Geographe Primary School Visual Arts teacher Ana Nail has a passion for helping her students understand Aboriginal art. Her work in this area has been recognised by a WA Premier’s Primary Teacher of the Year award. Ana contributes to both National and State arts curriculum development. In this interview Ana reflects on what is changing in education about Aboriginal art and culture and what is needed to build on that change.
Ana, what do you mean by honourable and respectful intent?
I heard a great ‘Welcome to Country’ speech from a Fremantle elder some years ago. He talked about a time when he was younger and he went to school. He was told to sit at the back of the classroom because basically there was no use for him. He was almost separated even though he was in the classroom. The message was that little was expected of him and teaching him was not a priority. During his talk this man asked that his children be able to sit alongside anyone in that room and learn as any other child would.
His talk left me with an understanding about ‘intent” as it applied to my work in the classroom. He was asking us to have a go at teaching with an intent that is “honourable and respectful”. That is a really good message and it gave me more confidence. There may still be times when I am teaching that I will inadvertently make an error and say or do something inappropriate. However, if I make the effort to find out the authentic knowledge and read up and speak to people, especially to local elders or custodians, then it is ok if I sometimes get it wrong. Learning something new is going to involve some degree of trial and error. It is all about striving for authenticity and respect in your approach.
What were you taught about Aboriginal culture when you were at school?
I can’t actually remember being taught anything much about Aboriginal culture at primary school. Perhaps the only thing that was ever mentioned was the Aboriginal names for different localities. So the name for Yellagonga Regional Park has an Aboriginal word in the name and that word was discussed.
High school art was mainly about art works in established art galleries. We didn’t cover contemporary art then as you would now.
How is this different to what you are seeing as taught now?
Today art in education might be about skateboard design or T-shirt design. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about art work in a gallery.
It’s difficult to separate my own personal experiences in education and generalize it to the broader teaching community. There are more discussions about the need for professional learning to aide teachers’ understandings and improve knowledge. This may be due to development and implementation of the Australian Curriculum three Cross Priorities, one of which is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures. This Priority is a conceptual framework where Aboriginal history and cultures are embedded where appropriate within the curriculum.
In Visual Arts, this can be seen in the content descriptions such as in Year 3, where students “explore ideas and artworks from different culture times, including artwork by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, to use as inspiration for their own representations.”
For me it became more of a focus because I am keenly interested in the natural environment. I’ve noticed the Aboriginal students I teach have great strengths when the content we teach is related to the natural world and are also strong visual learners. I’m also, fortunate to be working with educators, who are Aboriginal and have shared some knowledge with me and support me to improve my teaching for all students. That is why I find Aboriginal history and cultures and communities so fascinating. Their knowledge of the environment and how this is manifested in their art really resonates with me.