Sign Languages in Australia
In Australia, Auslan is the most commonly used sign language for Deaf people and is accepted by the Federal Government as a community language ‘with a distinct culture, recognised by shared history, social life and sense of identity.’ It is estimated that there are between 138 and 300 different sign languages used around the world. Each sign language is unique and, like all languages, evolves over time.
Auslan evolved from sign languages brought to Australia from Britain and Ireland during colonisation. The first known deaf person to introduce British Sign Language (BSL) to Australia was artist John Carmichael who migrated to Sydney from Edinburgh in 1825 at the age of 21. Auslan has since evolved into different dialects used around Australia.
Many people who use Auslan consider themselves to be culturally Deaf (with an uppercase). The Deaf community includes people who are deaf, hard of hearing, children of Deaf adults (known as CODAs) and interpreters, among others. Culture develops around people’s self-identity and is strengthened and enriched when passed down over generations. For Deaf people, their interactions with others and the world is primarily visual, and so Deaf culture is based on this visual orientation. The Deaf community also have their own history and heritage, which includes things like congregating at night under street lights before Deaf clubs were established, famous Deaf people and stories of how Deaf people have withstood audism and persecution.
First Nation peoples have used sign languages to communicate since time immemorial.
Auslan is the most commonly used sign language in Australia.
But, did you know that today there are more than 55 sign languages connected to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages across the continent?
Indigenous sign languages have existed since time immemorial and are a vulnerable group of languages. There are more than 55 sign languages connected to Aboriginal spoken languages nationwide.
Aboriginal signing is cultural and ceremonial. Their sign languages are used by both d/Deaf and hearing people to communicate day-to-day and to address taboos on speaking, facilitate hunting or to communicate women’s and men’s business.
Indigenous sign languages do not follow the grammar of either Auslan or English, rather they follow the rules of Aboriginal spoken language groups and are culturally bound. The signs are also less obvious when compared to Auslan, as they are not based on what something looks like.
Recently a new sign was added to Auslan to acknowledge First Nations history. The origin of the original sign for ‘Australia’ in Auslan is unclear, but the movement of the sign is commonly understood to represent convicts being picked up in Britain and placed down in Australia. The new sign was developed by the Deaf First Nations community and has the hands show the shape of the continent, the water surrounding it, people living in cities and Uluru at the centre.
The Code of Practice for the Visual Arts, Craft and Design offers a checklist for artists to consider the accessibility of their practice and works of art. Use the Checklist for Artists (right) to create a work of art that is accessible.
Write a review of a local exhibition. In your review, consider the nature and quality of the accessibility decisions the curator has made for the exhibition, and how (or if) these decisions change the artistic or curatorial intention.
You could respond to the placement of artworks (i.e. height), the legibility of texts (i.e. size, colour, font), the way ideas are communicated (i.e. easy English, captions, interpreters, audio descriptions), visibility (i.e. lighting, non-visual guides) and the physical accessibility of the exhibition and venue.
Checklist for Artists
• Have you considered ways you could make your work more accessible and inclusive?
• Have you consulted about the accessibility (and access barriers) of the work?
• Have you worked with organisations to make your work accessible when it is presented in their space?
• Is your work accessible when presented online?
• Have you considered whether your work needs information provided to audiences to help them
decide on, if and how they experience the work?
• Have you considered your access requirements when producing work or working with organisations?
• Has accessibility been discussed with all relevant parties involved in projects during initial planning?
• Have you engaged with any groups or organisations to improve your disability awareness?
Ethics and Rights, The Code of Practice for the Visual Arts, Craft and Design, 2022
Language in Art
The use of words and letters in works of art have traditionally been used to indicate authorship. However, written and spoken word has been a significant feature of artists’ practice since the early twentieth century when appropriated words, letters and symbols were incorporated into works of art.
American Artist Sol LeWitt (1928 – 2007) argued that ideas alone can be art and coined the term ‘conceptual art’ in the 1967 article Paragraphs on Conceptual Art. An established art movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, conceptual artists used language in place of traditional art materials with words being the preferred method of emphasising ideas over visual forms.
Sue Jo Wright uses written word and Auslan signs. Often Auslan is mistakenly understood as not being a language in its own right. Instead, many people think that it is an alternative way of communicating in English – but this is not correct. Auslan is a language that relies on the visual and Wright questions the mainstream understanding of it as a language further by transforming this already visual language into a pictorial language through illustrating hand signs with embroidery.
Wright’s work plays on the interaction between artwork and viewer to highlight the barriers faced by d/Deaf and hard of hearing people, placing those same barriers to understanding on hearing viewers. However, she is also speaking directly to Deaf people with silence, movement and visuals – forms of language that hearing people can often struggle to understand.
Thinking about what you have learned about artist Sue Jo Wright, what do you think her work ‘I’ll tell you later’ is about? Who has said this phrase? And, to whom? What will be told later? Why hasn’t it been told now?
Answer these narrative questions for the viewer. Create a new complementary work that states what was said prior or following ‘I’ll tell you later’.
As an artist, how could you convey meaning in works of art that include language if your audience is linguistically diverse?
Create a work of art using a language that you use other than English. This could be Auslan, a common or uncommon oral language or a made-up childhood language. You could also consider using a pictorial language made up of symbols or emojis.
As you create your work, assume that the majority of your audience will not use or understand the language you have chosen. Consider ways you can communicate meaning in your work with the absence of a shared language between the work and the viewer. This might be through your use of medium, form, composition or other aesthetic features.