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If you haven’t already encountered Alison Page, that would be a surprise. She appeared for eight years as a regular panellist on the ABC show, The New Inventors. As a descendant of the Walbanga and Wadi Wadi people of the Yuin nation and as a leading force in the Australian design scene, she champions contemporary creative expression of Aboriginal identity.
A business owner and mother, Alison maintains a head-spinning schedule of commitments. She injects her passion and distinctively modern perspective into designing her award-winning jewellery label Diamond Dreaming, directing the annual Aboriginal culture festival Saltwater Freshwater held in her adopted home on the Mid North Coast, her role as the EO of the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance, being a creative director at the Aboriginal Design Agency in Coffs Harbour and participating in an expert advisory panel appointed by Prime Minister Gillard as a part of the Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous People.
Drawing on an inexhaustible wellspring of creative energy, she’s a deadly woman and she has more in store for us yet.
You told Message Stick that you feel like you’re “riding the crest of your wave”. What new things are you working on? It has been a dream of mine for ten years to develop carpets, textiles, furniture and lighting that incorporate Aboriginal storytelling and design. Through engagement with manufacturers, I want to occupy a space between art and design where Aboriginal artists can earn a royalty for licensing their designs. Not only will it create an opportunity to share our Aboriginal cultural stories with a global audience, it will provide meaningful employment for our people living on country who are balancing their work with raising a family. This concept represents a solution to some of the wicked social problems that face our communities and I hope that it heralds a new era of investment in employment solutions.
How have the arts impacted your life? I believe everyone has a creative bone in their body; it is about finding the right type of expression for it whether it’s gardening, cooking or fine art. I think the human need to tell stories is strong and self-expression is central to a holistic sense of wellbeing. It connects us with our core beliefs and deepens our spiritual growth. Thinking laterally and creatively, which I was trained to do at design school has been one of the most useful life skills that I have been taught. I am able to tackle problems with creativity which opens up new possibilities.
What is the National Aboriginal Design Agency and how are you involved with it? I am the creative director of the National Aboriginal Design Agency which brokers partnerships between manufacturers and Aboriginal artists to make innovative products that ‘tell a story’. As an Aboriginal interior designer, the agency is fulfilling a life-long dream to see our culture integrated into the built environment in meaningful ways.
We have developed a system of licensing with Aboriginal intellectual property lawyer, Terri Janke which makes it easy for manufacturers to develop a range with Aboriginal artists whilst providing best practice protection for the artist.
What were the challenges you faced when you approached the local land councils to form theSaltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance? When people heard that we were bringing ten Local Aboriginal Land Councils together to form an alliance they all said it would never work because you would have too many competing interests. The other challenge was that we were asking each Land Council for an investment of $4,000 each year for the first three years, which was a tall order given the limited funds they receive.
Luckily, they believed in the concept and the effective partnership between the land councils is galvanised around promoting and strengthening culture and delivers on-going mutual benefits to all of the organisations involved in the Alliance.
The stakeholder governance structure allows for genuine, effective and long-term engagement and collaboration with and between the communities in the Mid North Coast through the extensive Land Council membership base. Our governance model enables and supports the sharing of leadership, knowledge and skills between Local Aboriginal Land Councils and their communities.
What is the Saltwater Freshwater Alliance’s purpose for being? Our mission is to position culture as the foundation for the social, economic and cultural development of the region’s Aboriginal communities. We do this by developing culturally-based employment opportunities for Aboriginal people in art, events and design. A year round program of arts and cultural activities is delivered in ten Aboriginal communities across the Mid North Coast which feature at the annual nomadic Saltwater Freshwater Festival held on Australia Day.
What is involved in hosting an annual event like the Saltwater Freshwater Festival? The event has grown in the last four years to one of the largest and professionally run events on the Mid North Coast. Internally, that has required building our capacity in all aspects of event management and we have now pulled together an amazing team that includes over 100 Aboriginal people from security guards to performers and volunteer coordinators. We also have a family of sponsors including our Principal Partner, GenerationOne, that allow the Festival to be a free and inclusive Australia Day event with Aboriginal culture taking its rightful place front row and centre.
Externally the level of engagement that happens at a regional and community level is massive. Without this we would not be able to recruit over 80 volunteers, attract over 30 stallholders, or include meaningful local content in the program.
What do you believe is the future of Aboriginal art in your region? Our organisation recognises and supports the unique cultural identity of the Mid North Coast region. This region has its own distinct style of art and traditional cultural practices which our organisation is involved in reviving and maintaining. We are reviving weaving practices, canoe building and have even developed an iPhone application containing 34 stories from seven different communities.
Our aim is to celebrate and share our Aboriginal living culture, as distinctive from other more high profile areas in Australia, with the rest of the world. The Saltwater Freshwater branding is a platform for the development of small to medium enterprises; a cultural hub from which to branch out and benefit. We drive the demand, they deliver.
We also recognise the importance of engaging elders groups in the region to pass on traditional cultural practices which then merge with modern styles of dance, music, visual arts and design, strengthening the contemporary identity of the region.
What is still yet to be achieved in promoting Aboriginal culture? Reinvention, preservation and revival of traditional cultural practices and passing them onto youth is what will sustain our culture in the long-term. From storytelling to language to making artefacts, young people are thirsty to engage in their culture and have the creativity to make it relevant to the modern world. If we want to continue to wear the badge of the world’s oldest living culture then we must develop strong cultural practices that are passed onto the large number of young people coming through.
Are you still a hands-on artist? I have a range of award-winning jewellery called Diamond Dreaming, which was launched in 2007 and is a partnership between me and Mondial Pink Diamond Ateliers. I also design custom jewellery where I interpret people’s personal stories into symbols which I fashion into jewellery.
As creative director of the National Aboriginal Design Agency, I am very hands on. Co-creating textiles and carpets with Aboriginal artists and manufacturers requires my design expertise on a daily basis.
What is your creative environment like? I am inspired by the world around me, mostly nature so my creative environment can be the beach one day and a paperbark forest the next. I have a beautiful design space but I often find that creativity can come when you are in a waiting room or on a plane so I always carry a visual diary.
What advice would you offer young people? I think that you need to have passion for what you do, which is why I believe in culturally based employment opportunities. If your cultural identity is strengthened every day that you go to work then it becomes more than just a job; it can nourish your spirit.