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Becoming Koorda – The Settler Artist and Indigenising Contemporary Art Practice

Essay by Sandra Harben; Nyoongar yorga and traditional owner of the Whadjuk region & Dr. Kelsey Ashe

Published 2022 CROSSINGS BILYA BIDI; A Monograph of the Fremantle Biennale Crossing21

Ed: Dr. Kelsey Ashe, Sandra Harben, Tom Mùller, Grant Revell

Copyright © Essays, Letters, Poetry, Creative Writing and Content Copyright Individual authors.

ISBN: 978-0-646-84605-7

1. Art,

2. Poetry—History—Criticism

Photo: Duncan Wright, 2021.

Becoming Koorda – The Settler Artist and Indigenising Contemporary Art Practice

Sandra Harben[1] + Dr Kelsey Ashe[2]

Many wadjela (white/settler) artists have wanted to make contribution to the reconciliation process with Australia’s First Nations people, questioning the paradigms of past Aboriginal relations and becoming powerful friends (koorda) and allies for Makarrata[3]. Whether hearts were in the right place or not, some outcomes in the arts sector have not been effective[4]. Appropriation, parentalism, saviourism, shallow aesthetic tokenism and general power and control at an institutional level have often damaged what could and should have been a dynamic and respectful interaction.

Here in Fremantle, it is important to all who call this place home to reveal, contemplate and connect profoundly with Walyalup and its estuaries, its stories, its deep culture. Therefore, the need for supported collaborative practice has been nurtured by the Fremantle Biennale’s ‘Creative Conciliation’ sessions. A rotating group of Biennale artists, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, curators and cultural advisors, have met regularly with (co-authors) Walyalup Elder Sandra Harben and Dr Kelsey Ashe, to share, learn and ask questions in an intrinsically valuable and respectful, yet discursive way. These sessions have provided powerful and meaningful insights for artists, whether they have directly collaborated with Aboriginal artists, or have worked independently with respect, acknowledgement and consultation. The sessions have aimed at re-engaging Nyoongar knowledge and wisdom, by recognising the multi-millennia of place-based understanding.

Many settler artists are calling from the heart for an ethical, respectful and committed engagement with Aboriginal culture that observes de-colonial structural change and creates space for Aboriginal voices to be genuinely heard. They are expressing the wish to become koorda. There are several methods available to the settler artist to embrace inter-cultural practice. This article maps some of the key considerations and methodologies that have arisen from these ‘Creative Conciliation’ sessions and outlines some of the pathways to ‘crossing over’ into a field of contemporary art-making where a regenerative approach to Indigenous knowledge systems is centred.

Alternative Research Methodologies

‘Decolonial aesthetics’ refers to the artistic practice of responding to and delinking from the darker side of imperial globalisation. It is a foundational objective for artists working in this field. As an art methodology however, it presents many difficulties. Tim Bassinger argues in Decolonizing Art History[5] (2020) that de-colonising, although a powerful rhetorical idea, is only possible to the extent that it recognises that Euro-colonial art and discipline are themselves products of empire. Even if we could erase every problematic colonial statue, re-write the history books and re-frame our artworks, we cannot deny our intellectual and cultural inheritance. Art history will never be innocent and we can never remove our inherited cultural DNA. Returning to a peaceful time of First Nations sovereignty, innocent of ideological corruption is impossible, however, artists are capable of such extraordinary self‐reflexivity that the means to consider the possibilities are at least under discussion. Art can provide that place to think radically, to provoke and imagine; it can create sites of dissent or places of contemplation that trigger change. Bassinger [6](2020) offers practical advice:

Teachers and students of art history, and museum curators, can and must read their objects of study, their archives, and their inherited methods, against the grain. We can formulate critiques of art‐historical legacies and lexicons, and of colonialism itself as manifested in the visual and material. Art history can and must take a critical approach to empire and colonialism and can use the privileges of its position to undermine the assumptions implicit in an imperial subject position.

Non-Aboriginal Australians may be immigrants, refugees, convict or free-settler descendants; our roots lie in many places. Often our ties to ancestral cultures – whether Asian, European or otherwise – are broken, disrupted or altered, but always we wish for that sense of belonging. Walyalup and every part of Australia is now a shared home, where place, landscape, culture, time and emotion coalesce. How these things are intrinsically wrapped up together builds our sense of national identity on a broad scale, but also deepens our sense of belonging to a specific region – perhaps a river, a nook, a special spot that’s all ‘ours’. We form communities around these places. We lay down our ‘roots’. We speak of place in terms of where we have felt a deep emotional bond to a site, where our roots have grown strong enough that we feel anchored, connected and safe. We belong. Historically, the dark side of this sense of belonging is the stuff of every war crime driven by territorial rage, ownership and exclusion – the experience of the enforced imperial endeavour.

Ghassan Hage has written usefully about unceded Australian lands in Alter-Politics (2015), in which he discusses his sense of rootedness when sitting with trees planted by his Lebanese grandparents on Australian soil, and how this feeling of connection was accompanied by an acute awareness that this was also Aboriginal land. He argues for an ‘open, non-exclusivist rootedness’ that propels rather than fixes in place. ‘When we are propelled,’ he argues, ‘the force that pushes us stays with us. It seems to me, there lies the importance and the power of the roots that I am referring to: they are not roots that keep you grounded; they are roots that stay with you as you move’ (Hage, 2015, p 217)[7] Hage’s alter-politics offers the settler-artist the opportunity to consider that we can belong here too, when we remain fully aware of the past of this place, and its stories and histories. Our roots must be flexible, mobile, responsive to others.

This way of thinking offers an alternative to the difficult project of ‘de-colonising’ artistic methods. Instead focusing on anti-racism and anti-colonialism, Hage draws attention to the importance of adding value, thinking alternatively. De-colonising/anti-colonialism tends to take an either/or dualism of colonial logic, and post-colonialism prematurely sees colonialism as a period that has ended – clearly it has not. Instead, alter-politics propose a mode of belonging that acknowledges colonial relations of power and the importance of anti-colonial struggles, while also – along those same lines, and concurrently – imagining the existence of another sphere of experiential life and belonging where one can abstract from those relations of power. ‘This neither means forgetting them nor mystifying them; rather it means finding a space from “outside” them that might allow us to act on them differently to help supersede them’ (Hage, 2015 pp. 218–219). Alter-political methods aim to add value, rather than diminishing, dismantling or extracting.

Disentangling ourselves from standardised Western chronologies and reference points through a contemplation of Deep Time can also be a useful research method.[8] Shifting from a reference point of 230 years to one of 60,000+ years[9] requires a mental recalibration that can crack open our understanding of history. To shift Aboriginal culture into the timeline of Western history overturns a long-standing way of thinking, yet this provides a vital opening to walking together on firm ground. Hage’s idea of finding a space ‘outside the canon’ was considered alongside an attempt at comprehending 45–60 millennia of lived culture in the artwork Deep Time I to IX (pictured on page XX). The artwork holds the space of ‘imagining a period of Deep Time, when the waters of the Indian ocean were much lower than today, before C.Y. O’Connor removed the sand banks and limestone bar at the mouth of the river, allowed a transcending, a spiralling above and away from the tyranny of the colonial endeavour, assisting visualisation and a sense of place of Walyalup’ (Ashe, 2021). Engaged with the colonial archive of cultural and historical documentation via early drawings and descriptions, this work attempted to subvert, intervene into and disrupt the archive, asking for it to be viewed in new ways. From this approach, the archive itself becomes a potential site for the settler artist to enact de-colonial interruptions; it can be a place where an un-settling of the European status quo’s frames of reference can be hosted.

As artists de-colonise their methods (to the extent that this is possible), embracing processes of Indigenisation can become a powerful action-based methodology of enacting change. Across multiple fields and sectors, the voice, wisdom and cultural knowledge of Aboriginal people is now sought more than ever. This phenomenon can be attributed to a strong desire to right the wrongs of the colonial era but equally, to recognise that global Indigenous knowledge systems can offer solutions to some of the most urgent environmental, spiritual and economic crises of our times. For the settler artist though, adopting an Indigenous world-view can feel like yet another position that is difficult to move into; there is the danger of appropriation and mis-interpretation, and the fear of being perceived as tokenistic. We understand that traditional Aboriginal knowledge, language and art belong solely to the Aboriginal people. Indigenisation of practice – the respectful inclusion of Indigenous traditional knowledge – should be done therefore, in direct collaboration with the people and the country it concerns.

Robert Dale, From Cantonment Hill, 1830.

Kelsey Ashe, Deep Time Walyalup (Fremantle) Panels I to IX 204cm x 648cm, 2021. Reproduced Permission of Horn Collection of Contemporary WA Art

The craggy rocks and dark seas, swift moving clouds and recognisable topography of the view from

Dwerda Weeardinup (Cantonment hill) down into Manjaree (Fremantle foreshore)

and out to Meeandip (Garden Island) and Wadjemup (Rottnest) in Deep Time I – IX is the same view many colonial artists sought to capture.

Indigenising – Listening, Feeling, Knowing and Talking to Place

The process of decolonising one’s practice and thinking is ongoing. Speaking and writing in English shows the inescapable monumentalism of our colonial inheritance; to seek to decolonise this inheritance is to unravel the very foundation of what many settler artists have been indoctrinated into. The coloniser sovereignties that wadjela’s descend from have to be challenged and repositioned such that they become almost unrecognisable; whole new ways of listening, talking and interacting must be established if reconciliation and renewed participation are to be enacted, with place as the goal.

In Feeling and Hearing Country, Poelina and colleagues [10](2020) propose a useful participative, experiential and creative pathway for the non-Aboriginal person. It includes a way of ‘becoming family with place’ using the wisdom of Yawuru, Nykina, Warrwa and Nyoongar knowledge. The English language, with its embedded rationalism and oppositional binaries of nature/culture, spirit/matter, oral/written, and colonial privilege, has prevented the full comprehension of Indigenous frameworks and conceptual complexity on the part of English speakers. The aforementioned paper suggests that Country cannot understand English; we must speak to Country with the intimate communication of the language it has been known through for millennia. To speak aloud the names and words of this land is to energise and ‘wake up’ living place, to activate a ‘mutual communication and shared aliveness between an English speaker and Country’ (2020).

Freya Mathews in The Ecological Self [11] (1994) proposes that when we approach Country in a relational way – speaking to Country as if it were kin, as a koorda – our connection to it, and our ‘spiritual capacity to maintain the ecocosm’ are increased, often in surprising and synchronistic ways. Mathews cites ontopoetics, the poetic meanings that structure the core of things, as a way to understand Aboriginal songlines, a way of revealing ‘communicative worlds within worlds, and the agency of country’ (1994). Mathews visited Country with Dutch-born Frans Hoogland (an initiate into Aboriginal Law in the Kimberley) who explains the sensation of liyan, the knowing intuition found in landscape:

In order to experience [this feeling], we have to walk the land. At a certain time for everybody, the land will take over. The land will take that person. You think you’re following something, but the land is actually pulling you. When the land starts pulling you, you’re not even aware you’re walking – you’re off, you’re gone… Do you feel the sand you walk on? Are you aware of where your feet step? Are you aware of the trees you just passed, the birds that just landed? How much do you see? That has to shift and as soon as it does, we get a shift in mind that drops down to a feeling. Then we wake up to feeling, what we call [liyan] here, and we become more alive, we start feeling, we become more sensitive. You start to read the country. Then all of a sudden there’s an opening down there. Before there was only a wall, but now that tree has meaning, now that rock has meaning and all of a sudden that thing takes you. You just follow. Then you wake up, and you see a lot of things and the country starts living for you. Everything is based on that feeling [liyan], seeing through that feeling. (Hoogland, quoted in Poelina et al., 2020).

Going on Country with Traditional Owners has become increasingly important for the non-Aboriginal person wishing to meaningfully engage with place. The process helps one to relinquish the need for Western rationality and instead to understand the quiet whispering messages offered by totems, shadows and spirits, to feel time as non-linear, as ‘the long now’, the ‘everywhen’ and the ‘always here’. This Indigenous way of thinking allows patterns and stories that exist in the landscape to be revealed, ‘previously occluded connections and linkages become apparent … [as do] human and more-than-human capacities not previously recognised’ (Poelina et al., 2020).

In Nyoongar language people refer to one’s spirit as wirrin. Kwop wirrin is good spirit or spirits and it is in the hills, trees, rocks, seas and sands. The kwop wirrin is everywhere, Nyoongar people carry their own, and can also connect with the wirrin of their ancestors. The world is understood to have a communicative presence that is intuitive, mythic, imaginative and instructional. Liyan is possible for all if we listen, and its message is clear: we must care for Country[12]. The Nyungar term Gurduboodjar – which translates to ‘love of place’ – builds on this knowledge system underpinned by the meta-narrative trilogy of interconnection between boodjar (Country), moort (relatives or relations) and katitjiny (knowledge, or learning) where all is cared for. Putting place-based knowledge into practice is essential to ‘become family with place’. Teachers, educators, artists and many others are called to this work of engaging and activating these knowledge systems.

Collaborative Practice and Action Research

Inter-cultural action research is both a methodology and a philosophy in which researches take a participatory approach that seeks change through action and takes action to make change (Johnston & Forrest, 2020)[13]. Action research begins in community and is enacted in accordance with an explicit set of social values. It is a process of inquiry that can also be called a way of life, insofar as it enacts holistic, democratic, equitable, liberating and life-enhancing activities that seek to make a positive difference to community. Guides to collaborative practice have been published recently in Australia, which are key readings that provide clear and detailed procedures for artists who want to engage ethically and meaningfully with Aboriginal communities or individuals [14], but every situation will present a unique set of circumstances.

An example of this, is the meeting of co-authors Sandra and Kelsey via the Creative Conciliation sessions facilitated by the Fremantle Biennale. After initially sharing their thoughts and ideas, they planned to meet by the bilya (river) to talk about a potential future collaboration that joined Sandra’s story telling with Kelsey’s illustrations. Our aims were to illuminate Nyoongar cultural heritage and to promote a sense of belonging to place and care for country. At our initial meeting, after we sat down a djiti djiti (willy wagtail) joined the spare seat at the table. With joy, Sandra explained that the djiti djiti was her totem animal and that it’s presence meant the kwop wirrin (good spirits) were approving our collaboration. Understanding the synchronicity of this message, we were then able to share many instances of wirrin benefiting our personal experiences and guidance found in the landscape. Continuing to plan a future work that was map-like while still being an artwork, Sandra remarked ‘we need an old map’, and at that precise moment a mutual koorda (friend) approached the table with a long paper roll in hand and asked what we were up to with all our papers spread everywhere. ‘We’re making an artwork, kind of a map of Walyalup’, we said, and then our koorda unrolled her paper – it was a detailed map of Fremantle from 1841. Truly the kwop wirrin were with us that day. Of course, not all collaborations will attract such well-timed synchronistic signs, however ‘they were revealed to us because we were looking for them’.

Over additional meetings and consultations, the co-authors created a safe space for honest discussion, listening and mutual respect, and acknowledged that it would be completely ok for either person to request more cultural safety in the form of an accompanying friend or reference person. There was a consideration of how each person’s practice could benefit the other, how by sharing knowledge, skills and perspectives we might reach a larger audience that could potentially trigger a change toward better social, spiritual and environmental outcomes in the community. The artwork collaboration between the co-authors is designed with responsiveness to Place and to each other, with regular ongoing consultation embedded in the project. The authors share the planning and articulating the desired outcomes of the intended work and reflect regularly on the best course of action for making the change they wish to enact.[15]

Within the larger framework of the Fremantle Biennale, the role of a festival maker is recognised as one of connecting, mediating and bridge building. Collaborations and action research methods are manifesting, relationships are forging and new forms of art making are emerging, each with its own set of peculiar concerns and methodologies. Festival makers such as the Fremantle Biennale use the privilege of their platform to make space for those who might not have had one before. Choices made along the way mean that inevitably someone is excluded, so the festival must continually ask: ‘Who are we impacting?’, ‘How can we meet the challenge to indigenise and/or de-colonise our practices?’ and ‘What methodologies are required here?’ Connecting members of the artistic community to tease out and reveal unique Walyalup stories is itself an expression of Gurduboodjar (love of place). The festival is a site to link people, place and knowledge, a central aspirational touchstone and a process that is ongoing.


This article examined some of the ways a settler artist might make a meaningful and ethical contribution within the arts community that supports reconciliatory action and engages with Aboriginal knowledge that links us to 60 millennia of lived culture on this land. De-colonising practice is essential and ongoing for arts institutions but difficult for many artists as we cannot escape our past. The settler artist who wants to engage respectfully with Aboriginal culture can’t deny their position as occupier/settler/new Australian and the implications of that inheritance within their art practice. What can be done, is to embrace alternative epistemologies to challenge neo-colonial forms of racism, privilege and oppression. Artists can work independently to re-articulate marginalised or silenced histories by interrogating the archive, whilst talking with the Aboriginal people who were most affected by those histories. Art can be made collaboratively, via action research, using a participatory approach in consultation with community.

The immense presence of history lingers over the Australian landscape; just contemplating that vastness can re-orientate our shallow, colonial framework. Aboriginal people sense the past, the landscape and its people as an irrevocably inter-connected web – an ‘everywhen’, an intrinsic and personal, yet omnipresent, continuous eon. Time is mutable, incomprehensible and non-linear. With no beginning and no end, it correlates to what quantum physicists are beginning to comprehend about our universe. What might be termed 'Indigenous perspectives' are actually a means to crossing barriers about the way we think about time, space and history. Placing ancestral legacies inside Western conceptions of time (rather than in a kind of pre-history of non-existence) re-positions Australian culture within a mind-bendingly long expanse. A mutual historic understanding may give a profound sense of connectedness for all Australians – one that does not refute Aboriginal oral histories or science or our settler DNA, but embraces all as valid and giving rise to valuable thinking. Talking, listening and feeling country as kin and koorda may help us to connect and ‘become family’ with place. Importantly, if we can embrace the katitjin (knowledge) that we need in order to look after this ancient land that cradles us all, we may exist as a culture long enough to see marvellous examples of Australian art well into another Deep Time – of the future.


Sandra and Kelsey

[1] Sandra Harben is a Nyoongar yorga and traditional owner of the Whadjuk region, which includes the lands, waters and ecosystems of the Perth metropolitan area. She is a Nyoongar language speaker, the Director of Richmond Consulting, and she leads cultural workshops. Sandra has authored considerable research and community-focused articles on understanding and caring for Country. [2] Dr Kelsey Ashe is a contemporary artist and academic at Curtin University, with a Doctorate in Philosophy (PhD Art). Ashe engages in research cross-institutionally between museums, galleries and universities to produce contemplative, practice-led artworks and written word. Ashe seeks to examine hidden historical and mythological cross-cultural narratives and depictions of the Sublime in Australian Landscape Art. [3] Makarrata is a word in the Yolngu language meaning ‘a coming together after a struggle, facing the facts of wrongs and living again in peace’. In 2017 the Uluru Statement from the Heart delivered a powerful message to all Australians asking for bold moves toward Makarrata. It made a ‘call for truth telling’ and asked for a way forward together. The statement asserts that unacknowledged historical trauma, including massacres, slavery, stolen generations and destruction of traditional culture, is contributing to inter-generational trauma, which has a roll-on effect on health, crime and incarceration Andrews, S. 2020. A Settler Response to Truth Telling. Curtin University. Unpublished manuscript. [4] Authenticity, recognition and protection are major concerns in the Indigenous arts and craft sector, where mis-representations of culture can be harmful. ‘Indigenous people are concerned that such practices undermine the cultural authenticity of Indigenous visual arts.’ (Janke, 2019. Protocols for using First Nations Cultural and Intellectual Property in the Arts. Australia Council for the Arts). [5] Grant. C. and Price, D. (2020). Decolonizing Art History. [6] Bassinger, quoted in Grant. C. and Price, D. (2020). Decolonizing Art History. [7] Hage, G. (2015). Alter-politics: Critical anthropology and the radical imagination. Melbourne University Press. [8] See Griffiths, B. (2018) Deep Time Dreaming; Uncovering Ancient Australia and McGrath, A. (2015) Long Time, Deep History; Deepening Histories of Place. Australian National University Press. [9] The National Museum of Australia states that Aboriginal occupation dates back at least 65,000 years. It is widely accepted that this predates the human settlement of Europe and the Americas. Increasingly sophisticated dating methods are helping us gain a more accurate understanding of how people came to be in Australia. See: [10] Poelina, A., Wooltorton, S., Harben, S., Collard, L., Horwitz, P., & Palmer, D. (2020). Feeling and Hearing Country. Philosophy, Activism, Nature, (15), 6-15. [11] Mathews’ The Ecological Self is a book-length treatment of the metaphysical foundations of ecological ethics. Mathews seeks to illuminate the fundamental ecological intuitions that we are in some sense ’one with' nature, and that everything is connected with everything else. Drawing on contemporary cosmology, systems theory and the history of philosophy, Mathews elaborates a new metaphysics of interconnectedness. Mathews quoted in Poelina, A., Wooltorton, S., Harben, S., Collard, L., Horwitz, P., & Palmer, D. (2020). Feeling and Hearing Country. Philosophy, Activism, Nature, (15), 6-15. [12] See Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk; How Indigenous Thinking Can Save The World (2019) in which he speaks of this empathic communion and speculates on how Indigenous knowledge of place-based ecology could activate sound systemic governance for land and water care and species recovery. [13] Johnston, M. & Forrest, S. (2020). Working Two Way; Stories of Cross Cultural Collaboration from Nyoongar Country. Singapore: Springer Nature. [14] Key references are Lillie, J. (Ed) (2020). The Relationship is the project: Working with communities; Johnston & Forrest (2020) Working Two Way: Stories of Cross-cultural Collaboration from Nyoongar Country and Janke (2019). The Australia Councils Protocols for using First Nations Cultural and Intellectual Property in the Arts. The Fremantle Biennale developed a document for its artists titled Protocols & Guidelines for Engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledge and Intellectual Property that includes specific information on working with Nyoongar culture. [15] Kelsey Ashe and Sandra Harben are working on a large-scale artwork that will be forthcoming in 2022.

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