NEOMAD: Creative Learning In Remote Communities

shutterstock_87880243By Debra Myers and Elspeth Blunt. 

The recent three-part series, Yearning for Learning, introduced a digital media project run by Big hART’s Yijala Yala Project. The project aims to spark young people’s interest, engagement and attendance at school, while improving their digital skills and literacy. Its purpose is also to create innovative, digital cultural resources in the Aboriginal community of Ieramugadu (Roebourne) on the edge of the Pilbara Desert in WA.

Picture this: An intensive three-day master class is held at a conference. People are glued to computer screens, being guided through complex, Photoshop processes. Others are learning how to invent, design and draw characters. Yet this is no ordinary class. The young students have been selected from different countries to participate in the International Children’s Comic Creators Festival (ICCCF) in South Korea. The teachers are two, eleven-year-old kids from Ieramugadu who are on their first overseas trip out of Western Australia’s Pilbara region. They are also launching NEOMAD – an interactive comic for iPad starring themselves. This is the story of how they got there.

It all began in May 2011, when young people worked with Big hART artists to develop alter egos of themselves for a short, zombie satire film. The characters that emerged collectively became known as the ‘Love Punks’. Big hART artists worked with the kids to come up with costumes, face paint, names and special powers based on their humour and resourcefulness. Costumes were built from junk and accessories found around the community. One kid hung a steering wheel from his neck. The idea was that the Love Punks would look futuristic and post-apocalyptic, but still retain their own personalities. As further Love Punk ideas emerged, it became clear that the key to maintaining engagement was that kids were creating something personal and based on themselves.

The momentum generated by the film enabled Stu Campbell, Yijala Yala Project Mentor and Animator, Illustrator and creator of the project’s digital comic for iPad, to start digital media and literacy skill-building workshops at the Roebourne District School. By teaching Photoshop skills to the Love Punks and their peers, they worked towards creating an online game that would show their community as a magical place which invites players to explore and see the town as kids do (see Edition 48). One of the most important elements of this style of teaching was that the kids were able to see their work coming together to create something big. The pride they felt when the game was completed, online, and shared with the community, was enormous.

The Love Punks momentum continued to grow. One day, a new student, Brodie, came to the Big hART office, keen on becoming a Love Punk. Nathaniel, one of the older Love Punks, offered to help Brodie to create his look in Photoshop. He sketched Brodie’s face-paint design in Photoshop using a Wacom pen, then he showed Brodie the colour palette and, together, they came up with a design. It was an exciting, autonomous moment that wasn’t part of the workshop, but something that Nathaniel initiated to exercise his skills. These were more advanced Photoshop skills than what the kids had been learning and this progress enabled Stu to move into the next phase of his teaching, which was for the kids to learn to colour their characters in the NEOMAD interactive comic.

NEOMAD would not only continue the kids’ skill development and engagement, but the story would feature Murujuga (the Burrup Peninsula). This met one of the project objectives of working with funding sponsor, Woodside, to promote Murujuga as a significant, cultural heritage site. Just as the game did, NEOMAD was going to take several months of hard work — this time, learning how to colour in black and white line drawings, using the Wacom tablets and pens they had mastered while creating the game. This next phase of learning built on their prior knowledge and taught the students the following skills in Photoshop:

  • Selecting colour, using the eyedropper tool;
  • Creating layers;
  • Breaking down the composition of a drawing, separating out elements in a picture, and considering which layer comes first;
  • Depth perception;
  • Recognising and determining the light source in an image, and rendering highlights and shadows.

Learning these new skills was again made easier by the fact that they were working towards a clear outcome—this time, the launch of the comic on iTunes as a new micro-business for the community.

The comic involved more than 200 scenes, with 30 young people (14 of whom are key characters) involved in 70 Photoshop workshops. They also recorded dialogue for their characters alongside senior community members who also had roles in the story. The process also included the reading of scripts and the rehearsing and filming of five pages of complex dialogue for a live-action film sequence which was incorporated into the start of the story.

As Stu explained it, “The juxtaposition of live action with the comic helps to tell audiences that it is based on real people. It’s really important that we continue to reinforce how the real world is constantly informing the fictional narrative. We’ve spent a long time with these kids to figure out ways that they can become genuine co-creators and authors of their own story. This comes through via the adoption of their vernacular and, obviously, as a result of their technical assistance.”

There are also plans to have the comic translated into the two local languages, Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi, to enable readers to toggle between, and learn, some parts of these languages.

NEOMAD has already achieved much more than it was ever imagined it would. In June, three Love Punks travelled away from home for the first time to the Supanova Pop Culture Expo in Perth to preview NEOMAD and experience the comic industry. The Bucheon International Comics Festival in South Korea then invited Stu, Nathaniel and fellow Love Punk, Maverick, to officially launch the comic and present its creative process at the Festival. A high achievement for any artist, let alone an eleven-year-old artist who only began learning the software nine months previously, and is from a remote Aboriginal community. They also ran a Photoshop and comic-creation master class at the ICCCF.

Before leaving for South Korea, Maverick said, “I’m excited about teaching other people what we’ve done, so they can do it too.”

In addition to colouring the next episode of NEOMAD in workshops at school, Maverick and Nathaniel now come to the Big hART office, almost every day, to write their own stories and draw their own comic strips. Their world is a bigger place, their horizons are broader, and their potential is limitless. They are taking their future into their own hands.

Originally from Canberra, Elspeth has relocated to Roebourne from Alice Springs, where she has been working on the Yijala Yala Project, as Associate Producer, since February 2011. Elspeth holds a BA Communication (Theatre/Media) and she has been working in youth arts and community cultural development for over five years.

Debra is the Creative Producer of Big hART’s Yijala Yala Project and she has been working with Indigenous communities for the past five years. She is passionate about community development and creating positive change through the arts.

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