Workshops explore local Aboriginal art and culture

Using shells handpicked from beaches along Sydney's east coast, young people from the hospital’s chronic illness support group used paint and glue to position the tiny objects onto cardboard shapes.

The art form, known as shellwork, has been practised for centuries by the traditional owners of the land in which the Sydney Children's Hospital, Randwick stands.

La Perouse Elder and artist Aunty Lola Ryan gathered the shells locally. Her daughter Melinda ran the workshop in July - teaching eight young people from the hospital's Chronic Illness Peer Support (ChIPS) group about the rich history of the cultural tradition.

One of the workshop organisers, ChIPS Youth Arts Coordinator Jourdan Hancock, highlighted the importance of promoting understanding of local Aboriginal cultures while using art to connect young people at the hospitals.

For children and young people, it is imperative that (we) represent our diverse communities so that (they) feel safe to access the health care system and the services we provide," ChIPS Youth Arts Coordinator Jourdan Hancock said.

"Having an opportunity for young people to see their cultures or to engage in the process of reconciliation supports a cultural shift in paediatric healthcare, to support our communities better."

In two workshops held at The Children's Hospital at Westmead (CHW), the ChIPS group and teenagers from hospital wards learnt about a different tradition passed down through the area's local Aboriginal community - painting with natural ochre pigments.

Yanmala cultural educators helped organise the sessions - using ochre art to build understanding and respect for local Aboriginal culture. Darug woman, Erin Wilkins, passed on her knowledge to around 20 workshop participants.

It's about showing the different art styles, how to put symbolism and storytelling into mapping,” Aunty Erin said.

"(We are teaching) the different uses and the way we get ochre, where we find it and how we use it to paint either ourselves during a ceremony or artwork for knowledge transfer."

The ChIPS group is a youth-led service that provides psychosocial support for young people with chronic illness through group activities. The Aboriginal art workshops were the first time the group met in person in several months due to COVID restrictions. Speaking about what she learnt, one member, Liv, said the hands-on training was a welcome change.

"It was a nice experience. We were making these Indigenous artworks. We did slippers and a Boomerang with shells. I really enjoyed it."

It was really nice to see people face-to-face because we'd been behind screens for so long," said Liv.

The Sydney Children's Hospital Network (SCHN) redevelopment program supports the workshops, which acknowledge the Darug, Gadigal, Bidjigal, Dharawal and Burramattagal people as the traditional owners of the land on which our existing and new hospitals stand.  A core goal of the redevelopment project is to ensure local Aboriginal culture is honoured and celebrated throughout the new buildings.

The redevelopment team follows an Aboriginal Engagement Strategy, which aims to include Aboriginal voices in all project stages to achieve an inclusive and culturally safe hospital. The strategy also prioritises promoting career pathway opportunities and working towards improving the health disparities between Aboriginal and mainstream communities. This Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children's Day, we are proud to promote some of the work we do within our hospitals to celebrate local communities and their young people.

Go here for more information about hospital redevelopment initiatives