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A person walks through the new Revitalising Connection exhibition at Waterfront Gallery

May 27, 2024

Telling stories through seaweed: the new Revitalising Connection exhibition

In honour of Reconciliation Week, Deakin Library is privileged to collaborate with the research group DeakinSeaweed and the Wathaurong Co-operative to celebrate the cultural connection to seaweed through the artwork of young Indigenous people living on Wadawurrung Country.

The new Revitalising Connection exhibition opens today, 27 May, at our Waterfront Gallery in the Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library. Revitalising Connection is being delivered with the support of Deakin Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

This impactful display serves as a testament to the profound significance of art and creativity in supporting cultural identity, as well as the importance of sharing knowledge to develop a sense of ownership and belonging.

Everyone from Deakin and the local community is warmly welcomed to join us to launch this exhibition at an event on 30 May, which will include family-friendly refreshments, as well as an opportunity to explore the exhibition and meet the young artists.

We were fortunate to discuss Revitalising Connection with PhD candidate Zoe Brittain, who leads the seaweed revitalisation project as part of the research group DeakinSeaweed. Zoe worked with Aunty Judy Dalton-Walsh to develop several workshops that blended scientific and cultural knowledge, on-Country experiences, art and storytelling to revitalise the cultural connections to seaweed within Wadawurrung and the broader Indigenous community in Geelong. The pieces created in these workshops are the central feature of Revitalising Connection.

You can also find a visual preview of the exhibition and brief discussion with Zoe in the video below.

How was it engaging with the young artists who created the pieces for this exhibition, and what was the workshop and development process like?

I have been working with Aunty Dalton-Walsh and Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative for around seven years in the seaweed space. So, the development of these workshops has been a long time coming. To make this happen, it was a real team effort. Aunty Judy, joined by Aunty Trina Dalton-Oogjes, Kristi Watts (all proud Wadawurrung and Gunditjmara women) and our community selected Aboriginal research assistants to help us develop the workshop on the cultural side. One Day Studios out of Warrnambool and Dr. Paul Venzo worked with us to develop appropriate activities, and Deakin alumni Daisy Day (who has a primary school teaching background) advised on the creation of a ‘how to engage young people’ training module for Deakin volunteers. After all this work, the stars finally aligned and we were able to have both an art and storytelling workshop in January 2024, thanks to some funding from DEECA’s Port Phillip Bay fund.

Engaging with the young artists was incredibly inspiring – the level of skill, willingness to share and openness really blew away all of our non-Indigenous Deakin volunteers. We were even able to bring out some activities that are usually reserved for senior levels in high school – despite our age group ranging from five to 16 years. We were all extremely impressed. And as seaweed nerds, we were so happy to see the inspiration seaweed was able to create in the young artists.

This exhibition launches during National Reconciliation Week. How do you feel the exhibition interacts with this year’s theme, Now More Than Ever?

We often hear excuses from non-Indigenous researchers that they don’t have the time, the funding or the expertise to engage properly with First Nations communities. I was privileged to hear Māori researcher Waitangi Woods share some powerful thoughts on these excuses at a recent conference – a reminder that every non-Indigenous researcher who works in life and environmental sciences is making the entirety of their living, their livelihood and their income off stolen land. We are directly benefiting from work on land that has not been returned to the rightful owners it was stolen from, whether we want to face that reality or not. In this context, it is important that we push back against putting this kind of work in the ‘too hard basket’, and work towards creating projects that prioritise the needs and wants of communities whose lands we work on. Now, more than ever, it is increasingly important to do the hard work. It might take time; you might have to build new connections, lean on colleagues – but this is the rent we must pay as non-Indigenous researchers. I feel this exhibition highlights the ways in which putting in this work can lead to some really beautiful and unexpected relationships, partnerships and outcomes for everyone involved.

Can you expand on the importance of sharing of Indigenous knowledge through art and creativity?

Splitting knowledge into separate ‘baskets’ (scientific, artistic, etc.) is a very Western way of viewing knowing and understanding the world around us. Wadawurrung cultural knowledge of seaweed was everyday, embedded knowledge for Wadawurrung people. It’s relevant to food and cooking, medicine, tool creation, creative expression, ceremony and general practices around caring for Country. Sharing and expressing cultural knowledge of seaweeds through art is part of the knowledge itself. Understanding this is extremely important for non-Indigenous researchers. This knowledge cannot be separated from the embedded context in which it exists in community, and the ways it was culturally shared and understood – which in this case is art and creativity. To remove it from the context of how it is culturally expressed can and often does distort the richness of the knowledge. So, we simply provided a space in which this knowledge could be shared and revitalised in the broader community in a way it has been shared for millennia.

How was the process of putting together this exhibition with Deakin Library?

The staff at Deakin Library have been amazing. I am not an ‘arty’ person myself, so I was way out of my depth in organising an exhibition – all I knew was that the art was fantastic and deserved a larger audience. They have been so helpful in walking me through the process, and super knowledgeable and understanding of the community’s needs throughout the process as well. They have also been extremely organised and patient with my hectic field work and teaching schedule. I would definitely recommend any other researchers thinking about doing something similar to reach out to the team as they have been nothing but supportive.

What do you hope visitors to the exhibition will take away from their experience?

I hope visitors can grow their understanding of the importance of seaweed for Aboriginal people in south-west Victoria and feel inspired by the beautiful works to think a bit more about seaweed in general!

I also hope other researchers can reflect on what ‘benefit’ actually means in the context of research partnerships with First Nations peoples and open themselves up to new ways of thinking about how that benefit can be delivered on our end. Sometimes it’s research as usual with community involvement – and sometimes it’s an art show!

Revitalising Connection is on display from now until 14 June in the Waterfront Gallery.


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