Reflecting on Artlands Victoria – Part 1: An example of putting First People First

A reflection on Artlands Victoria. Written by Arts Front Technology project lead Elliott Bledsoe.

Last week I attended Artlands, the a biennial regional arts conference and cultural program. This iteration of the event took place in Bendigo and Castlemaine, and was presented by Regional Arts Victoria (RAV) and Regional Arts Australia (RAA).

Attending Artlands Victoria had the potential to be tainted by the tumult leading up to the national regional arts event. Only days earlier the arts had again been thrust into national news after the New South Wales Government forced the Sydney Opera House to display advertising for The Everest horse race one of the most recognisable cultural venues in the world. The issue quickly escalated. Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly threw his support behind the idea, referring to the Opera House as the ‘biggest billboard Sydney has’. On the other side numerous arts leaders, a former Opera House CEO, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and members of the public rallied in support of Opera House CEO Louise Herron’s decision not to project commercial material on the building’s iconic white sails.

Around the same time government spending on small-to-medium arts organisations and independent artists took another hit; this time in South Australia. Recent funding priorities and policy changes pushed by the South Australian Government saw the dismantling of Arts SA, with agency responsibilities shifted into other ministries and staff cuts including senior arts positions being abolished.

For many of us attending, Artlands could easily have been a repetitious rehash – on and off the stage – of the horrors the arts has been subjected to in recent years. But (thankfully!) it wasn’t. Artlands was refreshingly positive. It was a reminder of what is important to the arts and why we need to fight for it.
Firstly, it was an exemplar of genuine and respectful engagement with First Peoples. RAV’s engagement with First Peoples went well beyond programing a Welcome to Country. Their commitment to acknowledging First Peoples through Artlands had been started long before I got off the train at Bendigo Station. Planning for the event was inspired by the Dja Dja Wurrung Country Plan 2014–2034 – an action plan established by the Dja Dja Wurrung peoples to re-affirm their aspirations and vision the future of their people – and done in consultation with Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation.

Participants of Artlands Victoria were invited to pass through the eucalyptus smoke during the smoking ceremony which was part of the Welcome to Country held in Rosalind Park in Bendigo. The photo was taken by Elliott Bledsoe.

Photo – Participants of Artlands Victoria were invited to pass through the eucalyptus smoke during the smoking ceremony which was part of the Welcome to Country held in Rosalind Park in Bendigo. Photo: Elliott Bledsoe.

This engagement with the Traditional Custodians was evident across Artlands – starting with the event’s tagline, ‘sharing knowledge, trading resources and exchanging gifts at a time of ceremony and gathering’, which drew on Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation Chairperson Trent Nelson’s welcome in the Dja Dja Wurrung Country Plan. In that spirit, the Welcome to Country included traditional song, dance and language and invited participants to pass through the eucalyptus smoke during the smoking ceremony.

The recognition of First Peoples culture carried through the program. The first day was themed for the first day of Artlands was ‘On Country; a First Peoples approach to practice on country’ and featured the opening keynote address led by Trent Nelson and Dja Dja Wurrung Group Chief Executive Officer Rodney Carter and included Aunty Fay Carter and Rebecca Phillips. Together they discussed creative practice on country, weaving in themes such as cultural continuance, sustainability and ecology and relationship and responsibility to community, culture and country.

This was followed by a keynote presentation by Desna Whaanga-Schollum. Desna’s praise of the approach to Artlands and engaging the First Peoples makes a lot of sense when you consider her work helping to establish the Auckland Council Te Aranga Principles.

The Principles are a simple and accessible guide for designers that outline some core Māori values and how they might be reflected in design practices. The Principles seek to increase the visibility of Māori identity and increase Māori participation in the development of the built environment. As is stated in the Principles:

The key objective of the Principles is to enhance the protection, reinstatement, development and articulation of mana whenua cultural landscapes enabling all of us (mana whenua, mataawaka, tauiwi and manuhiri) to connect to and deepen our ‘sense of place’.
The Principles seek to foster and guide both culturally appropriate design processes and design responses that enhance all of our appreciation of the natural, landscape and built environment.

For Arts Front, the Te Aranga Principles are a powerful example of what a First Peoples First approach can look like.

There was a lot more that came out of Artlands, so I have broken my reflections into two parts. Stay tuned for Part 2.