In southeast Australia the Aboriginal population is young; more than fifty percent are under twenty-five-years old. Yet, Aboriginal young people in Victoria remain a minority within the broader community. Many have limited opportunities to engage in programs reflecting their everyday experiences or to identify with others from similar backgrounds. The following is a conversation between Lily Graham and Jessica Bennett, who were participants in the Aboriginal young people in Victoria and Digital Storytelling (DST) project (2014–17). In this conversation with DST research fellow Fran Edmonds, Lily and Jessica reflect on their involvement in the project and on spaces supporting their capacity to explore their culture and identity. The DST project involved ten Aboriginal young people, alumni of the Korin Gamadji Institute (KGI) at the Richmond Football Club. KGI recruits Aboriginal young people from across southeast Australia for its Richmond Emerging Aboriginal Leaders (REAL) programs. During three DST workshops, participants created films in genres ranging from Science Fiction to MTV style videos, using digital art and animation apps to support creative explorations of identity. The project culminated in the exhibition of thirteen stories at the Sovereignty exhibition, at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in 2016–17.
The DST project participants reflect the diversity of Aboriginal people across the southeast. Some have strong connections to and knowledge of their cultural heritage — their Country and kin — whereas others are coming to terms with their culture and learning about who they are and where they come from.
Lily and Jessica discuss their involvement with KGI, the DST project and the Sovereignty exhibition. These Indigenous ‘spaces’ — located within non-Indigenous institutions —reveal the significance for young people of having a ‘place’ of belonging, where their Aboriginality can be safely explored and supported. They also reveal the ambivalence many young people have in asserting their Aboriginality; a legacy of the colonising process, where the broader community’s views about Aboriginality continue to be framed within restrictive notions of authenticity (i.e. Black and remote). This ambivalence is reflected in the young women’s acknowledgement that their Aboriginality is something they are proud of, while their capacity to assert their identity is frequently constrained by ‘outsider’ ignorance of Aboriginal histories.
The young women also engage with decolonising approaches that invert Western ‘institutional’ paradigms — based on colonial ideas of white privilege — and reframe them as spaces promoting Aboriginal ‘ways of knowing, being and doing’.
Again, I look back and think how often in society we – as Aboriginal people – have to defend our culture and explain ourselves, and our identities. In a place like KGI, that is a very culturally safe space, we’re not questioned about our culture and identity. We don’t have to explain it. KGI enables us to extend our cultural limits that we may otherwise shy away from. We’re not being judged. Whereas, if I’m in a non-Indigenous room talking about an Indigenous issue, I’m going to feel I have to be very careful about what I say about our art, our culture, our history. But in an Indigenous space like KGI, I feel like I can be completely true, open and honest and I guess be involved in arts and cultural activities without being questioned.
But, after sitting down with Paola and hearing her explain her vision for the exhibition, I realised the stories weren’t going into a ‘white’ space. The ‘white’ space was standing aside and it was going to fit in around us. I thought that was something really magical. To see Aboriginal people take front and centre; it made me feel that’s where our stories were supposed to be, that there was no better place for them.
When I first heard about the exhibition, I thought about the visit we had to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) during one of the digital storytelling workshops. The Aboriginal art we wanted to see was pushed to the back, so when we walked in we had to really seek it out. Whereas at ACCA, when I saw we were having a whole wall space –which to me really reflected what a true artist would have – that was special and something the stories deserved. They were very visible and it wasn’t like ‘oh, the children have done this’.
I didn’t show any of my family my films until well after the exhibition. It’s hard to explain, although I trust my family, I think in society you have an image, or an identity that you present to different people. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, you’re not mean to one person and nice to another, you sort of craft yourself to reveal what you want. I saw our stories [at ACCA] and I teared up, because I was so excited, I was so proud to have something that I created on a whole wall with all of my friends.
Later on, I went back to the exhibition. I was in the gallery while there was a tour of uni students going through. Someone was telling them about our work and I was like, ‘this is amazing’. One of the women recognised me and called me out the front and I got to talk about it. To have people actually listen was weird. They were asking questions and they wanted to know about the project and the films. That’s not the response that I ever thought we’d get, because often society makes us feel ashamed to share how proud we are of culture.
Similarly with Richmond, a group of ‘white’ men are not going to be able to fully connect with Aboriginal people, but by empowering Aboriginal people like Belinda and Luke to create an institute and bring in more Aboriginal people, that’s what makes us feel empowered when we walk in the door, to know that non-Indigenous people want us to be there.
It’s about self-determination. We’re in a world where we only have self-determination when we push to have it, so when we’re allowed the space to step straight into it, then that’s something that non-Indigenous people have
Fran Edmonds is a Research Fellow on the Aboriginal Young People and Digital Storytelling project (2014-17) in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.
Lily Graham is the Female Indigenous Programs Coordinator in the AFL Diversity unit.
Jessica Bennett is studying Arts/Law at Monash University.