On confronting stories

Words Fay Edwards
Interview Kaylie Salvatori

It was only recently that it occurred to me to wonder what land I grew up on. As the daughter of white landowners on a farm an hour north of Canberra, my eyes saw landmarked by the coloniser’s hand – shearing sheds, fences, grassy plains…dirt roads carved into the side of a hill. On the millions of car trips past a swamp sitting alone amongst farmland, I never once questioned the history of the rusted sign, patched with moss, announcing ‘Wildlife Refuge’. Who fought for it (because I assume, they did), and when? 

Once, sitting in a humid share house surrounded by icy London grey, my English flatmate bluntly spoke of her horror at ‘Australia’s’ foundations. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of an English native telling a descendant of English convicts what was right and wrong, but I was taken aback. Why hadn’t I dug into the history of my country, unearthed and confronted the story of the land that I called my own?

My memories of school are foggy, and the strongest history lesson I remember was about the Ancient Greeks (our teacher spent his time playing guitar out the front, swept away by an alternate reality involving a band and a sea of sweaty heavy-metal fans). Our conversations at home focused more on the present – how the grass was growing, did the sheep look okay, should the horses be brought back in? As children we loved stories of The Three Sisters and Tiddalick the Frog – along with images of the boomerang, dot paintings, ochre and the didgeridoo. But I didn’t make the connection between these Indigenous stories and my own history.

My blind indifference is a sharp slap in the face to First Australians people, who since 1788 have endured unimaginable loss – underscored by tragedy, disadvantage and racism. My white friends and I (because truly, most of us are white), consider ourselves curious, open-minded and progressive. But when the murder of George Floyd sparked protests in America and at home, we were confronted by our damaging disconnect with the existence and impact of racism in Australia. Because as convenient as it is to pretend that Australia is a “wonderful country” (so gloated our Prime Minister), it’s unacceptable to ignore the truth. 

So, what does that mean in practice? It means listening and learning – to the uncomfortable truths, the ugly reality – but also to the joy and wonder of our Indigenous culture: past, present and future. It’s not that easy, of course. But white Australia has suffocated the voice of First Nations people – we all have a role to play in letting that voice out and listening to it.

One of the most present ways to engage with our recent history is to listen to the stories being told by the buildings and spaces we have and continue to create. I’ve spent much of my (fledgling) career working with communities impacted by urban development in Sydney to help them ‘have their say’. What happens in practice is a subject for another day, but I’m sure it comes as no surprise that Indigenous voices are rarely sought, and even more rarely listened to. 

There are some exceptions. I have been lucky enough to work on a development that is home to a native rooftop farm – an Australian first. At a workshop, I listened to one of the team state their purpose – to “take back sacred land, one garden at a time”. His words not only spoke to the importance of Country to Indigenous Australians, but also to the relationship between power and the built environment.

There are so many stories being told in our cities – of Indigenous culture, of colonialism, even white supremacy – that many of us ignore. But for those who pay attention, there are layers of them being told above and below the cement. Stories that go way back, thousands and thousands of years. And stories that go back around the corner, so close you feel the breath of them as you walk away. Connecting with these stories requires humility, an open mind, and Indigenous voices to bring them alive.

Kaylie Salvatori is one of these diverse Indigenous voices. Through her work as
Senior Landscape Architect and Indigenous Landscape Strategist at Arcadia,
Kaylie works to advocate for and facilitate Indigenous design.

Over two conversations, on the pier at Pyrmont one morning before work, and
over the phone from my family’s farm while the world was brought to a sudden
stop by COVID-19, we walked through issues of design and the built environment,
and how they could be a mechanism for suppression, liberation, and storytelling.

Fay: How did you become a Landscape Architect?

Kaylie: Well, it took a few steps to get here. When I left school, I studied Fine Arts at the University of Newcastle. But as much as I loved Fine Arts, after a while I found myself looking for something more politically engaging. I wanted to create something that had a life outside someone’s home.

So I started studying law and development studies [a degree which centres on human development, poverty, inequality and sustainability]. I loved development studies but felt jaded by the law component. I also felt that I would end up becoming a regulator rather than a creator in the process of advocating for the community and Country.

During this period, I met my partner who was studying Landscape Architecture. I’d never felt a connection to studies of the built environment, which since European invasion, has been a force of colonisation – a process of spatially expressing and imposing imperial values onto our land, buildings, places and people.

But my interest in landscape architecture was piqued, so in my final semester for Development Studies I did a built environment course – ‘Places, People and Design’. It was about how people attach meaning to space – and one of my first thoughts was how Indigenous people have been doing exactly this since time immemorial.

What meaning is attached to the spaces you move through in Sydney?

As an Aboriginal woman, I search for our histories in the city landscape. Settler history is all around me, the city is soaked in it. Colonial values are so embedded in the built environment discipline that we have seen the literal importation of landscapes from across the seas – so much so that some of our places no longer look like ours.

But just as the built environment has been an expression of colonisation, so too can design work as a vehicle of change.

How are you using design as a vehicle for change?

Working at Arcadia has meant I am given the space to focus on building an Indigenous approach to Landscape Architecture. For me, this requires a shift in the protocol of design – which is something I am still working towards.

Due to its history as a colonising force, alongside institutional elitism – the built environment industry has one of the lowest representations of Indigenous people, which is one of our major hurdles in realising post-colonial practice and Indigenous engagement. Through utilising design as a vehicle for change, we work to re-frame the built environment as an Indigenous advocate, clearing the way for First Nations people to forge careers in this industry.

Why is this so important?

Landscape is Country. It is our provider, educator, home and identity. A true cultural narrative and place-based design will seek to connect with this. It will seek to not only connect to the histories, cultures and communities that make up a place but also to express community desires and values for the future. This approach to design provides the platforms for which cultural practices and learning take place, where art and identity are expressed and celebrated. As a vehicle of cultural expression, how we design and manage our lands matters. Fundamentally it requires diverse representation in the professions that make these spaces.

What does this mean in practice?

Decolonising the landscape inherently requires a shift in process and protocol. It requires a community-based approach, trust, commitment to truth and a willingness to learn.

When I start the design of a place, I find out where it is – whose Country it is found in. Then I observe the physiography – the landform, textures and ecologies. And then I look at the history of a place. What ancient stories lie below the surface?

Take Sydney Harbour as an example. There is a history beneath the water – stories of ancient people gathering below. This is a Dreaming Story that has been carried through time – almost 11,000 years.

It’s important that the places we create and connect to these stories – stories that are so often hidden below the surface.

And finally, can you tell me a bit about what you’ll be working on in the
coming months?

Well it’s hard to know what the rest of 2020 will bring, but I am hoping that my new position will bring more community-led projects – in my experience so far, it’s these projects that are the most fulfilling. Unfortunately, the process that many project programs follow often make it very hard to engage community properly from start to finish – cultural knowledge doesn’t change the way it is taught and learned just because a developer has a deadline; and obligations to Country don’t change because there’s a tight budget.

There’s a lot of work to be done in this regard, and there are a lot of amazing people working towards changing these processes for the better. I’m hoping I can do my part to facilitate community aspirations via design and look forward to working on these projects as they arise – watch this space!

Kaylie knows something that I am only beginning to understand. That there are layers of stories embedded in the places that we live in and move through that speak of our past and our present – of what we value and celebrate, and of what we choose to forget. So now, when I drive past those paddocks at home, I wonder about the trees. Who walked under them before I and my forebears did? How did they manage the landscape? What food did they eat? And what language did they speak?

And when I walk through the streets of Sydney, I notice the overt presence of white Australia. The absence of Indigenous Australia in our monuments, our streets, our food, our language. But I also feel a swelling of interest – a craving amongst my friends, family and colleagues. To understand our past, to work in solidarity to address the problems of our present, and to celebrate First Nations from now and into the future.

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