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About the Artist
In 1994 Norma MacDonald paved the way for the Aboriginal artists who have since graduated by enrolling as the only Aboriginal art student at Midland College of TAFE.
"The first time I came to TAFE to enrol I sat in the car in tears because I had a fear of filling out forms. My husband had to push me - reminding me that I had always wanted to further my education. I didn't go to high school. I had been ready to start in the new school uniform made by my mother, when my father said I had to go out and work. My mother was deeply disappointed – she had missed out on an education because of government policies at the time."
Norma soon saw in TAFE a place that could offer her support in achieving her goals.
"Lecturers allowed people to work at their own pace in their classes until they reached the required level of competency. If you say to an Aboriginal person, 'Sorry you have failed', nine times out of ten you won't see that person again."
By 1995 she had proven her commitment to her studies by winning the prestigious Sangora award. She later returned as Artist In Residence, then as the Coordinator of the Aboriginal Art Program overseeing a range of initiatives that inspired other Aboriginal art students to also achieve excellence.
"As we drew we told traditional stories - sometimes sitting on the ground to feel connected like our ancestors did. In the classroom we used activities such as speaking the Noongar language and listening to Noongar music to stimulate students' drawing. We had a lot of visitors to the TAFE to help strengthen cultural knowledge including Aboriginal officers from CALM, tribal elders and indigenous artists. We also visited significant places in the local area including Walyungar National Park. In quiet times some of the old people began to remember things they thought were lost. People started to doodle - first making small drawings, then developing them into a large picture to tell the whole story. We used natural fibres, coloured sand and charcoal to draw into paintings in just the same way as traditional artists did. Students also learnt how people painted on paperbark. We took a contemporary approach to traditional ways."
Norma and the other staff extended this cultural revival and pride beyond the boundaries of the College.
"Some of our students went into schools in their fourth year for NAIDOC Week and our graduates worked on community art projects. When they asked the children who has got Aboriginal heritage, all the Aboriginal kids would put their hands up and smile. At one school the teacher said this boy was uncontrollable but he was just wonderful to work with. For these children art is a therapy - a way of expressing themselves. To have Aboriginal art teachers in the school is vital. Where racism has built up in families over the years the only people who are going to change attitudes are other Aboriginal people whom the children respect."
Norma has also supported initiatives to celebrate Aboriginal culture with the broader community.
"I always wanted Aboriginal people to get involved with public art but they wouldn't take it on. I used to say to my students, 'If you want to be up there and running with the best of them, you've got to learn how to do it.' Initially I thought that the Aboriginal students would go on into the mainstream courses to develop skills relating to public art. But that process wasn't happening."
Norma and the other TAFE art lecturers came up with the idea of providing student support for each of the steps involved in public art commissions, i.e. tendering, liaising with the clients and completing the works. The success of the first project, a brick relief sculpture at Swan Health increased confidence to provide support for a more ambitious project in the form of a large wall mural, a design for entrance gates and a mosaic fountain at the Moorditj Community College. This further increased industry confidence which enabled the College to win a third tender for a mural at the entrance of Kiara Police station. Many of the students who participated in these projects undertook other public art projects upon graduating from the College.
Since she left the college Norma retains her links by attending student art exhibitions and using her extensive industry networks to assist other graduates. At the same time she continues to develop her own artwork, which has found its way all over the world.
To read a review by Judith McGrath, art critic, of Norma's exhibition at Gomboc Gallery in October 2003, please .