Retaining and maintaining sovereignty and cultural continuity: Clothilde Bullen

Clothilde (Clo) is a Wardandi (Nyoongar) and Badimaya (Yamatji) woman. Clo is a mother of two, and the Senior Curator and Head of First Nations programs and initiatives at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Clo’s work has spanned over two decades in the sector, including Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. She is the Chair of the National Associate of the Visual Arts (NAVA), and sits on the board of the Australian Chapter for the International Association of Art Critics (AICA).

In this dialogue with Yawuru, Bardi and Kija woman and documentary film writer and director, Kimberley Benjamin, Clo reflects on the role of First Nations people in determining their work both in the museums and galleries sector and in the economies of art centres, the possibilities of culturally safe institutions and the responsibilities of succession planning.

What would you consider best practice in the work you do?

For me, best practice has a number of really important factors to it. It’s about equitable collaboration. So that’s one really critical thing. There is always an implicit understanding that you’ll have different ways of working, and that when you’re working as an Aboriginal person or in a space with artists – and I’m talking about all artists, really all contributors of cultural material – you have to understand that best practice implies that you will work the way that those communities and that mob want you to work, not the other way around. So that’s at the heart of it.

Best practice is also about retaining and maintaining sovereignty and cultural continuity, or if you’re not Indigenous, offering up a space to facilitate that happening. So you can either maintain that yourself for your own mob, or for whoever you’re working with, or you can, as a non-Indigenous ally, hold space to allow that to happen and create the conditions to allow that to happen. These spaces should always, always, always be self-determining and autonomous. So that’s absolutely critical to best practice, because if we’re deciding for other people–and that includes myself as an Aboriginal woman from here – I can’t decide for another mob what their idea of sovereignty is, or of where their cultural material should go or how they wish to be represented. So I too, have to respect those principles of that group being self-determining and autonomous. So that’s really critical.

And I did want to bring up that when we talk about best practice, there’s a whole lot of stuff written around this. Australia Council have done loads of work on this, Margaret Kovach has done loads of work, Terri Janke has done loads of work. There’s the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, article one of that is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And within that, is the umbrella under which First Nations people fall (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). And that gives an international legal framework that supports best practice. So, we have frameworks everywhere that sort of support us to continue to do that.

But on the ground, it becomes really different, of course.

Yes, the challenge is how does it translate?

Yes, because all the frameworks in the world will do nothing, if a person hasn’t read about them, hasn’t faced down their own demons enough to actually integrate them into self, to then enact them. So, we know in our sector that whilst we have lots and lots of amazing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts workers of every kind, we also have a lot of white arts workers in those spaces. And I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a bad thing. But I think if people haven’t done the work, it becomes a bad thing and I’ve seen that hugely in my career.

For me, the challenge – if you’re a white ally- is essentially being big enough to go ‘I don’t hold all the answers, I cannot consider myself an expert.  I have to basically hold space and facilitate whatever goes on within that space.’ And that is the number one rule for non-Indigenous allies working in this space. There’s a power dynamic there that I think needs to be acknowledged. These spaces need to be free from harm, they need to be equitable and they need to look at how they’re distributing the equity: Who’s getting the most benefit out of it? It’s not enough to go, ‘Well we’ll pay you and you’re good, see you later.’ What are the flow on effects? Have you discussed the kind of economic sustainability with the community?

What tangles us up, I think, is our mechanisms of funding: institutions tie us into frameworks that are really challenging. Time is such an important thing in terms of best practice. And if you’ve got funding for one year for a project, how does that allow you to do other things that take longer? Working within an institutional space, it’s really, really, really difficult as a curator who’s mostly worked for institutions, code switching and having to be in multiple spaces at once. And they’re things that are difficult to shift, because we can talk about decolonising institutions all we want, but essentially, if we don’t start from Indigenising spaces with us as the base – and decolonising and Indigenising are two different things – then, you know, we can’t get very far.

So, I think, it is changing. I’ve seen lots of changes over the years. I know some amazing non-Indigenous arts workers, curators, heads of institutions, who are holding extraordinary spaces and doing amazing things and, and they’ve thought about what their role is, and what it’s not, more importantly. And I think that’s what’s kept me in the sector is that I’ve seen those changes, and it makes me really happy.

Some changes, for example, in the small to medium art sector, are slower to come because there are fewer Aboriginal people working in those spaces. But change is happening.

Was there a moment or an example of that shift that you felt? Or has it been an accumulation of a lot of people’s hard work?

Yeah, it’s been an absolute accumulation. I think it’s really important to recognise those that have done that work before us. And there are lots of those people, certainly people like Hetti Perkins, Brenda Croft, Djon Mundine and many, many others. But back in the day, before my time, it was even harder to survive working in institutions.  They did the hard yards, they really paved the way for us to even have these conversations. Then, in my generation, with more senior people in the field, essentially our job is to start really succession planning, really thinking about legacy, really thinking about what we’re leaving when we leave. Because that’s what those people that went before us didn’t have an opportunity to do because they were too busy surviving in the sector. It’s been incremental.  But we’re beyond survival now. So, we have to start thinking about that. For me, that’s also best practice. Succession planning is best practice, we have to think about the lay of the land for young or emerging people coming through.

But in answer to your question, it’s been really incremental. It’s been a long, slow change. I think it hasn’t necessarily been driven by government in any way, shape, or form. It’s been driven by institutions that have recognised the need for some of this work to be done, including the Australia Council. What we don’t have currently is a peak body for Aboriginal arts workers in this country, really, or union. And that is remiss. And that’s probably the next step, I think.

What do you need to feel culturally safe in your workplace?

I’m interested in that question, ‘what do you need to feel culturally safe in your work?’ That’s such an important question, actually, that kind of harkens back to that white allyship and best practice, I suppose. It is not often in my career that I have felt culturally safe in my work, I have to say, it’s very, very rare. And even with a great director at work, I don’t feel culturally safe in my current workplace. And it’s not something they don’t know, so I’m not speaking out of turn.

One of the rare times I did feel that way was working at the Museum of Comtemporary Art (MCA). And the reason why I did is because there were 12 of us in total, 12 blackfellas who worked there in all areas, which was extraordinary.  And there was a really strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy, which still exists there. And a really strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander group or Advisory Committee. And all of those things combined meant that I felt a great sense of cultural safety, because I knew there was an avenue through which to talk about concerns. There were other people I could share it with. And we had a policy that meant that everyone, every staff member had to speak to that policy in their performance reviews in their daily jobs, etc. Absolutely critical, because it meant they had to keep thinking about ‘oh, sh**, if I do this, what does this mean for the Aboriginal people I’m working with? For the reputation of the MCA?’ it was in the front of their minds and that meant it was, for me, culturally safe in that space.

And how does self-determination fit into all of this?

I mean for me there’s a recognition factor and then [on the other hand] there’s a kind of being our own bosses factor and an economic factor. Economic sustainability is absolutely critical for all Aboriginal communities. And we should be able to determine that based on what is useful and important to us.

And this is where the arts is so critical because the way we live, our being, is very much geared towards storytelling of all kinds. Whether that’s literature, dance, performance, whether it’s visual art, whatever it is, it’s a narrative. And that’s a massive strength of all of our cultures. So why should we not have control over how that’s represented but also how we make money off of it, if we choose to. And that sounds really blunt, the money story, but that is absolutely critical to us being sovereign and self-determining, because if we don’t have economic sustainability in our communities, we are f*****, basically. We are, because we will forever be at the whim of government and at the whim of big companies like the mining sector.

So, the things that I see and have seen working, I mean, I’ve seen the rise of art centres. When I first started, there were maybe two, maybe three art centres in Western Australia. Mangkaja, for example, in Fitzroy Crossing, chaired and run by a full Aboriginal board. Everything they do is determined by that board, by the Aboriginal workers that work there. It’s really self-determining, they have membership on anchor. They determine not only what their cultural material is, but how they wanna show it, what they wanna do with it, how they earn money from it. It’s such an incredible model for economic sustainability in a community that’s tiny, but that has a vast range of language groups, of communities, of families, of a pastoral history that needs to be dealt with and is still ongoing. So economic sustainability, that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about that, not just that money story about like ins and outs, Self-determination should be, and it is, according to International Human Rights, supposed to be implicit and mandatory and it actually hasn’t always been for Aboriginal people.

I think there is a lot of positivity but the thing is we can’t leave it to other people. We have to do it. We have to pick up the mantle and take it upon ourselves to actually shift things. We can’t leave it up to other people. But I do love seeing younger people who have gone, ‘right, that’s it, let’s get to work and actually just do it’ – I absolutely love it because that’s what needs to happen.

Absolutely. Thank you Clothilde!

Hyperlinks in accessible form:

Click here to read Terri Janke and Company’s Indigenous Cultural Protocols and the Arts report.

Click here to read Terri Janke and Company’s​​Protocols for using First Nations Cultural and Intellectual Property in the Arts, published by Australia Council.

Click here to read the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Click here to read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


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