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‘Places’ of belonging: Korin Gamadji Institute, the Sovereignty exhibition and contemporary Aboriginal youth culture


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.

Korin Gamadji Institute, <em>Indigeneity: Aboriginal young people, storytelling, technology and identity</em> 2014–16, digital storytelling videos installed on screens at ACCA 2016–17. Image courtesy Korin Gamadji Institute. Photo: Fran Edmonds

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’.

The Conversation

Jessica : It’s hard to say how important KGI is for young people. But it is safe and I don’t think I realised that until now, just the differences between going to work within another large institution or going into uni. I didn’t realise until I got to KGI what it means to be an Aboriginal person. You get to see a diverse range of people and how they’ve grown up, whether they’ve grown up with cultural connections or they haven’t, and learning to accept that that all means you’re Indigenous. Fran : That’s interesting because KGI is within a bigger institutional space, an elite AFL football club, which is very white, male dominated. Lily : When I was working with KGI, I felt that Richmond saw KGI as the annoying little brother, that we were potentially seen as extra legwork. I think that comes from a broader perception that we have as Aboriginal people, that we’re a burden. Whereas now, being away from KGI and looking at it and seeing it for what it is, I can actually see how embedded KGI is within the Club, as a really core part of the Club’s values and what drives Richmond to not only win premierships, but really get involved in community and be a really good Club. Now that I’m working away from KGI, it has made me look back in hindsight at how safe the place is and how valued you are as an Aboriginal person. And culturally, what that enables you to do. 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. Jessica : In terms of the Digital Storytelling project, I think it was really good to have it over a few years, because I was growing up during that time and I was coming back to KGI, and each time I learnt something different. I felt like I could be truthful telling my stories, and had the space to be able to learn and grow and to explore, ‘what does it mean for me to be an Aboriginal person here, as opposed to at home?’ It’s quite hard to even say that out loud when you’re an Aboriginal person. So, going along with KGI, it makes you feel strong enough to be Aboriginal, to start having those discussions with yourself, to start saying ‘well, if I want to identify this way, what do I stand for and how can I show that to my community and be another strong Aboriginal leader for other young people?’

Korin Gamadji Institute, <em>Indigeneity: Aboriginal young people, storytelling, technology and identity</em> 2014–16, digital storytelling videos installed on screens at ACCA 2016–17. Image courtesy Korin Gamadji Institute. Photo: Fran Edmonds

Lily : As someone who’s not as culturally strong as others who’ve grown up heavily involved in their culture, I felt a little bit ‘shame’ about being involved in the Digital Storytelling project. At the beginning I felt that my story wasn’t as valid as some of the other participants’ stories, but the further through the project I got, I actually saw the diversity of everyone’s story and their levels of knowledge and cultural involvement. I realised that if I were ever to do something like that, that would be the safest place. Jessica : The Digital Story project did challenge me at the start though because I didn’t see the value in just taking a video on an iPad. Whereas now I see it more as having the power in you to make a video, or capture something and have it last for culture. I think being able to make a digital movie with mobile technology; it’s something that we can all do no matter how much or how little culture we’ve grown up with. Lily : As young people, we live in a digital world and we have access to digital things in one capacity or another. During the project we were able to broaden our technology skills and tell our stories through something that’s familiar to us. It made a lot more sense to me than going out and learning a whole new craft or something art-based that we’re unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. Jessica : I also think the process of creating the film was a good reason to start thinking about what it means individually to be a young Aboriginal woman. There’s so much talked about in the media, while in families things may not be discussed, but the project really brought it down to, ‘what do I think and what do I want to share and what do I want to show?’ The process didn’t just stop with creating the film, every time I think about it now, I keep reflecting on where I’m at now, what does that mean for me in the future and how do I want to keep showing, and exploring and sharing that? Fran : Can we talk about the Sovereignty exhibition at ACCA? Lily : When I found out we were going to be involved in Sovereignty, my first reaction was ‘how are we going to fit into that “white” space?’ It made me feel uncomfortable to begin with, because with our stories we were wearing our hearts on our sleeves. 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’. Jessica : Oh, yeah! When I heard that the stories were going to be at a major gallery, I thought ‘that’s a bit fancy for us kids’. I was actually really worried about it. It’s really confronting to have something that’s so personal shown in public. You don’t want to open that side up to some people. 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. Lily : For me it goes back to what we were saying earlier about that really safe space. Put me in one situation where I’m uncomfortable and I won’t say anything, but put me in another and I’ll thrive. It’s exactly the same in terms of my Aboriginal side. It’s a side that is really important to me, so I keep it under guard. I proudly tell people I’m Aboriginal, but I keep how I feel and my cultural connections guarded, so that people can’t attack that. So opening myself up to the exhibition was something massive. It was something we should be really proud of. In saying that, it wasn’t something that I felt I could put on Facebook and tell everyone about. That may not have been a positive experience. The exhibition was positive and we wanted it to stay that way. It was pretty powerful, giving us a voice as young people and showing an audience that we’re worth as much as anybody else. Jessica : I think having the whole exhibition dedicated to Indigenous artists and leaders did create another safe space. It was really overwhelming but overall it was something to be proud of. To me it felt like a community space. Lily : Yes, I also think it’s about Aboriginal people being empowered to take control of those organisations, like ACCA and KGI at Richmond. For me the fact that Paola didn’t have to fight to take control of that exhibition, they sought her out and wanted her to bring Aboriginal people through the door. Even though ACCA didn’t have the best engagement with Aboriginal people in the past, they relied on Paola and her relationships to try and amend that. 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 to respect.
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.
2. The Aboriginal young people in Victoria and Digital Storytelling project was an ARC LP (2014-17) with the University of Melbourne, KGI, SistaGirl Productions, VicHealth and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
3. Korin Gamadji means ‘grow and emerge’ in the language of the WoiWurrung people.
4. RFC is an elite AFL team, which won the 2017 AFL flag; its first since 1980.
5. See KGI website for details: http://www.kgi.org.au/programs/real-program/.
6. Sovereignty showcased southeast Australian Aboriginal art. It was co-curated by Gunditjmara/ Wemba Wemba artist Paola Balla and ACCA director Max Delany.
7. Martin, K. and B. Mirraboopa, ‘Ways of knowing, being and doing: A theoretical framework and methods for indigenous and indigenist re-search’, Journal of Australian Studies, 2003, 27, 76, pp. 203–214.
[^8]: KGI’s initial director Belinda Duarte, a Wotjabaluk woman and Wemba Wemba man Luke Murray, the Indigenous Community Engagement Manager, were responsible for KGI’s culturally supportive pathways to education and skills development.