The Indigenous Art Class Helping Heal The Past

Indigenous art course at TAFE

Art, community and connection. Some of the students proudly displaying their paintings at Blue Mountains TAFE, Katoomba. From left to right: Tori Christianson, Leanne Jones, Maree O’Brien and Ginni Christianson. “It’s a big chatfest,” says teacher, Leanne Tobin. (Photo: Linda Moon)

Story and photos by Linda Moon

Artists with an Indigenous heritage are telling their stories and finding a voice through a certificate course in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Arts at Blue Mountains TAFE.

Key Points:

  • According to a 2023 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report on Intergenerational Trauma and Mental Health, at least a third of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may be affected by intergenerational trauma as a direct legacy of Australia’s brutal early history.
  • The offering of a Certificate 2 and 3 in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Cultural Arts is empowering ATSI students to connect to their cultural histories. While developing art skills and techniques they convey personal stories that explore the often untold truth of Australia’s past.

People come from as far away as Portland, Kurrajong and Summer Hill to attend Leanne Tobin’s class.

For the students the class offers much more than artistic skills and creative expression. They gain social connection and the ability to talk about their life experiences within an accepting environment. For this art class, the common bond is being descended from Indigenous people and what that brings.

Dharug community artist and cultural educator, Leanne Tobin, works alongside Ilona Bruckard, another Aboriginal Art teacher and together they encourage the students to tell their own personal journeys. “Sometimes they do portraits. It can be emotional. There’s lots of tears,” she shares.

An artwork ‘in progress’ by B Hardy resulting from the course. “Acceptance is healing,” says teacher Leanne Tobin. (Photo: Linda Moon)

Power in authenticity and acceptance

Student, artist and mother, Leanne Jones, values the class as a place where she can be authentic. Jones has Dharug and Wiradjuri ancestry but that fact was kept hidden from her and her sister. She travels all the way from the Hawkesbury to attend the class. “You have to be yourself,” she says. “Everyone in this class has a story. We get to say who we are, why we’re here.”

At school Jones was kicked out of the classroom for questioning a history lesson on the discovery of Australia (by Captain Cook). “I said, ’no, sir, there were already people there’.” She recalls three children from the Stolen Generation at her school. “You could tell,” she says. But, back then, parents didn’t talk about being Aboriginal.

Art has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember and a way to deal with trauma, she says. Her artwork Dinawan Ngarraarry [Emu Hunt] won the 2022/23 Blacktown City Art Prize.

Dinwan Ngarraarry [Emu Hunt] by Indigenous artist and course participant Leanne Jones

Dinawan Ngarraarry [Emu Hunt] by Indigenous artist and course participant Leanne Jones. Winner of the 2022/23 Blacktown City Art Prize (Indigenous art category) (Photo: TAFE NSW)

“It’s a healing class.” – Leanne Tobin

Healing intergenerational trauma through community art

The course is only open to people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. As Tobin explains, this helps ensure participants feel culturally safe. “It’s a place where people can come and not be judged; a safe, cultural space.”

Many in the class have suffered from the impacts of what happened to their ancestors. The heart-wrenching injustices they describe seem inconceivable today but the shadows of those times remain. “There’s a lot of trauma in this class,” Tobin says. “Everyone has got some kind of story. Sometimes they share stuff they haven’t told anyone before. It’s a beautiful thing to see people feeling safe to tell their truth. All their stories form a collective narrative of what happened here on Country.”

The stories shared reflect what Tobin refers to as “first contact times where cultures collided”. Stories of disconnection from family, Country, culture, as well as shaming, suppression and secrecy, are common themes.

Tobin’s classes include a mother and daughter and also a father and daughter team. The course offers an enjoyable and constructive way they can experience intergenerational healing and learn about their family, Tobin says.

Tobin, who has also worked in jails with Koori offenders, says that this disconnection from family, culture and Country is often the underlying cause of Indigenous stress and trauma. Working in jails was frequently about filling in the gaps of questions, such as “why did my mother abandon me?”

“My passion for art comes from the need to tell stories that are untold.” Community artist and cultural educator, Leanne Tobin, at Blue Mountains TAFE, Katoomba. (Photo: Linda Moon)

Yarramundi’s descendent continuing the work

Tobin, a descendent of the Dharug people of Western Sydney, has a fascinating history of her own.

Her mother was born in a terrace house in Harris Street on the banks of the Parramatta River in 1933 where the Albion Hotel now stands. Many Dharug babies were born here because the White Australia Policy (of the time) restricted Aboriginal women from having their babies in hospital.

As a teenager growing up in Emu Plains she didn’t know anything about her family background. Her grandmother had kept their ancestry a secret from her mother.

In adulthood she discovered that her great grandfather x 4, was the distinguished tribal Elder and ‘Karadji’ (medicine man), Yarramundi – after whom the township Yarramundi was named. His daughter was Maria Lock – one of the first stolen generations, being the first enrolment at the Parramatta Native Institution set up by Governor Macquarie in 1814. Maria graduated fully literate and married illiterate convict carpenter Joseph Lock on the 26th January in 1824 at St John’s Church Parramatta in what was to be the first official interracial marriage in Australia. Maria was also a talented student who topped 100 European and 20 Aboriginal students in a state-wide academic test.

Tobin, a practising artist, has also distinguished herself. In 2011, she won the Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize for her painting Defending Country.

The class appreciate her industry contacts. Through these she’s been instrumental in organising class exhibitions at galleries like the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre and Penrith Regional Gallery.

About the course

Held once a week for four hours (across two years), the certificate level course is something people can fit into their lives, Tobin says.

The students study and practise painting, printmaking, drawing, digital art, ceramics, sculpture and other visual art techniques. “We often have critique sessions that allow the students to see the various stages of development each artwork goes through and also opens discussion between the students on various techniques, challenges and stories,” she says. Each term a new unit begins exploring various media and also includes learning about various aspects of the cultural art industry, such as copyright and protocols within community.

The cultural component – recognising and identifying culture – is a core focus.

Connecting to Aboriginal culture also switches participants onto Caring for Country, Tobin says. “Everyone who resides on Country, now needs to take on that custodianship. We all need clean air, clean water, clean food.”

Running for just over two years, the visual arts course is offered as a Certificate II and III in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Cultural Arts. Along with the Katoomba campus it’s available in other locations within TAFE NSW.

Take Action:

  • Those with an Indigenous background can enrol in the course, which is offered at several TAFE campuses.
  • Learn about how Aboriginal culture can help heal Country.
  • Read up on Aboriginal history and enjoy Aboriginal art from the Indigenous perspective.   

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Linda Moon

Linda Moon has lived in the upper Blue Mountains since childhood and is a freelance writer for Australian media. A qualified naturopath, permaculture designer, mother and former student of social work, her passion is building local community, gardening, mental, emotional, social, housing and environmental health – all of which are linked!

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