It is with great sadness that I stand down from my position as the Manager of kuril dhagun at State Library of Queensland (SLQ). I spent a lot of time thinking about my resignation and my ambitions for the future. It was a really tough decision to make because I know how amazing the job is, but I believe it was the right time to leave. It has taken me a couple of weeks to write this post because I am quite emotional still. It’s a huge change for me personally but I have faith that the universe will look after me and I have exciting times on the horizon.
As kuril dhagun moves into a new phase, I thought it was important to share a bit of history from my perspective and acknowledge the people that have worked tirelessly to create a nationally recognised program and a truly unique and culturally appropriate model of engagement for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
I was 23 years old when I began my career journey with the SLQ. It was definitely a case of ‘from little things, big things grow’. Prior to working at SLQ, I was a freelance artist juggling a number of contracts including art commissions, facilitating art classes and arts business training workshops and working on numerous public art projects. I was also in my final university class to complete my Bachelor of Arts, contemporary art major. I was taking a subject called ‘Net Art’, and learning basic animation skills. I saw an EOI from the library, advertising a call out for an Indigenous animator and I wrote an email to Nadine McDonald-Dowd asking her if she needed any help with this, expecting to volunteer. After our meeting I was given the contract to produce a short animation called “kuril: a love story” adapted Tom Petrie’s version of a old story told to him by the Turrbal people of the Brisbane area which was included in the book ‘Tom Petrie’s reminiscences of early Queensland’ written by his daughter. It was really amateur but everyone loved it and I was really grateful for the opportunity. The animation was included on the original intranet portal, which was on touchscreens throughout the space in the original kuril dhagun fitout.
kuril dhagun was opened in 2006, but prior to this, there were extensive community engagement workshops with key Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members from the greater Brisbane area and across the state. The workshops brought together ideas of what kuril dhagun could look like and what services could be delivered and would be most useful for our community. The architect Timothy Hill’s concept designs would be discussed and the space was co-designed by community. There were a number of important elements like the Talking Circle; an outdoor area with an active fire pit that acknowledges our oral traditions of storytelling and knowledge sharing around a fire. We had an Elders area with comfortable seating. The meeting room was named the Loris Williams Room in honour of Loris Williams, who was the first Aboriginal Queenslander to gain professional archival qualifications and worked with SLQ for many years. Sadly Aunty Loris has passed but her family still visit her room and remain connected to kuril dhagun. You can read more about Loris Williams on the Australian Woman register: http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE2286b.htm
I was a part of this consultation process as a participant and it really made everyone feel like they were contributing to a special and unique place that was specially built and programmed for us. There was genuine excitement around a centre that would honour our voices and be a culturally safe space to share the positive as well as the traumatic history and lived experiences of our people.
I was employed as a Project Officer in 2006 when kuril dhagun opened and and it was my first full-time job. I was able to be creative, be around stories and history, and work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. It was all my passions rolled up into one and I really felt like the universe had created this job just for me. Nadine was the Manager up until 2015 and she taught me so much. She is my mentor and I call her my big sister, and 11 years on and she remains the first person I call when I need help or someone to talk to. I have always been totally inspired by her innovation, big picture ideas, inclusiveness and community engagement practices. It was such an honour to work with her during the majority of my time at kuril dhagun.
In the beginning, we had a front desk where a staff member would greet our mob, tourists and general public. We took turns and were there to answer any questions about kuril dhagun, general queries about community, history and culture and how to navigate the rest of the library and research the collections. I (wo)manned the space over the weekends as well. I went from being a poor uni student living off noodles, to getting weekend penalty rates and I was extremely happy. I got to know all the regulars and was excited when Elders and community would visit to see the exhibition, the space or just come in for a yarn. Reflecting back, I realise Nadine had enormous trust in my ability to communicate to clients as well as develop and deliver her vision. She allowed me creative control but has truly nurtured and supported me unwaveringly, right from the early stages.
Summer Reading Club was an annual program I developed and delivered each school holiday period. I created games, workshops and activities, which were fun and interactive but also educational and underpinned with Indigenous storytelling and cultural knowledge. I’m a big kid at heart so I really enjoyed teaching through play. I had so much fun transforming the Loris Williams Room into different worlds that children could explore each year. We had paint-up, theatre shows, art, dance and rap workshops and even a live petting zoo. I also got to create other special one-off programs like Murri Mums Week, Island Time and Muster Up!
Everyone who knows me, would know my love of exhibitions and working with community to tell the stories that they want to tell. I managed and curated all the exhibitions between 2007 til 2011 (with lots of assistance from Jo and Nads). I learnt on the job, and our little team put together so many short independent shows during this time. Over the years, kuril dhagun exhibition processes improved tenfold as we began to work with other units bringing in the expertise across SLQ including media, design team, collections and conservation.
A notable exhibition was ‘Sacred Legacy’. I worked with the U.S Consulate to bring the first international touring exhibition to State Library in 2008. There was a large series of Edward S Curtis photographs of Native American peoples to coincide with Nadine’s Originals program which was a five-day international cultural exchange program honouring the original voices from Australia and America. There were conversations talking about the colonial view and early historically staged photographs, which were similar to Aboriginal studio portraits.
The most culturally challenging but also the most rewarding exhibition was ‘The Dhoeri: A Torres Strait Icon’. As an Aboriginal woman, I had a lot of reservations about curating an exhibition of Torres Strait Islander headdresses that are known to be a sacred custom practiced by men. I was extremely appreciative to community members who were commissioned to create a dhoeri or dari. ‘Dhoeri’ meaning headdress in the Kala Lagaw Ya language of the Central and Western Torres Strait Islands or ‘Dari’ meaning headdress in the Meriam language of the Eastern Torres Strait Islands. We had five George Nona headdresses on loan from TSRA and Gab Titui. Torres Strait Islander community members and Elders were so generous for sharing information and as much of their story as they were culturally permitted. This was a part of a large precinct-wide project called ‘Torres Strait Islands: A celebration’ involving QAGOMA, QPAC, QM and SLQ. It was an amazing cultural program and the first and only collaborative project of its kind in Brisbane. This was to the credit of our then Executive Manager, Tom Mosby.
In 2012, I handed over the reigns to Katina Davidson after working together on the proppaNOW exhibition. We both love art and have been inspired by the proppaNOW collective for a long time so this was a great passion project to work on together. Since Katina has taken the lead, kuril dhagun exhibitions have never been better!
In 2013 – 2015, I was the Digital Program Officer and managed and delivered digital art and storytelling projects across the state. I was affectionately called ‘the iPad lady’ in many regional and remote Aboriginal communities. I would travel with a case full of iPads and video cameras and taught children and adults how to capture stories that were of significance to there community. It was challenging as I travelled very often over these two years but loved the experience and grateful for being welcomed into many communities including Woorabinda, Stradbroke Island, Wujal Wujal, Hopevale, Cooktown, Cairns, and my hometown of Logan.
In 2016, I became the Manager of kuril dhagun and it was a really proud occasion for me. I had Nadine’s massive shoes to fill (literally – she’s a 10 and I’m only a woman’s 6.5) so I had my work cut out for me. Over the last two years, I did my best to lead a team through some major changes, including a big change over in staff and an internal restructure. I am so proud to have recruited a couple of super stars in Sophia and Sam. I have had some of the best times and proud moments seeing our small team achieve great things.
Although I wasn’t the curator or project coordinator, a career highlight for me was the Art of the Skins exhibition. The exhibition was selected from an EOI process and was developed over two years prior to coming in to the Management role. I was really proud of Katina and Freja and our whole team who pulled together during a time of complete instability to make this happen. This exhibition was the first.
During my time, I was also able to introduce some permanent artwork in kuril dhagun. We have an amazing Megan Cope mural in the main space and Laurie Nilsen emu sculpture installed just outside the windows of the Reading Nook. These join the already impressive listing of artwork in and around kuril dhagun and State Library. We are very happy to have Black Card Cultural Tours come through the space to talk about these works and more. Learning Guides are being developed for school groups as well.
It’s crazy to think that kuril dhagun was not on Facebook until July 2016. I had written six versions of a social media proposal, each time adding more stats to support the fact that Facebook is a very useful communication tool for our mob. Before that, the team was sharing posts on our personal pages and trying our best to get our programs known to community. I was so excited when we were granted a six month trial and even though this was such a small thing, I felt that it was a real victory for me. We now have a great Facebook and Instagram account to share our exciting program and behind the scenes activities.
My favourite event of the year has always been Murri Christmas! I remember fondly the first time Uncle Tiga Bayles was the lead elf with Murri Claus (Uncle George Bostock) on the back of his motorbike, and they rode in with a large gang of elves on Harleys. The kids were so excited and so was I. Each year Getano Bann would create an amazing atmosphere and pure entertainment for children and adults alike. I am so happy that the event has maintained that warm, inclusive, happy spirit. Hats off to Sophia and Sam who coordinated this year’s event. It is clearly evident that the future of kuril dhagun is in safe hands with these two.
Hands down, the best thing about kuril dhagun was working alongside my teammates, who I am privileged to call my friends. I would like to give a special acknowledgement to the team that put in the hard yards to establish kuril dhagun; Willie Prince, Jo-Anne Driessens, under the amazing leadership of Nadine McDonald-Dowd. I am so grateful for their generosity, guidance and ongoing support. From the original kurils, to everyone in between, there have been many #klubkuril staff members that have come and go and each have inspired me in different way. I am grateful for their creative influence, diverse skillset and distinct insights. At afternoon tea, Willie said “You know what, I’m gonna be the last one standing here!”. For readers who don’t know Willie, he is in a wheel chair and the best, self-confessed, “sit-down” comedian I know. I will miss these dry jokes, his charisma and laughter.
I took time out recently to look around at the physical space, the place where I have heard stories and learnt knowledge that has changed my worldviews and my understanding of life. I walked outside and looked up at the vine that has grown so big and remembered when Jo, Nadine and I would water them with pitchers before the sprinkler system was installed. I looked over at the very faint outlines of small handprints on the wall and laughed. They were from my very first Summer Reading Club when I walked away for a few minutes, whilst children were being told the emu story and having their face painted and feathers attached to their hair, and came back to the artist chewing and spitting ochre over children’s hands along the side of the building. The children had the best time and were so engaged, so I smiled but inside I was having an OH&S freakout. Afterwards Nadine and I scrubbed for hours trying to get the ochre off. When the State Librarian eventually saw it, she thought it was wonderful!
Next, I sat down and stared at the firepit and thought of all of the wonderful people that have shared their personal stories around the fire. I cried as I thought of all of the Elders that we’ve lost and the impact they have had on me. I acknowledge my privileged and grateful for all of the lessons learnt, people I’ve met and cultural knowledge I keep close to my heart. There are so many memories here and I have grown through many pivotal stages in my life. Reflecting on these, made me realise that I not only called kuril dhagun my workplace but it had become my home, and my team, the people that have been a part of my journey, have become my family.
Thank you to everyone that supported kuril dhagun whilst I was Project Officer, Digital Program Officer and finally Manager, and heartfelt gratitude to the many that will continue to support me in the next chapter of my career.
My position is currently being advertised, it is listed as Lead, kuril dhagun (identified) on the Smartjobs website.