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National Reconciliation Week: In conversation with Shannon Foster

Date: May 30, 2022
Category: Insights
2 Shannons Art work Naba Gumal Family and Friends 2018
Shannon’s artwork ‘Naba Gumal’, Family and Friends (2018)
In celebration of our Indigenous Consultants for National Reconciliation Week, Bianca Pineda from our Sydney Studio spoke to Shannon Foster, D'harawal Eora Knowledge Keeper, and Founding Partner at Bangawarra to hear more about Bangawarra’s commitment to Country centred design.

Bangawarra is a War’ran (Sydney) based art and architecture partnership that challenges colonial spatial practices, by listening-to, valuing and respecting tens-of-millennia of unbroken ancestral knowledge and culture in this space. Bangawarra provide site-specific Aboriginal knowledges, language and cultural consultancy and work with clients to reveal relevance to spatial design and planning.

Thanks to to Shannon for being so generous as always with her time and insights. It’s always a pleasure to work with her and her partner, Jo Kinniburgh on projects across War’ran.

How do you juggle the different hats you wear, from a person with Aboriginal heritage, to a consultant, an academic and an Indigenous Knowledge holder?

First Nations people have always had to navigate these tricky spaces, to straddle the ‘cultural interface’. It feels new to people outside of our community but we have been doing this our whole lives. We need to know how to negotiate everyone’s ways of being including our own and talk differently to many different people. Sometimes that means softening the intensity of the message, start slowly or inch our way in.

Do the right opportunities to have these conversations come up enough?

They do come up, a lot. Now with the GANSW Connecting with Country framework, there are lot of people asking those questions. And obviously Reconciliation Week, National Sorry day and NAIDOC week give us the opportunity to really hold the floor. Making time for Aboriginal people to come into your business and industries, to lead the conversation, it’s the only way for us to move forward.

In the time since you’ve worked in the design world what are the biggest differences you’ve noticed?

There have been so many changes! It’s been an amazing ride. As soon as the government gets on board, change can flow through an industry. So in this instance the Connecting with Country framework. I’ve seen the same thing happen in education and the updates to the Australian Curriculum.

Unfortunately in this world – unless you’re forced to do something, it’s really difficult to do it. Other priorities take precedence, time, or budget. But since government has shown leadership in this space the conversation has really shifted – we don’t get asked ‘why do I need to do this’ or ‘does it really matter’ anymore.

Outside our communities people just embrace these new ideas and concepts people can see that Country can unite us all now which is so exciting. All my life I’ve wanted to see us represented us in the built environment and now its finally coming to fruition.
What are some of the challenges of working in the design world as a consultant?

Working in this industry - I represent my family and my communities from different people and places. And that’s my number one priority – to represent them and to act in a way that make my family and community proud.

At times, I have worked with people who haven’t respected the process of working with Aboriginal people. I have had to have some pretty patient conversations to help them to understand the iterative, educational and transformative process that working with Community is! Hopefully this helps them to take open minds and ears to their future projects.

3 Shannons Art work Garugarung Gurad Beautiful Country 2017
Shannon’s artwork ‘Garugarung Gurad’, Beautiful Country (2017)
What about career highlights?

Nothing feels as good as winning! We have won a really exciting project, but it’s still under wrap so I can’t say anything.

The Naba Gumal painting for the City of Sydney was very special. I spoke to lots of Aboriginal people living in working and Sydney and I used their handprints so it could be a real community painting. I wanted people to be able to see themselves in the work, and share in the happiness and success of the project. That’s still being used five years later – so getting that job, doing the work, and seeing it fly all over the streets is mindblowing!

If you could leave the world of designers with one message, what would it be?

This work is transformative. It changes your thinking, your feeling, it connects to you the place where you’re from, it opens up your mind to a whole range of thoughts and ideas and ways of being. We’re all quite stuck in a contemporary, western way of being and there are other ways – we don’t need to stick with business as usual.

And we have to do this work now. Its never a moment too soon, but it definitely can be too late.

Country has to be prioritised, because it’s the one thing that keeps us alive. It’s our Mother. We can’t eat, drink or breath money. Country is what keeps us alive and its crazy to think any other way.