnect with its Indigenous self. I mean after all, they have afflicted so much hate towards Indigenous people through colonisation, and by doing so, they have created a social discourse; the destruction and isolation from the natural world and infected us with these values – Furthermore, how do we support a group of people who had killed our ancestors?

Just as I had that immediate thought, I wondered what it would be like for a White Australian to bear the burden of what their ancestors had done to Indigenous people, and to have this ‘loss’ of their own ancient customs and ongoing cultural rituals.

I felt a deep sadness for White Australia. I cannot even imagine what it feels like to not have my Kuku-Yalanji culture and don’t wish a loss of ancient traditional culture on anyone.

For me the pathway to ‘belonging’ has been lit through the love, generosity and humility of my Indigenous friends and mentors. I was also very moved last year when the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisor Kerrie Timm spoke at an International Women’s Day morning tea event. Kerrie said that healing and reconciliation was possible because ‘our ancestors mix in the dust.’ Kerrie created a strong visual image for me, one that offered hope.

I also came across some writing by Deep Imagery leader Stephen Gallegos. He states that:

…The source of the path is in the very seed-kernel of who we are, has been with us from the beginning, and continues to summon and beckon throughout our lives. And all it requires from us is relationship, true relationship, not the contrived obedience and conformity that were instilled in us in the name of child rearing. And true relationship requires being who and where we are and communicating that directly. For relationship is at the heart of coming into wholeness. We cannot get there by ownership, but only by relationship, a deep relationship with our own individual experiences.

Stephen Gallegos, “Into Wholeness”

In conclusion, a sense of belonging cannot be so easily defined through the linkages to place, history and ancestral ties. It is a reconciliation between our internal and external realities: linking heart, mind and body together in harmony with the place in which we stand.

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