ACT-based theatre directors, performers, musicians, writers and artists are involved in an important learning opportunity for Canberra’s creatives.

The voices and teachings of First Nations people are honoured in the Sharing Stories Art Exchange, a creative participatory project that focuses on building positive reciprocal relationships between the Canberra community and local regional Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

The roots of the program go back to when co-facilitators Dr Amanda Stuart and Amelia Zaraftis were students at The Australian National University (ANU) School of Art and Design.

“John Reid, a lecturer in photo media at the time, developed a Field Studies program which took students out and engaged them in primary research,” Zaraftis says.

“Field Studies operated out of the School of Art for 15 or so years before we were invited to start leading programs. Then, along with our colleague Heike Qualitz, we developed Field Studies into a course called the Balawan Elective, which was subsequently adapted into the ArtsACT supported programs we now run.”

The Sharing Stories Art Exchange project is funded by ArtsACT in partnership with the School of Art and Design.

“Each year, we take a group of approximately 20 practising artists or creatives from Canberra and engage them in discourse with First Nations people in a range of locations,” Zaraftis says.

Participants on a cultural tour with Ngambri Elder Matilda House. Photo: Amelia Zaraftis

Through the program, participants are given firsthand experience on Country and hear directly from local Indigenous people.

“As co-facilitators, our role in the program ranges from facilitating engagement between participants and our cultural contributors, to discussing creative art processes and field research methodology,” Stuart says.

“Building and maintaining relationships is at the core of this. It is not about going in and forcing or extracting information, but rather listening with respect.”

The selected participants in the 2022 program have already taken part in two ACT-based field trips, including a cultural tour with Ngunawal traditional knowledge holder and custodian Wally Bell of the ANU Kambri campus and the Black Mountain Woodland Walk, followed by a debrief session to unpack what they learnt.

The on-Country teachings will continue in NSW, as the group is set to undertake two four-day field trips in locations just north and south of Eden.

“The whole program is designed in collaboration with our cultural contributors. We provide our First Nations contributors with an opportunity to share whatever it is they want to share with our group, whenever it is important for them to share it,” Stuart says.

As co-facilitators, Dr Stuart and Ms Zaraftis are honoured to hold the space between participants and knowledge holders, while furthering their own understanding and appreciation of the ongoing impacts of colonisation and the cultures of First Nations peoples.

“One of the things that being involved in the program has taught me is to be open to different ways of learning and different ways of knowing,” Zaraftis says.

Upon a foundation of strong relationships and trust, the aim of the program is to build on existing shared values and contribute positively to the reconciliation movement in Australia.

“I hope that the participants are open to the experience of listening, and the opportunity to put aside any preconceived ideas,” Stuart says.

“This program offers an opportunity to grow from these experiences and reflect on them.”

Open conversations about representation and inclusion allow the amplification of First Nations voices and support the ongoing process of reconciliation.

At the conclusion of the sessions the participants will have the opportunity to showcase their artistic creations in a public exhibition.

In previous years, artists have created a wide range of final pieces including traditionally woven baskets, glazed stoneware, and oil paintings on hardwood. All of which reflected their personal journey and learnings over the course of the program.

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