Sketch for a Course

Design and the Indigenous: Exploring contemporary Aboriginal Australia

The title took some constructing – but I am happy with this, and the fact that the title does not commit to a position or angle.

The next task is to establish the need for this exploration. I began an exploration titled ‘Great Civilizations’ in 2005. The idea at that time was to privilege an exploration of China, India and Australia. My aim there was to make these three the sites of interest and potentially the centres of design exploration. I was in those days arguing against the privileging of Europe/ European Design as the centre and Australian Design as a remote periphery. This distinction is not so much about the primacy of European Design as its relevance in Australia. Its one thing to design here and then go off and exhibit it in Europe to acquire an international reputation – which is a valid practice in a particular way especially for an individual. Its another thing entirely when the curricula in design schools is orientated this way. So I was arguing for local relevance, regional relevance and a completely different cultural discourse. Now the cultural is not done in an overt fashion by design in Australia – as my mother in law said it; “the Australians do such practical stuff”. That statement was probably inspired by a visit to IKEA. But I do agree on one thing – the cultural is missing. The symbolic is absent!

Design in India and China is symbolic. Quite significantly so. And it is ,my call that so is the Aboriginal – in the manifestation of the symbolic as the story. I realise the unpacking of the Indigenous Australian culture into modern language is done though English – which sets up a particular way of constructing meaning. The realisation is at this stage a feeling of dis-satisfaction with the texts I am reading. Chatwin was a good read but a bit shallow in retrospect.

So in this way I am saying that the ‘cultural’ is the key to navigating materiality in these ‘great civilizations’. A tinge of the sacred, heaps of proscriptions and the ever present malevolent force have to be given form and shape.

Lurking in this is the exploration – design and the indigenous.

What this may not be – is a visual appropriation (that would be at the surface) of the aboriginal as a surface pattern or motif. And a big challenge is in the area of ‘adoption or adaption’ where traditional artefacts are transformed by a process of migration. Indigenous Australia is a bit light on artefact culture.


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