Aboriginal community-controlled art centres keep generations connected

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New research shows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled art centres play a significant role in supporting the health and wellbeing of older people and people living with dementia.  

National Ageing Research Institute Research Fellow and RMIT PhD Candidate Paulene Mackell, and a collaborative network of researchers and industry partners, aimed to understand how three Aboriginal community-controlled art centres supported older artists and artists living with dementia.  

The team learnt that art centres are important spaces for older people to maintain their roles and responsibilities, including prioritising intergenerational connection. Many older people, including people living with dementia, founded their centres and they are often board members and senior artists of national and international recognition.   

Ms Mackell said the research team observed the benefits of re-thinking imposed labels and categories such as ‘dementia’ and the importance of emphasising the strengths, roles and belonging of older people, often in the context of advanced dementia. 

“It became apparent that this is a major strength of their model of care,” she said.  

“Instead of emphasising an older person’s diagnosis or age, this is a model that emphasises and nurtures who you are and what your relationships are to each other and to Country. It simply removes any stigma associated with dementia.” 

Ms Mackell hopes the research will show the importance of research agendas being led by older people, people living with dementia and their community-controlled organisations.  

“When older people and those living with dementia are leading the way, we can learn so much from them, especially when it comes to stigma and discrimination,” she said.  

Annette Lormada from the Mangkaja Resource Agency agreed. 

 “It's important... not only for us but also for the younger ones coming behind,” she said.  

“It's good for everybody to come in [to Mangkaja], young and old, to be together.”  

The team is sharing these lessons and seeking further recognition and resourcing for the centres that have significant expertise in nurturing the wellbeing of their community members.  

There are approximately 90 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled art centres across Australia, with the majority in geographically remote locations. This research project was facilitated by the National Ageing Research Institute in partnership with two universities, two aged care providers and three centres based in diverse Aboriginal communities: 

  • Mangkaja Resource Agency in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia 

  • Ikuntji Artists in Haasts Bluff, Northern Territory 

  • Tjanpi Desert Weavers of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council (Aboriginal Corporation), working across the tri-state border region of Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia 

The overarching study was funded by a Department of Health Dementia and Aged Care Innovation Grant. Paulene Mackell also received a Dementia Australia Research Foundation Consumer Priority PhD Scholarship to undertake this work.  

To learn more from the artists, the art centres and the researchers involved, check out these three short videos, or the combined version, which will be showcased on SBS during NAIDOC week in 2022. 

For support in understanding how art can support your loved one living with dementia, please call the National Dementia Helpline 1800 100 500, open from 8am to 8pm weekdays except public holidays.  

Photo: Penny K Lyons and Lynley Nargoodah, Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, Fitzroy Crossing. 2019. Image by Paulene Mackell.