Collaborative Creative Processes That Challenge Us as "Anomaly", and Affirm Our Indigeneity and Enact Our Sovereignty




Place, Space, Collaborative, Practice, Indigenous, Australia

How to Cite

Fredericks, B. (2020). Collaborative Creative Processes That Challenge Us as "Anomaly", and Affirm Our Indigeneity and Enact Our Sovereignty. M/C Journal, 23(5).
Vol. 23 No. 5 (2020): anomaly
Published 2020-10-07


Australian universities are built on land that was deemed terra nullius at the time of British settlement. Terra nullius translates to a land unoccupied or uninhabited and, in the face of the clear presence of Aboriginal peoples living on the land, established the false pretence for British colonisation and settlement. Moreton-Robinson explains that British settlement became a project in which a foreign “unoccupied” land was claimed and renamed as a reflection of a white British self. She notes that, from the construction of the first fence for the first building, British colonists set about creating an Anglo-centric world that replicated the one they had left behind. In undertaking this process, they dispossessed Aboriginal peoples and eroded elements of Aboriginal culture and history from the land. Through claiming, renaming, and constructing, non-Indigenous people established dominance over the landscapes, backed by the governments and policies they implemented. 

In this article, I discuss how the claiming and subsequent re-territorialisation of place has become “normalised” by non-Indigenous people and is continually reinforced through interactions, practices, ceremonies, and events held and perpetuated within places. Positioning my discussion in relation to Australian universities, I consider how such orientations have contributed to a habit of many non-Indigenous people of seeing Indigenous people as seemingly out of place (Fredericks). Indigenous peoples are often presented as an “anomaly” or an “unsettling presence” (Douglas and Besley). However, while the processes of colonisation have dispossessed Indigenous peoples and altered Indigenous connections with place, ownership or belonging is not lost. Indigenous peoples are not an “anomaly” and increasingly challenge false discourses that un-write and mask our very existence. I illustrate practical challenges to the “anomaly” through three examples centred around The University of Queensland’s Great Court.

Creating the Anomaly of Place  

Non-Indigenous dominance of the landscape has occurred through colonisation, but the realities of Indigenous places and Indigenous ownerships remain unchanged. Indigenous ownership continues, despite the multi-story buildings, roads, sports grounds, houses, and places of worship built in specific locations. It exists regardless of whether individuals claim ownership and hold title deeds over places. 

As Australia’s non-Indigenous population grew, meanings of place were transformed. Some places developed multiple realities and connections, reflecting different meanings, attachments, and connections for different peoples. As Sommerville contends, the places that offer multiple and contested meanings create complex political realities that inform the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people. In addition, some groups may have a collective experience of place in which certain emotions, beliefs, and behaviours are embedded (Memmott and Long)—particularly in public and shared places such as universities. 

Some places are inclusive and welcoming; they enable movement by all people. However, other places are exclusive; they restrict access and create a sense of alienation (Mills; Oakes; Sibley). Power and hierarchy may reinforce how these places are perceived and apprehended, reflecting the views and interests of the powerful at the exclusion of others (Gupta and Ferguson). Within each place, social relations are continuously produced and reproduced in ways that reflect, reinforce, and sometimes challenge such hierarchies (Gregory and Urry; Lefebvre; Massey; Soja). Symbols in each place embody its histories, connections, interconnections, texts, signs, beliefs, emotions, and politics to convey messages of belonging and exclusion. In doing so, they produce and reproduce power relations within society and create sites of social struggle and contested realms of identity (Foucault). 

Symbols of place communicate the mutually constitutive relationships that exist within each place. These symbols are neither natural nor neutral, but are rather political and often contested. They reflect a dualistic dynamic of “us” and “them” which remains regardless of whether or not the CEOs, managers or “owners” of a site recognise their position of privilege and power. Histories, white possessiveness, and the “us” and “them” dynamic can actively operate to make Indigenous people become “non-locals” or “strangers” on Aboriginal land (Fredericks; Moreton-Robinson). Through colonisation, as non-Indigenous presence on place gained visibility, Indigenous cultures became hidden and Indigenous peoples became “foreign” and seemingly out of place (Fredericks). Indigenous people became the “anomaly” and an “unsettling presence” (Douglas and Besley) in the new settings that were situated within ancient landscapes. 

Australia’s universities exist within this historical and cultural context. Their symbols of place clearly communicate who is “us” and who is the “anomaly”. Australia’s “sandstone universities” for example, contain buildings and walls of sandstone that act as bastions of the dominant culture’s knowledge and ways of being within the world. Their architecture, governance, and landscape celebrate the dominant culture’s heritage. Everything linked to the university, including its iconography, selection and display of artworks, photographic imagery used in marketing materials, and events held in and around the sandstone buildings, are evidence of their Anglo-centrality. The very buildings communicate cultural dominance. Cultural dominance is also communicated through the university’s physical infrastructure, systems, structures, budget allocations, and everyday interactions.

For Australia’s sandstone universities, Anglo-centrality exists within their cultural memory, further cementing them as institutions with inherited rules and procedures that communicate who built the nation (and the academy) and who did not. This is perpetuated each time symbols, signs and funders’ names are added to new buildings and each time “stakeholders” are consulted during planning for new developments. It speaks to the suppression of Aboriginal sovereignty and to non-Indigenous possessiveness of place (Moreton-Robinson). It is a suppression and possession that operates whether Aboriginal people are present or not. 

Australian universities undertake research and education that is generally positioned within Anglo-centric worldviews, knowledges, and ideologies. Universities reflect the historical, political, cultural, social, and economic values that inform and attempt to perpetuate the power relations of broader society (Massey; McDowell). The interactions within universities are embedded in power that is associated with ownership. This power operates with minimal understanding or questioning that the dominance of non-Indigenous worldviews can only take place because of the dispossession of Aboriginal people, including the Traditional Owners of the land on which universities are situated.

The University of Queensland and Its Great Court  

The St Lucia Campus of the University of Queensland (UQ) is part of the sandstone university tradition. As with all Australian universities, the white territorialisation of the UQ site is only possible through the dispossession and de-territorialisation of Aboriginal people from the site. 

UQ’s Great Court was designed by Jack F. Hennessy and constructed between 1938 and 1962 (Pascoe). It was intended “to form the literal and symbolic heart of the university—reflected in the commissioning of friezes and sculptural reliefs on the interior and exterior of the buildings” (Nicoll 4). Over time, buildings such as those around the Great Court become a symbolic part of the iconography of the university and valued as public art (Nicoll, drawing on the work of East).  

The friezes and sculptures in the Great Court do not feature Aboriginal people, except as anonymous beings of pre-colonial scenes or bystanders to Australia’s agricultural and industrial development. The Great Court suppresses Aboriginal sovereignty while positioning white Australians as the makers of the nation (Babidge) who exercise power along with their possessiveness and “ownership” of place (Moreton-Robinson). The possession and whiteness exercised is productive in that it constitutes both the white author and the Indigenous subject within place (Moreton-Robinson). 

Lipsitz, quoted by Moreton-Robinson, contends that “White [Australians] are encouraged to invest in their whiteness, to remain true to an identity that provides them with resources, power and opportunity” (31). This is how white Australians “adhere to narratives that valorise their past and their present” (Moreton-Robinson 31). This plays out through the imagery associated with UQ’s Great Court, including the university’s marketing materials and way the Great Court is used for events such as market day, graduations, and the annual Great Court Race. The Great Court Race was initiated for UQ’s 75th anniversary and is based on the race at Cambridge University featured in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire. Through these narratives, the dominant culture continues to invest in whiteness, while others are seen as an “anomaly”. 

Challenging the Great Court

UQ has a history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who challenge the knowledges, power, racism, and representations of Indigeneity embodied within the Great Court. Three examples are discussed here to show how cultural expression can challenge historical representations of the Great Court and its portrayal of Aboriginal as “anomaly”.  

Displaying Cultural Identity

The first example involves two opportunities to display Aboriginal identity within the Great Court setting. The first of these occurred in the 1990s, when Gregory Phillips challenged the Great Court’s flags. In 1990 and 1991, Gregory Phillips and other Indigenous students attempted, without success, to get the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags raised on UQ’s St Lucia campus during National Aboriginal and Islander Observance Committee Week (NAIDOC Week). In 1992, they received permission to raise the flags on the Forgan Smith Building (which forms one boundary to the Great Court), but only on the last Friday of NAIDOC Week (Foley and Martin-Chew 16-17). It is unclear from the records when the flags began to be flown more often. Today, the flags fly for all of NAIDOC Week, other significant days and events, and most days acknowledging Indigenous people. What is clear, however, is that the struggle of raising the flags and the challenge presented to UQ in the early 1990s is now embedded within the oral and written histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in relation to UQ and the Great Court (Foley, Martin-Chew, and Nicoll). This was a clear example of Aboriginal people seeking representation and presence within UQ’s Great Court.

The second display of Aboriginal identity developed from UQ’s Reconciliation Action Plan (The University of Queensland). In 2020, a digital copy of UQ’s Reconciliation Artwork, A Guidance through Time, was installed in the foyer of the Forgan Smith Building. The artwork, which was created by Quandamooka artists Casey Coolwell and Kyra Mancktelow, is a visual symbol of UQ’s broader reconciliation efforts. The artwork documents the history of the UQ site; incorporates both past and contemporary histories; addresses ongoing connections with Country, knowledges, culture, and people; and recognises the importance of the river, the purple corporate colour, the purple of jacaranda flowers, the jacaranda tree itself, and the Great Court. 

Both the artwork and the flags challenge the assumed ownership of place and provide some visibility for Aboriginal people in the landscape. While flags and artwork no longer present the physical anomaly they once did, this does not mean that Indigenous knowledges, cultures, and peoples are no longer an anomaly within the Great Court and the wider university landscape.  

Performing Cultural Identity in the Great Court

A second example of how Indigenous peoples challenged dominant ideologies and epistemologies of place is the program Courting Blakness: Recalibrating Knowledge in the Sandstone University. Held at UQ in 2014, Courting Blakness was a “platform of cultural and political experimentation that culminated in a unique program of original art, research, teaching and staff training” (Foley, Martin-Chew, and Nicoll 3). The eclectic, inter-disciplinary, mixed-medium, academic, and artistic event approached UQ as a site that consisted much more than buildings designed to facilitate an education within a global context (Foley). Courting Blakness encouraged awareness of the Great Court as the embodiment of the relationships between people and place within its sandstone walls, lawn, and the university’s history—acting as a connector of disciplines and peoples.

Through artistic representations, performance, and other media, Courting Blakness encouraged staff, students, and members of the public to engage in and through the works, presentations, and conversations. It provoked critical thought about history, racism, sovereignty, whiteness, domination, and knowledge itself. AustLit outlines some of the questions posed through the event:   

as research collaboration and teaching migrate to online platforms, what is the unique space and potential of the university campus? What is the place of art in the global university? How does art shape academic knowledge and how does academic knowledge shape art? What does contemporary Aboriginal art allow us to see? What does it prompt us to think and feel about the ways we occupy spaces of knowledge?  

Courting Blakness was a dynamic event that generated an edited collection of the papers (Foley, Martin-Chew, and Nicoll) and a digital archive available via AustLit. These artefacts have laid the tracks for others to follow, and encourage a critical awareness of the understandings, thoughts, and expressions that exist within spaces such as the Great Court. Furthermore, they provide an opportunity to assess how ideas have changed since the Great Court was originally designed and built, along with how it has been reconfigured through time and within changing contexts. The artefacts offer ongoing opportunities to unsettle understandings and consciousness (Bradfield) and to challenge the notion of Aboriginal people as an “anomaly” within the Great Court.

Writing Cultural Identity into the Great Court

The third example involves a creative collaboration titled Singing the Court (conducted in 2019). This work was developed at a writing retreat with 15 of UQ’s Indigenous higher-degree research students and Indigenous academics. The retreat was facilitated by UQ’s Indigenous Engagement Division and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit (ATSISU). It was designed to discuss research in a culturally safe environment (Fredericks, Mills, and White; Fredericks and Brien) and support individual and “joint collaborative” writing practice. The writing practice focused on place, in particular UQ’s Great Court (Brien and Brady). This project is discussed in more detail in the sections below. 

Indigenous Creative Collaboration

While there is a growing body of Indigenous-authored works, Indigenous writing is still under-represented in both academic and creative publications (Heiss; Phillips and Archer-Lean). Indigenous writing is often situated as autobiographical or biographical (Heiss; Knudsen; Van Toorn). Such works make a valuable contribution in terms of providing a vehicle for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to articulate, clarify, preserve, and assert their identity, histories, knowledges, truths, sovereignty, language, and much more (Fredericks, White, Phillips et al; Heiss; Phillips and Archer-Lean). However, these works may not meet the traditional definitions of being “scholarly”.

Part of the training for higher-degree research students, and an important aspect of performance for academics is to publish works which are recognised as scholarly contributions in their field. Indigenous students and academics are increasingly incorporating Indigenous subjectivity, narratives, and perspectives within their contributions (Fredericks, White, Bunda et al.) and earning their place in the scholarly canon. Some Indigenous writing challenges understandings of what is and is not known, encouraging critical engagement of how people might think about particular issues, knowledges, or ways of seeing the world. 

Singing the Court used a collaborative writing process that drew on the individual understandings and life experiences of each collaborator (Brady and Krauth; Bruner). Through discussing and articulating individual and collective perspectives of place (the Great Court), a process of motion and exchange took place (Koestenbaum). Engaging in and developing the collaborative creative work within the writing workshop enabled the diverse and shared elements of individual and collective experiences to culminate within the work. 

Brien and Brady describe collaborative writing practice as “two or more writers/artists [who] work together on a single product producing a seamless text unrecognisable as belonging in part to any individual collaborator”. In this process, all participants have a role as writer and editor, and all are named as author of the work. The collaborative writing process can be a useful praxis for Indigenous people (Heiss; Fredericks, White, Phillips et al.; Phillips and Archer-Lean). 

In Singing the Court, the Indigenous identity and experiences of each collaborator offered a powerful basis for considering a range of perspectives on sovereignty and colonisation. It enabled participants to unpack the racism and white possession imbued within the Great Court and its wider contextual setting (Clandinin et al). In this way, the writing workshop enabled individual and shared active learning (Hayler and Thomson) providing a new and dynamic collaborative approach to research (Richardson). The facilitator and collaborators operated through an open collective process of listening, where feedback was offered in a constructive, developmental, and team-building manner. This was done to produce the best work possible within a defined timeframe (Brady; Donnelly; Fitzpatrick; Green).

Creating Singing the Court 

The writing session for Singing the Court was scheduled late in the afternoon. Participants worked in three groups, each with five participants. The groups were formed by members numbering off around the larger group. Each small group included a mix of Indigenous higher-degree research students and academics. The numbering off and mixing of students and academics enabled communication between people who weren’t sitting next to one another. It provided an opportunity for people to meet and establish Indigenous relationality (Martin) with one another while discussing the activity. 

All three groups viewed the same three images of UQ’s Great Court (see figs. 1, 2, 3). The images operated as visual prompts for discussion, and enabled participants to describe what they saw, thought, felt, smelt, and understood about the Great Court. From here, each group member wrote three sentences or comments inspired by the images and conversations with their group. 


Figure 1: Walkway alongside the Forgan Smith Building within the UQ Great Court. Photo by Donald Johannessen.

Figure 2: Within the UQ Great Court. Photo by Donald Johannessen.

Figure 3: Within the cloisters of UQ's Great Court. Photo by Donald Johannessen.

After the writing time, each person read aloud their sentences while remaining group members listened carefully and were encouraged to think about how the words sounded and felt. Each group then re-read and re-ordered their speakers until all members were happy with the order of all five statements. Once the small group process was completed, each group took turns to stand out the front, in their reading order, and share their words with the other groups. The larger group was encouraged to listen carefully and offer feedback on the order. This helped finalise the order within each set of five. 

In this way, the individual voices combined as a collaborative text (Brien). The second reading enabled more emphasis on expression. This collaborative creative writing process facilitated movement from theory to practice (Brady and Krauth), the sharing of life narratives (Bruner), and developed a text (Brady) that the larger group called a poem.

Singing the Court

Red flowers blooming
Old fullas looking down
Arches, arches, arches
Long walk
Good trees for sleeping under
Green lawn


Foreground trees
represents “come in”
too many structures
“in a box”
Need more creativity
Too structured 

Nature imprisoned by colonial tradition
Shadows and shapes paint the earth
Guarded by shadows of the past
Red, beauty, blossoms, blood

 Institution seen past nature
See the forest for the trees
Blood on the walls

Sandstone source
Castle / estate
Sharp lines—round colours
Patchwork motley

Blue sky

Controlling nature—lawns, manicured
Sandstone removed and rebuilt
Contrast in light
Sky, building enlightenment happens,
darkness in light
Trees old, buildings old

Roots of trees of knowledge, learning

Foreign, white law
Indigenous erasure
Cleared land 

Sandstone strong
Strong sandstone
Mined, cut out, exploited from land
Country, strong Country 

Life, growth, place
Concrete structures from rigidity
Merging spaces
In between shades

Trees holding firm
Dominant, arms-crossed
Stark, cold
Colonial architecture and design 

Intimidating, contrasting, conflicting

Freedom within
Barrier institution, locked-out
Pathway through 

Singing the Court by (in order as the verses appear) Nereda White, r e a Saunders, Bruce Simpson, Annette Simpson, Andrew Goodman, Tracey Bunda, Ren Perkins, Shay-Lee Aitken, Llewelyn Williams, Amy McQuire, Bronwyn Fredericks, Susan Beetson, Tracy Hardy, Haylee Williams and Ree Jordan (Brisbane, 2019). 

Through the collaborative writing process, the 15 Indigenous scholars who participated in Singing the Court produced a reflexive and academic work that stimulated a combination of critical thinking, creative thinking, and performance. Their work drew on the Great Court as a space of learning, teaching, and research, and provided an opportunity to publish a collaborative and cohesive work created through Indigenous practice. On a deeper level, the workshop and creative process allowed for a safe and inclusive space where topics relating to Indigenous place, sovereignty, inclusion, and exclusion could be unpacked. It provided a way for Indigenous scholars to challenge their positioning as “anomaly” in the space of the Great Court.   


The arrival of the colonists, subsequent removal and dispossession of Aboriginal people, and the claiming and renaming the land through constructing buildings and other structures changed the landscape forever. Embedded within these processes and structures are historical, political, cultural, social, and economic values that expose the power relations of broader society (Massey; McDowell). In this way, power is embedded within interactions as well as within place itself. In Australian universities, this is demonstrated through the use of land, physical infrastructure, systems, structures, budget allocations, cultural memory, inherited rules and procedures, and interactions. The University of Queensland and its Great Court exist within this context, creating a space that embodies colonial power and positions Aboriginal people as an “anomaly.” 

Non-Indigenous claims of ownership of place and territorialisation of land, including the land of UQ and its Great Court, can only exist through dispossessing and de-territorialising Aboriginal people from that site (Fredericks). Within this dynamic, non-Indigenous people exercise power, domination, and control over the land, demonstrating that they are its “owners”. Within the university, ownership is demonstrated through media, marketing, policy, rules, governance, curriculum, ceremonies, celebrations, and more. By claiming and exercising control, power, and ownership, non-Indigenous people render Aboriginal people as “foreign” or “an anomaly to place” (Moreton-Robinson). 

The three examples discussed in this article show that Indigenous people continue to challenge and exercise agency in regards to Indigenous dispossession, marginalisation, and non-Indigenous territorialisation and claims of ownership. In doing so, they re-assert Indigenous power to place and shift perspectives of what is seen as anomaly and what is not. 


I recognise and acknowledge the sovereignty of Aboriginal peoples as the original custodians of the country on whose land this article was developed, and where UQ St Lucia, including the Great Court, is located. I am thankful to the Indigenous academics and higher-degree research students who participated in the workshop, and collaborated to develop the poem Singing the Court. Thanks are additionally extended to Dr Abraham Bradfield and Dr Judy Gregory for their assistance in bringing the article to finalisation, and to Mr Donald Johannessen for the photographs featured in the article.  


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Author Biography

Bronwyn Fredericks, The University of Queensland

Bronwyn Fredericks is a Professor and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) at the University of Queensland. Her research is multidisciplinary and cross-discriplinary, and she has over 30 years of applied experience working in and with the tertiary sector, State and Federal Governments, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-based organisations.