Decolonisation through women’s art

As one of the most vulnerable groups in colonial societies globally, women of colour and Indigenous women in Australia have been telling their first-hand stories through community art practice.

Dr Pilar Kasat, born in Chile and the Chairwoman of not–for-profit organisation Women of Colour Australia theorised about community art practice in her recently completed doctoral thesis, Sing the Women Back Up: Art for Social Change and the Empowerment of Women.

Art Practice has to be linked to the context in which people want to make a change.

Pilar Kasat

Dr Kasat says that art for social change cannot be taken out of context, and it has to be initiated by artists, the people who invest in art practice.

Professor Suvendrini Perera, one of the supervisors of Dr Kasat’s thesis, says that this was the first study to her knowledge that discusses case studies, for example, by Noongar women and Afghan refugee women, together and articulates what they share.

Pilar Kasat. Photo: supplied
Suvendrini Perera. Photo: supplied.

Professor Perera also highlights that this thesis presents a context and history for art movements and practices by women in the global south (Australia and Chile) and provides a rich range of case studies that document these practices.

“It covers a range of critical events for Australian histories, such as the Stolen Generations and the War on Terror, and explores the creative responses to them,” she says.

The thesis makes two significant contributions: it presents a context and history for art for social change practices; secondly it provides a rich range of case studies that document these practices.

Suvendrini Perera

“I think what is meaningful is the depth of the issues addressed and the rich use of personal stories. The case study of Chilean women doing an anti-rape performance is a great example of this.”

Chilean women doing anti-rape performances in Santiago. Video: Colectivo LASTESIS

Curtin University Emeritus Professor Baden Offord is an internationally recognised scholar in culture and sexuality. He says that Dr Kasat’s research clearly shows how grassroots movements shape society through performance, craft, community of practice, and art.

Baden Offord. Photo: Curtin University.

“The thesis provides examples of how women of colour and women who are Indigenous can creatively intervene into society by challenging and resisting the oppressive and discriminatory patriarchal and colonial structures that exist in both Chile and Australia.”

Dr Kasat agrees that it is critical to theorise about community art practice and social change from the perspective of people of colour: “In Australia, there is little of this practice being theorised from the perspective of participants. Most organisations that run projects, particularly projects that the Government funds, would be in a governmental framework,” she says.

“In my subjectivity, as a woman of colour, I thought I was well-placed to write this piece of work. I understand from a practitioner point of view and now from running an organisation (as a CEO of community arts network) how this practice impacts people.

Dr Kasat says that with very little written from the perspective of people of colour, she wanted to hear from women she had worked with in the past, especially Aboriginal women.

According to Bunbury Regional Art Gallery’s South West, Noongar people believe that land is an inseparable part of their identity, and a significant element of being Noongar is to care for country.

Furthermore, arts and culture can educate the whole community about the Noongar connection to land and country.

Rosie Paine, an Indigenous artist from Newberry in the northeastern Goldfields of Western Australia, says she hopes her artwork causes people to connect to her stories and culture.

Rosie Paine. Photo: supplied.

“I create art by using a variety of traditional and contemporary stories,” she says.

“I want to create a social change of cultural responsiveness, which means tapping into people’s own stories and their unconscious bias to unlearn and relearn what they think they know about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

Art is about how Aboriginal identity and culture is living.

Rosie Paine

“Painting allows me to continually connect to the stories of my ancestors, my family, my culture and my country.

“When I paint, I feel this immense sense of peace and connection. It means more to me because my father, who taught me how to paint, has passed, and it is a way to connect him continually.”

Ms Paine says art is about how Aboriginal identity and culture is living.

However, community art practice is not only about the connection but also the cooperation.

Pilar Kasat reading her thesis. Photo: Yiying Li

Dr Kasat also sees creative practice difficulties connected in her birthplace in Chile and Australia, both colonised societies. She considers that as one of the turning points for her thesis.

“That was a significant point to begin to understand that decolonisation of women and how it carries through today in a way that women create arts and the critique they apply on their work,” she says.

“There are not many similarities in the artwork, but similarities in expressing their collective struggle through their arts. Women use art collectively to not only tell their own stories but tell collective stories about their families.”

Marcia Espinosa. Video: Yiying Li

Marcia Espinosa, a Chilean-Australian visual artist who grew up in the driest desert, the Atacama Desert, says that the indigenous culture and Catholic tradition have greatly influenced her work since she spent her childhood at the border of Peru and Bolivia.

I prefer art, because we can say something through to art.

Marcia Espinosa

“Women artists have been pushing the barrier of male artists ruling the art world bit by bit, and we have to help each other to make our voice more visible.”

Dr Kasat says: “We hope that more communities engage in this more critical of art-making collectively, where people who don’t have a lot of power get to excise power in this collective creative processes.”

Emeritus Professor Offord says: “The thesis is like a river,”

“Once you enter into the dialogue that is created between Australia and Chile through these extraordinary women’s art and performance, you are transformed by the currents, eddies and rapids that it produces.”