NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Transformations on Country: the ANU SOAD Environment Studio

In 2015, The Australian National University’s School of Art and Design’s Environment Studio launched a unique field-based program, The Balawan Elective, honourably named with guidance and permissions of the First Nations community on Yuin Country, after their culturally significant mountain Balawan … Seven years on, much has come from these cherished relationships.

By Amanda Stuart, Aidan Hartshorn and Kate M Murphy

Both the Balawan and Buugang Electives are unique in their format of field-based delivery. They are co-designed with First Nations staff and collaborators who, alongside non-Indigenous contributors, engage students in culturally safe, inclusive, respectful, and at times challenging learning environments.

In 2015, The Australian National University’s School of Art and Design’s Environment Studio launched a unique field-based program, The Balawan Elective, honourably named with guidance and permissions of the First Nations community on Yuin Country, after their culturally significant mountain Balawan. At its heart was grassroots community engagement and the determination to platform local, regional First Nations voices and perspectives, unfiltered.  

We were invited to reflect upon these early days in a 2016 NiTRO article titled The Balawan Elective

Seven years on, much has come from these cherished relationships, including a sister course that has been co-designed with First Nations staff, ongoing regional and ACT-based exhibitions and publications, awards[1], book chapters[2] and a Canberra community outreach programme, the Sharing Stories Arts Exchange, which also engages with both local ACT and regional First Nations communities and knowledge holders. 

These increasingly popular courses and programs are possible entirely due to the generosity of cultural sharing by First Nations communities and staff. They are testimony to a shared vision of reciprocity, trust and the desire for such mutually beneficial relationships, fostered since 2015.  

The Covid pandemic added another layer of realisation and a truth telling moment of the course. It was here that students were reminded of the incredible privilege it is to be able to visit, work and live on Country.

A major achievement has been the visioning and co-design of a second Environment Studio course on Walgalu/Wiradjuri land in the high Country, called the Buugang Elective. Buugang is a Wiradjuri word for bogong moth, a ceremonial being and rich delicacy that seasonally resides and holds enormous cultural significance within the region. The course developed on invitation from Aidan Hartshorn, a Walgalu/Wiradjuri man, former Balawan student and now Environment Studio co-lecturer, along with his father, Cultural Heritage Officer Shane Herrington.  

Both the Balawan and Buugang Electives are unique in their format of field-based delivery. They are co-designed with First Nations staff and collaborators who, alongside non-Indigenous contributors, engage students in culturally safe, inclusive, respectful, and at times challenging learning environments. Through camping out on Country, the students experience the potency of peer learning and course content delivery, directly from cultural knowledge holders. Such a format is not only intellectually invigorating, but deeply motivating, inspiring students to creatively respond to experiences frequently described as “life changing”[3]. 

Shane Herrington sharing rope making with Amy Jones, Buugang Elective, 2022. credit: A.Stuart

Field-based methodologies of shared knowledge environments are acknowledged internationally to promote transformational learning. In 2018, chapters on the course were included in two academic books on transformational and field-based pedagogies[4]. The courses combine both undergraduate and postgraduate students, from a wide range of creative practices and different disciplines from across campus. This stimulates broader conversations and appreciation for different learning levels and capacities providing abundant opportunities for transformational learning.  

An additional component included is a cultural competency session, with highly experienced Wiradjuri educator and facilitator, Ms Alison Simpson (Yalbangarra Cultural Considerations). Along with nuanced cultural material shared throughout the duration of the elective, students frequently engage with themes that can be challenging to some, though in reality, lived by others. Cultural education and safety are a priority for all participants, and it is through truth telling and sharing stories of lived experiences, these transformative spaces are created.  

Jigamy Farm campfire, Balawan Elective, 2022. credit: A.Stuart

Though the past seven years have been a steady and enriching time for both students and staff, over 2020–21 a new challenge arose with the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel was halted and courses were forced to shift into remote delivery mode due to lockdown periods. It is because of the established trust, that the programs were successfully transferred online and students were able to apply the observational and critical thinking skills encouraged through rigorous, supportive online learning, to the various locations they were inhabiting during the pandemic. Though confined to Zoom, delivery continued with community support.

Although at times challenging, the Covid pandemic added another layer of realisation and a truth telling moment of the course. It was here that students were reminded of the incredible privilege it is to be able to visit, work and live on Country; a realisation that will be shared with all future students within these field trips.   

ANU School of Art and Design Environment Studio’s Balawan and Buugang Electives are the culmination of many dedicated minds, hearts, and hands. These field-based courses provide undergraduate and postgraduate students from across the ANU with meaningful learning opportunities, revealing some of the depth and vibrancy of First Nations’ cultures. Key values of respect, reciprocity, truth telling, and shared, safe, cultural learning are central to course objectives and emergent outreach programs.

[1] 2021-22 Vice Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence (Candidate – Environment Studio Team; 2020 CASS Dean’s Commendation for Excellence in Indigenous Education (full acknowledgement to First Nations Contributors); 2018 Vice Chancellor’s Award for Reconciliation – The Balawan Team

[2] Transformative Pedagogies (Professor Marie Sierra – Ed) Book Chapter: Truly, Madly, Deeply: Sharing Story on the Bundian Way – Denise Ferris, Amanda Stuart, and Amelia Zaraftis, School of Art & Design, Australian National University; Arts Programming for the Anthropocene: art in community and environment (Book Chapter) Bill Gilbert, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Art & Ecology and Lannan Endowed Chair UNM and Annica Cox, Routledge.

[3] Quote, SELT student feedback, ANU, 2018

[4] See footnote #2


Aidan Hartshorn is a Walgalu and Wiradjuri man whose traditional lands are located in the Snowy Mountains region of New South Wales. Through his sculptural art practice, Aidan explores the destructiveness of colonial processes that overshadow the connections to Country he and his people have endured and continue to experience with the ever-changing landscape. After completing his BVA in 2019, Aidan was selected for the Wesfarmers Indigenous Leadership program and was later approached for the Wesfarmers Assistant Curator role at the National Gallery of Australia. It was here he strengthened  his knowledge of traditional and contemporary First Nations creative practice – particularly whilst working on the 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony, under the guidance of Senior Curator Hetti Perkins and ATSI Special Projects curator Kelli Cole.  Aidan currently works at the ANU as Associate Lecturer of Contemporary Art and Research Fellow under the guidance of Dr Brenda L. Croft and will commence his Master of Philosophy in 2023. 

Dr Kate M Murphy is an artist, writer and teacher living and working on unceeded Arrerente country with close ties and current projects continuing on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. Kate exhibits under the name of Ellis Hutch and her practice research spans drawing, video installation, performance and sculpture; created independently and in collaboration. She is fascinated with how we make ourselves ‘at home’ as individuals and communities while navigating the complexities of our contemporary worlds and colonial histories. Kate lectures in Creative Arts at Charles Darwin University and is a board member for Canberra Contemporary Art Space.  

Dr Amanda Stuart lives and works on Yuin, Ngunnawal and Ngambri Countries and is co-founder, convenor and lecturer for the ANU School of Art and Design Environment Studio’s Balawan and Buugang Electives. Her socially engaged, sculptural practice embraces drawing, installation and transformed objects, that sit in the environment to invite psychic re-imaginings of old, unhealed wounds between humans and unwanted animals. Embedded in a materiality of Australian regional terrains and its fauna, her works refer to the social, cultural, ethical and political difficulties surrounding contested lands. Amanda co-delivers the community outreach creative program Sharing Stories Arts Exchange for ANU and artsACT.

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