From sand to canvas

Bringing stories and culture to life

Every new teacher who comes to our school gets a skin name . . . it’s like they are brothers or sisters with others with the same skin name.

Northern Territory Aboriginal Elder, artist and assistant teacher April Campbell Napangardi is promoting understanding of her art and culture to a wide audience.

IEUA NSW/ACT Branch recently purchased one of April’s art pieces, and in doing so is helping to support her work.

April has worked at Ti Tree School, a Northern Territory government preschool to Year 8, officially classified as ‘very remote’, for 20 years.

As teaching assistant and language and cultural coordinator she teaches students to read and write ‘in language’ and also works as a translator for students being taught in English while in class.

Ti Tree is a tiny township located on the Stuart Highway 194km north of Alice Springs.

It has an enrolment of 86 students and services two communities: Six Mile, (Anmatyerr language group), and Ti Tree Station (Walpiri language group).

However, April’s influence extends much wider than this tiny community, as she also teaches art and works as a cultural advisor with three NSW schools which take Aboriginal boarders: The Scots School Bathurst, Meriden School Strathfield and Trinity Grammar School Summer Hill.

Teachers from these schools visit Ti Tree for cultural awareness training and April makes the long trip to Sydney to visit the schools, spending time with staff and students. She said it was crucial for teachers to have more confidence and understanding of Aboriginal culture and language, to share with all students and make sure boarding students’ needs are understood.

“I teach teachers from other schools how to understand culture and they share it with others in newsletters, with photos and in assembly.

“Art teachers want to learn about painting but also some maths teachers come. They are interested to see how we do maths in our culture – how we use the sun and shadows for time, how we do direction for hunting in the bush.

“They learn about our skin name system – how we are connected like families by it.”

April said learning about skin names was important because boarders away from the country would be connected by skin names. It is also a way of making teachers new to Ti Tree feel included.

“Every new teacher who comes to our school gets a skin name . . . it’s like they are brothers or sisters with others with the same skin name.”

April uses art to “create learning pathways” as well as keeping culture alive.

“The Elders used to tell kids stories on the sand. Today we are putting stories on canvas but using the same techniques. We’re still hunting witchetty grubs, goannas and kangaroos and the canvasses show it. Like the sand pictures, the canvasses don’t depict the whole animal, just their footprints.”

April said teaching dot painting helps bring the past and present to life for students and makes language come alive too.

“It shows young people what we used to do in the past but it’s about the present too. The students use art to decorate tables at the school, create t-shirts for NAIDOC Week, to design the uniforms.”

Away from country, culture is a vital connection for students and teachers.

“The students love going to boarding school but they miss taking part in cultural activities. It’s important that teachers have an awareness and understanding of culture so they can share and participate with students while they are in the city.”

The painting now gracing the IEU’s office is called Women Dreaming. On the back of the canvas April has written: “This painting is about women hunting. They are hunting for bush foods, women are hunting around the waterholes so they can find witchetty grubs, bush berries, bush onions and bush plums”.

Sue Osborne