A participatory art installation invites emotion to a psychological conference.

As we begin this new year we are pleased to offer you this reflection from Kate Richards about the transformative power of participation in making and being with art.


Witnessing Robyne Latham’s participatory installation Remembering the Empty Coolamons at the Australian Association of Infant Mental Health conference (23-26th November 2017), offered me an opportunity to wonder about the value of group art-making alongside more conventional conference activities.

Amidst the unlikely surrounds of the Melbourne University Law Building, Latham lay a foundation of earth and plant fibers in the form of a snake encircling an open space several meters wide. This was accompanied by an invitation for the conference delegates to contribute a hand-built clay coolamon. Traditionally a coolamon is a wooden vessel used by Aboriginal Australian cultures to carry fruits, berries, and very young infants. For this artwork, the coolamon represented an empty cradle in remembrance of the stolen generation and all children taken from their families.

Latham has described Remembering the Empty Coolamons as an offering to embody the collective unconscious shame of post-colonial Australia. For conference attendees hailing from professions including child protection, pediatric psychiatry, infant and child psychotherapy, this also resonated with experiences of young children and families psychologically bruised and fractured by ongoing and intergenerational traumas.

Slowly, and bravely, delegates shaped and decorated their coolamons. Each unique to their maker, the vessels were handed to the artist who silently placed them within the growing artwork. It seemed the touch of the clay had calmed hurried minds and welcomed emotional safety. Some delegates remarked upon how this process had connected them with feelings that more often sit under the surface of our day-to-day work. Woven through the program of didactic lectures, it invited recognition of sorrow, frustration, pain, and longing for change. This congregation of hand-built clay forms became a symbol of the collective grief we work with, and healing we strive towards.


by Kate Richards


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