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Yarning Up: Discussing NAIDOC Week with Shannon Foster

Updated: Jul 12, 2018

Bawurra Director Shannon Foster with her artwork (Image Credit: NITV Australia)

Having worked in teaching Aboriginal stories for over twenty years, D'harawal Woman and Bawurra Foundation Director Shannon Foster has made it her passion to educate and share knowledge around culture and community. With the role of acquiring and curating the knowledge for the Bawurra Library, Shannon has shared her knowledge with the likes of the Australia Museum, Sydney University, UTS and Australian Catholic University. An exceptional painter, she is also responsible for the artwork that the City of Sydney selected for NAIDOC Week 2018.

For our second edition of our 'Yarning Up' series where we interview exceptional Indigenous individuals, we caught up with Shannon to talk about her artwork, the importance of NAIDOC Week and empowering Aboriginal Women, and the role the Bawurra Foundation plays in ensuring that empowerment.

Nick: How did putting that painting come together for NAIDOC week?

Shannon: It was quite by accident that I found out about it. The City of Sydney were putting through requests and expressions of interest for people who would like to put in an idea for the artwork. It was quite a comprehensive tender, a lot of counsel and government ideas. So I put together a tender that talked all about us being a Sydney family: from Sydney style, Sydney art, culture and stories, to the Sydney people. I thought it would be great to use other people's hand prints and make it a very communal sort of artwork. It is a painting about everybody here, not just me. And they loved the idea.

They loved as well that I was a woman, and how that matched with the theme for NAIDOC Week. I love the meaning behind it as well. When I work on commissions, I like to work really closely with the person or organisation to make sure that we end up with something that they want. A lot of people can be very restrictive when it comes to visual art… [but] at the same time I also think that if you're creating for someone else, they should have a humongous input into the final result. But they were an amazing team, the City of Sydney. Wonderful people, best case scenario. I enjoyed every minute of it. They were readily available to consult with me and we made all decisions together. It was a really nice working relationship that we had together.

Nick: That’s fantastic… I love the story behind the artwork, it really lends itself to the themes of NAIDOC Week.

Shannon:...I love the idea that I was collecting hand prints for it. Whenever I asked anyone if they would like to contribute, they would always say ‘yes, is my hand going to be up on those banners?’ And that's what I wanted. I want everyone to feel like a part of this artwork, It wasn't just about me. That's one of the greatest things, that people can say ‘my handprint is on there!’

Nick: Why is this years’ NAIDOC week important for you?

Shannon: NAIDOC Week is always very important to me. My great grandparents were involved in the 1938 Day of Mourning March which led to NAIDOC first coming into place. I particularly love this theme this year. In so many ways, indigenous people still have to overcome the effects of colonisation, assimilation, genocide and all sorts of things. But as Indigenous women, we also have to overcome the patriarchy, and it's not just the colonial patriarchy, but indigenous patriarchy too. I just love the voices of our Aunties and our Grannies and all they have done.

Throughout the generations, they make sure that our families are strong, that our culture is strong, that our kids have a place to go to and a home. There is just something about our Aboriginal Aunties, they're just so strong! They keep everyone in line. I think that's really been overlooked in the past. To now have women take a front seat in these conversations really says a lot about where we are coming to as a society, and that everything is not male, middle class, white and privileged. There are other stories out there. That acknowledgement is really important in the whole story. There is another culture here, there is another people here, there is other genders here, and wonderful people are you doing amazing things. I love it.

Nick: What do you think the phrase “Because Of Her, We Can” says about celebrating Aboriginal peoples and NAIDOC Week?

Shannon: I think it is such a powerful statement. For a very long time a woman's place was the strength of our culture, and that has been overlooked. We were colonised by a very patriarchal society, one where the position of women was overlooked because men were always talking to men, and not addressing women. I think a lot of our stories and roles were are overlooked and minimised. You know, we were seen as only having just child-rearing and home duties.

‘Because of Her, We Can’ gives those women the power and the respect that they deserve. So many women at home and in community kept those families together. Women were fighting on the front lines, stopping their children being taken from them. We are still dealing with that today, you’ve only got to see movies like ‘After the Apology’ to see that it is the women who are fighting for our people. They're on that front line, day in, day out. And that's not saying that men don't fight as well, absolutely they do! ‘Because Of Her, We Can’ I think takes everything back to where it belongs, into the hands of our mothers who are not valued as much as they should be.

Nick: How does what Bawurra focus on play into the importance of elevating women within Aboriginal culture, as well as to the preservation of tradition and culture in the future?

Shannon: Bawurra embodies that whole idea that women have a valuable place in our society. Every time we sit down and talk with an Auntie, every time Bawurra record one of the Aunties’ songs or stories or knowledge, you are acknowledging an important place in the community and in a child's learning life. [Those children] will open up and see knowledge from an Auntie, and recognise the power in it because they see that Auntie everyday: they see them at home, in the community. Bawurra acknowledges that by consulting with the women, by reaching out when we go to communities, and providing those devices to students in the classroom. We make sure that we see the women in charge! We make sure we go to the Aunties and the Grannies because we know that, in the community, that's where a lot of our strength lies. It is important that we preserve that culture of women, and preserve our future.

Nick: For you, what are your hopes for the Foundation as it moves forwards towards achieving goals for indigenous peoples and reconciliation?

Shannon: Wow, I have so many hopes and dreams for this Foundation! It's hard to pinpoint one particular one. What I really would hope for with Bawurra is seeing the power of the information in the library, whether we are collecting it, storing it or using it. It is in the hands of the young people. I'm getting on in age. We need to make sure that the future is strong. I'd love to see a student that is impacted by Bawurra be in a position to get forward in the future, helping in their community or to the wider community, or go to higher education.

[I want them to] be able to take on roles within communities, and continue the telling of their stories unfolding of their culture. I guess, that's really where our power lies and that is where our future lies, the young ones can carry on the torch and lead us into the future. I'd love to make sure that in the future we can grow and put in place programs for education for our young people, so they can keep doing what we're doing now. The future is definitely in the younger people, in our communities, engaging them and giving them the opportunity to do the work they can, so as to ensure the generation afterwards is in a better place.

Nick: And I guess that comes back to events like NAIDOC, which are important steps forward in acknowledging it...

Shannon: It raises a lot of awareness. Back earlier in my lifetime, nobody ever acknowledged NAIDOC Week. Now, not many years later, we are seeing so many more people involved. The quicker we can up-skill our young ones, the better off we will all be. It's awesome, and it's about time...


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