Evolving Curriculum

Evolving Curriculum:

Indigenous Teaching Perspectives in Tertiary Art and Design

The purpose of this study was to engage and interview key professionals in their experience of embedding Indigenous perspectives in tertiary art & design curriculum. This project was multifaceted and included research interviews and a Think Tank at UNSW Australia: Art & Design in order to understand  the complexities and histories of existing practice and possibilities for institutional reorientation. The outcomes linked Indigenous perspectives with curriculum and pedagogy in professional contexts in the field.  Rather than reviewing existing institutional frameworks this project was designed to map the way approaches to Indigenous Knowledge  have been produced in educational and specifically artistic contexts. The research aimed to impact the scope of tertiary art and design programs at UNSW Australia: Art & Design by prioritizing Indigenous Knowledge in terms of re-thinking curriculum, offering instead a starting point for staff and students to examine the extent that educators are affected by dilemmas in practice.

This research project had two phases. Phase One engaged the perspectives of a professional community through a series of focused ‘Research Interviews’, to reveal individual historical and contemporary perspectives.  In Phase Two a range of views were engaged in conversation in a dialogic ‘Think Tank’ event. Examination of the particular contribution of art and design within this framework as well as the engagement of Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants was a crucial aim. In working within a background of the ‘National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities’ (2011) this project aims to inform scholarly discourse about the role of universities as agents of change. Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, educators and researchers with experience and expertise in art and design curriculum, pedagogy and artistic practice were invited to participate in the ‘Research Interviews’. To enhance the research integrity of this study, Tess Allas (UNSW Australia: Art & Design, Director of Indigenous Programs) interviewed Indigenous participants.

Evolving Curriculum: Indigenous Teaching Perspectives in Tertiary Art & Design was funded by a UNSW Australia; Art & Design (formerly COFA) Learning & Teaching Innovation Grant in 2014 which was awarded to Kim Snepvangers, Program Director Art Education, Tess Allas, Director Indigenous Programs and Eleanor Venables, Sessional Art Education Lecturer.  Research interviews were conducted in late 2014 and participants were purposively drawn from experienced Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators and artists from intergenerational contexts.  The majority of participants were involved with education broadly conceived across tertiary, (including specialist Indigenous units) secondary, primary, adult, youth and informal sites of learning.  Participants included: tertiary and secondary educators, studio art practitioners, recent graduates and alumni from a range of educational, practice and employment sites. The involvement of educational and artistic stakeholders from the wider tertiary, employment and education sector was considered essential in understanding possible curriculum reform.  The aim is to recognise the implications of specific approaches to knowledge production within the Indigenous-Western cultural interface as identified by (Nakata 2012) across historical and contemporary sites of practice.



Inclusion of Indigenous perspectives should not look like ‘a perspective’, an external distant view looking into a culture nor should it be ‘tokenistic’. It should be fully embedded into all courses (as appropriate) as well as a stand-alone, compulsory course, not as an add-on or as many Aboriginal people see it as an afterthought or secondary to whatever the subject or course is within current curriculum or syllabus. More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander guest/lecturers across all areas should be see on campus; particularly, when speaking to art and design teachers who will one day end up in schools. These students need to be fully aware of the length and breadth of Aboriginal issues and their connectedness across the social spectrum (health, education, housing, employment).

If you’re going to be teaching your lecturers or giving them information on Aboriginal perspectives student feedback lets them know where the students are at and how much information they’ve got and what they haven’t got.

Think Tank Participant


Having students’ complete core subjects which ask them to respond with assessment tasks to building awareness of Indigenous knowledge through art making, art historical study, cultural study and contemporary debate would benefit students at UNSW: Art and Design… Asking students questions about their own cultural “situatedness”, their own aesthetics and ethnography and what makes people unique. Developing tertiary students with a sense of awareness, responsibility, identity and integrity in finding a creative voice within their chosen field is the mission of many programs. This process should ensure all students (Indigenous and Non-Indigenous) are taught about Australian history, Indigenous heritage and contemporary creative practice in an authentic way to ensure confidence in vocational preparation.

Think Tank Facilitator


The work of Indigenous scholars has moved our thinking about Indigenous perspectives over the last three decades. No longer is simply teaching facts “about” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, communities and cultures adequate in education. Indigenous scholars from a range of disciplines have called for much deeper interrogation into the way in which White Privilege and White Supremacy permeates our knowledge about the world, as well as the ways in which we move through the world. These ideas translate across disciplines, including across law, education, creative arts, science and health and technology.

Unfortunately, rather than non-Indigenous educators joining Indigenous scholars on this journey, and engaging with their work, there are many who are stuck in the past, unable to grasp the intricacies of modern day Indigenous scholarship. This happens in all disciplines and in many institutions across the continent.

Indigenous perspectives should be the foundation stone of most, if not all, higher education courses in Australia. An institution that operates at best practice should have Indigenous perspectives at every level of its operation. What would this look like in reality for an art and design school?


The following strategies would be relevant:

  • Units should include a compulsory Indigenous perspectives unit delivered to all graduates of UNSW Australia: Art & Design. The unit should be designed and delivered by Indigenous academics. Subject matter should include, Copyright and Cultural Intellectual Property and Appropriation of Indigenous iconography (Note: Griffith University – Queensland College of Art includes a compulsory Indigenous Art, Protocols and Practices to all QCA students).
  • There should be an Indigenous Art/Indigenous Studies major offered to students. Another option would be to develop a number of units that are offered at UNSW Australia: Art & Design that were part of a whole UNSW Australia Indigenous Studies major.
  • All units delivered within the school should be audited for their inclusion of Indigenous perspectives. Where there are deficits, Indigenous academics should be brought in to consult.
  • A professional qualification should be developed (for example a Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Studies) specifically targeting non-Indigenous academics. (This would sit well beside current initiatives that see new academics being required to undertake an educational qualification)
  • As part of UNSW Australia’s commitment to Indigenous students, a strong, vibrant and well-resourced Indigenous Support Student program is essential.
  • A strong UNSW Australia: Art & Design Indigenous post-graduate program is vital. By building a strong post-graduate program on campus, the institution is ensuring strong scholarly outcomes, as well as providing the expertise to deliver strong Indigenous Studies programs in the future.
  • An audit of the institutions library collection should be done regularly, to ensure that students have access to the most recent Indigenous scholarship from around the country and the world. It should be noted, that Indigenous Studies is highly inter-disciplinary, as a result the Art & Design library may need to bring in texts from outside Art & Design.
  • Creation of a strong academic-in-residence and/or artist-in-residence program that fosters links between UNSW Australia: Art & Design, with other institutions around Australia, Indigenous scholars within Australia, and Indigenous scholars from around the world.
  • The institution’s leadership should include Indigenous representatives at every level and across all operations.

Much of the work that is done by Indigenous scholars is based around personal relationships built over many years. Often institutions do not see the value that an individual Indigenous staff member (academic and/or general staff) can bring to the institution. Indigenous staff members are often marginalised by their institution as their journey to the institution may not fit within the traditional career path of other staff. However, when needed their expertise and knowledge is called upon, with little acknowledgement or recognition. Indigenous staff will have a cultural capital that is undervalued and un-recognised by their non-Indigenous colleagues.

Indigenous perspectives within tertiary institutions can be ground-breaking, but too often institutional politics and White Privilege get in the way.

Think Tank Participant