Kendra Stoner

Cross-Tasman Connections: Teaching and Learning in Ever Present

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At the end of August, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki welcomed kaiako (teachers) from across Tāmaki Makaurau for a unique learning experience. In collaboration with the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and Wesfarmers, we facilitated a professional development day focused on an art education learning programme called Art Ways of Learning. Thanks to the generous contribution from Wesfarmers, the Auckland Art Gallery Schools and Learning team worked directly with educators and artists who travelled from Australia, allowing us to deliver a one-of-a-kind learning experience in Aotearoa.


<p>National Gallery of Australia educator Noah Watson leading a discussion in&nbsp;<em>Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia.&nbsp;</em>All images by&nbsp;Dave Simpson Photography Ltd.</p>

National Gallery of Australia educator Noah Watson leading a discussion in Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia. All images by Dave Simpson Photography Ltd.

As a previous classroom teacher, I know too well the constant struggle of giving yourself fully as a teacher and never quite having enough time for your own creativity. When organising this kaiako professional learning day that was one of my goals: to remind teachers how important it is to foster their own creativity so that they can continue to nurture their students’ confidence and imagination.

The day focused on the themes, artworks and artists in Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia, the largest overview of art by First Peoples of Australia to be shown in Aotearoa. The exhibition tells beautiful and at times challenging stories of how First Peoples of Australia keep their cultures and histories alive by telling people about their experiences through making art, songs, dances, traditions, ceremonies and languages. The learning day comprised a tour of the exhibition and an in-gallery learning programme with the Art Ways of Learning principles led by NGA educators, followed by a hands-on workshop delivered by artist Damien Shen, who has two artworks on display in the exhibition.

Developed by the NGA’s First Nations engagement and education team in collaboration with the Australian Capital Territory’s indigenous learning unit, the Art Ways of Learning programme contributes to the NGA’s ongoing commitment of centring First Nation artist voices. The programme is a values-based approach to best practice when engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts, which encourages learning ‘through culture’ and not just ‘about culture’. This approach to education is guided by five interconnected, complementary principles:

  1. Creating Memorable Experiences
  2. Promoting Living Culture(s) of First Nations Peoples
  3. Centring First Nations Voices
  4. Elevating First Nations Arts Diversity
  5. Encouraging Deep Listening and Thinking.

Creating connections with artworks is foundational for art educators when teaching. The Art Ways of Learning teaches us to connect with artworks through themes. Rather than copying a motif or technique in a First Nations artwork, the principles  invite ākonga (students) to connect to larger themes within an artwork, encouraging appreciation instead of appropriation, with the aim of ākonga forming a deeper understanding of artworks. This will in turn help them to make stronger connections with their own lived experiences and stories.

In the professional development day at the Gallery, kaiako participants were encouraged to leave behind any preconceived ways of interacting with Western art for the day and instead approach artworks through the Art Ways of Learning principles. Guided by NGA educators, participants were shown how to centre First Nations voices when teaching to artworks. This important technique reminds us of the importance of not speaking for art and artists with our own interpretations, but instead seeking quotes from First Nations artists, the artist’s family, curators or even other educators so that First Peoples’ voices continue to speak for themselves.

Many kaiako struggle to find time for their own art making and creativity due to the demands of the teaching profession. Our kaiako professional learning days aim to nurture kaiako learning and their creativity because we know how important it is to feel inspired within yourself first when teaching young minds. After their tour through the exhibition, kaiako spent the afternoon with Damien Shen, a South Australian First Nations artist of Ngarrindjeri and Chinese descent who uses his artistic talent to share his story and open the eyes of viewers to new ways of seeing Australian identity and Aboriginal art. Shen shared insights into his practice and his two photographs on display in the exhibition before taking the kaiako into the studio for some hands-on artmaking. Damien, a natural teacher, encouraged a sense of self-confidence in kaiako as they learned new illustration techniques. By the end of the day there were artworks made, group photographs taken and a waiata which exuded gratitude and warmth for all involved.

Kaiako feedback demonstrated that they fiound the learning day positive and impactful. Many kaiako sent messages with comments such as:

              ‘Loved the opportunity to create individual and group work.’

‘[It] was great to have an arts perspective on teaching through an Indigenous/First Nations lens. The learning principles were a fantastic insight. Made it really clear how to teach appropriately without cultural appropriation.’

Participants noted the resonance of the Art Ways of Learning programme for teaching here in Aoteoroa, with one kaiako observing:

‘Loved it, very similar to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi: protection, participation and partnership.’

The learning days were full of collaboration, creativity and cultural awareness. These experiences would not have been possible without the help of the talented NGA educators. Working alongside their team, we were able to exchange ideas, stories and shared experiences. Leanne Waterhouse, NGA Education Manager encapsulated it well:

'With our shared colonial past, we look forward to continuing conversations with [the Gallery’s] team into the future and learning how to be better truth tellers and centre the voices of First Nations arts around the world.'

The collaboration between the two galleries encouraged all involved – kaiako, Gallery educators and the NGA team – to grow and expand their knowledge of what it means to be an art educator today.