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Tomorrowland 2018 Keynote: Jefa Greenaway on how to shine a light on Indigenous influence

Jefa Greenaway
Jefa Greenaway will be the keynote speaker for Tomorrowland 2018

Jefa Greenaway, Greenaway Architects is a lecturer at the University of Melbourne. In July he curated the inaugural international Indigenous Design Symposium. Its theme, Go Back to Where You Came From, was intended as a “provocation to explore the role of Indigenous design”.

As keynote speaker for Tomorrowland 2018, Greenaway will shine a light on the positive impact Indigenous design can have on our built environment – something that is filtering through the property and development industry at a quickening pace and is perhaps strongest in Melbourne.


Leading Indigenous architect and academic Jefa Greenaway, based in Melbourne, has a strong message he hopes attendees will take away: how Indigenous knowledge can inform the conversation about shaping spaces, places, towns and cities.

Already a cohort of indigenous designers from interior design, landscape design, architecture, engineering and urban planning are starting to influence the dialogue around building Australia’s design culture, he says.

The opportunity now is to have that engagement on a larger scale.

Some projects are large, involve significant value and are built on  Aboriginal land. They, therefore, offer a chance to achieve reconciliation in tangible ways through the designed and built environment.

“It’s exciting to think about,” he says. “There can be a clearly defined indigenous presence in these places and spaces.”

Fishermans Bend is an example of the potential.

“Let’s not lose sight of where we are. It is adjacent to Birrarung, ‘the River of Mists’ (in Woiwurring language), known as the Yarra River. I see an opportunity to incorporate considerations around cultural knowledge.” That knowledge and history can be incorporated into multiple elements, including wayfinding, landscape, cultural heritage and intangible heritage that leads to a “more integrated response to such a vast transformation.”

The area was once a place of billabongs and wetlands. It became an industrial area in the colonial era. Now that industrial character is being erased, and the question becomes, “how do you give an identity back to it?” Greenaway says.

By drawing on its Indigenous identity and history it will be possible to reveal “layers of history, memory and place.”

More broadly, Greenaway says understanding of Australia’s Indigenous landscape, cultural identity and the ways the land was inhabited by Aboriginal peoples are “starting to percolate through” into common thinking.

Authors such as Bruce Pascoe and Bill Gammage have produced works of scholarship that have been able to “challenge the misinformation” around Aboriginal people and culture.

The Indigenous way of relating to and inhabiting land is key to better cities.

“We can’t look at our cities purely as a place of commodification,” Greenaway says.

“We need to be thinking about the public realm, and about people-centred design. We need to be asking, “What legacy do we leave aside from a revenue stream for developers and profits [for investors]?”

Indigenous culture can also help guide the transition to a less destructive, more sustainable society and economy. Change can be confronting for some, and its absolute necessity in the face of climate change and other environmental crises is a source of conflict and fear in some quarters.

But as Greenaway points out, cultures are “always adapting, evolving and changing.”

“Indigenous culture is an exemplar of that.”

There is a considerable amount of wisdom in the “deep culture” of our Indigenous people – both the historical legacy of more than 65,000 years of continual coexistence with this land, and the more recent history of adaptation and survival in the face of colonialism’s multiple threats.

The challenge for the non-Indigenous culture is to be “brave enough” to “set aside the idea Western knowledge is the fountain of all knowledge.”

Engagement with Indigenous knowledge is not just a glib rhetorical thing – it is now necessary to challenge a paradigm that has not been working, he says.

Greenaway says the invitation is for both cultures to “go on a journey together”, founded on our “shared interest in improving things”.

At the same time, while the custodians of Indigenous knowledge are “quite generous” it is not appropriate for those learning from them to just “hoover it up and claim it as their own”. There is a level of maturity now around the intercultural conversation, he says.

“Through how we design our places, we can celebrate the connection to the oldest continuing culture on earth and celebrate the connections that emerge [from that recognition] and move beyond the stereotypes that will amplify the connection to country and the hidden narratives that reside in place.”

“The time is right. We can start now to unpack what that means.” .

Sometimes he feels his contribution is not through something that will be built at all, but about strategic thinking, or enabling connection to culture and country.

This means moving beyond thinking in silos, including how sustainability is regarded.

“We all have a responsibility to think about sustainability, to think about biodiversity. We must think about the marks we make on the landscape and what that means.”

Sometimes those who mean well can “get caught up in the paradigm that they have got to walk on cultural eggshells.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We simply have to “call out the things that aren’t working” environmentally, socially and culturally.

Legislation is a good step forward and so is talk of a treaty in Victoria

Beyond the practitioner level, legislation also has a role to play.

In Victoria, the state’s Cultural Heritage Protection legislation is a good step forward, requiring any project to examine where it interfaces with the Indigenous history of the site. This can throw up some challenges.

The mechanism is not dissimilar to how planning schemes influence a project, and it puts the onus on designers and built environment project proponents to come up with solutions that respect and integrate Indigenous heritage.

The other big shift in Victoria has been the commencement of the conversation around a treaty with the state’s Indigenous people.

Greenaway says this shows progressiveness and “national leadership”.

There are also mechanisms in Victoria around Recognised Aboriginal Parties – those with established traditional ownership and historical association with a place. This gives developers or project teams a clear pathway to have a conversation with the right people.

NSW appears to be more labyrinthine, with pathways not as clear cut, he says.

The Victorian mechanisms that allow proponents to speak more broadly to different entities means the process becomes a “more inclusive conversation with a range of stakeholders”.

In turn, Greenaway says this becomes the kind of conversation where Indigenous perspectives can genuinely inform solutions, in short Blak Design Matters.

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