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Tuesday, 14 July 2015 00:55

Territories of Indigenous arts leadership

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My name is Michelle Evans. I was born and raised in the Hunter Valley, NSW Australia and work in the area of Indigenous arts, management and leadership. I got really interested in the phenomenon of leadership when I was teaching Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and arts managers about management in the late 2000's. What I noticed was that when the cohort I was teaching came together as a group, something was happening beyond the learning about management. There were critical conversations about our practice in the Indigenous arts, critical deconstructions about the limiting state-owned funding and exhibiting/performing structures the Indigenous arts sector was working within. The word leadership kept on coming up for the group, and for me, as we worked together.

Leadership is inherently about change. It's a way of working with people; collectively moving towards a shared vision of the future. It's about setting an agenda at a local, state, national or even international level, with like-minded people whereby we collectively imagine how we want the future to look and figure out what's getting in the way of that and what we need to do to make this vision of the future a reality. Sometimes when people hear the word leadership they think of being the boss, or managing groups, being very directive. And, although these ways of leading may suit certain organisations, they do not define the work of leadership.

These artists and arts managers opened my eyes to the tensions that they deal with daily - working with communities as artists and managers; negotiating capital be that in the form of the state or private buyers/funders, or the open market; working out what they gain and perhaps lose as they move between Indigenous spaces and non-Indigenous spaces. They made the theoretical idea of 'insider/outsider' very clarifying for me, and in our dialogue together the concept of leadership kept on raising itself as I saw their work in creating spaces for fearless conversations, expressing diverse identities, creating change to structural limitations, upholding their own and other Indigenous voices - these practices speak strongly to me of leadership.

Yet this idea of leadership that was emerging from working in the Indigenous arts and cultural sector was not like conventional leadership ideas. This created a great 'aha' moment for me, especially after reading in the leadership literature over and again that there is no one definitive definition of leadership. I have spent the last five years thinking about and investigating what Indigenous arts leadership is. I have talked to, and interviewed, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and arts managers, both in Australia and more recently Indigenous artists and arts managers across the United States of America. What I discovered was that leadership could be conceptualised as both the public enactment of leadership work enabled by personal embodied work that Indigenous artists and arts managers manage inside of themselves in order to practice public displays of leadership. Let me show you how I have imagined it as an image:


Territories of Indigenous arts leadership © Michelle Evans

As you can see the way Indigenous artists and arts managers spoke to me about leadership was that it was work that they did both 'below the surface' and 'above the surface' or another way to think about it is work inside of themselves (embodied) and work they displayed in public (practices of leadership). The practice of Indigenous arts leadership is contingent upon negotiating or navigating the territories inside of ourselves.

The first territory is about authorisation – are you self-authorised to enact leadership in this space? Do you require community authorisation? Do you require cultural authorisation? What work do you need to do in order obtain significant authorisation to do leadership practices like leaving a legacy, or leading fearlessly? Does it mean generating support from Elders or self-authorising your own voice and expertise?

The second territory is about identity and belonging – Identity is a key resource for Aboriginal people, it encapsulates who we are and how we relate to others and the world around us. Yet we also know Aboriginal identity in Australia is much politicised and this places pressure on individuals and communities. So a feeling of belonging and creating cultural safe places for cultural and artistic expression is an important leadership practice. Embodying diverse ideas of Indigneity is a leadership practice in Australia today as is the important work of empowering future generations through positive cultural expressions of identity.

The third territory is about artistic practice – what are the boundaries and pressures on producing contemporary innovative works of art? In this territory artists and arts managers spoke about having to navigate the pressures of managerial work (like paperwork and funding body applications/acquittals, or specific commissions) and commercial demands, to find time and space to creatively and cultural produce work they want to produce. Some of the practices we find here are the importance of relational storytelling through the practice of art and how vital it is to make space for the creation of artistic work that is (as) free (as they can be) from these pressures.

The final territory is about the powerful forces of history, trauma and colonisation. As Aboriginal artists and arts managers we are in receipt of generationally passed down stories and histories that can impact on our everyday. Be that the lasting legacies of colonisation and how that plays out today in our lives as Aboriginal people; the personal impact governmental policies have upon us and our families/communities; or even a personal experience of trauma. These can weigh us down and also become a lens through which we see the world. Some of the most powerful leadership practices Aboriginal artists and arts managers can do include speaking out against gossiping and shaming of others, and becoming a person who is safe and consistent to work with.

To sum up, Indigenous arts leadership navigates across these very contextual or place based historical, political, cultural and social territories. Indigenous leaders encounter these territories when they do the work of leadership. As I pointed out at the beginning, leadership is fundamentally about change and in order to work positively towards change with groups of people, Indigenous leaders need to be that person that is safe and consistent to work with; who is culturally, community and/or self-authorised; who does embrace their Indigenous identity in all its diversity; and who can articulate the pressures and tensions we face in the Indigenous arts sector without focusing on them in a limiting sense. By speaking out about these demands Indigenous leaders are able to imagine new and exciting possibilities for the future.

Dr Michelle Evans

Michelle Evans is an experienced, innovative and dynamic practitioner, currently working in the emerging field of Indigenous Leadership and Aboriginal Business Development. Michelle has worked in the post-secondary education, arts and cultural sectors in Australia for the past fifteen years, and recently moved into business education, working as a Research Fellow for the Asia Pacific Social Impact Leadership Centre at the Melbourne Business School. She was instrumental in the establishment of MURRA Aboriginal Business Master Class Program (MBS/Kinaway).

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