Way Outback: Teaching in the Great Red Center

Turkey Bore near Ernabella
Date farm area
Mt. Connor in the distance
Flying into Yulara you can see Uluru (aka Ayer's Rock) on the left below the horizon.

I've been down in Australia for the last month working in Ernabella, Pukatja community. I've intentionally held off from blogging to let my mind settle. This trip has been about reflecting on the bigger picture whereas my first trip was all about absorbing the details. Last year I found myself swept up in the newness of the environment. Every sunrise, inma song and sgraffito pattern led me back to the question "Where am I?" Coming back to friends and an area that I now see as familiar has shifted this question to "Why am I here?"

There is the obvious answer. I'm here working on a community service grant from the state of South Australia to encourage Anangu men to work with ceramics as a vocation. This is much needed with extremely high unemployment and no industry to speak of in the middle of the central desert. There is also a more nuanced answer. I am here to help a struggling community with a strong cultural identity express that identity through objects that also function commodities. The positive thing about this arrangement is that there is a strong market for paintings and ceramics that express Anangu identity. The not so positive part of the situation is that Anangu don't seem to think about time or financial need. Selling is not the main motivation for them to make art. This is generally a good perspective but selling can be a positive motivation to get a piece finished within a time frame that fits the ceramic process. Without an attachment to the final product one day projects turn into three day projects that don't get finished. 

Much like last year I came down with grand visions about what could be achieved in the community. It is good to think big when you are in the planning stages of a project but its been a big reality check to see the lack of interest on the community's part. Its not that there aren't people in the studio working its just that they are the same men that I became friends with last year. I hoped we would expand our circle to include men that are my age or younger. I thought men would be jumping at the chance to increase their financial stability and therefore their status in the community. The reality is that most Anangu men want to hunt Kangaroo. Making ceramics is a hobby. 

I'm not sitting in judgement writing this post as a complaint. I'm sitting here as a teacher trying to figure out how to motivate students who don't think learning what I am teaching is as important as I do. Isn't this the great dilemma of teaching? I don't have any immediate solutions but after a month I feel like I have my head screwed on straight about what my challenges are. I'm in the middle of readjusting my expectations to meet the student's needs as opposed to what I want them to need. I have one month left so I'll keep you posted on how this goes. For the time being I'm focusing all my attention onto the guys that are already in the studio. I'm hoping word will spread and other guys will migrate into the studio. 

I'm also enjoying the hell out of the world class mountain biking that we have discovered in the area. Its been a huge thrill to ride thousands of feet of unexplored rock. You can see from the color of the earth in these pictures why they call this the Great Red Center. 


  1. hey ben, time is a concept in flux in the desert....enjoy your stay in the community :)

    1. Hello Angela,
      Sorry I took so long to respond to your comment. Time is definitely in flux out here. The past 7 weeks have just zipped by. Thanks for reading the blog.

  2. I see that you mention guys and men over and over. Just wondering if there are any ladies over there itching to get their hands in clay? Love your work and seeing the pictures you're posting on Instagram!

    1. Hello Rachel,
      Thanks for stopping by the blog. My trip was funded by a grant aimed at employing men. In many aboriginal communities male unemployment (and overall unemployment) is above 90%. My workshop was billed as a "men's workshop" but I did work with women as well. There are plenty of women who are interested in ceramics here. In fact the women love when someone like me comes to make them pots to decorate. Generally here the men make pots and decorate while the the women just decorate. The women are magnificent painters so many of them have been working in the painting studio while I worked with the men in ceramics. If I get the time I'd like to write a post about the gender dynamic here. It is a stratified society where men and women interact in a structured way.

      One of the reasons I don't have many pictures of women posted on the blog is that it is less culturally appropriate for me to ask a women if I can take her picture. I have worked with the men enough that they don't mind. Generally no pictures are allowed in the art center because of the Anangu sensitivity to picture taking. Having said that I'll be posting pictures of the work we made and the handfull of men that I worked with over the last 7 weeks.

      Hope you are doing well. Thanks for reading.

  3. What if you approached this opportunity in a way that spoke to these unemployed? If they are concerned about hunting Kangaroo, perhaps that is more their currency than money. The commodity these people value may not lie in finances. Is there a way to connect the pottery to kangaroo? Perhaps with totemic symbols, or containers that are specifically designed around kangaroo hunting? What is most important to them? I remember reading once that aboringinal imagery depicted history and story telling, and in that way was very functional. Perhaps these people can preserve their own history and culture in a form known to be able to last millenia. It is impossible, of course, to tell what these people hold dear at their core, but there must be some way to connect the opportunity of pottery related employment to gratification for these young hunters.