Headshot of Jefa Greenaway

Blak Design Matters: Jefa Greenaway on moving away from Indigenous design stereotypes

May 22, 2018
  • Article by Natalie Mortimer

What springs to mind when you think of Aboriginal art? The answer, commonly, will be dot paintings. While dot paintings have grown to be synonymous with indigenous art, their history spans just 40 years when they emerged out of the remote Northern Territory community of Papunya in the early 1970s.

Compare that to the fact that the aboriginal culture is the oldest continuous culture in the world (dating back around 40,000 years) it’s no surprise that Indigenous Australian creatives are keen to show that not only does their art have a long and rich history, it continues to respond to contemporary issues and traverses the design spectrum with innovation and creativity.

In order to highlight some of the work being created today, a new exhibition is coming to Melbourne this winter called Blak Design Matters. Curated by architect Jefa Greenaway the first-of-its-kind exhibition will showcase the diversity and strength of modern, Aboriginal-led design across a range of disciplines including interior and product design, landscape, architecture and town planning.

“I wanted to create a snapshot in time of what established indigenous design is doing today to show that Aboriginal people don’t just do dot paintings, but they also traverse across other interesting professions and disciplines as well,” Greenaway tells ADR. 

“I also want to showcase that there are, in fact, indigenous people involved across many domains, working at a very high level of sophistication and with a depth of engagement and long-standing development of professional practice across a range of design disciplines.”

Noah's Creative Juices by Marcus Lee Designs
Packaging design for Noah’s Creative Juices by Marcus Lee Designs

Featured designers at the exhibition will include Marcus Lee Designs, who redesigned the guernsey for the 2013 all-Indigenous AFL International Rules game, architect Carroll Go-Sam, jewellery designer Maree Clarke and fashion designer Lyn-Al Young.

As well as curating the exhibition, Greenaway will design it in collaboration with Sibling Architecture and the Koorie Heritage Trust.

It’s an exciting time for Aboriginal design, particularly in the built environment, says Greenaway, with indigenous culture starting to manifest in built artefacts.

“What has tended to happen over time is that a presence or a tangible expression of identity within the built environment has not been readily accessible or known. That is starting to change: we are in fact seeing a pride in expressing culture in landscape, in design, in architecture, in interior spaces and in the places that we live and we work and we play.”

A co-founder of Indigenous Architecture and Design Victoria (IAVD) Greenaway also works with the University of Melbourne focussing on Indigenous curriculum development. In both roles, he looks at how the industry can develop a better cross-cultural competency and work collaboratively to incorporate indigenous design thinking in architecture.

Designs from the Dream collection by Arkie the Label
Designs from the Dream collection by Arkie the Label

In collaboration with the Design Institute of Australia and Deakin University and IADV, he has developed an International Indigenous Design Charter, which is essentially a guide for non-indigenous people working on projects that utilise indigenous inventory or cultural expression to ensure that it’s done in a responsive way.

“If you have never interfaced with Indigenous culture then you at least need the tools and the language to navigate that complexity,” explains Greenaway. “So this charter actually facilitates that and it’s starting to ripple out at a global level. It started initially as an Australian Indigenous Design Charter and then it sort of morphed into an international version, which we have workshopped with First Nations people from across the globe. So it’s gaining a level of currency in terms of the value of starting to codify or create protocols or guidelines to assist people to navigate.”

Is there, perhaps, a hesitancy among non-indigenous people to work on projects that do interface with Aboriginal culture for fear of offending or getting it wrong?

“Oh definitely, says Greenaway. “There is a certain hesitancy, but I think there’s an opportunity here as well. What I am endeavouring to do in some of my thinking around this issue is to turn the dial towards a constructive proposition and not focus on a deficit discourse and ask what can we do, how can we do it and how can we do it well? How can we collaborate, how can we work together and facilitate Indigenous-led initiatives? How do we empower a community to take carriage of some of these opportunities and prospects as well?

“What I don’t want people to feel is that they are walking on cultural eggshells, it’s really about the level of goodwill, engagement, honesty, respect and reciprocity.”

Reflections of Kaurna Yarta (Country) An exhibition by Paul Herzich
Reflections of Kaurna Yarta (Country): An exhibition by Paul Herzich

For Greenaway, a thrilling part of the changes being seen is that people are looking for authenticity in design and for something that connects to people, place and narratives: a key part of Aboriginal culture.

“That’s the exciting part: when people begin to unpack those stories and you start to learn a little bit about the place in which we live… or some of the ideas are informed by understanding deep histories and stories and traditions and narratives and elements that add richness to the story.”

The recently designed Koorie Heritage Trust: image by Peter Bennetts
The recently designed Koorie Heritage Trust by Jefa Greenaway

With thousands of years of history to draw on, could incorporating those stories into Australian design help the country stand out from the homogeny that is being seen in architecture across the globe?

“There is an emerging cohort of Indigenous designers starting to inform the conversation, and we’ll perhaps start to see a change in the way design is understood in the Australian context. Potentially we will see some stand out exemplary projects that infuse with certain uniqueness and this is where we are well placed because we are drawing on some deep histories and we can really start to give voice to that, but also give voice to that rich tapestry that is Aboriginal Australia.

“From the Torres Strait, through the mainland, to further south and some of the islands off our country, there’s a rich range of expression, country, typographies, landscapes and environments, which inform the way we feel and connect to a place and I think this is where there is a real capacity to do something distinct and different.”

Blak Design Matters, Friday 20 July until Sunday 30 September 2018 at the Koorie Heritage Trust, Federation Square.

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