Kaiela Arts in Shepparton celebrates the rich culture and creative expression of Australia’s South Eastern Aboriginal people. And with support from Jobs Victoria, the gallery and cultural centre recently hired three young Aboriginal women.

Keneisha, Iesha and April at work at Kaiela Arts.

Keneisha, Iesha and April at work at Kaiela Arts.

Jobs Victoria supports people looking for work and connects employers with the staff they need, providing information, advice and support in person, online and on the phone.

Kaiela Arts Manager Angie Russi says the three recruits, Keneisha, Iesha and April, had a mix of employment experience – one had no employment experience while two had worked in roles without long-term career potential.

“Their previous experience was as retail assistants,” Angie says. “It’s totally different from being in an organisation where it’s about your culture and your people and your place, and where you’re a part of delivering that story.”

The new recruits work in front of house roles in the gallery and studio, as well as helping with online sales and any other support Angie needs.

Expanding horizons through the arts

Kaiela Arts has grown exponentially since it opened in fifteen years ago. In March of this year, Kaiela Arts relocated to the brand-new Shepparton Arts Museum – a five-story building also housing the Museum and Visitor Centre.

The centre was established after the Shepparton Planning and Policy Unit employed an Aboriginal elder, Les Saunders, in 2006, to collect census data on First Nations residents.

As Les went door to door to fill out the forms, he noticed local Aboriginal people were producing original paintings and wood carvings. Les convinced the CEO, Michael Tynan, to display some of the work in the office.

Angie says this marked a significant turning point for cultural awareness in the region. Until then, there was nowhere for local Aboriginal artists to show and sell their work. There was no organisation supporting cultural arts sales and the artistic contribution of local Aboriginal people had slipped under the national radar.

But where is the “real” Aboriginal art?

Angie says much of their work is about education.

Sometimes, people visiting Kaiela Arts ask where to find “real” Aboriginal art.

Gallery staff explain that the dot paintings many people associate with Aboriginal art are traditionally created by the Aboriginal people of central Australia and the Northern Territory. South Eastern Aboriginal people traditionally have a linear and x-ray style of art-making.

“Educating people one by one about Aboriginal cultural arts is a huge part of what we do,” Angie says. “We are changing minds and hearts and changing how people see Aboriginal people in Shepparton.”

The gallery is in the visitor information centre and attracts many tourists.

“They’re able to make contact with local Aboriginal people and gain a better understanding of where they’re visiting,” she says.

“They can see that there is a vibrant, living culture of traditional owners in this region. It looks different to central Australia, and it looks different to the NT, but it is authentic South Eastern Australian river country with its own beauty and stories.”

Their time with Kaiela Arts has brought a big awakening for Keneisha, Iesha and April. Angie has seen their joy and growth every day on the job.

“It’s not just about hanging paintings on a wall – it’s about education, both with community and educational organisations, and interacting with creative industries,” Angie says. “They’re starting to see that bigger picture, and how this can be a career, not just a job. It’s been massive for them, and massive for us too, to have three extra staff.”

Keneisha says she can’t imagine working anywhere else.

“It really hasn’t just been a job – I feel more connected with my culture and with myself as well,” she says.

Find out more about job and training opportunities.