Artful mob brings Indigenous knowledge to heart of research

Artful mob brings Indigenous knowledge to heart of research

Harnessing the power of art to better integrate the knowledge of Indigenous communities into research has been profound and life-changing for PhD graduate Dr Elinor Assoulin.

As part of her “Artful Mob” project in RMIT’s School of Education, Assoulin worked with Indigenous groups from Gunditjmara Country and Wathaurong Country in South Western Victoria to explore how art therapy techniques could be used for bringing Indigenous systems of knowledge into the heart of research.

 “I wanted to understand how we can become more adaptable and truly understand Indigenous Knowledge Systems, peoples and communities.  This means letting go of our western preconceptions and viewpoints and being open to truly learning about Indigenous ways of what is described as ‘knowing-doing-being’. I wanted to understand how the art therapy techniques could be used together with Indigenous knowledge systems and what this integration would look and feel like in practice. What will be the experiences of participants?

“Colonialism is not just a thing of the past. We need to be aware of this in academia and shift our thinking about how we do research with Indigenous people that is more genuinely decolonised. It’s important we are constantly reflecting and asking, how can we bring Indigenous knowledge systems into our research? And how can research be more ethical, from an Indigenous point of view?

“Art making creates a neutral space where there is no power difference. There is a neutral language between us. My research method involved integrating group art therapy tools and processes and conceptions from Indigenous Knowledge systems - a method I term ‘Art-Yarning’. Our art therapy program ran for 20 weeks and offered different creative activities through which participants could explore their identity and relations with others. For example, one of the activities involved the groups making masks to gain insights about their identity.

“I asked them: ‘How do you represent yourself on the outside and inside?’  The story telling was incredible and they produced some amazing things. Their works revealed there are lots of different and rich ways of being an Indigenous person.

One of the projects the group created, titled 'The Masks We Are.' "The Masks We Are" - examples of masks created by participants on Wathaurong and Gunditjmara Countries.

“It was inspiring to see that they have Indigenous identities that are whole, proud, resilient and strong, they know who they are. I describe the results as bringing your ‘messy, whole, self’ to the fore. People’s identities are complex. Indigenous identities are complex and involve many different aspects for example, for some it included being Christian and for others being an Indigenous gay person. All of these elements can coexist.

“Working with these communities changed the whole way I look at life. As a Jewish immigrant, I was inspired to connect with my own roots and ended up traveling to Morocco to trace my father’s history. I now have a sharpened and enriched awareness of my own identity that includes many elements as a Jewish person, immigrant, woman, mother and researcher. I have also changed the way I interact with the natural environment. For example, my whole relationship with water has changed.  I now see it as a living entity and so the way I interact with water is far more respectful.

“We found that Art-Yarning enhanced the self-awareness of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. For the non-Indigenous participants, the method crystallised pathways of adaptation to various Indigenous ways of ‘knowing-being-doing’.  The method unsettled our settler identities in both bearable and productive ways and promoted healthy cross-cultural communication. 

“While this project reflected strong, resilient and whole Indigenous identities, this does not dismiss the urgent need for justice or undermine the challenges Indigenous participants face.  It does however, illuminate and celebrate the strength, diversity and richness of their identities and counterbalances the deficit-driven portrayals of Indigenous people common in Australia.  Indigenous knowledge systems and people become teachers to learn from, rather than about. 

Elinor Assoulin respectfully acknowledges the Gunditjmara and Wathaurong Countries and Eileen Alberts (Aunty Maude) and Edward Alfred Lovett (Uncle Ted).

She also acknowledges the host organisations for her sessions with thanks to the Winda Mara Aboriginal Corporation and The Ballarat and District Aboriginal Co-operative.


Interview: Kate Milkins


  • Research
  • Indigenous
  • Arts and culture
  • Indigenous Australia

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