Truth telling and “digging behind the dots” – a way forward for Indigenous design

woman speaking into camera
Alison Page speaking at Transform 2020

Twenty years ago, designing a building in the shape of a goanna might have represented a significant gesture to the site’s First Nations people, muses designer and producer Alison Page, descendant of the Walbanga and Wadi Wadi people of the Yuin nation.

“Now we can dig a bit deeper.”

Speaking at the Green Building Council of Australia’s TRANSFORM conference this week, Page explains that to go beyond tokenistic, surface level gestures in development, the Indigenous community needs to be installed from the get-go, and permanently.

“It’s not enough to have one workshop, one meeting and getting some people in the community to validate what you are doing.”

An ongoing collaboration might involve having an artist in residence, engaging elders throughout, and giving people resources to remain involved in the project from start-to-finish. 

“It’s about digging deeper behind the dots and the Welcome to Country. Let’s find out what Country is really about.”

Page is still witnessing tokenistic attempts at including Indigenous thinking into design but says it’s not necessarily a lack of good will. “In the case of something like a big development, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

But once you have the right people in place, it’s possible to devise a decision-making framework based on well-defined cultural values.

“For instance, you accept that we a have a responsibility for the ecological care for country, and that we are responsible for the love and care for community, and that we have a responsibility to pass knowledge down to young people.”

Slowing the design process down is a change built environment professionals need to accept when it comes to meaningful engagement with Indigenous ideas.

Page, founder of the National Aboriginal Design Agency (NADA), has been involved in exhaustive array of incredible work, including as one of three associates of Merrima Design, which was assembled by then-government architect Chris Johnson from 1995-1999 with the goal of delivering culturally appropriate architectural services. 

The team quickly discovered that they were in untrodden territory.

“There was no Lonely Planet guide to Aboriginal architecture.”

She says understanding the Aboriginal ways of learning and knowing was crucial, drawing on the explanation she was once provided by elder and educator Bob Morgan, a Gumilaroi man from the western plains of New South Wales.

He used the act of making bread as an example. A Eurocentric approach to baking bread, he explained, is focused on the steps in the recipe that lead to the outcome (a loaf of bread), whereas the Aboriginal process is all about the jokes, the stories and the relationships forged along the way.

“They are more important and are why the bread tastes so good.”

Page says that this understanding of Aboriginal ways of learning and knowing informed the guidelines devised for culturally appropriate architecture.

“We are definitely focused on story, and our ecological knowledge and connections to family and Country.”

Seeing architecture as an opportunity

Page would like to see an Australian built environment that is the canvas for the “vast amounts of ecological and cultural data.

“Every tree, every rock, has a story about its creation. It’s about how can we use the manmade landscape as an extension of traditional beliefs, in terms of stories being built into the built environment.

“… instead of just putting it onto a square canvas, can the environment around us actually be the library of traditional knowledge?”

She says there’s a wealth of innovation yet to unfurl from traditional knowledge, such as Indigenous work creating nanofibres from spinifex resin.

The power of Songlines

One endless source of cultural knowledge to explore are Songlines. Page admits to being “obsessed” with Songlines, despite only learning about them a few years ago.

Songlines, also called Storylines or Dreaming Tracks, reference features in the landscape and act as a system of navigation, guiding the singer through the land. Songlines became a series of sites where people uploaded and downloaded “ecological data”.

“Don’t forget, whilst aboriginal people had extremely successful culture and survival skills, I mean they lived through the Ice Age, over 80,000 years, the question is how did they do that without the written word. And the answer is Songlines.

“What Songlines basically are, are sites of learning.”

She says Songlines are “a very interesting thing for people interested in creating environments for people, it is about how can our built environments add to the Songlines that are already mapped in a vast network across this country.”

Page believes that once built environment designers start looking at Songlines, it’s suddenly a question of “how deep do you want to go?”.

Truth-telling is also key

The other idea people must engage with is truth telling – that is, not masking the harrowing history bestowed on Indigenous people.

She says that these don’t necessarily need to be about the dark components of colonial history. They can also be insightful.

As an example, she uses the untold story of how the Aboriginal people perceived Captain Cook. His crew were considered ghosts by the first Aboriginal people who spotted the ship, which was information transferred down the coast via smoke signals. The message made it all the way down to Possession Island, where the crew was met by warriors.

On the way, Cook and his men broke down in Cooktown for 48 days, where they caught 12 female turtles and ate them.

“This is where the relationship broke down because the culture was you do not overfish, and you particularly don’t kill female turtles during breeding season. So there was this huge fight.

“I love the fact that there was climate action protesting going on, here in Australia, in 1770.

“I believe these are stories the world needs to hear.”

Again, it’s about engaging Indigenous communities in a meaningful way

Page says there should be greater engagement with indigenous makers, architects and artists to “embed their stories” wherever possible.

That’s why she created the NADA, a design-based business that created an income stream for Aboriginal artists, plus created a solid licensing structure that protects both the artist and the client.

“From procurement perspective, it’s got reasonably easy.”

Bu she says Australian architects could engage more with an agency like NADA.

“Bringing an aboriginal artist in on day one is good for everyone.”

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