Children to the front – collaborating with communities

Approx. four months of on-site engagement
Children and families, regional communities
Background: To coincide with ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10), the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art’s (QAGOMA) Children’s Art Centre worked with selected exhibiting artists to develop new projects specifically for children and families as part of APT10 Kids. Across the seven APT10 Kids projects are themes that celebrate love, inclusion, diversity, and the importance of collaboration and community. The Children’s Art Centre aims to engage children with multiple cultures so they can experience the many ways artists approach their work. QAGOMA has an ongoing commitment to presenting innovative exhibitions, projects and publications for children and families. The Gallery is also dedicated to making meaningful connections with communities throughout regional and remote Queensland by delivering free activities and materials for its annual Kids on Tour program. This enables children and families unable to travel to the Gallery to engage with contemporary art. QAGOMA is excited that more than 120 venues around Queensland, including those in Dirranbandi, Stonehenge, Mount Isa, Aurukun, Redlands and more, have chosen to be part of the 2022 program. Acknowledging the potential for interstate and overseas visitors to be impacted by ongoing COVID-19 travel restrictions, the Children’s Art Centre planned from the outset to develop online content for each project to allow the broadest access possible.
Where Stortles Roam 2021 Kamruzzaman Shadhin and Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts Gidree Bawlee Foundation of Arts is a non-profit, multidisciplinary organisation that was established in 2001 by artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin. He has said ‘my art practice has always revolved around communities, mainly the communities that I grew up with in the village of Balia, Thakurgaon’ (1) 467km north of the capital, Dhaka. Working with communities in Bangladesh’s north-western Thakurgaon district, Gidree Bawlee has created an artist residency, facilitating cultural and artistic exchange programs between indigenous and non-indigenous contemporary artists. For APT10 Kids, Kamruzzaman worked with a group of children from the village of Balia to develop Where Stortles Roam, a puppet-making activity inspired by the
poem ‘Khichuri (Stew Much)’ by Bengali poet Sukumar Ray. ‘It is a fun poem, using portmanteau words to coin new names for the new creatures. I have loved the poem since my childhood, it pushes me to think of extraordinary things in the ordinary.’ (2) The project is also about ‘creating a connection between children from diverse settings and amplifying how they stand on the same ground in terms of imagining the extraordinary and the new.’ (3) Developed over the course of a year, Where Stortles Roam opened to the public in Brisbane in December 2021. The process of developing the project has been collaborative with a three-way exchange between the artist, the Gallery, and the children. Kamruzzaman has said ‘collaboration is the heart of the project. There is collaboration between me and the children, between the children with themselves, between us and the community, between us and the APT team.’ (4) He began by developing a range of abstract paper shapes using forms from nature, such as leaves and corn husks, which children can combine however they like to create a puppet of an imaginary animal, inspired by Sukumar Ray’s poem. The activity was trialled with children in Balia and in Brisbane, who tested different combinations of shapes, materials and paper colours. The trials revealed that bold- coloured paper shapes alone could be used to produce simple and beautiful results. Limiting the materials in this way also encouraged children to think deeply about how to use the shapes. The trials also demonstrated that many children wished to create a face for their puppet, so several small shapes — which can easily become eyes and other facial features — were added to the activity.
In developing interactive projects for children, the Children’s Art Centre works with a team of other Gallery professionals including exhibition designers, graphic designers, web and multimedia staff, who took inspiration from images of the village, supplied by Kamruzzaman, to create the design of the on-site Gallery space. Curious creatures appear in the wall graphics, based on puppets created during activity trials at QAGOMA and those Kamruzzaman facilitated in Balia.
As part of the project, Kamruzzaman and the young puppeteers developed a video for display at the Gallery, in which children demonstrate how to make a puppet, followed by an outdoor performance. The video is an instructional tool highlighting the children’s collaboration on this project; it also helps to contextualise the activity, featuring footage of children making their puppets in the green spaces around the village. To perform with the puppets, a small ground-level stage area is provided in the space. Once children have completed their puppet, they can go to the stage area and, with the assistance of an adult, record a short video of their performance, which they can then share with friends and family. Where Stortles Roam is also being shared with regional audiences throughout Queensland via APT10 Kids on Tour. Multiple exhibition elements have been adapted for regional touring to enable access by venues of differing sizes and resources. The poem ‘Khichuri (Stew Much)’ has been printed on posters for venues to display in their activity area, and a large poster featuring the wall graphic from the exhibition space at QAGOMA can be used as a backdrop for children’s puppet performances. The children’s instructional video can be played by venues via a web link, and an activity instruction sheet has also been developed for visitors to use. To engage audiences online, Kamruzzaman and the children in Balia created a second video ‘Bajharu and Friends’ exploring puppet-making using natural materials. In the video, the children demonstrate how to make a puppet using items such as leaves, sticks, flowers, and an ear of rice. Children at home can draw inspiration from the video to forage for their own materials and create a puppet using what they find.  
Endnotes 1–4 Kamruzzaman Shadhin, email to Cosima Scales, April 2021.