BEST OF MIPIK: Alison Page
Fri, January 10, 2014 at 12:00
Stephanie Hunt

 We are taking a short break in January - but thought we'd bring back some of our very favourite profiles.  Alison Page first wowed me in May 2011 and she just keeps getting better.   Prepare to be inspired!

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Photo by Trish O'Brien

Breathing Hope into our Community

If you have ever opened the paper or turned on the news and seen a story about Aboriginal Australians that just made you want to weep with hopelessness and despair, then you need to spend an hour with Alison Page.  She is a tonic, a genuine breath of hope with the outlook and energy to change the world.

You may recognise Alison as the bubbly Aboriginal interior designer on the panel of ABC’s The New Inventors.  Perhaps you have purchased a piece of Alison’s exclusive Diamond Dreaming jewellery from Mondial Neuman Jewellers in Sydney’s QVB.  If you live in Willcannia you might remember Alison from the weeks she spent in the community while designing the new hospital.  If you are local to Coffs then you probably recognise Alison as the head of the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance, the partnership of mid-North Coast Aboriginal communities that has brought us the Saltwater Freshwater Festival for the last 2 years.

In whatever guise you know Alison, the core of this woman is her Aboriginal heritage.  “It is the common thread that flows through everything that I do,” she explains.  Alison calls herself a “Concrete Koori”, referring to her urban upbringing in the La Pereuse area of Sydney.  Her mother is a 10 Pound Pom, and although she says she relates to parts of her English heritage, it is her father’s Aboriginality that has captured her imagination and her soul.

Alison’s connection with her indigenous heritage began with her father’s extended family: the storytelling and the camping trips that connected her to the land.  But it was her discovery of the concepts of ‘Aboriginal architecture’ and ‘sacred geometry’ while studying at design school in Sydney that stirred her passion.  She travelled to Canada to meet Douglas Cardinal, the native Canadian architect who designed the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington and the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa.  “I went to places in Saskatchewan where I saw tepees being designed in glass, steel and timber,” she enthuses.  “You could see that this traditional structure now looks modern. It was beautiful.”

Inspired by what she had seen and learned in Canada, Alison came home and persuaded Aboriginal architectural group Merrima Design that they needed a woman on board.  Alison worked with two inspiring Indigenous architects on projects such as the development of a new hospital in Willcannia.  She explains how the outcomes they achieved were special:  “It’s not just a building for a building’s sake.  It’s a building that tells a story.  It’s a building that is essentially an act of power for a community.  It affirms people’s cultural identity the minute you walk through the door.”

Alison's Diamond Dreaming JewelleryThe Merrima team eventually drifted in separate directions and Alison felt the call of the saltwater.  “I needed to get near the ocean and it’s just too exclusive in Sydney,” she explains.  Alison and husband Toby moved to Coffs Harbour ten years ago, and started a small design agency.   But a small agency was never going to be enough for the vision of this larger than life woman.    The Local Aboriginal Land Councils stretching up the mid-north coast were working to form an alliance to promote Aboriginal arts and culture in the area.  Enter Alison Page to breathe life into the new Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance.

It was not only energy and enthusiasm that Alison brought to Saltwater Freshwater, although she had that in abundance.  She brought her distinctive view of Aboriginality and its place in Australian society.  Alison’s delight and comfort in her own Aboriginality is tangible.  “It took me a long time to realise that you don’t need to be in the local dance group or be out bush every weekend to connect with your Aboriginality.”  Perhaps because of her mixed origins Alison sees Aboriginal culture and beliefs as something that has life and meaning in a modern, urban world.  “What’s great about being an Aboriginal woman in today’s world is that you can take the best of both worlds,” she explains.  She sees no reason why you can’t speak English and relate to Aboriginal spirituality, why you have to forego modern education and European fine arts to remain connected to Aboriginal heritage or, for that matter, why camping with a fridge and a generator makes you any less connected with the land.

It is Alison’s view of Aboriginality and its place in Australian society that inspires everything the Saltwater Freshwater Alliance does.  Consider, for example, that the Saltwater Freshwater Festival, the show piece of the alliance, is held on Australia Day, a day many Aboriginal advocates see as “Invasion Day”.  As part of modern Australian society, Alison believes Aboriginal Australians want and need to commemorate Australia Day.  “I say commemorate because it’s not all a celebration.  Celebration is part of it because we do need to celebrate who we are as a modern nation, but we also need to acknowledge what 26th January means to Aboriginal Australians.”  And the festival works to get the balance right.  As well as featuring top country music acts, food stalls and didge lessons, Alison and her team created the Yarn Tent, where this year Aden Ridgeway, Neil Murray, Professor Margo Neale and a number of other thought leaders ran the “Blackfella Whitefella” panel discussion on national identity.  By successfully blending Aboriginal heritage with modern life and identity, the festival has become a reflection of Alison’s inner perspective that is being soaked up by white and black up and down the mid-north coast.

With the Saltwater Freshwater Festival now a recognised success – over 12,000 people attended the 2010 event in Coffs and over 10,000 attended the 2011 event in Port Macquarie - Alison’s passion has turned to employment for Aboriginal people, specifically ‘culturally based’ employment.  “I’ve been lucky,” Alison explains.  “Every day I go to work I learn a little bit more about my culture.”  Alison wants to create this type of work for more Aboriginal Australians and believes the secret is to create marketing hubs that enable home based artisans to readily monetize their work.  Never one to think small, she has established the National Aboriginal Design Agency with a vision not simply to represent Aboriginal artists in selling their artworks, but to develop products like lighting, furniture, carpets and laminates inspired by Aboriginal aesthetic and stories, then market these products to the “top end of town” here and abroad.  Can you imagine Aboriginal inspired lamps on bedside tables in Brussels, or Aboriginal inspired carpets in the living rooms of financiers in New York?  Well Alison can.

It is rare to meet someone with the vision and drive to make a genuine difference in the world.  Alison is a lot like any other 36 year old Australian woman, she’s frantically busy with work, she loves being Mum to 17 month old Alby, she’s working out how to manage maternity leave when her next child is born in October.  Yet for all that Alison’s life is ordinary in many ways, what she is achieving is truly extraordinary.  She stands for a different and exciting way of looking at Aboriginality, one that is inclusive without denying the importance of the past.  With programs like the Saltwater Freshwater Festival and the National Aboriginal Design Agency Alison is not only changing the lot of Aboriginal people in our region, she is changing the way black and white think about each other. It’s not just inspiring, it is world changing.

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Since this story was written Alison has had a second child, Poppy, who Alison says is the spitting image of her mother.  Poppy is two years old already, and Alison's son Alby is 4.  The National Aborigianl Design Agency that was Alison's dream is now a reality.  It is already creating extraordinary opportunities for Aboriginal Artists in the built environment.  The Saltwater Freshwater Festival goes from strength to strength. 


DON'T MISS THE SALTWATER FRESHWATER FESTIVAL ON AUSTRALIA DAY (26 JAN) AT THE KEMPSEY SHOWGROUND

 

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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