From canvas to augmented reality, Uluru Statement travels to new dimension

·6-min read
NAIDOC Week 2021

Learn about this important Indigenous call for reform in a digital project that combines the heart with state-of-the-art technology.

Thomas Mayor thought he’d seen everything when it comes to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. After all, he knows every word of the 12-paragraph statement that forms the centrepiece of this sacred canvas.

The statement is a vision for reform, including constitutional change, which was issued to the Australian people in 2017 after two years of collaborative work.

It acknowledges there’s still much to be done 50 years after the historic referendum that recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard,” the statement says in part.

Those words sit within a pencilled border, marking where 250 signatories, including Mayor, could place their names. Framing the names and the statement is a vibrant dot painting. It depicts animal tracks, serpents and more, in a blend of two Anangu creation (Tjukurpa) stories.

Author Thomas Mayor pictured in front of the Uluru Statement from the Heart canvas. Photo: Martin Ollman
Author Thomas Mayor pictured in front of the Uluru Statement from the Heart canvas. Photo: Martin Ollman

Mayor, a father of five who lives in Darwin and works as a union activist, rolled up the canvas in a tube and spent 18 months unfurling it in locations all over Australia – from a dusty spot beside the Yule River in Western Australia’s Pilbara region to lush lawns and fancy offices – to spread its message and build support for these reforms.

 “It was a daunting experience,” he says. “We had this wonderful moment at Uluru and this sacred canvas - and a lot of misinformation out there about what it was.

"It was very much a lonely road to begin with. It was also scary because I had a good understanding of just how sacred and valuable that canvas was. I was afraid I’d lose it or someone would try to destroy it.”

Although a little frayed by journey’s end, the canvas not only survived but inspired Mayor to write a book about his epic time travelling with it. Finding the Heart of the Nation, which includes interviews with 20 key figures, is aimed at adult readers.

He adapted its message for younger readers with the book Finding Our Heart, illustrated by Sydney-based artist and four-time Archibald Prize finalist, Blak Douglas. Their book was short-listed for the Best Designed Children’s Non-Fiction Illustrated Book at the recent Australian Book Design Awards.

Finding Our Heart book cover. Photo: Mitchell Drescher
Finding Our Heart book cover. Photo: Mitchell Drescher

Uluru Statement's digital impact

Mayor might have thought he’d seen the Uluru Statement from every possible angle and in every possible form. However this week, he and his artistic collaborator will see their joint effort soar into a whole other dimension.

To celebrate NAIDOC Week 2021, an immersive digital project will bring their words and images alive in a dazzling new way.

Three of Douglas’s illustrations – used to tell the Finding Our Heart story - can now be viewed through your phone using Augmented Reality (AR).

This high-tech treatment means you can explore each of his images, looking at them from every angle, flipping them around to see from behind and underneath, while placing them against a background of whatever your phone camera is pointed towards (you can snap a picture incorporating both virtual and real images if you like).

As part of this project, Mayor reads out his own writing (he made the recording under his bed’s doona to block out other sounds) so you can listen to book excerpts at the same time as spotting the recurring heart motif in Douglas’s evocative images.

You can view the immersive version of Finding our Heart here.

Allow the permission requests to bring the illustrations to life in your space, and tap the speaker icon to hear Thomas Mayor’s readings.

For both Mayor and Douglas, it’s exciting to see their work presented in this way and to know it will now reach new tech-savvy audiences. Mayor says: “It’s cool. This is another way for people to connect with the story I wrote about the Uluru Statement.”

Mayor, a Torres Strait Islander whose dad comes from Waiben (Thursday Island), never thought he’d become an author. Born on Larrakia country in Darwin, he became a wharfie at 17.

“I was a very quiet person so I never thought I’d be an advocate let alone an author,” he says. He grew up with his dad showing him how to hunt turtles and dugongs.

“When there’s a cultural feast coming up, the men will go and get enough meat for a big cook-up,” he says. “It’s something I really enjoy. We respect the animals and, for some of us, they’re our totems.”

Thomas Mayor reads 'Finding Our Heart'.
Thomas Mayor reads 'Finding Our Heart'. Source: Peter Weaving.

One such cultural occasion that requires the gathering of traditional foods is a tombstone opening. “We have a tradition where we really look after the gravesites of our elders,” Mayor explains. “Usually, about 12 months [after their passing], we would reveal the tombstone.

The gravestone is covered with palm leaves and cloths, and then it’s revealed. That’s done in a ceremony where there are gifts exchanged and lots of island dancing and there’s big feasting afterwards. That’s one of the big gatherings that we regularly have.”

It’s a completely different upbringing to that of Blak Douglas, a contemporary artist of Dhungatti Aboriginal origin who was born in Blacktown in Sydney’s western suburbs. Both men, though, are activists at heart with Douglas’s celebrated artworks often showcasing a strong streak of irony and sarcasm.

Sydney artist Blak Douglas.
Sydney artist Blak Douglas. Source: Sally Tsoutas

A cultural upbringing

Douglas says that while making images for the book, it wasn’t the time for him “to be a smart-arse”. He has “no doubt”, he says, about the societal changes Australia’s younger generation will usher in.

“The exponential change that I’ve seen [among students at schools] over the past 15 years is just profound,” he says. “I have no doubt that [Aboriginal studies] will be at the fore at most schools.”

He’s also “on a bit of a roll”, he says, when it comes to illustrating Indigenous-penned children’s literature. Douglas created the cover for science advocate and Kamilaroi man Corey Tutt’s The First Scientists, a book about deadly (excellent) inventions and innovations from Australia’s First Peoples that will be published in October.

Mayor is also on his own roll, with a book coming out next month about Northern Territory land rights leader Vincent Lingiari (co-authored with Lingiari’s granddaughter, Rosie Smiler).

In September another Mayor book – Dear Son – will be published to celebrate First Nations manhood.

Finding our Heart is published by Hardie Grant Publishing and is available on their website here.

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