Indigenous feminist scholar, Aileen Moreton-Robinson has defined ‘whiteness’ as a culturally based system of preference and privilege that is largely unconscious and taken for granted as ‘normal’ by white people. (Moreton-Robinson, 1999 p28) She argues that unless the power and the privileges conferred by whiteness are understood and interrogated by white people themselves, the structural inequalities between white society and Indigenous communities will remain and will be resisted. She also notes that unsettling the ‘taken for granted’ certainties of whiteness is most likely to occur in close social and working relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people where differences can’t be sidestepped but must be addressed. (Moreton-Robinson 2000 p183) This was certainly true for the Weaving the Murray team. While we successfully addressed some issues others proved more difficult.
While we began meeting in the Textiles Studios of the South Australian School of Art we later held meetings in our houses, particularly as we got involved in making the work. A domestic environment, in contrast to the ‘academic’ environment of the studio, was a more relaxed and social space, conducive to extended working bees and family participation, and more appropriate to the work practices of Indigenous Australians.
As the project developed, some issues arose that unsettled the certainties underpinning my ‘white’ values. I believe they arose partly as a consequence of the very tight time frame that required decisions about the design and fabrication of the work to be made quickly, limiting the time available to allow different views to surface. But I suspect they also arose through not acknowledging Indigenous protocols relating to seniority, different styles of communication and negotiation, and the priority accorded to the goal of a ‘museum quality artwork’ as the key outcome of the project.
On the basis of my extensive experience leading collaborative projects I assumed a leadership role without any real discussion amongst the group. This automatic assumption of responsibility ignored Indigenous protocols about seniority (two the Indigenous artists were older than me) in an unconscious demonstration of dominance and whiteness that I was unaware of at the time. Assuming leadership without discussion of who should take on this role also undermined the sense that we were working as equal partners on the project.
While the overall design was developed by the group as a whole, in accordance with Indigenous protocols of ‘ownership,’ the Indigenous artists took responsibility for the design and supervising the making of those parts of the design that referred to Indigenous stories and artefacts and used Indigenous textile processes. However this question of ‘ownership’ proved tricky to negotiate. The Njarrindjeri story of Pondi was central to the work, and after much discussion Chrissie presented a design for Pondi that was accepted. The day before the submission of the design for approval by Federation, Rhonda objected and presented an alternative design, one that was readily accepted. In retrospect Rhonda as a Njarrindjeri elder who had custodial rights to the story of Pondi, should have been given responsibility for the design in the first place.