Maps to Guide Aboriginal Ways of Knowing

How do we repair the parts of our culture that pollute our rivers and keep us anxious?

In the last few years I've followed that question all the way to Arnhem Land. My hypothesis is that if we connect more deeply with place we will feel more at ease and learn what it means to take care of the rivers. That’s assuming there is such a thing as a deeper connection place and that anxiety has something do with displacement. So among other things, I’m Arnhem Land to do some research. I’m particularly interested in ways of connecting to place that involve mapping.

I’m conducting research in three ways. First, by living and learning in the remote home of the oldest surviving land based culture on the planet. Second, by reading as much of the related literature as I can. Third, by mapping the places I visit through an arts based practice that involves sound recording and illustration. As far as the second is concerned, I’m learning with members of the Yolngu community in Gapuwiyak about Aboriginal ways of knowing and communicating. I’m also working with the kids at Gapuwiyak School, facilitating arts based projects that align with and express their interests.

In this post I go a little deeper into mapping as a concept and learning tool. And I share an example of how I'm using mapping in the field.

Its nothing new to say that visual representations describe complex problems in a way that’s easy to read. Even the earliest scientific textbooks, dating back 2,300 years, contain diagrams (see here). Back then, like today, it would be quite a challenge for a science without pictures to appeal to a popular audience.

The same is true for mythology and fiction. In both cases the use of poetic language conjures scenes in the imagination of the reader. A book that fails to create an engaging world - or reader without a suitable catalogue of imagery for the language used - is likely to be put down after a few pages. The reader might then say something like, “I just couldn’t get into it…”

Stories and diagrams with wider appeal than specific cultural or linguistic contexts, tend to tap into a catalogue of imagery that overlaps those boundaries. Where that occurs we begin to find the use of words like archetype. But this is not a post about archetypes. Its about maps.

Maps are spacial images that use a set of symbols, arranged by relative position, to represent a landscape and its features. In nature education topographical maps are often used to teach kids how to orient and navigate, as well as how to identify things in the world based on symbolic representation. Maps are also used to great effect in art therapy, to symbolise and set out aspects of a person’s inner experience. They can be very helpful in alleviating anxieties relating to overwhelm and/or feeling stuck. In both cases the symbols on the map are abstract representations of things actually in the world. In the same way that words are abstract representations of meaning. Only a sentence is harder to understand than a map because its visual dimension is limited to things like the order of words, choice of font and character spacing. That’s why a picture can tell a thousand words.

For a really interesting discussion of the way our minds use symbols to interpret reality I recommend listening to this talk on the Neuropsychology of Symbolic Representation by Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, Dr Jordan Peterson.

In education, visual representations of information are common. Students will often be asked to draw and interpret diagrams. And they will often be encouraged to create posters or mind maps that help them explain and understand concepts. But there is seldom an emphasis on those visual representations having anything to do with geography or topography. Indeed topographical maps are usually stowed away for the few weeks of the year when teachers see fit to tick the much maligned geography boxes in their handbook of curricular outcomes. Either that or they hang on the wall like laminated afterthoughts, shyly suggesting that things might be different someplace else.

But there is a missed opportunity in that approach. Because the thing about maps is that they have an almost infinite capacity for the storage of information on multiple levels of analysis. On an outline of Australia its possible to lay out everything from variations in temperature to the structure of liberal democracy. Not only that but geographical maps can also represent time and travel. Its possible to mark out journeys from one point to another. And its possible to represent symbolically what happened or might happen along the way. Which opens things up into the realm of literacy and storytelling. And there’s more. By virtue of their speciality, maps attract some of the most breathtaking applications of geometry imaginable. All in a language we’re hardwired to understand. 

Add to that the fact that using maps in this way creates a list of affordable learning excursions into the world that kids actually inhabit, and you are beginning to tap into the potential for map making as a tool for connecting to place.

Okay, time for some examples.

Gapuwiyak is a town that I described in another post as being the size of a postage stamp. Its positioned adjacent to a lake with a diameter of around 1km during the dry season. Surrounding the town and lake on all sides is a forest of eucalyptus, grass trees, shrubs and the occasional cyprus pine.

The first thing I do with every class is bring up an image of the area on Google Maps. Whether I’m planning to go down the path of literacy or artistry and no matter the age group, I start with that image. I look at it with the kids, move it around a little and point out some land marks. Basically I spend some time adjusting to the idea that this will be our frame of reference. Then I go into what I have planned. Here is an example from primary school class I'm taking for 90 minutes each week. The example documents the first two of those weeks to date.

Project Title “Rali (Here)”

This project aims to establish a bilingual frame of reference and provide some explanation for its relevance, provide a narrative, arts based scaffold for curricular education, ground that education in place and experience and cultivate a sense of shared responsibility and belonging.

To be continued...

I'll post other examples of this sort of thing from various angles and with various age groups in the coming weeks. If you'd like to subscribe to receive my letters and updates by email please use the form in the side or at the bottom of the page or click here.

Future Authoring

This is the five year plan I never wanted to write. It extends into the distance, so expectedly its clearest in the shortest term. It begins with the next 7 months, the most significant period of community service and professional development I’ve known to date. I’m here in Gapuwiyak, a remote Indigenous community in north east Arnhem Land, as a volunteer through Gapuwiyak School for the rest of the year. During that time I’ll run small to medium sized art projects with young people in the community. I’ll also complete the 75 hours of practicum placement I need to finish my Advanced Diploma in Art Therapy. In exchange, Gapuwiyak School is providing me with rent free accommodation and materials. I’m responsible for living and travel expenses. 

The projects I help develop and facilitate will centre around providing spaces and opportunities for kids to hang out and express themselves. I'll collaborate with other members of the community and organisations such as the Gapuwiyak Arts Centre. 

Personally I’m interested in ways that mapping processes can strengthen connections to place and nature. At the moment I’m recording found sounds at specific locations in given geographical areas, interpreting those sounds in a visual language, then arranging (mapping) the interpretations according to their relative geography. The process translates well into collective, project based iterations, that result in geographically accurate representations of subjective encounters with place. In February this year I successfully ran the first iteration in Sydney, with primary school students at Nicholson Street Public School, as part of a broader project to build an orchestra with all 175 students using recycled materials. I’ll run the second iteration with the kids at Gapuwiyak School. Then, having been selected to participate in the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency in Puebla, Mexico, I’ll run a third iteration of the idea in January 2019. Arquetopia is an internationally established, non-profit arts and cultural foundation with a social scope that emphasises critical thinking through artistic practices. Their academic international residency programs are the largest in Latin America, with an array of contents anchored in a solid structure of collaborations with prominent cultural institutions, renowned experts and notable artists. Participation in the residency program will ground my work in an institutional framework. I’ll meet three times per week with Arquetopia’s academic staff and the project participants will be students from the local University.

That's the plan until February 2019. Along the way I aim to produce written work and a podcast that appeals to an audience of people interested in the kinds of stories and insights that arise from my work. In that way I aim to sustain a unique and multifaceted career as a writer, with a special interest in education, nature connection, place, culture and community.

So, with the support of my loving family and friends I’ll suffer the burden of my dreaming, defeat the troublesome companions that are my weaknesses, rise to meet the best I’m capable of and share it all in words and pictures. If you’d like to read and see them, please subscribe to receive weekly letters and updates using the form in the sidebar (at the bottom of the page if you’re on mobile). 

Contact

Future Authoring, Photo taken aboard Cessna 208(A) en route to Gapuwiyak, 20 July 2018.

Future Authoring, Photo taken aboard Cessna 208(A) en route to Gapuwiyak, 20 July 2018.

Photos and sounds from Birritjimi

These photos and recordings were taken over the past 10 days at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach) in Arnhem Land, NT, visiting Djalu Gurruwiwi and his family, learning about Yidaki (didgeridoo) and Yolngu culture.

Tomorrow I'm heading to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) where I'll be posted at the school as a volunteer, running some art projects with the kids, completing my placement for an Adv.Dip. in Art Therapy, writing, reading and researching mapping processes and connection to place. I'll also be developing a new project that focuses on nature connection in urban environments, which I'll run with 10 University students in Puebla, Mexico, as part of the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency program in January 2019.

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My home for 10 days at Wallaby Beach, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. These houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. All in disrepair, they are nestled in paradise.

My home for 10 days at Wallaby Beach, 10km from the nearby town of Nhulunbuy. These houses were built by a mining company thirty odd years ago using asbestos and concrete. All in disrepair, they are nestled in paradise.

Surrounding the houses on all sides is litter. Lots of it. Like pieces of shrapnel left here by the bomb blast of modern life. Why? Its a question I've been grappling with since I arrived. A question that I think holds a mirror to the shadows of our modern experiment and a window to the grief and sense of loss that pervades the complexity of this place. 

Paradise, an infinite dyad of beauty and ugliness, each made more so by the terrific magnitude of its other. The ocean here glows every shade of blue. It laps on white sand scattered with pieces of coral remains, lined by mango trees, coconut palms and casuarinas. There are hundreds of small birds, occasional osprey, dolphins and the odd saltwater crocodile.

Kids dancing before the sunset.

Kids dancing before the sunset.

Dopiya paints Yidaki in layer upon layer of simple movements over their surface. Like the stories that criss-cross this landscape, every stroke is a trodden path.

I'm currently reading Jeff Malpas' Place and Experience. Its a work of philosophy that speaks to the deepest aspects of our human experience of place. Reading the work I was struck by this passage, which I feel is a wonderful compliment to the images of Dopiya painting Yidaki.  

The complexity of place is mirrored in the complex process of triangulation and traverse by which the topographical surveyor builds up a map of the region being surveyed. No single sighting is sufficient to gain a view of the entire region, multiple sightings are required... The delineation of place can only be undertaken by a process that encompasses a variety of sightings from a number of conceptual ‘landmarks’ and that also undertakes a wide-ranging, criss-crossing set of journeys over the landscape at issue. It is only through such journeying, sighting, and re-sighting that place can be understood.
— Jeff Malpas, 2018, 'The Obscurity of Place' in Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography 2nd Edition, first published 1999, Routledge, London.
Together with two of the kids at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach).

Together with two of the kids at Birritjimi (Wallaby Beach).

One night, one of the kids (11) took me down to the beach. He'd prepared a small fire and placed a rock for me to sit on. An overturned wheelbarrow acted as an amplifier for the Yidaki. For two hours he taught me some dances and songs. We played 'ceremony' in much the same way that city kids might play 'house'. One of the songs was called Gapu (water). In the dance, cupped hands are thrown over alternating shoulders, stepping in time with the pulse, washing the body with imaginary water. The next day when we were down at the beach having a swim, we sang the song and danced it in the shallows.

Originally I was going to take both of these Yidaki with me. The one on the right is painted with the Wititj (Python Snake), who according to history enters the Yidaki during the making process and ultimately controls its every sound. But from the moment I took possession of that Yidaki my body succumbed to a feeling of immense dread. That night I had a dream in which I was told to leave it behind, because it didn't belong to me. So I did.

Originally I was going to take both of these Yidaki with me. The one on the right is painted with the Wititj (Python Snake), who according to history enters the Yidaki during the making process and ultimately controls its every sound. But from the moment I took possession of that Yidaki my body succumbed to a feeling of immense dread. That night I had a dream in which I was told to leave it behind, because it didn't belong to me. So I did.

Next stop, Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella). If you'd like to receive my weekly letters and updates, please subscribe using the form in the sidebar! (Bottom of page if you’re on your phone)

MAF RPT Flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella)

MAF RPT Flight to Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella)

Word from the Fronts

Its a windy time. The freshwater eels are waiting for enough rain to fall so they might begin their migration, the turtles are searching for shelters secluded enough to be suitable for hibernation, and both are finding their tasks tougher than usual given the frantic urban environments that seem to have snuck up on them in the night. I'm feeling the call to migrate and to hibernate somewhat simultaneously.

On the Street Art front, the project is in full swing. In week one the kids came up with personal tags and designed graphic fonts on their 'walls' using posca pens. We watched videos about street art and had some good conversations about why people take to painting things on public surfaces. One reason that came up was that art is generally only accessible to people who can go to galleries and then its up to the galleries to decide what's worth seeing and what isn't. So there's a rebelliousness to street art and a freedom which the kids resonated with. At the same time we spoke about the difference between street art and scribble. Its not about vandalism, its about communication. These kinds of conversations arose informally during the process of 'making graffiti' on small pieces of plywood. In week two I handed out spray cans. The kids loved it. I later found out that even with masks, its technically out of bounds to let kids use spray paint. So it was a case of forgiveness rather than permission. The next week I told the kids that we couldn't spray paint anymore. The whole thing was really cool because without really meaning to, we had broken the rules, which complimented the theme of the project really well. Next, in week three, I got out some 80gsm paper and sharpies and we made paste-up stickers to go on the 'walls'. They turned out great and the kids are really connected with their work. This week came another unexpected turn. In the K to 2 playground there are these three wooden cubby houses. They are riddled with chalk scribbles and look pretty awful. So I took the street art crew down there and we measured up the cubbies and they came up with mural designs for them. Then I had the idea to prepare a proposal on behalf of the kids and send it to the school requesting permission to paint the murals on the cubbies in response to the problem of the scribble. Its very real world in terms of process. One of the kids even suggested we submit a selection of works and invite the K to 2 students to decide which one gets the commission. So next week I'll prepare the presentation with them. I'll post a copy here too.

On the bush school front I've been exploring symbolic language using a scavenger hunt type game where each kid gets a scroll on which is drawn a set of symbols. Each symbol refers to something he or she has to find to complete the challenge. Some examples include 'something yellow, something wet, something spikey, something beautiful, something warm etc.' Its a great process because the kids pick it up really quick and very soon they can read and remember the symbols. I know that because a week later when I did the same activity with one of kids, I only kept one of the symbols the same, and she remembered what it meant. Basically in this activity the kids are reading. Reading language and also reading landscape as made up of language. There is so much to explore here in terms of mapping but I'll save that for another post in which I plan talk in more depth about mapping processes and nature connection.

On the didge front I'm excited to say that I've confirmed a trip to Arnhem Land to participate in the Rripangu Masterclass with Djalu Gurriwiwi. I'll be heading up there in July to spend a week with Djalu and his family, make a didge and learn with him. Afterwards I'm planning to spend some time in the area working with kids as part of a placement for my Art Therapy qualification. Its going to be an adventure, and a break from the work I've been doing with bush school and design school. The process of making this decision has been a source of a lot of learning for me. I've been thinking a lot about indecision and dissatisfaction, so expect a story with that theme soon.