Pathways to art in Aboriginal Tasmania

Lola Green, necklace, 2001
Lola Greeno (Trawlwoolway people, Tasmania), Necklace, 2001, maireener shells. Rhianon Vernon-Roberts Collecton, Art Gallery of South Australia

Art and culture are one to many if not all Aboriginal people. The fusion is grounded in our learning from early childhood and reinforced during life. Many Aboriginal artists learn cultural protocols and follow Aboriginal lore from observing and sharing time with Elders, Uncles, and Aunties, and through grandparents teaching the next generation about the great works by Tasmanian artists such as Ricky Maynard and Allan Mansell. Most Tasmanian Aboriginal families follow the ways of our old people, especially during muttonbird season (from 25 March to 30 April). Today, cultural events for NAIDOC, Aboriginal Land Council events and the annual putalina festival of music, dance and celebration also allow time for younger ones to learn and practice culture.

Aboriginal artists who participate in cultural community events often find tapping into the arts industry is the beginning of a steep learning curve. In many instances artists experience a kind of culture shock, where new experiences are overwhelming; for example, Aboriginal artists, who possess natural creative talent, find the process, and understanding, of what is expected from enrolling in an arts course a great challenge. Likewise, exhibiting their artwork for the first time is often confronting. The arts introductory course offered by the Riawunna Centre at the University of Tasmania in Launceston and the dedicated exhibition space in the same building provides emerging artists with beneficial hands-on training. Here, students learn appropriate ways to display their work.

I speak with many students learning and practicing a range of art skills in the Murina Program at the Riawunna Centre. The program is a bridging course designed to up-skill students for further tertiary study. In many instances, the first hurdle a student faces is to discover his or her own identity, birth country, and how to tell their story or indeed what stories they can tell. The advice I give to people is to tell their individual life story, their family stories, and to talk about where they come from. Students in the Murina Program come from many different parts of Australia.

A large number of students believe their artwork needs to be “Aboriginalised” with the inclusion of dots or marks that belong to other Aboriginal peoples, whose custodial stories have been passed down through generations. Tasmanian artists seem lost when first setting out and often ask themselves, “What is Aboriginal art?” This questions the meaning of identity especially for urbanised artists. Taking our people to cultural learning camps to revive knowledge and skills will always empower them to base their work on their traditions and cultural practices, if that is the path they wish to pursue.

It is my hope that as Aboriginal art and culture become a greater part of a future education curriculum, the meaning of our arts and culture will become entrenched in our minds, so that we are confident to talk and demonstrate our Aboriginal cultural knowledge. To some degree this is already taking place, as different artists across Tasmania share their cultural and artistic knowledge with student groups. I talk to school groups about shell necklace making. I refer to traditional makers and their cultural knowledge and use my grandchildren’s learning of their cultural practices, as the example, to take children through the history and processes up to today. The shell story bracelets of my granddaughters and the bark canoe of my grandson are my family history. 

After decades in the Tasmanian arts industry, I firmly believe many Aboriginal artists come into the industry from three different directions or levels: from the experience and position of a senior, or as an Elder; through community workshops and wider knowledge; or through skilled and theory-based tertiary training. Few Aboriginal artists who start at a community level, go on to further study. The ones who complete academic training gain a great deal of understanding about their background, followed by knowledge of how to build their profile; and they gain the confidence to challenge the world on Indigenous issues using their art practice. Too many Aboriginal artists attempt to skip the first step of building their profile and price their artwork way above their skills, understanding and experience.

To put a price on your own artwork can be a daunting task. My first experience was to seek advice from my first lecturer. He asked me to consider several things: how long I had been making art, how many exhibitions had I exhibited in, and was my work owned by a public collection? All this lends value to your work. Today, I simply consider what my work is about and how it is connected to my cultural heritage.

For those just starting out, I suggest you review your history and discover the most important connections in your life. Keep a journal to record your lived experience in both text and drawing. The most fantastic equipment we can use today are computers, iPhones and cameras. Use this technology to document ideas and artwork with digital images saved in many formats for safekeeping. I document many trips to the beach with friends and family. I also advise emerging artists to write other notes as well. For example, I have heard of women wearing my necklaces to weddings, graduation ceremonies and of them being given as gifts or taken overseas. All this informs my work. The future for artists is to record and document your work for your own website. This will open up another world to the one from where you start – invariably highlighting that Aboriginal culture evolves.

Technology and multimedia are fundamental to our future. They will allow us to work, communicate and create on a level far beyond our earlier thinking. Technology is moving faster than people my age can keep up. Our young people need to be prepared for this continued advancement by early introduction to technology at schools, equally mature age students need to gain their experience through courses in order to embrace both tradition and new technology.

The interest in the arts for future students in Tasmania will depend on how prepared they are and how accessible technology is for them. It will be about internet searches, e-books and using computers to make images, to manipulate them and to design graphics. I would like to see more Indigenous art students gaining a greater understand of copyright and cultural property. They need to understand their rights as artists when they lend or sell work. They also need to understand what they can create, design and develop without infringing upon cultural property. There is a need to understand just what your rights are as an author. As cultural producers, we all need to maintain our understanding of cultural property, lore and law to protect our work.

For those of you still unsure about travelling the artist’s path, perhaps my story will inspire you. My experience in the art industry has developed over the past 30 years. Moving from Flinders Island to live in Launceston in 1972, I eventually returned to study via the Riawunna Bridging Course at the University of Tasmania in Launceston. I enrolled and completed a Diploma of Arts in 1993 then worked as a trainee Resource Officer at Riawunna for two years. I completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1997 working on six projects in the first year, then two years as Statewide Artsworker for the Aboriginal Women’s Karadi Corporation and from 2000 to 2013 as Program Officer for Aboriginal Art with Arts Tasmania. My journey has been undefined by my expectations but always informed by my cultural knowledge.

Card image (detail): Lola Greeno: Cultural Jewels is touring nationally 2014–18. Tour and venue dates at:

Lola Greeno on her role as an artist, artsworker and curriculum advisor.