Sunday, February 28, 2010

look good feel good : the art of healing

Storytelling Aboriginal people are not without hope, for we are strong peoples. We have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in our long and painful histories, because our creator has given us the tools necessary for our survival. We must not be shy to use them. We must no longer feel the shame and fear that our grandmothers and grandfathers felt about what we are and where we have come from. We must look to ourselves for our own guarantees, for we are the only ones that we can trust to ensure that our needs are met

York, Canada, 1989

Long before the official Apology by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the previous Canadian Government had handed over $350 million compensation for Aboriginal Canadian Residential School Abuse sufferers. This was wisely invested into culturally significant initiatives such as talking circles, language revitalization, digital storytelling and other projects. Such arts initiatives are not only for the good of those individuals that endured horrific treatment under the government, church and the dominant mainstream population, but their descendants, families and tribes, along with the wider community. This is a suitable model for Australia to follow in attempting to address the impact of the horrendous wrongs of the past on an individual and collective level, perhaps allowing us all to move forward with a healthier mindset. However, we wait for that type of meaningful “money where your mouth is” gesture of commitment from the Australian Government in retrospect.

Meanwhile at the community level, some artists from around Australia are proactively making headway into maintaining what I like to call the “Healing Arts”, highlighting the processes and issues regarding the wellbeing of Aboriginal people and also the inter-relatedness of others. The Healing Arts have the expressive potential for us as a multitude of Aboriginal cultures to enable and effect change for ourselves, while also participating in the mainstream social constructs known as “health”, “culture” and “the arts”. Some of those leading the way in both ancient and newer forms of Aboriginal expression are Gulumbu Yunupingu, Emma Donovan and myself.

In recent years Gulumbu Yunupingu has been rejuvenating the Dilthana Yolgnu healing method, also known as ‘bush sauna’. Her “patients” are wrapped in paperbark and leaves, with hot coals creating a steaming for their body, which along with massage, eases aches and pains. She was taught the technique by senior women including Gunygulu Yunupingu and has successfully used traditional healing on her own daughter after she fell into a coma from a serious car accident and became paralysed, seeking permission to treat her with a traditional sauna on a beach in Darwin. Since then Gulumbu has put her own prolific and innovative visual art career on hold in order to benefit others, co-founding The Healing Place, or Bush Hospital in Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land. According to the Governments recently founded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation Working Group, healing is “a spiritual process that includes recovery from addiction, therapeutic change and cultural renewal”.1. So isn’t it a shame that those communities that are literally left high and dry under the Governments Intervention and subsequent bans, don’t have such healing initiatives supported for those people going through alcohol or kava withdrawal? They are left without the benefit of such a responsible and effective form of detoxification that the bush sauna technique provides. Where is the Governments Duty of Care after such outlandish, pointed and discriminatory measures?

Similar types of traditional healing techniques are also being used alongside mainstream medicine as a norm in places like Bali in Indonesia, but in Australia we tend to deny the importance of a both-ways philosophy. With his own needs for healing, Murrungun multi-artform practitioner Tom E Lewis reminds us: “I'm very lucky. I can enjoy the two cultures of this country. I can use the whitefella culture and the blackfella culture. The more we cross our paths and make a better pathway for us, through music and through our art, it's a good medicine.” 2 Utilising the potential of the Healing Arts, by using the old ways, making art and putting a high value on storytelling as a way of bringing cultural values into the mainstream, is a holistic approach towards wellbeing, as well as a way of participating in society and having an authentic Aboriginal voice.

Musician Emma Donovan belongs to the Naaguja, Yamatji and Danggali Tribal groups and recently launched her new single 'Ngarranga - Remember', in Gumbaynggirr language. A year on from the Australian Apology to the Stolen Generations, the Ngarranga and 5 track EP release coincided with National Sorry Day on May 26th 2009. The song was initially released on the Kimberly Stolen Generation Corporation's compilation Cry Stolen in 2007 and Emma says of the work “My song 'Ngarraanga' is a tribute to stolen generation people of this country. With the apology and everything that's happened there's still a lot of hurt and there's still a lot of pain.3 Musician Ruby Hunter bridges the experience of that generation and often advocates through her own brand of Blues music. She was born traditionally and raised traditionally, but a stolen child at age eight. Stripped of identity and dignity, her and husband Archie Roach built their lives up through music and re-established themselves on their traditional country. Ruby reminisces on her strength, “Even though there’s a lot of things that weren’t good about those days, there were some things that were happy. You can make unhappiness wherever you are. But positivity pulls you through, to be proud.4

My own artwork, ‘unsettled’ is an online interactive project that digitally retells nine stories of my old people through a mix of oral history and ongoing research, celebrating the people and place of Yugambeh in South East Queensland and my familys movements beyond. Following on from ‘other[wize]’ these interactive digital stories mark place and time and are offered through the use of old family photographs, Yugambeh language, sound, along with contemporary documentation of country and re-membering. Native Canadian Curator Ahasiw Maskegon Iskew (R.I.P) originally commissioned the work for Storm Spirits, an Aboriginal New Media Art initiative in Canada. “The Storm Spirits premise arises out of Aboriginal concepts of the intersecting animist relations that inhabit the realms stretching from astronomy to meteorology, geology and down into microbiology, and offers them as new rhetorical designations of the relations that are evolving in the multiple streams of contemporary Aboriginal media art production. Storm Spirits focuses on Aboriginal artists whose work inhabits and maps out these intersecting spheres of influence and who contribute unique forms of vitality to the dynamic and essential interplay between Indigenous traditional knowledge and contemporary Aboriginal culture” wrote Ahasiw in his curatorial essay, 2005.5 A vital aspect to the development of ‘unsettled’ was a process of revisiting and an exploration of country, learning and using Yugambeh language and other opportunities for re-connection to make sense of lived experience and also understand the extent of trans-generational trauma derived from massacres and the many other injustices of the day. Through engaging in this process, and gaining strength from my familys’ own inner knowledge and solutions, the project stands as a legacy that allows my family stories to be offered up as an alternative to the mainstream Queensland version of the history of colonisation.

As an annual follow-on to the Australian Apology, so far the current Rudd Government has announced that an interim team would assist with the development of a Healing Foundation. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation Development Team recognizes cultural renewal as part of a spiritual process towards healing. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to properly heal, they will need to re-connect to, and strengthen their sense of cultural identity. This may involve language, dance, song and custom, but this does not have to be only in a “traditional” context.”6

Australia looks to Canada, where they already have a Healing Foundation and interestingly, it was established as an Aboriginal-managed, national, not-for-profit private corporation that was independent of Government, yet representative of Aboriginal Organisations. If Australia is genuinely interested in “Closing the Gap” on the appalling health statistics that exist between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians, the Government may look at relinquishing control to let us be the masters of our own domain, allowing Aboriginal management to drive the proposed development of the Healing Foundation.

So far however, Australias’ current commitment of $26 million to be used only towards a consultative process for the Healing Foundation follows on from extensive reports over the past decades including the Womens Taskforce on Violence Report, The Gordon Inquiry Report, The Victorian Indigenous Family Violence Taskforce Final Report, The Western Australian Child Health Survey, The Little Children Are Sacred Report and The Bringing Them Home Report among others. The findings in these reports should be enough to provide the basis for the alarming need for commitment towards compensation, especially given the importance of “moving-on” in the public discussion about the Apology. As Chairperson of the Townsville Indigenous Human Rights Group, Gracelyn Smallwood has commented post-ApologyMy expectation was that culturally appropriate programs would be put in place to address the trans generational trauma that has been passed down. That day opened up a lot of wounds. If you’re going to make such an incredible statement you’ve got to have infrastructure in place to follow on. They did this in Canada and South Africa. Unfortunately we’re not seeing any of those fruits.”7

However, lets not mistake these calls for action as another good excuse for struggling mainstream (non-Indigenous) arts organisations to prop up their own program with the Aboriginal Dollar or fund their own unique Aboriginal experience or indeed expect to draw on the resources of already stretched Indigenous communities. Instead can we get on with it ourselves, utilising compensation funding and some breathing space? Because without the qualities espoused by certain Aboriginal Artists and others at the community level, there is no spirit of striving and no capability of improving the lot for self or others, for there is no vision and no confidence to transform the vision into reality. The vision is that our humanity might be more than it is. Also at issue, is whether and how these recently socially acceptable processes and artforms may be thought of as the ‘next level’ of Aboriginal cultural expression?

We need to cast ‘Aboriginal voices’ into the struggle for recognition and ownership of wellbeing, which risks becoming exclusive in various ways — a domain defined narrowly through access, availability, technology, funding, privilege and policy-driven barriers. As Nunga Director Lee-Ann Buckskin reflected about the Carclew project Working Towards Celebrating Healthy CommunitiesEveryone had an idea of how that should be done and as an Indigenous person and an arts worker, one of the greatest struggles I have is about people not listening and making assumptions about what people need. Understanding doesn’t have to be a battle. It shouldn’t be a battle. Just opening up to another way of thinking is a good start! And I tell you what; if we do that someone might actually teach us how to do something different8

The Healing Arts is an emerging notion in itself in Australia, producing scattered and tentative projects and critical writings, but unfortunately there is little Aboriginal input, reflection, discussion or representation and ownership. More Aboriginal artworks and projects mindful of healing need to be produced, exhibited, promoted, and written about; or at least provided with an injection of meaningful monetary investment towards a health and wellbeing revolution in which Aboriginal cultural practice will naturally be the spearheard.

Jenny Fraser

1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation (Team) Discussion Paper, 2009 FaHCSIA,

2. Tom E Lewis, Nexus, Australia Network, 2008.

3. Soul Sister, Living Black, SBS, June 2009

4. Pawle, F. Ruby’s GOLD, Limelight Magazine, ABC, April 2006, p31

5. Storm Spirits – Aboriginal New Media Art, 2007

6. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation Team Discussion Paper, 2009, FaHCSIA,

7. Condon, M. The Hardest Word, Q Weekend Magazine, February 7 & 8, 2009 p22

8. Arts for Healthy Communities, Big Story Country: great arts stories from regional Australia 2008, Regional Arts Australia, p46

link: 'unsettled'

* This article is the unedited version originally written for publication in Artlink Magazine, March 2010

images - top: Gulumbu (left) and her Grand-daughter (right) treat a stroke victim, 2009. Photo by Jenny Fraser and courtesy of the Yothu Yindi Foundation

middle: Ruby Hunter (R.I.P) at the Barunga Festival, 2008. Photo by Jenny Fraser.

below: Screen-grab from 'unsettled', 2007.


  1. Jenny,
    Contrary to what the Cdn. government publizes - the residential school survivors are still waiting for payment. Some have gotten some but most are still waiting for their files to be processed.

  2. one hand giveth, the other taketh away... : (

  3. I guess we are faced with a very indefinite period of time before the issues raised here gain any serious support, in a country where - illegal occupation has not been conceded and therefore the post-1788 population does not consider sharing GDP so providing for some form of economic independence for Indigenous people; it now has to go to battle with itself when its leaders exercise their own dubious sovereign rights in demanding transnational corporations pay appropriately for taking mineral resources; and has no real authority (as we have witnessed in the USA) to avoid environmental catastrophes created by transnational corporations. The way that Indigenous people continue to manage our lives in this country, in spite of the brick wall constrictions, social disease and crazy other way, is our best response, while we wait for "civilisation" to catch up.

  4. good article , thanks great blog and covering important topics with the strong clear voice that you bring . thanks Jenny


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