The peak body protecting and promoting the Australian visual arts sector

Q&A Blak Curatorial Exchange

NAVA talks to Blak Curatorial Exchange program mentors, Freja Carmichael, Jo-Anne Driessens and Amanda Hayman about some of the highlights of the program.

NAVA recently partnered with BlakLash Projects to create and deliver a six-week professional development program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who are interested in developing their curatorial skills. This program is the first of its kind in Queensland and aimed to strengthen the sector by enhancing knowledge, support networks, and a unique opportunity to pitch new curatorial ventures to industry representatives. NAVA talks to program mentors, Jo-Anne Driessens, Amanda Hayman and Freja Carmichael about some of the highlights of the program,

Hi Jo-Anne, Amanda and Freja; to begin with, could you please tell us about some of the outcomes you had hoped to achieve in the delivery of the first ‘Blak Curatorial Exchange’ program?

Amanda Hayman: The participants are primarily artists and we hoped the program would not only give them additional skills and knowledge that supports their practice and improve their communication with curators, but also for them to think beyond being a visual artist and look at other career pathways within the sector. We also wanted to create a peer support group and a culturally safe space so they could speak about experiences and current issues. Ideally, the group would encourage and influence each other’s work, share knowledge and resources, and possibly collaborate in future. It was also important that this opportunity brokered relationships with industry networks.

Freja Carmichael: The main outcome of the blak curatorial exchange was to create a space for sharing knowledge and skills in order to strengthen our local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art sector. Rather than implementing a top down approach, we wanted to create a program than enabled both participants and mentors to share from each other and enable expression of all experiences. The inclusion of guest speakers also assisting in bringing diverse voices into program through their curatorial roles in grass roots project and state institutions.

The program itself, was centred on building relationships and exchanging knowledge rather than a more traditional mentorship and teaching structure, why was an important focus to the program?

Amanda Hayman: We opted to title the program an ‘exchange’ rather than a ‘mentorship’ as we are still emerging leaders ourselves. Mentorships imply a certain hierarchy and we wanted to approach the group on a level playing field and acknowledge that everyone has knowledge and experiences to share. Aboriginal cultures are often non-hierarchic and connections are based on reciprocal relationships and we wanted to reflect that in our program.

Freja Carmichael: When it comes to sharing our stories and the presentation of art and culture, relationships and collaboration are at the core of Indigenous curatorship. By emphasising this in our curatorial exchange program, it assists in strengthening the importance for stronger engagement practices with our artists and communities through both curatorial development and exhibition delivery.

The program aimed to give the participating artists an understanding of a curatorial practice, why do you think this could be a valuable skill for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to develop in expanding career pathways, and in turn, how does this strengthen the Queensland arts sector more broadly?

Amanda Hayman: We hope that participants have a greater understanding into exhibition development process and consider exhibition curation as a career option. It is really important to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators particularly when it involves our art, history, culture and stories. We bring a certain sensitivity and approach to our work, we see the process just as important as the outcome and we are conscious of incorporating our values and perspectives. Producing more Indigenous curators will strengthen the Queensland arts sector by being inclusive and accessible to our community.

Whether or not participants choose to pursue a career in curation or not, there are great benefits to being a part of the program. Artists that gain curatorial skills are more likely to engage in conversations with curators and effectively articulate the way they would like their work displayed, and raise concerns when there are issues in the way the work is incorporated within a larger narrative or misrepresented within a space. The program aims to increase artists understanding of curatorial decisions and assure our stories are represented appropriately.

Freja Carmichael: Expanding capacities in curating enables artists to deepen their own self representation in exhibitions. This could be through future collaborations with other artists or artists curating their own exhibitions. Through empowering artists to be in control of the representation of their work, this strengthen Queensland art sector through the potential of what is possible with uniting artistic and curatorial practices.

Could you share some of your personal highlights from the program?

Amanda Hayman: I really enjoyed our workshopping of ideas. There was one particular session towards the end of the program where we had an ice-breaker activity that gave participants 15 mins to create an exhibition concept and design around the theme of family. Each participant had very different approaches that provided an insight into their personal lives and it was really great way to gain a deeper connection and understanding of one another, as it prompted significant dialogue around identity. The ideas that came out of that short activity were incredible and it demonstrated how open and comfortable they felt within the group dynamic. The strengthening of relationships was a definite highlight for me.

Freja Carmichael: The personal highlights for me was deepening relationships with the participants and guest speakers involved. I was able to broaden my networks through collection visits with QUT art museum and museum of brisbane and meet peers that I had previously not engaged with.

Overall, the program provided a significant platform for us to explore our ideas and speak through practical experiences. This was both enriching and also affirmed the importance of our work as Aboriginal curators working collaboratively with First Nations artists, cultures and experiences.

How would you like to see the ‘Blak Curatorial Exchange’ program grow and develop in the future?  

Amanda Hayman:  I would love to see the program continue and flourish. I have a lot of ideas on how we could grow the Blak Curatorial Exchange into a program of significance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators. With the right support, we could engage a group for a longer duration and work on a collaborative practical exercise, such as curating an exhibition or public activation, as an outcome of the program. I would like to see the process documented including community consultations, curatorial developments and behind the scenes conversations for others to understand the considerations, motivations and decisions made. It could be extremely useful for all curators to gain insights into our approaches and all the additional cultural aspects we often need to integrate. It would substantiate the necessity for long lead-in times and highlight the relationships built through the course.

I could also see an intensive residential program developed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander emerging curators from regional and remote areas.

Freja Carmichael: Blak curatorial exchange has so much potential and possibility for the future. I would like to see further collaborations enabled through the inclusion of voices from other First Nations cultures and experiences. A confirmed exhibition opportunity to either develop through the program, or delivery at the end would also enable the implementation of practical understandings.

Photo: Bruce McLean of Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art with the 2018 Blak Curatorial Exchange group.  Artwork: Richard Bell, Judgement Day (Bell’s Theorem) 2008 Photographer: LaVonne Bobongie