Awaken: Shonae Hobson on the new Arts West Gallery exhibition

Recent Faculty of Arts graduate Shonae Hobson talks with Thomas Feng about Awaken, the Indigenous cultural heritage objects exhibition showing at the Arts West Gallery - her role in the project, its purpose, and its personal significance.

By Thomas Feng

Shonae Hobson is a Southern Kaantju woman from Coen, Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland. She graduated from a Bachelor of Arts last year, majoring in Art History and Anthropology and recently started as the inaugural First Nations Curator at Bendigo Art Gallery.

During her studies, she was an Assistant Curator for Awaken, the exhibition currently showing at the Arts West Gallery, which features Australian Aboriginal cultural heritage objects from one of the most important anthropological collections in the world, the Donald Thomson Collection. She spoke to us about the Awaken exhibition and her new role.

Awaken: An Exhibition at Arts West Gallery

How did you become involved with Awaken?

During my undergraduate degree I was eager to gain work experience in the museum and gallery space. I approached Genevieve Grieves, my Indigenous Studies lecturer in first year, who told me of an upcoming exhibition of cultural materials called Awaken. Because of my upbringing in Cape York and my strong connections with many of the family groups in this region, I was really excited to work as a curator on the project. I was also honoured to start working with these cultural materials, many of which I had ancestral ties to.

My role during the development of the exhibition was to undertake community consultation work. I worked predominantly with three clan groups across the Cape, Lama Lama and Umpila on the east coast, and Wik Munkgan on the west.

It was incredibly rewarding for me, as I was able to reconnect with my ancestral materials and further inform the families back home about the project and collection that was acquired during the early 1900s.  Many of the objects had not yet been seen by families, so the consultation period gave mob an opportunity to see the objects and also hear about the extensive Donald Thomson Collection.

What is the idea around Awaken?

The Awaken exhibition is about awakening the objects which have been dormant inside museum spaces for a long time. While the exhibition draws on the extensive field notes taken by Donald Thomson, it also encapsulates living cultures and reflects the voices and stories of contemporary Indigenous communities.

Indigenous people have been surviving on this land for 60 000 years, and it is because of this continuation of culture and traditional practice within a contemporary society that we are able to tell our stories and histories our way.

What is the significance of the objects?

These objects are more than just museum collections - they’re living entities. They are culturally significant and embody a rich history of knowledge and practice passed on through generations.

When we talk about connection to cultural materials, it’s a spiritual connection, one that ties us to our ancestors and our identity as Indigenous peoples.

One of the great things about these objects on display is that they are still made and used in communities today. Hunting tools like the yuli or 'woomera', which is used to throw a spear when fishing, can be found in the exhibition. There are also body adornment pieces which we still make and wear during dancing ceremonies. Paltanamu, a woven armband made from pandanus leaves is made in various regions of Cape York.

What has been the community's response?

There have been a lot of positive responses since the exhibition opened, and I know families are eager to continue the discussion on community accessibility and ownership of their cultural materials for the future. Reconnecting community with these objects was emotional and overwhelming. As we continue the discussion, I know that families are happy to have an Indigenous person from the community engaging them throughout every step of the process.

How can communities engage with these objects into the future?

One of the ongoing projects as part of the exhibition is to look at digital technologies and how we can make objects more accessible for remote regions. Digitising the objects, as was done in the virtual reality space of the exhibition, and making an app that community can access from remote regions is the next step. Having the objects digitised and accessible from remote regions would assist with learning and educational opportunities as well as with engagement of the objects with younger generations of kids.

What do you want people to take away from the Awaken exhibition?

I want people to see these objects through a different light, not as ethnographic collections but as living entities that embody the history, culture and ongoing resilience of Indigenous peoples both past and present. To see these objects through a contemporary lens and to attach their meaning and purpose through the stories and voices of Indigenous people today is really what we hoped to achieve with this exhibition.

Shonae Hobson

Bachelor of Arts alumna and Assistant Curator of Awaken Shonae Hobson. Photo by Thomas Feng.

How did your work with Awaken lead you to your current role?

Awaken gave me valuable work experience in how to curate an exhibition, but also in how to work with artists, art centres and most importantly community. When working in the Indigenous art industry, a large part of the role is community engagement and relationship building.

A lot of the skills I learnt during the Awaken exhibition I am able to transfer to my current role as First Nations Curator at Bendigo Art Gallery. Bendigo Art Gallery has never had a First Nations Curator, so for me it's a big role to step into having just completed my undergraduate studies, but an exciting one as it means I am helping shape the vision and future commitment of the gallery and Indigenous art.

Where do you want to go from here?

I'm really fortunate that I landed my dream job. I want to be here in the Indigenous art world for a long time.

Awaken is open to the public from Monday - Friday, 10am - 4pm in the Arts West Gallery, Ground Floor, Arts West (Building 148). Entry is free.

Banner image: First Nations curator at Bendigo Art Gallery, Shonae Hobson. Photo by Thomas Feng.