Aboriginal Arts Leadership

© Michelle Evans 2014

When we begin to work in management there is a lot of focus put on managing plans and people and resources. Much of our time can be spent busily working away on ‘getting the job done’ to the point where we find ourselves so focused on the job at hand (heads down and bums up) that when we look up the broader context of our work can seem overwhelming.

I got interested in leadership when I was managing an Aboriginal arts centre in Melbourne. I was also teaching Indigenous arts management to people like you and me, Indigenous and non-Indigenous arts managers who are passionate about creating opportunities and developing skills and generating platforms with Indigenous artists. What I noticed was that by bringing together arts managers working in the Aboriginal arts sector (getting them away from the everyday) created a powerful space for us to think about the future. What I am signaling is that creating space (like getting out of the office or just scheduling an hour away from the ‘to do’ list) can help us move out of the ever demanding management space and into a leadership space.

Leadership is inherently about change. It’s a way of working with people that moves towards a shared vision of the future. It’s about setting an agenda at a local, state, national or even international level, with like minded people whereby we collectively imagine how we want the future to look and figure out what’s getting in the way of that and what we need to do to make this vision of the future a reality.

Sometimes when people hear the word leadership they think of being the boss, or managing groups, being very directive. And, although these ways of leading may suit certain organizations, they do not define the work of leadership.

I have spent the last five years thinking about what Aboriginal arts leadership is. I have talked to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and arts managers both in Australia and also Indigenous peoples across the United States of America to understand how we conceptualize leadership – what does it mean in our context? What I discovered was that when Aboriginal artists and arts managers go to practice what others see as leadership they need to do a whole heap of work inside of themselves and any from public spaces in order to practice leadership.

The Wilin Week 28/04/09way Aboriginal artists and arts managers spoke to me about leadership was that it was work that they did both ‘below the surface’ and ‘above the surface’ or another way to think about it is work inside of themselves (embodied) and work they displayed in public (practices of leadership). The practice of Aboriginal arts leadership is contingent upon negotiating or navigating the territories inside of ourselves.

The first territory is about authorization – are you self authorized to enact leadership in this space? Do you require community authorization? Do you require cultural authorization? What work do you need to do in order obtain significant authorization to do leadership practices like leaving a legacy, or leading fearlessly? Does it mean generating support from Elders or self authorizing your own voice and expertise?

The second territory is about identity and belonging – Identity is a key resource for Aboriginal people, it encapsulates who we are and how we relate to others and the world around us. Yet we also know Aboriginal identity in Australia is much politicized and this places pressure on individuals and communities. So a feeling of belonging and creating cultural safe places for cultural and artistic expression is an important leadership practice. Embodying diverse ideas of Aboriginality is a leadership practice in Australia today as is the important work of empowering future generations through positive cultural expressions of identity.

The third territory is about artistic practice – what are the boundaries and pressures on producing contemporary innovative works of art? In this territory artists and arts managers spoke about having to navigate the pressures of managerial work (like paperwork and funding body applications/acquittals, or specific commissions) and commercial demands, to find time and space to creatively and cultural produce work they want to produce. Some of the practices we find here are the importance of relational storytelling through the practice of art and how vital it is to make space for the creation of artistic work that is (as)free (as they can be) from these pressures.

The final territory is about the powerful forces of history, trauma and colonization. As Aboriginal artists and arts managers we are in receipt of generationally passed down stories and histories that can impact on our everyday. Be that the lasting legacies of colonization and how that plays out today in our lives as Aboriginal people; the personal impact governmental policies have upon us and our families/communities; or even a personal experience of trauma. These can weigh us down and also become a lens through which we see the world. Some of the most powerful leadership practices Aboriginal artists and arts managers can do include speaking out against gossiping and shaming of others, and becoming a person who is safe and consistent to work with.

To sum up, Aboriginal arts leadership navigates across these very contextual or place based historical, political, cultural and social territories. Aboriginal leaders encounter these territories when they do the work of leadership. As I pointed out at the beginning, leadership is fundamentally about change and in order to work positively towards change with groups of people, Aboriginal leaders need to be that person that is safe and consistent to work with; who is culturally, community and/or self authorized; who does embrace their Aboriginal identity in all its diversity; and who can articulate the pressures and tensions we face in the Aboriginal arts sector without focusing on them in a limiting sense. By speaking out about these demands Aboriginal leaders are able to imagine new and exciting possibilities for the future.

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