In this latest article in our occasional series profiling healthy travels and pursuits, readers are encouraged to engage with a powerful exhibition by 30 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, now showing at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
Janine Mohamed, CEO of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM), writes below that the Defying Empire exhibition should be of particular interest to those in the health sector with an interest in cultural safety.
Cultural safety is also a headline issue this week in the Medical Journal of Australia, where Martin Laverty, Professor Dennis McDermott and Professor Tom Calma call for this “Indigenous-led model of care” to be embedded across the health system.
They say cultural safety should be part of course accreditation for each health profession and in the standards governing clinical professionalism and quality, such as the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Standards for general practices and the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care National Safety and Quality Health Service Standards.
(Update on 9 July – check the @WePublicHealth home page for some of the tweets and photos from #NAIDOC2017 from across the land).
Janine Mohamed writes:
Recently, I was talking to a friend over lunch about the power of a sense of belonging, and how important this is for our identity and health and wellbeing as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
My friend asked, what are some times when you have strongly felt this sense of belonging?
I could feel myself get emotional as I replied: I feel the belonging during NAIDOC Week, when the dancers come out and you hear the sounds of the didgeridoo. You look around and everyone is beaming, because we are celebrating who we are and in particular celebrating the amazing people within our communities whose work is acknowledged through many award ceremonies.
This year, of course, we are celebrating our languages. This celebrating is increasingly being shared with non-Indigenous Australia. The other day I was flying with Qantas and they announced that this week is NAIDOC, and I was so happy and surprised – not so long ago, wider Australia had no idea what this week is about.
When my friend asked about the other times, when this sense of belonging is undermined, I could think of so many examples. They included being told in school that my people had died out, or that our culture had been wiped out and there was no contemporary culture for our people.
If you look around Australia this week, at all the NAIDOC events and celebrations, those teachings are clearly shown as a lie.
Unfortunately, the myths that so many of us as “Australians” were taught at school or in other places continue to play out in myriad ways affecting our health and wellbeing and us having a shared history.
An example of this is mainstream health services. For too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, health services do not provide a sense of belonging, they do not affirm us and our identity.
From our members at CATSINaM, we hear too often that health services and other employers do not encourage a sense of belonging for their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses and other health professionals and staff.
This is one of the reasons I am passionate about developing cultural safety in our health systems. It is vital for ensuring they become safe and healing places for our people, whether as patients or health professionals, indeed leaders, ie board members.
This requires a massive change in attitudes and practices in so many settings. Cultural safety aims to decolonise attitudes, practices, services, and organisations. It is based on dialogue, communication, power sharing and negotiation, and the acknowledgment of white privilege. It means challenging racism and building trust.
When health services are culturally safe, they are more likely to be accessed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who are also more likely to experience better outcomes from these services.
But many of our non-Indigenous colleagues can find the concept of cultural safety very confronting. It’s not uncommon for people to react defensively or to shut down when faced with a cultural safety journey.
The power of art
This is where art – whether paintings, dance, song, film or other forms of creative story telling – can play such an important role.
I have learnt that we rarely achieve the type of changes we need by hitting people over the head with facts or lectures. What does help people to change is when we can engage both their hearts and their minds. Art is a powerful way to be emotive and challenge people to think deeply about their perspectives.
That’s why I’d like to encourage Croakey readers to visit the NGA exhibition, Defying Empire, showing until 10 September.
The art works are diverse, reflecting the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and people. However, they also provide a collective impact, demonstrating our continuing survival, resistance and sovereignty.
This exhibition reminds us that there was resistance and survival at invasion, and that this continues to be expressed powerfully so many ways, including by our artists.
The exhibition also provides powerful insights into the strengths and power of our connection to culture, and to country – as well as the incredible creative talents and knowledges of First Nations peoples.
It reminds us of the importance of art in proving our existence of over 40,000 years; in preserving our stories and privileging our voices, this exhibition is an extension to our history that has too often been untold and hidden from public view.
I’d love to see my colleagues in the health sector engaging deeply with the works in this exhibition.
When you can engage people at an emotional level, then we can start to see some of the shifts in their beliefs, behaviours and practices. Then people can begin to listen deeply to truth telling around the traumatic history and ongoing effects of colonisation. Then, we can start to tackle problems like racism.
I am grateful to the NGA, and the artists and the curators of this significant exhibition for providing an opportunity for Australians to reflect upon the importance of truth telling in order for us to develop a shared understanding of history.
If you can’t get to Canberra and the exhibition, take the time to read or listen to some of the interviews that have been done around the Defying Empire exhibition, and check out the exhibition book. This is a great resource for universities and institutions alike.
See some of the powerful reflections below from the exhibition, by Tina Baum, of the Larrakia/Wardaman/Karajarri peoples, and the NGA curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.