Thu. Aug 18th, 2022

Indigenous artists, major art organizations, and Aboriginal health services are calling for a roadmap to protect indigenous elders from dying of COVID-19 and the irreplaceable loss of culture and knowledge that would cause.

The organizations are concerned that as Australia opens up and travel restrictions ease, the virus could reach more vulnerable remote communities.

Lily Roy is a prominent senior weaving artist, traditional owner and also sits on the board of the Arnhem Land Progress Association, and she founded the Milingimbi Art and Culture Center on the island of Milingimbi (Yurrwi).


But Mrs Roy, a grandmother of at least 35 children, is very concerned about what could happen to indigenous people if COVID-19 spreads in remote communities, especially with some vaccination doubts still in the community.

“[Of] of course there is a danger, ”she said.

Mrs Roy is also a board member of ANKA, Arnhem, Northern and the Kimberley Artists Aboriginal Corporation, the highest legal body for Aboriginal artists and art centers in Northern Australia.

ANKA is one of the native art groups calling for a driver’s license to protect Aboriginal artists living on their traditional land.

The organization’s CEO Christina Balcombe Davidson said there was a serious risk of losing culture and even language extinction if the oldest dies of COVID-19 in remote communities that have little infrastructure, limited health care and overcrowded housing.

“We are extremely concerned about the safety of the Aborigines and of them, of the culture they are stewards of,” she said.

“The loss of an elder can be the loss of absolutely irreplaceable, invaluable cultural knowledge.

‘A huge loss for society and for the world’

Leading artists and major art organizations recently held a webinar to discuss the situation.

On this call was Bruce Johnson McLean, assistant director of native engagement at the National Gallery of Australia.

“The death of an elder, an elderly cultural figure – a senior cultural doctor; a senior artist – is a huge loss to society and to the world,” he said.

A brown-haired man with a beard in a suit looks at the camera.
Assistant Director of Indigenous Engagement England’s Bruce Johnson McLean says the National Gallery of Australia will be led by indigenous communities by reopening borders. (Delivered to: National Gallery of Australia )

“For a place like the National Gallery, we need to understand how we work with communities in the future, to ensure that we do everything we can to protect the community at the same time, but also share culture.”

At the webinar, an emotionally charged dr. Hugh Heggie, Chief Medical Officer of the Northern Territory.

“If we do not get vaccinated for Aborigines, I will say this and it makes me sad because the old people will die if the virus enters our remote community,” he told participants.

The Northern Territory considers internal travel restrictions as boundaries

The Northern Territory government has indicated that internal travel restrictions could be introduced as soon as next month to isolate remote communities where vaccination rates are below the 80-90 percent target.

Last week, however, NT Prime Minister Michael Gunner told ABC that he did not believe biosafety zones previously set up to protect remote communities from COVID-19 were effective and instead said they could encourage people not to be vaccinated because they felt safe.

“Biosafety zones can be quite resource intensive and not deliver the result we are looking for, so we are working on what these public health measures will be,” he said.

Christina Davidson ANKA
Christina Balcombe Davidson of ANKA calls for a reopening of the roadmap to protect indigenous artists and elders. (Delivered: Christina Davidson)

Mrs Davidson said a higher vaccination threshold was needed for indigenous communities and that restrictions on visitors to communities would be important.

“The Aboriginal-controlled health services say there must be at least 100 percent vaccination or between 95-100 percent vaccination before it opens, and it is not there,” she said.

She said ANKA supports classifying all staff at remote centers as key workers.

“Art centers in many communities are the heart of the community, they do much more than just produce art or run an art store,” she said. “They provide a whole range of social and cultural support to communities.”

“[At] Lily’s art center in Milingimbi, they had a kitchen garden going on that they supported people with, they had all sorts of cultural activities that kept people’s morals up, and also [they] we record the invaluable cultural knowledge that is … one of the potential things that can be threatened. “

McLean of the National Gallery agrees that a roadmap would be useful for organizations looking to work with distant native artists.

“What are the things we need to keep in mind when visiting communities? And how can we largely apply that approach to a variety of indigenous communities when we want to work with them?

“I believe that a roadmap for reopening, but also a set of protocols for engaging local communities through this period, will become really important to ensure that we protect our people, our culture and the livelihoods of these communities.”


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