Jo-Anne Driessens is one of those Gold Coast professionals that you may not have met, or even heard of, but whose efforts you would almost certainly have seen the results of.
Jo’s previous long-term tenures with Council and the old Gold Coast Arts Centre have seen her assist in the development and delivery of many of the City’s major Indigenous-focussed cultural projects and strategies, while her own professional photography practice has formed an integral piece of the historical records held at the State Library of Queensland. A true renaissance woman, Jo has also been involved in connecting local First Nations people with genealogical resources around the country in their searches for kin.
As if that’s not enough, she’s recently taken on the role of First Nation Curator at prominent Gold Coast arts organisation Placemakers*. We sat down with Jo to shine a spotlight on this highly respected Gold Coast arts creative who usually tends to hang out backstage.
You’ve joined Placemakers* Gold Coast right around the time of Bleach* Festival putting on their most Indigenous-focussed program yet. How did that all work out?
It was in September I started with Placemakers*. This role is very new and similar to how I’ve evolved the other two roles I was in with the Indigenous focus. I’ve always supported Bleach* in my other roles, and have been watching it grow and morph into a part of the city lifestyle. What particularly drew my interest was that I really like site-specific responses, working in that creative space. The beauty of working in the same city for a long time is working with the same artists again, and not having to rebuild that trust.
You’ve worked in a similar role in Brisbane previously. How does the Gold Coast compare to the capital, in terms of programs relating to Indigenous culture and platforms and opportunities for Indigenous creatives?
That’s a really interesting question. I watched Brisbane grow from a very small town to being really activated. Every time I go there, there’ll be something different on. A lot of my friends and peers in the Indigenous arts sector are in highly regarded roles within the sector and that’s including government institutions like GOMA as well as private enterprise, First Nations business, freelance, artists, curators, so we’re getting a really good populated response to the arts industry.
In my previous council role I was supported to do 10 things across Australia, like the Wesfarmers program in Canberra, and I’ve watched these artists and events grow and grow and grow. In particular I’ve attended these things to recalibrate with other Indigenous people, artists, creatives, whatever, to make sure you’re doing the right thing. We sometimes have to put up really good debates or arguments to put something forward that’s cultural, and it should be first cab off the rank.
Now I’m also part of the inaugural Custodianship Program for Australia Council for the Arts. This is the first one of its kind, and it’s about culture strengthening culture, and about the caretaking of knowledge.
And that’s what we do in our roles no matter where we are – we’re looking after other people’s cultural stories to ensure they’re well looked after and presented in the best way.
With such a spread of language groups and Indigenous communities across the country, all with their own stories and traditions, are there a particular set of challenges to face when it comes to working at a national level?
Yes from what I’ve heard, whether it’s through peers or through forums that we hold, or workshopping, that’s still a very current issue and I guess it depends who you’re dealing with – local government, really large or small organisations, it all depends on those relationships. It involves building trust and understanding who’s who in that community. It’s taken this whole time in my council role to work out who to contact about individual things, that’s why you have to do the rounds and talk to different family members.
Tell us a little bit about your own arts practice.
I’m a photographer by trade. I started that training at the State Library of Queensland in the old darkroom days in the 90s and it was predominately around documenting history. As you know, history is evolving – if there was an event this morning it’s now going to be history – and so it goes into the collection.
The collection is there for however many generations behind us to remember.
I also enjoy social documentary; I like to document artists in their process. Like the South Stradbroke Indigenous Artist camp, I naturally documented that because I was there.
The Straddie camp! They looked like incredible experiences for all involved.
A lot of the artists talk about it today, how it changed their thinking, their mind set, their connections. It’s also just this diversity of people finding their identity. That’s also another passion of mine, because I was adopted, I found my family through my photography! I found my family images of my ancestors, I was printing them like they were numbers and filing them in a numerical system, and a lot of artists that I’m helping now find their own family and have their own experiences and it’s very spiritual. If you put it out there, if you manifest something and follow that spirit, it’ll come.
How do you go about helping people find their families?
When I was at the State Library I got to learn about Aboriginal officers at the state libraries, it’s good starting point for research. I said ‘look I’ve got artists here that are New South Wales connected and trying to find their information and can I put them in contact with you?’
Some people just won’t make contact with a major institution, it can be very daunting, but times are changing. When you ask me about the arts industry and all those key roles, part of that is the officers in these institutions. All the really established artists have all utilised really old material for their work to tell true stories and just educate people through their art which is particularly powerful.
What kind of things do you hope to bring to your role at Placemakers*?
I talked a lot to Rosie [Dennis, CEO] about mentoring and actually skilling up more locals in those arts frontline roles like producers and stage managers and not just the artists. One of the key things to come from the Leadership Program is that there are thousands of Indigenous artists across country, but not enough arts workers. That’s something I see all the time.
With so much First Nations programming at this year’s Bleach* Festival, is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to the most?
Oh my goodness, there are so many, it’s just so good to see so many First Nations artists as part of that lineup. Thanks to COVID, we’ve all come out the other end and we want to embrace this kind of celebration together. It’s very localised too which is better – celebrating as much local talent as possible – and I know it’ll get bigger from this one onwards, but it’s probably the best way to start in the community setting; you get that trust and relationship.
How can people follow your own art projects?
Now that I’m a bit freer I’m going to be building my website, a large volume of my collection that was put in purchase to the State Library, and a little video I uploaded: ‘2020’. Also I am involved with the Sky Weave project at Bleach*. It’s quite a big piece, an interesting collaboration of local women weavers responding to the constellations. We’re putting it on the sunset stage at Burleigh.
Follow @jdriessens for more.