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Art for baby's sake

Flourish 05 May 2017

Encouraging Aboriginal women to paint casts of their pregnant bellies is improving birth outcomes.

Aboriginal woman painting a belly cast

Inspiration can occur in the most unlikely places. For Kim McConville, the Executive Director of community arts organisation Beyond Empathy, it arrived in a small, featureless room at Moree Base Hospital in New South Wales.

It was April 2004 and Kim had just been told by a hospital representative the news that every community organisation dreams of hearing: we have funding for you.

“She said we had to develop a program so we could find a way to reach young Aboriginal girls who don’t present at hospitals until they’re in labour,” Kim says.

Often the young women have grown up with a cultural suspicion of medical institutions and are afraid they will be judged or criticised during their pregnancies. Many are unaware of the importance of antenatal care and the need to monitor their health during pregnancy.

Kim had a flash of inspiration as to how to bring Aboriginal women into the fold of antenatal care. “When I was pregnant many years ago, a good friend of mine, who is very creative, had the idea for us to make plaster casts of our bellies,” Kim says.

“I remember thinking that we could do something like the Sea of Hands and instead do a Sea of Bellies.”

The first Sea of Hands was a public art installation at Parliament House in Canberra in 1997 that featured thousands of hands in the colours of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands flags. It was created to mobilise non-Indigenous support for native title and reconciliation. The Sea of Hands has become a symbol of the People’s Movement for Reconciliation. At Kim’s instigation, The Mubali: Sea of Bellies project was born. Mubali means pregnant in the Gamilaroi language.

Beyond Empathy began running the belly casting workshops at Moree Base Hospital in 2004, but the demand for them quickly spread.

They replicated the project in 15 other sites across Australia and have inspired many community groups to set up their own versions of Mubali.

Healthcare workers and Elders talk to the women during the casting and painting process, in a way that imparts important antenatal knowledge, without replicating the clinical atmosphere of many hospitals.

Australian National University PhD student Bianca Williams is researching international feminist approaches to pregnancy belly casts and says the origins of the casts remain uncertain.

“We can say that there is no evidence at this stage they are a part of traditional Aboriginal culture,” Bianca says.

“But they have been used by midwives all over the world for many years.”

The belly casts may not be endemic to traditional Aboriginal culture but what they engender among participants most certainly is.

“The exchange of stories, of Elders sitting and talking to young women through the process of belly casting, is most certainly a strong Indigenous tradition,” Kim says.

Dr Kym Rae, an Associate Professor at the University of Newcastle and Director of the Gomeroi Gaaynggal maternal healthcare centres in Tamworth and Walgett in northern New South Wales, has been running belly casting workshops for almost a decade.

“We started by talking to the local Elders and they said what the women really needed was increased antenatal services as, at that time, only the private hospital was offering them,” Kym says.

She was inspired by the work of Beyond Empathy’s belly casting program but wanted to take the workshops a step further.

The casts produced in the Tamworth and Walgett classes have a fibreglass component in the front of the plaster, which allows for ultrasound images to be inserted or a video of the ultrasound to be projected onto the clear fibreglass.

The Gomeroi Gaaynggal maternal healthcare workshops also allowed Kym and her team to study Indigenous health outcomes. Their results were published last year in the United States Journal of Pregnancy and Child Health.

We knew that we would find high rates of pre-term births and low birth weights, but we didn’t expect to see signs of renal failure in girls in their 20s,” Kym says.

“That’s why picking these things up early and referring women on to the right clinicians is so important.”

A Beyond Empathy DIY Sea of Bellies Toolkit will be launched on the Beyond Empathy website

An exhibition of the plaster casts, as well as other works produced by the Gomeroi Gaaynggal workshop participants, will be displayed at Government House later this year.

Learning by Teaching

When artist Jo Davidson was recruited in 2004 to teach belly casting to a group of Indigenous women in Moree, she had no idea just how large the project would become.

Twelve years after its inception, the belly casting workshops have spread to many parts of Australia. Jo has taught women in coastal and northern New South Wales, in rural Western Australia and south-east Queensland.

“People saw what we were doing in Moree and they thought, ‘Well, why can’t we have it here?’” Jo says.

The difference the casts have made to birth outcomes, as well as young women’s self-esteem, has been heartening.

“You feel quite vulnerable when you’re a young mum and having something like this done is a bit of a luxury, kind of like a massage,” Jo says.

Once the plaster casts are created they are left to dry for a week and Jo then encourages the women to paint them.

“Some people paint family stories on theirs, others paint totems, it really depends on the mum,” she says.

“We commission a local Elder to paint alongside the mums and advise them as to what to paint if they wish, but it’s entirely up to them.”

Jo also recruited Aboriginal woman Lizzy Jarrett, from northern NSW, to help her with the classes.

“I first did a cast myself when my seven-year-old son, William, was almost due,” Lizzy says.

“I was sick at the time so my cousin ended up painting it for me in bright colours; it was a seawater design.”

Lizzy is giving back now by working with women in the classes to create their own works of art.

“The cast is a tool to get young women in the door and ends up being a reward for seeing a midwife and going through the health checks, as young women are often scared of hospitals. It’s a great experience,” she says.

Words Johanna Leggatt

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Find out about Australian Unity’s Aboriginal Home Care service, which provides support to more than 3000 Indigenous people across New South Wales. 

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