Art brings understanding

– languages not lost

Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities are now compiling a cache of books geared to celebrate their culture and many languages. They are publishing the works of their writers and artists and promoting the myriad of different voices of Indigenous Australia.

For over 40 years, IAD Press has been compiling and publishing these books with cultural integrity. They include unique Aboriginal children’s books, fiction stories, books about natural history, guides to bush foods and medicines, dictionaries and biographies, collections of poetry and short stories and calendars featuring desert art.

Based in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), the traditional lands of the Arrernte people, IAD Press is the publishing arm of the Institute for Aboriginal Development (Aboriginal Corporation), a not-for-profit Aboriginal community controlled organisation.

A significant contributor to the IAD publication Central Anmatyerr Picture Dictionary is Northern Territory Aboriginal Elder, artist and assistant teacher April Campbell Napangardi.

On a recent trip to Sydney, April met with IEUA Federal President John Quessy and explained aspects of her work with school children at Ti Tree School. She has worked at this very remote government school (Preschool to Year 8) in Northern Territory for 20 years. Ti Tree is located approximately 200kms north of Alice Springs.

The school has 86 students enrolled and services two communities: Six Mile, (Anmatyerr language group), and Ti Tree Station (Walpiri language group).

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

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

The Central Anmatyerr Picture Dictionary was the first in a series published to help preserve and educate about Central Australian languages. There were over 40 contributors to the picture dictionary but it was April’s images on the cover and throughout that give extraordinary meaning and understanding, keeping language alive and shared.

The dictionary consists of pictures accompanied by an Anmatyerr word, and a short sentence to explain usage. The body of the book is arranged in themes: people, Country, family, bush plants and animal.

At the back of the dictionary are lists of Anmatyerr texts with their English translations, together with a guide to pronunciation.

There’s a wraparound image created by April on the cover of the Central Anmatyerr Picture Dictionary. In talking about this image April explains “I made this painting with the three places in it – Napperby, Ti Tree and Mount Allan. At first the schools from these places got together to talk about the idea of making an Anmatyerr language book. We wanted to make the book so that future generations of children could learn to write Anmatyerr – so that they would not lose their language. The children of the future will be able to read and write our language.”

April’s influence extends much wider than this tiny Ti Tree 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.

April says: “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 canvases show it. Like the sand pictures, the canvases don’t depict the whole animal, just their footprints.

“Teaching dot painting helps bring the past and present to life for students and makes language come alive too.”

The IEUA NSW/ACT Branch has purchased one of April’s paintings, which helps her continue her life’s work.

The title is Women Dreaming, and 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”.

For additional Aboriginal language, arts and culture books see

Bronwyn Ridgway and Sue Osborne