Transcript of Episode 11

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Julia Brennan – Hi, my name is Julia Brennan and I'm Creative Arts Advisor for K-6 for the New South Wales Department of Education and welcome back to our podcast series today. I'm talking with the amazing Kirra Weingarth who's an Indigenous educator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Welcome, Kirra.

Kirra Weingarth – Hi Julia, great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Julia – It's such a pleasure. I'm really excited to talk to you today. So Kirra is an Indigenous artist who delivers daily tours of our incredible Art Gallery of New South Wales in a variety of capacities, including being an Indigenous educator. She works with students from Kindergarten right through to Year 12 as well as with adults and is super passionate about working with, and interpreting Aboriginal and Torres, Strait Islander artworks and spreading the word about her experiences in this space. We are so grateful for you finding the time to meet with us today, Kirra and for sharing your experiences even more broadly to all of our teachers across New South Wales and beyond. So, thanks again for being here.

So Kirra, let's start right back at the basics and find out a little bit about your arts education journey because I always find that really fascinating and I know our listeners really appreciate hearing a little bit of the background of people that we talk to. So, tell us a little bit about your arts education journey, some of the amazing people you've worked with, who you've taught and all those sorts of things.

Kirra – Yeah, Yeah. Okay, so I studied visual arts in Years 11 and 12 and then after I finished high school I initially began studying interior architecture, but after two years of doing that, realised I needed something a little less mathematical. I transferred to a design degree at the University of New South Wales. My focus areas were ceramics and object design. I really loved the freedom that working with clay gave me. And towards the end of my studies in my honour’s year, I became really interested in academic research and writing. Then shortly after that, I applied for my role at the gallery having like nearly no knowledge of the arts world.

So, it's been quite the transformative journey for me. And I guess I'm really inspired by my colleagues and the incredible artists that I get to work with every day. And we're all kind of really connected by this shared passion for the Indigenous arts and culture. I'm really lucky to be surrounded by such strong and talented people. We've recently rolled out a program with the gallery called Cultural Competency, and I've learned a lot too from listening to leaders in the arts talk about important Indigenous issues and conversations. And I just I guess I've just learned so much from looking at all of the art and learning about the experiences and stories of those artists.

Julia – Well that's fantastic. What an exciting story, Kirra. Wow. So how did your arts journey start right back at the beginning? Where did that sort of come from?

Kirra – Well my dad's an artist, he's a painter and I guess I've always kind of been artistically interested in, you know I was always painting and drawing in high school and then doing it in the HSC was pretty thrilling. But then it kind of went to the wayside you know as I said through studying architecture which was a really gruelling degree and it sort of took me away from that artistic and creative side. But reflecting back on it now, I wish that I had incorporated more of my art practice into my architecture practice. That would have been really interesting.

Julia – Well it's never too late.

Kirra – Yeah. Maybe one day.

Julia – So why do the art mean so much to you? How have the arts influenced your life professionally and personally?

Kirra – Well I guess for me growing up I didn't really have someone, particularly my dad to teach me what being culturally strong meant or really how to articulate my Indigenous identity. Being from the stolen generation, it was a really difficult thing for him to influence and teach me in that way. So, working in the arts has really, I guess given me the opportunity to learn about myself and cultivate that strength. And I guess it's given me a sense of pride about my Indigenous background and also a confidence that I didn't have previously to working in this space.

Julia – That's a wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing.

Kirra – That's okay.

Julia – It was so heartfelt, it was beautiful.

Kirra – Well, yeah, I guess I’m also coming up to working three years at the gallery and I guess this role and being in a community of other Indigenous educators and practitioners, it really helps you find your voice. It's certainly not a role I sort of foresaw myself doing particularly as it involves, you know, public speaking on a daily basis, which prior to working at the gallery was something that I was really terrified of. So, I wasn’t really sure what possessed me to apply for the role, but it was a really brave decision for me.

Julia – And how lucky are we all that you did?

Kirra – Oh, yeah. Well, it's a slow journey. But it's amazing I guess, when you've come from a kind of culturally fractured background and your work really helps to facilitate finding your way back to being connected to your cultural heritage.

Julia – Beautiful. I feel like you've almost summed up my next question, which is what do you think are the powers of the visual arts? Well, you've given us a nice feed into it anyway.

Kirra – Yeah, it's I guess it's this really sort of multi-dimensional space. Well that's how I see it anyway. For self-expression, activism, healing, preserving culture and understanding history. I particularly find Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art so powerful because it does all of that. And you know, our shared history within Australia is so fractured. It's incredible to see how so many ATSI artists tackle bringing hard conversations to the surface, and really bearing the weight of that history on their shoulders. And I think we can really look towards ATSI (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) art advocating truth telling. But there are also, there is so much joy that you can find in all our stories, and we all need that source of escape and optimism.

Julia – Absolutely

Kirra – I feel like that's what it's given me anyway.

Julia – Yeah. And what you've touched on there too is so important and I hear that over and over again is how the arts have really shaped history and also like not only documented history, but also shaped history and captured so many incredible moments and shaped thinking throughout time. It's just incredible.

Kirra – Absolutely.

Julia – You've again reinforced that. So why? Based on that conversation, I mean, I can get it, but just maybe can you tell us a little bit more about why you think the arts are so important for our students?

Kirra – Yeah. Well, I guess reflecting on my own experience, I think the arts allows us to learn about who we are and it offers something that other areas of and forms of education don't. It's a space for expression, you know, often without talking. And through art making, there's this sort of unusual time for silent reflection, to experiment, to process. For many of us talking about who we are and what and what we want to say can be really difficult. So, communicating through those visual mediums, I think provides students with this opportunity to harness their voice and making art can be this vehicle, I guess, or this avenue for learning about your story or your history.

Julia – Absolutely. The arts are just so amazing for that. I know I'm preaching to the converted with you, but gosh, it's so, it's so important for our students, isn't it?

Kirra –Yeah, definitely.

Julia – So, Kirra, you mentioned to me when we first met that one of the most important things for you is challenging preconceived ideas about what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art could be. And we discussed the video study that's on the Department of Education Curriculum web page entitled ‘Beyond the dots’, and how important challenging the traditional thinking of Aboriginal art is. In fact, my recollection is that you said one of your goals was challenging preconceived ideas. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Kirra – Yeah, sure. I think, you know, there still exists the many inaccurate assumptions associated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and we do work hard at the gallery to sort of address and dispel those when they come up. And the ‘Beyond the dots’ video is a great example of expanding outside of those pre-conceived ideas and looking towards really reflecting the enormous cultural and artistic diversity in and across ATSI art. I guess one of the dilemmas with the dot style painting within the classroom is that it sort of sets up this idea that this is the predominant visual language of ATSI art under one umbrella, You know, and it's often what is so synonymous with what people imagine or associate ATSI art. So, I would sort of suggest teachers challenge that idea. That you know, dot style painting is the generic Aboriginal painting style. But to also be really informed and critical about where teachers are locating information about artists.

Teachers can feel confident that the information on the gallery has this sort of consistent credibility and while it's good to be mindful of the, you know, the responsibility of talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art culture in the classroom also, not to be afraid either. You know, to remember that it's this really enjoyable and special area of art and to just have fun with it.

Julia – They are just such wise words. That's fantastic. And the art gallery website is somewhere I send people all the time if they’re confused about whether something is appropriate or whether you know how to use things that the gallery website is just packed full of ideas and we know that it's appropriate for a classroom, which is great. Thank you, Kirra. So how do we encourage our teachers to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in a culturally appropriate way?

Kirra – Well, yeah, I guess the first thing is sort of just like starting the dialogue and maybe asking questions that can be uncomfortable. I guess following on from that first question, there are obviously culturally respectful protocols and ways for talking about Aboriginal art inside the classroom, outside the classroom. And I know there might be hesitation around doing the right thing, which is why looking at those larger cultural institutions, you know, like the Art Gallery of New south Wales and others across Australia.

The information that they have about artists obviously have gone through those processes. For example, you can look at their biography, you know, artwork citations, which provide key information and they also indicate how an artist would like their work to be talked about and how they would like to be acknowledged, what Country they're from, what Nation. These extensive resources are obviously on the website as we talked about and as you mentioned, and they've been developed in consultation with community and with artists so I would definitely recommend utilizing those. But other than that, also reaching out to your local Aboriginal community or land council and involving them in the conversation can be really useful as well.

Julia – That's great Kirra, thank you. You've just summed up a lot of queries that I've heard over the last couple of years. So that's really terrific to have that advice from you. Thank you. So, I want to hear a little bit more about Aboriginal art. So, you know, we've discussed how we often see and hear teachers talking about dot paintings, limited colour palettes, copying artworks or just not doing it at all. I love the artworks that draw inspiration and tell stories without copying, for example. Can you share with us some examples of powerful Aboriginal art that you've seen or inspired by, things that you may have seen from primary teachers or students or schools?

Kirra – Yeah, I guess in terms of looking at powerful outcomes of art in response to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, there does need to be this emphasis on a clear line between inspiration and copying. That’s why I think art making activities should always focus on those key ideas in artworks so that students can then sort of utilize those to express their own experiences. So, tying the idea and the practice of an artist back to the personal experiences of the students is going to really emphasize those ideas and make it more sort of subjective. Particularly I guess I love the outcomes that have come out of the Gallery’s Home Program, which I'm not sure if you know about or I've seen?

Julia – Absolutely we do!

Kirra – So for those that don't know, it's a program that runs every year and we work with, you know, it's selected Aboriginal artists from New South Wales and the students learn about those practices for the term and at the end of the learning model, they make artworks in response to those key ideas of each artist. But I guess there's so many, you know that we also do Jammu Junior and Jammu regional things that happen in the gallery in the moment and in response to art.

Julia – And all these things are available for teachers to look at on the website?

Kirra – Yeah, there's definitely this is and so much under the umbrella of the Home Program that you can access activities and watch videos from artists themselves talking about their practice. So, I would definitely recommend having a look at that.

Julia – All right, thank you, Kirra. So, you also mentioned when we first met that a priority for you in your role at the gallery was to disrupt that binary between traditional and contemporary that's often used when we're talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. So, can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that, please?

Kirra – Yeah, I guess this definitely comes up pretty often when you're talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Often it's really easy to sort of categorise ATSI art as either traditional or contemporary. This is definitely something we work hard to address at the gallery. And one of the ways that we sort of do that is by not using those terms or that language at all, because the art will always be both. And I guess also, there are ways to echo those ideas, but in different ways.

For example, when teachers discuss this with their students, they could say something like this artwork echoes traditional practices through cultural innovation or contemporary media. Ultimately, the goal is to sort of discourage categorising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art into either. As they do come with those sorts of assumptions. Instead we really just want to emphasise and talk about the work through the intentions of the artist.

Julia – Okay, that's really wise advice. Thank you. And I'm thinking about that in my own practice and using that language differently. So, thank you. Let's talk a little bit about your role at the gallery as well. So, what, what's the average day look like for you when you're at the gallery? I mean, obviously right now we're in the middle of covid land and we're all at home, but when you're in the gallery, what do you get up to every day?

Kirra – I give the daily tours every day at 11 and before then and after that, I'm working across a range of different programs, like the Home program, like Jammu Junior, Jammu regional, the Cultural Competency, Regional Exchange. But I'm also really lucky, I guess that if I need a break from my desk, I can go and feel uplifted by going into the worlds of the artists that we have hanging on the wall. So, it's really, I guess lucky to be able to kind of work in that space to get, you know, if you need a break, you can kind of go and get lost in someone else’s world for a while.

Julia – Oh, you are so fortunate. What a great job. I guess, you know, for us at home, we can at least jump onto the website and be looking at things. Worst case scenario.

Kirra – Yeah well, I guess it’s always there.

Julia – That's right. I think a lot of people actually don't realize that most of the artworks from the gallery are actually accessible online, which is really, really great, particularly for our teachers out there.

Kirra – Yeah, absolutely.

Julia – So Leanne Carr, who we've spoken to before, who's the Education Manager at the gallery, she gets a bit sick of hearing me talking about my fan- girl issues with Jeffrey Smart. I'll often shift a bit, but I always end up coming back to that one little spot. So, who's your favourite artist and why? Tell us a bit about that, Kirra?

Kirra – Oh God, I mean, that's, that's a tough one. I don't know if I could just say one of them. There's definitely some, you know, pretty powerful female Aboriginal artists that I do always come back to though; Esme Timbery, Julie Gough, Nonggirrnga Marawili, and Judy Watson. They always kind of blow my mind with their beautiful works.

Julia – Well, there's some inspiration for us to check out. Thank you. So Kirra, just before we finish up today, have you got any other inspiring stories or experiences that you'd like to share with us? About your life as an artist, or your work or your work at the gallery, or both, sort of just a bit of an inspirational thing to finish this up with today.

Kirra – Yeah, well, I guess you know, the arts have definitely transformed my life in such a positive way as I've already kind of touched on. But I guess what I find really unique about my role delivering the daily tours is that you get to meet people every day that you would never normally interact with and from my experience, the tours do have a really strong impact on people.

Often, we're talking about things that a lot of the general public didn't grow up learning about in school. And so, when they're kind of exposed to that really honest discussion around our history and Aboriginal history in particular, people become so moved and they're so touched and they often really want to continue the conversation after the tour ends. So that has a really huge impact on me, being able to connect with people in such an intimate way.

Julia – That's beautiful. Thank you. You've summed up the arts so beautifully and your experiences in your life so beautifully and it's just so, so inspiring to hear about your journey and what this all means to you. And I'm sure there's so many people out there listening that will be thinking, you know, that's me, or that's something I could do, or I can see that in that student in my class. So, thank you. Kirra, thank you so much for your time today. It's been absolutely magnificent getting to know you, hearing about your journey and all your experiences. Thank you so much for teaching us so much about your work as an Indigenous artist, and also about the incredible work that you're doing in the gallery with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. I look forward to chatting with you again in the future.

Kirra – Thanks so much, Julia. It's been a pleasure talking to you and thanks for having me.

Julia – Pleasure, hope you'll come again soon.

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