The simple act of listening can help Indigenous prisoners reconnect with their culture and benefit their health and wellbeing, according to a new project by creative arts and health researchers at Griffith.

Listening to Country was a two-year pilot project involving researchers from the Queensland Conservatorium, Queensland College of Art and First Peoples Health Unit at Griffith University.

The multi-disciplinary team worked with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island women at the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre (BWCC) to produce an immersive audio work, designed to reduce stress and help the women connect to culture, the natural environment and country.

The researchers conducted 10 workshops at the BWCC, creating a soundscape made by the women in prison, who recorded each other’s voices, steps, breaths, heartbeats and poetry.

Dr Beetson and Dr Saunders presenting the project findings at the Lowitja Institute Knowledge Translation Forum

The team from Griffith included Dr Vicki Saunders, a Gunggari woman from southwest Queensland, who conducts arts-led research within the field of child protection and Dr Bianca Beetson, a Gubbi Gubbi/Kabi Kabi woman from the Sunshine Coast, who heads up the Contemporary Indigenous Art Program at the QCA.

Dr Beetson said the project had a profound impact on the participants at BWCC.

“Hearing the final soundscape on the final day, some of the women said they forgot abo

ut being in prison for a moment,” Dr Beetson said.

Dr Saunders said the project offered a respite from the sterile environment of the remand centre.

Participants recording for the immersive soundscape

“The soundscape of a prison has to be felt to be understood,” she said.

“I had no idea how intrusive the sounds all around you can be. That particular prison, it’s like they designed it to overwhelm you – there are vacuum toilets flushing, crashing steel doors, duress alarms.

“But this project was about listening to the country that’s central to our wellbeing, that’s always speaking to us.

“In Gunggari language, the word for listening, Yimbaya, also means respect and when you’re listening, respect is automatically there.

“It’s about listening with more than our ears, it’s a whole body listening.”

Two researchers from the Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre also collaborated on the project: Dr Sarah Woodland, who has worked on arts and wellbeing programs at the BWCC for the past seven years, and Dr Leah Barclay, a sound artist whose work investigates the social and environmental value of acoustic ecology.

Dr Saunders recording poetry on country

Dr Barclay said that many disciplines, including environmental science and medicine, were exploring the link between s ound and wellbeing.

“It’s amazing how sound truly affects our body and how listening to environmental sound can have a positive impact not just on our bodies but our minds,” she said.

The completed work will be showcased in an immersive audio installation at the Lowitja Institute Conference in Darwin in June, and the researchers are also exploring how the project could be adapted for other settings, to benefit at-risk young people, seniors in care and women transitioning from prison to the community.

The researchers were supported by Aunty Melita Orcher and Aunty Estelle Sandow from the Brisbane Elders. Listening to Country was funded by the Lowitja Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research, and supported by Queensland Corrective Services.

A public event to discuss the project, Listening to Country: Yarning and Listening Event, will be held at the Queensland Conservatorium at 5pm, Thursday 2 May.