What is Leadership in Indigenous Arts?

By Michelle Evans

By Michelle Evans

I became interested in the phenomenon of leadership when I was teaching Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and arts managers about management in the late 2000s. I noticed that when the cohort I was teaching came together as a group, something was happening beyond learning about management. 

There were critical conversations about our practice in the Indigenous arts, and critical deconstructions about state funding and the exhibiting/performing structures the Indigenous arts sector was working within. The word “leadership” came up often for the group, and for me, as we worked together.

When people hear this term, they sometimes think of being the boss, or of managing groups, or being very directive. And although these ways of leading may suit certain organisations, they do not define the work of leadership. Leadership is inherently about change. It’s a way of working with people; collectively moving towards a shared vision of the future. It’s about setting an agenda at a local, state, national, or even international level, with like-minded people whereby we collectively imagine how we want the future to look and figure out what’s getting in the way of that and what we need to do to make this vision of the future a reality.

My students opened my eyes to the tensions that they deal with daily: working with communities as artists and managers; negotiating capital, whether in the form of the state or private buyers/funders or the open market; working out what they gain and perhaps lose as they move between Indigenous spaces and non-Indigenous spaces. In our dialogue, I witnessed these students creating space for fearless conversations, expressing diverse identities, creating change to structural limitations, and upholding their own and other Indigenous voices. And it is these practices that speak strongly to me of leadership.

Yet this idea of leadership that I saw emerging from those in the Indigenous arts and cultural sector was not like conventional leadership ideas. This created a great “aha” moment for me, especially after reading the leadership literature over again and realizing that there is no one definitive definition of leadership.

I have spent the last five years thinking about and investigating what Indigenous arts leadership is. I have talked to, and interviewed, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and arts managers, both in Australia and, more recently, Indigenous artists and arts managers across the United States of America. What I discovered was that leadership could be conceptualised as both the public enactment of leadership work and personal embodied work that is developed inside. Let me show you how I have imagined it as an image:

Territories of Indigenous arts leadership ©Michelle Evans

As you can see, the way Indigenous artists and arts managers spoke to me about leadership was that it was work that they did both “below the surface” and “above the surface.” Another way to think about this is that there is work inside of themselves (embodied) and work they displayed in public (practices of leadership). The practice of Indigenous arts leadership is contingent upon negotiating or navigating the territories inside of ourselves.

The metaphor of a set of 'territories' reflects how Indigenous arts leaders move through country and society, and highlights the embodied connection and belonging that Indigenous people have to country. Territories overlap in space and time; the layers of concerns can transport individual leaders backwards and forwards in time as they place emphasis on historical or future priorities for their leadership, as well as backwards and forwards psychologically with the emotional and political investments their leadership draws upon.

The first territory is about authorisation – are you self authorised to enact leadership in this space? Do you require community authorisation? Do you require cultural authorisation? What work do you need to do in order obtain significant authorisation to do leadership practices like leaving a legacy, or leading fearlessly? Does it mean generating support from Elders or self-authorising your own voice and expertise?

The second territory is about identity and belonging – Aboriginal cultural identity is a key resource for Aboriginal people; identity encapsulates who we are and how we relate to others and the world around us. Yet Aboriginal identity in Australia is highly politicised and this places pressure on individuals and communities. So a feeling of belonging and creating cultural safe places for cultural and artistic expression is an important leadership practice. Embodying diverse ideas of indigneity is a leadership practice in Australia today, as is the important work of empowering future generations through positive cultural expressions of identity.

The third territory is about artistic practice – what are the boundaries and pressures on producing contemporary innovative works of art? Artists and arts managers spoke about having to navigate the pressures of managerial work (like paperwork and funding body applications/acquittals, or specific commissions) and commercial demands, to find time and space to creatively and culturally produce work they want to produce. Expressed to me was the importance of relational storytelling through the practice of art and how vital it is to make space for the creation of artistic work that is (as) free (as they can be) from these pressures.

The final territory is about the powerful forces of history, trauma and colonisation. As Aboriginal artists and arts managers, we hold stories and histories passed down to us through the generations that can impact our everyday realities—whether that be that the lasting legacies of colonisation and how that plays out today in our lives as Aboriginal people; the personal impact governmental policies have upon us and our families/communities; or even a personal experience of trauma. These can weigh us down and also become a lens through which we see the world. Some of the most powerful leadership practices Aboriginal artists and arts managers can enact include speaking out against gossiping and shaming of others, and becoming a person who is safe and consistent to work with.

Indigenous arts leadership navigates across these very contextual or place-based historical, political, cultural and social territories. Indigenous leaders encounter these territories when they do the work of leadership. As I alluded to at the beginning, leadership is fundamentally about change. In order to work positively towards change with groups of people, Indigenous leaders need to: be safe and consistent to work with; culturally, community and/or self authorised; embrace their Indigenous identity in all its diversity; and articulate the pressures and tensions we face in the Indigenous arts sector without focusing on them in a limiting sense. By speaking out about these demands Indigenous leaders are able to imagine new and exciting possibilities for the future.

Michelle Evans is Senior Lecturer in Leadership in the School of Management and Marketing at Charles Sturt University, and an IPinCH Associate.


Suggested Readings

Cowan, D. A. 2008. Profound simplicity of leadership wisdom: Exemplary insight from Miami Nation Chief Floyd Leonard. International Journal of Leadership Studies 4(1): 51-81.

Kenny, C. and Fraser, T.N. 2012. Living Indigenous leadership: Native narratives on building strong communities. Vancouver, UBC Press.

Warner, L. S. and K. Grint. 2006. American Indian ways of leading and knowing. Leadership 2(2): 225-244.