Careers in Focus: Dr Felicity Meakins

28 Jul 2017
Felicity Meakins discusses the painting Jinparrak ‘Old Wave Hill Station’ with artists Biddy and Jimmy Wavehill at Warrijkuny. Photo: Brenda L. Croft, 2014

Dr Felicity Meakins is an ARC Future Fellow, a Chief Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL), and a Senior Lecturer with UQ’s School of Languages and Cultures. We spoke with Felicity about how a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) and Master of Arts at UQ, along with a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Melbourne, led to her spending 17 years in the field in northern Australia specialising in Indigenous language. Her work in Indigenous communities has played an invaluable role in helping artists and elders to communicate their stories, histories and culture.

Q: Would you tell us what first attracted you to the field of linguistics, and how you came to specialise in the Gurindji language? 
A: I studied Linguistics at UQ, which has a strong focus on Indigenous languages in the teaching program. Still does! At the end of my Masters degree, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I got a job in the Public Service in Canberra and a job at an Indigenous language centre in Katherine. Not sure what to do, I spoke to one of my mentors, Mary Laughren, who taught me linguistics and has worked with Warlpiri people in Central Australia for decades. She was horrified I was considering working in the Public Service and propelled me off to northern Australia. There, I facilitated language lessons in schools in a number of small remote communities and, in the process, Gurindji, Bilinarra and Ngarinyman ‘grew’ me up as a linguist.

Q: How did your research as a linguist lead to you working with artists, and in what ways do the disciplines intersect?
A: One of the lessons that I learned working for an Indigenous language centre (rather than taking a direct path into academia) was the deeply interconnected nature of language, history, land and culture, including visual expressions of these relationships. I have been lucky to work with Gurindji people through their arts centre Karungkarni Art and Culture Aboriginal Corporation and their local Central Land Council organisation Murnkurrumurnkurru rangers. One of our collaborations produced Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country(Aboriginal Studies Press, 2016), which details the early colonisation of Gurindji country and includes artistic responses to these historical narratives. The stories are told by Gurindji elders in their own language. There are previous accounts of these times collated by historians and anthropolgists, but through the medium of the local cattle station pidgin, which is not Gurindji people’s first language. As a result, the accounts of early times are often halting and fragmented. The richness of these times really emerges when they are recounted in Gurindji.

Q: How did Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country connect you to Still in my mind and what was the nature of your contribution to the exhibition? 
A: Many of the paintings produced for Yijarni: True Stories from Gurindji Country relate to the Gurindji Walk-Off, which is an event strongly interwoven in Still in My Mind. The works were created during a Karungkarni Arts artist camp in 2015, facilitated by Penny Smith (Karungkarni Arts manager), Brenda L. Croft (Still in My Mind curator) and I, and supported by the Murnkurrumurnkurru rangers. Artists listened to the recorded stories from Yijarni and produced beautiful visual interpretations of these stories over a number of days camped at Warrijkuny on Gurindji country.

Many of the paintings relate to early life on Wave Hill Station, which was a hard time. The process was very interesting because most of the artists hadn’t painted historical events before. Most of them paint their Dreamings and other themes, which they are authorised to paint. They brought these protocols to their works for Yijarni and Still in My Mind, restricting themselves to painting events that were told by close family members or which they had experienced themselves. All were reticent to depict events they knew about, but did not have sufficient experiential or familial connections to, for example the early massacres.

Q: You visit the UQ Art Museum with your students. Can you talk about the cross-disciplinary value you see in this engagement?
A: I teach in the area of Linguistics and have a (geeky!) passion for the building blocks of words which linguists refer to as morphology. I think the architecture of words has a cleverness and beauty in and of itself, but also enjoy showing students how the intricacies of language can resonate in other mediums such as the visual arts. Students are also often at a loss as to what to do with a Linguistics degree. I hope that engaging with the UQ Art Museum shows them the integral place of languages in other disciplines and, in particular, inspires them with the depth of different facets of Indigenous knowledge – linguistic, ecological, historical and artistic.

Dr Felicity Meakins will be in conversation with Gurindji community members and Still in my mind curator Brenda L. Croft and other participating artists on Saturday 12 August as part of the exhibition’s opening events. RSVP to the opening event and public programs taking place that day here.