Bellambi Neighbourhood Centre is buzzing with colour and commotion. Strings of vibrant bunting drape the hallways, cheeky toddlers run, giggling, through the garden. It is a special day in this pocket of the Illawarra’s northern suburbs. And the universe has responded in kind, with a kaleidoscopic spring morning that seems to shrug off the gloom of winter and suggest that only bright days lie ahead.
That is the hope in Bellambi, as the small suburb celebrates the inaugural Festival of Community Mapping. The initiative, led by researchers from the University of Wollongong and funded by the McKinnon Walker Trust, has taken a novel approach to a place that often makes headlines for all the wrong reasons, using visual arts to engender a sense of pride in the community. Close to 200 people have come together to create a huge community map, with nothing but a piece of canvas and lots of paintbrushes, using their memories to craft a piece of local history.
For Associate Professor Kate Senior, who has spearheaded the festival, it is a day to celebrate the beauty, strength, and resilience of Bellambi. “This is such an amazing and diverse community, and it is so incredible to see everyone come together like this,” A/Prof Senior says.
Located in Wollongong’s north, Bellambi is a suburb with a low socioeconomic status, surrounded by more affluent areas such as Bulli, Thirroul, and Woonona. A/Prof Senior, from the University of Wollongong’s Faculty of Social Science, says research shows communities that experience disadvantage feel that disadvantage more acutely when surrounded by prosperous suburbs.
“Bellambi has always been the place that is looked down upon,” she says. “When you hear mentions of Bellambi in the media or in conversation, it is inevitably negative. There is a real stigma and that is felt by the community.
“That becomes more pronounced when you consider the close proximity to affluent suburbs nearby, such as Corrimal and Towradgi, and Bulli and Thirroul further north.”
An anthropologist and a researcher dedicated to effecting social change, A/Prof Senior has been a frequent visitor to Bellambi Neighbourhood Centre for more than two years. Initially, she began working with local high school students who attend the centre. The aim was to encourage these young people to pursue education beyond their high school years and provide them with training and job-ready skills to help them on this path. She wanted to encourage Bellambi’s youth to aspire to great things.
Using visual arts and storytelling Associate Professor Senior connected with the students, encouraging them to share their experiences of growing up in Bellambi. They were from Engage 2518, a program that provides students at nearby Corrimal High School with the opportunity to have a positive impact on their community. Like all suburbs, it holds many memories – some positive, some not – for the students, locations that over the years have become part of the local lore. The students began to create a makeshift map, a visual touchstone of the suburb.
“It was so funny and whimsical to hear about the things that are important to the people of Bellambi,” A/Prof Senior says. “There’s the beach, the high school, the preschool, but there’s also the shops, where everyone hangs out, and the Bellambi monster, which seems to mean different things to different people.”
A/Prof Senior was itching to do more. She approached Professor Glenn Salkeld, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, about how the University could further work with Bellambi to empower young people, which she hoped would have a ripple effect throughout the community. A/Prof Senior had a plan; she brought the first Bellambi map, on paper this time, a colourful, whimsical artwork created by Engage 2518.
Professor Salkeld was blown away by the artwork and by the students’ initiative. He approached UOW Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings CBE, who was also impressed by the potential of the project.
“Most academics write a few pages for grant applications, but I went into the Vice-Chancellor’s office with the map, and that was the application. The map was so big we had to clear space on the floor. He was really impressed and loved the concept,” Professor Salkeld says.
The Bellambi research project was funded by the McKinnon Walker Trust, which was established in 2016 following a $1.3 million endowment to the University from former Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Professor Ken McKinnon and UOW alumna Ms Suzanne Walker. Professor Wellings distributes the trust annually, with the aim of supporting new projects that will have a positive social and economic impact.
Professor McKinnon was the second Vice-Chancellor of UOW, serving from 1981 until his retirement in 1995, while Ms Walker graduated from the University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1985. “The core goal is to foster widespread commitment to innovation and be a particular avenue of support for excellence,” Professor McKinnon said at the time.
That seed of an idea, planted more than a year ago when A/Prof Senior asked the students to create a map of what Bellambi meant to them, took on a life of its own.
“It was an intimate way of looking at Bellambi but at the same time, it was a great way to use visual language to think about the whole community,” A/Prof Senior says.
When A/Prof Senior put forward the idea of a one-day festival to Bellambi Neighbourhood Centre volunteers, it was received with gusto. The community quickly mobilised to create a day that could showcase all that is beautiful and unique about Bellambi.
It began with a new look for the suburb. A group of third-year graphic design students at UOW were tasked with the responsibility of rebranding Bellambi, creating a new identity that could be used to promote the festival. Their design brief was the prototype community map and, originally, they were asked to create a handful of animations but the students had bigger plans. Instead, they rebranded Bellambi.
Jaya Degur, a lifelong Bellambi resident and undergraduate in a Bachelor of Arts (Visual Arts and Graphic Design), was one of the students who spearheaded the design of Be Bellambi, a vibrant, quirky new brand that captures the personality of the community.
“We decide to create a new brand for Bellambi as part of a perception strategy. We wanted to reduce the stigma around the suburb and also give the wider community an insight into what it’s like to live there,” Jaya says. “The designs were inspired by the community itself. We wanted to capture things that were important to the people of Bellambi,” he says of the designs, which include the infamous Bellambi monster, the bus, the ocean.
“I grew up in and around Bellambi, so I understand the community and I wanted to capture the pride the people of Bellambi have in their home. I wanted to give a deeper understanding of how the community works. The perception is vastly different from the reality. Any community experiences hardship. Bellambi is a big, friendly, beautiful community.”