Who’s afraid of Aboriginal art? Not the Art Gallery of SA

The Art Gallery of South Australia adopts the philosophy that education is the pathway to understanding, with workshops for teachers about guiding respectful classroom dialogue.
Who’s afraid of Aboriginal art? Not the Art Gallery of SA

Curator Nici Cumpston leading a talk on Aboriginal Art for AGSA’s First Fridays program; Photo Nat Rogers

Aboriginal artists and curators at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) have worked with educators to embrace new ways of teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in a culturally sensitive and respectful way.  

Working with contemporary Aboriginal artists and using the Gallery’s collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in an intensive workshop environment, the program has been designed to highlight ideas and strategies for educators to adapt, and to prompt thoughtful and respectful dialogue with Aboriginal people about their cultures and histories.


Assistant Director AGSA, Lisa Slade, told ArtsHub: ‘We started in 2017 when we piloted the idea with just 23 teachers. In 2018 that became 320, with four sessions booked out. What we were responding to was the very palpable fear around teaching, and presenting, the art and cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island artists in their classrooms.

‘We had presented an earlier session with the general public, “Who’s afraid of Aboriginal art?”, and given the large numbers that attended, we stood back and thought this is something that educators would be super interested in, our approach to demystifying and debunking how you approach this material. It also came at a time when the curriculum had shifted, and there were now many roads into Aboriginal art and cultures – not just the art road.’

An AGSA Educator takes a group through the START program on Aboriginal Art; Photo Sia Duff

On 15 July 2019, AGSA Education will again deliver professional development sessions for teachers. Framed around the question “How to teach Aboriginal Art”, participants will work directly with the Gallery’s collection and Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones.

‘It continues AGSA’s philosophy that artists are at the centre of everything we do,’ Slade said.

‘We had concerns that on certain days of observances in schools, like during NAIDOC Week, students were just given a template of a boomerang and asked to paint it in the dot style. We ask teachers to move beyond copying artists’ work, and rather use works of art as a starting point’

Slade said the Gallery’s initiative to bring Aboriginal artists and educators into the same room was about creating a safe zone where teachers felt they were not being judged about whether or not they were going about things the right way. Instead, Slade said, the approach is about best practice, with lessons for us all about using primary sources and bringing community into the classroom.

‘Just think – if we had 300 teachers last year and if they each teach 30 students, for example, then that is an incredible impact,’ said Slade.

Register for and learn more about “How to Teach Aboriginal Art” at agsa.gov.au

TARNANTHI Curators Talk; Photo Nat Rogers

Following the July workshops a new guide for teachers nationwide will be launched in September ahead of AGSA’s flagship program, TARNANTHI.

‘I would say that TARNANTHI has given us the opportunity to have some conversations that have been rarely held across the country,’ said Slade of the initiative. ‘It is not just something we do once a year in exhibition spaces – it is who we are.’ 

The resource will help educators weave Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists into learning programs in an authentic and relevant way., and adopts the premise that there is no question too silly to  ask.

The publication and workshops are part of a holistic philosophy embraced by AGSA. ‘You can’t act on the world outside, unless you change the culture within,’ Slade explained of the Gallery’s approach.

Slade points to AGSA’s recently launched Reconciliation Action Plan and is the first state gallery in Australia to implement a RAP. It opens with the statement: ‘We understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is not separate from the national story but an essential part of it. We also recognise that creating and sharing art is a crucial element in maintaining and continuing cultural knowledge among Australia’s strong, resilient and adaptive First Peoples.’

Slade concluded: ‘If you want to, you can make it happen … we all need to work a bit harder.’

How to Teach Aboriginal Art will be presented at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide on 15 July 2019.

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Gina Fairley

Wednesday 20 March, 2019

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.

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