When Melbourne-based architect Jefa Greenaway, a Wailwan / Kamilaroi man, asks students to pick the buildings designed by Indigenous people, they invariably get it wrong. “It’s not about aesthetics, but relationships to people, to country, to place,” he says. I was born in Sydney (on Gadigal lands), grew up on the Central Coast of NSW, Darkinjung Country, across the road from the ocean. It was an idyllic childhood of sun, sand and water. When I was about 10, my family moved to Kulin Nation Country in Melbourne. Jefa states, “GONE ARE THE DAYS OF HANGING A DOT PAINTING IN THE FOYER.”
I had quite a circuitous journey into architecture. It started with my ability to draw – that immediacy of mind to hand. Manual dexterity with quickness of thought, and a curiosity about how things fit together. But my first love was politics. I was studying political science when I realised there is a strong correlation between politics and planning and architecture – a form of cultural expression. So I enrolled in architecture and for a while studied both simultaneously, and also worked in an architectural practice. It was an intense time – a real fermentation in the design culture of Melbourne. It was also when I first delved deeply into my Aboriginal heritage, largely through connecting with the Indigenous cohort on campus.
New filmic exhibition Inbetween explores cultural connections through design.
A digital reimagining of Australia’s pavilion exhibition for the 2021 Venice Biennale of Architecture will be shown at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. The exhibition is part of a longstanding collaboration between the Alastair Swayn Foundation and the National Museum, through the Museum’s Swayn Fellowship in Australian Design.
Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, curators Jefa Greenaway and Tristan Wong were unable to implement the installation in Venice so they pivoted to a virtual format that will endure long after the biennale has closed.
The theme for the 2021 biennale (22 May to 21 November 2021) was “how will we live together” and in response Jefa Greenaway and Tristan Wong developed Inbetween, a series of architectural projects and processes selected for their powerful representations of Indigenous peoples and cultures.
The immersive, large-scale filmic experience features 20 projects in remote, regional and metropolitan locations across all states and territories in Australia as well as New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Fiji and Vanuatu.
The groundbreaking Swayn Centre for Australian Design focusses on all aspects of design, including architecture, landscape architecture, fashion, graphic design, furniture as well as product and digital design. The goal of the centre is to increase public connection to and appreciation of Australian design, through collections, collaborations, exhibitions, events and research.
National Museum of Australia director, Dr Mathew Trinca, said: “This exhibition explores the architecture and architectural practices from a region with the richest and most diverse number of language groups and cultures anywhere in the world and we are delighted to share it with visitors to the National Museum.
“Architecture enables us to connect, to evoke Country, to reveal layers of history and memory, and to give cultural expression to our shared humanity through an approach centred on people and how they live and work,” Dr Trinca said. Because I never grew up on Country, and having a bicultural experience with a German mother shaped my early life. But as I got older my connection to Indigenous culture deepened. At uni in the early 90s there was a lot of activism with significant figures on campus like Gary Foley and Prof. Marcia Langton AM. It was a powerful time. “THERE IS MUCH MORE THAT CONNECTS US THAN SEPARATES US.”
Empowering Indigenous voices, looking at design equity – how we shape our places and spaces in the Age of Treaty. How the wisdom in over 3,000 generations of knowledge systems relates specifically to place, design and cultural expression. Bigger ideas than purely architecture have driven me for over twenty-five years.
Indigenous architecture is political by its very nature. We think more carefully about our contribution. We operate in a social contract that demands we improve the environments we’re working with. That means not contributing to unsustainable outcomes or further biodiversity loss. I’m optimistic because it feels like there’s a growing appetite to engage meaningfully and embrace the diversity of who we are as a nation through design.
I do this thing at university where I show a lot of slides of different pieces of contemporary architecture and ask the audience to pick which are designed by Indigenous people and which aren’t. Almost invariably the work they think is designed by an Indigenous architect isn’t, and the work they think isn’t Indigenous designed, actually is! It’s clearly not about aesthetics, but relationships to people, to Country, to place. “INDIGENOUS CULTURE IS NOT HOMOGENOUS, IT’S A RICH MOSAIC.”
Graham Humphries, chairperson of the Alastair Swayn Foundation, said: “The Alastair Swayn Foundation is proud to support this extraordinary installation through the Swayn Centre at the National Museum of Australia. “Architecture and design have an inevitable and important social impact on communities. It’s an increasing necessity for non-Indigenous peoples to engage with Indigenous peoples to understand how their culture and knowledge systems can inform contemporary architectural practice,” Mr Humphries said.
“Jefa and Tristan, through Inbetween, have curated a moving, immersive experience that augments connectivity within our region and celebrates the diversity of language and culture across the Pacific. The collaborative projects highlighted in Inbetween vividly demonstrate the power architecture has to enrich and revitalise First Nations knowledge, cultures and identities.
“It is a privilege to support sharing this work with the Australian people, and we hope engagement with the exhibition fosters these integral partnerships to amplify and endure,” Mr Humphries said.
Tristan Wong said: “Embedding practices and knowledge that has been around for more than 60,000 years into the way we design buildings creates opportunities for a new kind of architecture that is better for people, cities and the environment.” Jefa Greenaway said: “What we’re looking at through the exhibition is how architects, both non-Indigenous and Indigenous, are working with First Nations peoples – traditional owners, knowledge keepers and elders – as a way of embedding cultural authenticity into our built environment.”
Australian Institute of Architects’ National President Tony Giannone said: “For the first time, this partnership gives many Australians the opportunity to experience a part of the most celebrated architecture festival in the world face-to-face in a premier national exhibition space. With Inbetween, Jefa and Tristan have curated a powerful and very timely expression of the architecture profession’s commitment to engage more meaningfully with First Nations peoples and our appreciation of Indigenous knowledge and culture in how we practice.” Inbetween is on display in the National Museum of Australia’s Focus Gallery until 12 June 2022.
Jefa practice is a founding signatory of Architects Declare Australia, he is co-curator of the Australian exhibition ‘InBetween’ at La Biennale Architettura di Venezia 2020/21 and was recently included in the Qantas 100 Inspiring Australians and was a 2020 inductee into the Design Institute of Australia’s (DIA) ‘Hall of Fame’ signifying an outstanding contribution to Australian design. His projects include the award winning Ngarara Place, the Koorie Heritage Trust, the Wilin Centre among many other projects for Community. There is much more that connects us than separates us. Parts of this interview is by PETER SALHANI