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A group of Indigenous Australian designers has called for an end to what they say is an under-representation of Aboriginal people in design industries.
The comments have come at a panel discussion for the Koorie Heritage Trust, an organisation representing Indigenous communities in Victoria.
Award-winning interior designer and artist Nicole Monks says Aboriginal people need to be included through the entire design process to ensure culturally appropriate content is created.
“You have to engage with Aboriginal people. It’s just that simple. You have to employ Aboriginal architects, Aboriginal urban planners, Aboriginal landscape designers, interior designers, furniture makers. You have to employ Aboriginal people to make those things.”
Award-winning Indigenous architect Jefa Greenaway says that contribution needs to start at an education level.
Mr Greenaway, a teacher at the Melbourne School of Design, says Aboriginal students are often under-represented in design fields like architecture and urban planning.
He says Indigenous students need to be given flexible entry levels and extra support to break into industries dominated by non-Indigenous people.
“Architecture is a long degree, five or six years. So you’ve got to be determined, and you’ve got to have a passion. But there’s also high bars to get over to entry. So, really, it’s about developing lateral pathways to encourage Indigenous kids in and finding stepping stones to get to that point. But, also, facilitating the sort of scaffolding and support around a student as they go through that period, because there will be those ebbs and flows. And if you’re a student from another state, then you are disconnected from country and connection to your own kinship and family groups, and so that can be alienating. So it’s also understanding some of those dynamics as well.”
Mr Greenaway has been working in the design industry since 1998 and was the first Indigenous architect registered in Victoria.
He says it is still important to teach the Indigenous design principles of sustainability and connection to country in classes with students of non-Indigenous backgrounds.
“Everyone is actually crying out to find a meaningful way to engage with this place. And the best way we can really do that is start to reference and connect to some of the stories, the narratives, the histories, the memories that reside here. And so embedding Indigenous design thinking into design disciplines, to me, kind of makes sense.”
But Indigenous urban planner Timmah Ball warns there should be caution around Indigenous design created by non-Indigenous people.
Ms Ball works as a policy and project officer at the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.
She says there have been situations where Aboriginal culture has only been used to create hype, rather than to respectfully acknowledge Indigenous communities.
“Occasionally, it can be tokenistic and a little bit hijacked by white agendas. And I think, although it’s very exciting to see everyone getting really interested in this, it can sometimes lose authenticity. So it’s just this complex balance of making sure that you get design that celebrates Aboriginal culture but ensuring that it’s led by Aboriginal people.”
When planning for new development and growth in cities, Ms Ball says it is important to consider Aboriginal people dealing with social issues like homelessness and job insecurity.
She says strong legislative regulations are needed to protect Aboriginal people’s connection to country and to support projects creating more Indigenous jobs.
“I think, when you’re in a city and you see Aboriginal people in places that are so important to them, like Fitzroy, who are struggling with job insecurity and homelessness, well, for me, as an urban planner, I just want to make sure that we can address that issue. There’s the exciting stuff, like creating a really beautiful and culturally rich environment, but also just supporting Aboriginal people who, I guess, aren’t as lucky and don’t have the privilege that I have.”
While Indigenous design is tied to Aboriginal culture, Ms Monks says its values are important for every Australian.
“Blak Design matters for everybody, everybody that lives, works and plays on this country. For you to have a better sense of yourself, you need to understand the place that you inhabit. And Blak Design has the ability to do that.”
(First published for SBS News on April 6 2017)