Cross Crossing Culture in Engaging With Aboriginal Artists and Art

Cross Crossing Culture in Engaging With Aboriginal Artists and Art

When I think about engaging with Aboriginal art and artists in my curriculum planning I’m always careful to begin with the Anti-Bias Goals and Anti-Bias Actions (Scarlet, 2020). As a non-Indigenous teacher, I have a number of things to consider:

  • Whose art I am engaging with and why
  • The ethical procurement of the art and or images of the art
  • Recognising when I should ask permission from artists to engage with their art works in my curriculum
  • Situating myself as a learner within a culture that is not my own

 The way I go about doing this are to reflect on my own cultural identity. My Irish heritage is the obvious starting place. My family name is O’Shannassay. O’Shannassy is an anglicisation (as a result of British invasion) of native Gaelic O’Seachnasaigh which derives from the word Irish word Seanchaí meaning storyteller. The history of family names is a process of creating subcultural groups within a larger cultural cluster and these names encompass place of origin, clan groups, physical characteristics, parentage, social participation and occupation. For those who know me – I am indeed a Seanchaí. So my cultural heritage teaches me about who I am and how I might meet with/in another culture imagining the twists and turns it may have taken.

This tracing of myself reminds me to consider the life stories of the Aboriginal artists and art that I engage with. I may be able to have access to the story that the art work is expressing and therefore engage with it through the artists notes in a way that the artist has asked me to. But often the story is now known and I am left with only my imagination, coupled with what I have learned about the ways in which Aboriginal cultures have been devastatingly colonised. So my first pedagogical step for engaging with Aboriginal artists and art as a non-Indigenous teacher is to wonder, ponder and recognise that the piece of art in front of me is expressing a piece of someone’s culture that I need to be fully present to receive.

If I assume that I am knowing of that piece of art, I immediately shut down the possibilities of learning for myself and for children. If, however, I walk with Aunty Dr Sue Atkinson’s Indigenous cosmology that invites me to encounter the ‘signs, signals and symbols’ (2008), then I create open spaces for learning about what that piece of art is expressing. Sometimes artists offer clear expressions of their cultural stories, other times, symbology does this work and at other times, abstract concepts are used. These diversities and differences in how artists express their cultural knowledges, ways and experiences invite us to think, puzzle but also sit suspended in the unknown with the uncertain. Uncertainty is critical to early childhood curriculum as it’s the experience that enables us to question - this is the essence of enquiry based learning – and that’s our craft.

There is no engagement with Aboriginal art and artists without addressing the colonisation that so starkly stains this country. There is no encounter with Aboriginal artists and art without addressing race and racism because many of the stories with/in Aboriginal art are communicating that very experience to the world. As non-Indigenous early childhood folks it is our responsibility to be open, present and changeable in our engagements with Aboriginal artists and art. After all – we know that the best educators are those who are the most enthusiastic and curious learners…

Dr Red Ruby Scarlet – Seanchaí 


Atkinson (Lopez), S. (2008). Indigenous self-determination and early childhood education and care in Victoria. PhD thesis, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne.

Scarlet, R. R, (Ed.) (2020). The anti-bias approach in early childhood 4th Edition. Erskineville: MultiVerse Publishing.

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