NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

The Balawan Elective

By Dr Amanda Stuart — The Bundian Way is an ancient shared route used by Aboriginal people for thousands of years, connecting the highest parts of the continent in the Australian Alps with the far south coast of New South Wales at Twofold Bay, Eden. The path is steeped in cultural significance for the many Aboriginal communities and language groups associated with it through the millennia. It is also a powerful cultural touchstone with the more recently established white settler colonists of the region. Importantly, the Bundian Way continues to hold tremendous significance for many communities associated with it and presents increasingly powerful opportunities to build enduring relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.

"Darren Mongta sharing knowledge on country with the students" Photo credit: Amelia Zaraftis. 

“Darren Mongta sharing knowledge on country with the students” Photo credit: Amelia Zaraftis.

In 2015, the ANU School of Art Environment Studio launched a unique field based pilot program called The Balawan Elective, named after one of the significant mountains along the Bundian Way – Balawan (Mt Imlay). At its heart was grassroots community engagement and sharing of knowledge with local regional Indigenous communities – the Yuin people of southeast Australia. Initiated through the sustained efforts of local author (John Blay) and Art School alumni (Heike Qualitz, Amanda Stuart and Amelia Zaraftis) the initial course realized a united vision to promote positive cultural exchange between respective communities. It continues to be reliant upon the voluntary input of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities associated with the south east Australian region.

Now in its second year, this field-based visual art course fosters ongoing, reciprocal relationships and encourages the sharing of differing cultural practices, both both ‘on country’, and at the university. The focus of this project is the Bundian Way

The practical aim of the course is to equip students with the skills to develop concepts and associated artwork from field research, focusing on the environmental and cultural exigencies of specific field locations. Supported by lecturers, the students develop work from primary sensory experiences in the field, from expert and local community interactions and/ or from quantitative and qualitative data collected in the field. Fieldtrips are then augmented by seminars, class discussions and individual tutorials that tease out group experiences and individual work proposals.

However, aside from developing a field-based methodology to drive their studio practice, a much richer objective lies at the core of this innovative course. The Balawan Elective facilitates unique opportunities for students and staff to build relationships and gain first hand understandings with the local Aboriginal community, whilst working alongside Aboriginal artists from the region.

B.J. Cruse and Darren Mongta welcome and address the group. Photo credit: Heike Qualitz.

B.J. Cruse and Darren Mongta welcome and address the group. Photo credit: Heike Qualitz.

In addition to informing the student’s individual art practice, it importantly provides crucial insight into aspects of historic and contemporary relations in the region, including the considerable and devastating impacts of colonization.

Whilst in the field, the student and staff camp at the Twofold Aboriginal Corporation’s Jigamy Farm, and associated Monaroo Bobberrer Keeping Place, which provides the springboard for exploring the area and for learning about Aboriginal perceptions and relationships towards country. Aboriginal Elders such as Ossie and B.J. Cruse  and a range of other informed community voices provide powerful and often personal insights that promote the essential reciprocal relationships to the project.  Aboriginal artists that have been involved so far include Lee Cruse, Darren Mongta and Natalie Bateman, who have generously shared their stories and aspects of their art practice, with the students. They are in turn, invited to be visiting artists at the Art School and to participate in the final exhibition.

Local author of ‘On Track: Searching out the Bundian Way’  John Blay is a key informant and host to the group, providing specialized knowledge alongside a range of regional agencies and individual specialists. National Parks and Wildlife Area Manager Franz Peters accompanies the group in the field to share ecological knowledge, cultural concerns and management strategies for the area.

Through repeat visits, the students test their ideas in the field, gather further material and importantly, reflect upon their experiences. Studio works arise from personal observations, discussions and experiences in the field and include cultural, environmental, social, political, historical and contemporary themes. Regular tutorial sessions, on campus and in the field around the campfire, discuss relevant literature and readings.

The course culminates in a public art exhibition that showcases all artists involved including those Aboriginal artists that have mentored and shared their time. The experience also gives students valuable professional experience in the mounting, delivery and installation of an exhibition – and in the promotion and creation of catalogue, when the opportunity arises.

The Balawan Elective brings together the Bundian Way Project, Eden Local Aboriginal Land Council, Twofold Bay Coorporation and the Australian National University School of Art. This gathering facilitates Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal visual artists to undertake field research together, build relationships and ultimately, produce fine art for public exhibition that aesthetically characterises the Bundian Way.

Amanda Stuart’s sculptural works produce 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 the Australian regional landscape and its fauna, her works refer to the social, cultural, ethical and political difficulties surrounding contested estranged human animal/relations within contested landscapes. Her practice embraces drawing, installation, object making and in-situ photographic documentation. She has a PhD in Visual Arts and currently lectures in the Environment Studio and Foundation as well as being a Technical Officer in the Sculpture workshop, at the ANUSOA.

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