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Artist Spotlight: Zena Cumpston

Zena Cumpston is a Barkandji woman who works as a freelance writer, researcher, curator and storyteller. She is passionate about plants and the many ways they elucidate the ingenuity and deep knowledge of her people. Melbourne Writers Festival invited Cumpston to share the inspiration behind her latest work, Plants: Past, Present and Future – co-authored with Michael-Shawn Fletcher and Lesley Head –the impact she hopes it will have on readers and what she’s looking forward to at the Festival.

Book now to see Zena Cumpston at Plants: Past, Present and Future at Melbourne Writers Festival.


Your most recent publication, Plants: Past, Present and Future – co-authored with Wiradjuri geographer and scientist Michael-Shawn Fletcher, and geographer Lesley Head – has been described as a celebration of the deep cultural significance of plants. What drew you to this topic? What inspired it?

I have been researching and writing about plants as part of my work in academia over several years. As an Aboriginal woman, it has been important to me to benefit my community through my research and working with plants allows many opportunities to connect with and strengthen the work many other community members are undertaking.

I was first drawn to this topic because I am in awe of the many complex ways our people have harnessed plants to give us everything we need – from food and powerful medicines to ingenious technologies. Writing this book gave me an opportunity to share my research with a wide audience. I was inspired by the possibility of my people, especially our younger mob, reading it and becoming more interested in plants and especially in seeking intergenerational learning opportunities with their Elders.


As both a researcher and storyteller, what role do you feel storytelling can play in the field of research and science?

Storytelling has been central to our knowledge systems, and especially in the handing down of knowledge over countless millennia. Storytelling democratises knowledge – it invites everyone in. Conversely, western ways of sharing knowledge, like academia, are often predicated on locking people out, in the language and privilege they currently champion.

I have just embarked on a new pathway for my storytelling and am about to have my first exhibition, exploring my plant research through visual arts practice. This new adventure will further democratise my research, sharing complex plant knowledge encoded within artworks that people of all ages can engage with and, hopefully, learn from.



Plants: Past, Present and Future posits that engaging with the heritage of Indigenous first knowledges of the environment could be the key to a healthier, more sustainable future. What impact do you hope this text will have on readers?

I love to think that people who read our book may come away with a broader understanding of and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s plant knowledge and management of Country. I hope readers gain an understanding of some of the challenges our communities face in having their knowledge recognised and championed, and how this lack of empowerment is adversely affecting Country for all of us.


Billy Griffiths praised Plants as revealing “the power and possibility of Indigenous ecological expertise”. If there was one thing you learnt in your research for this text that you would most want readers to take away, what would it be?

As I was writing my chapters for this book I was also working as a co-author on the Indigenous chapter of the 2021 State of the Environment Report. The research I undertook for both of these huge projects showed me the incredible success of biodiversity actions that truly empower our people to lead.

The devastation of our Baaka (Darling River) is heartbreaking, and my Barkandji people and all Traditional Owner groups along the Baaka still have no say in how this waterway, literally our lifeblood, is managed. We have so much skin in the game and yet so many choose to think of our culture and knowledge as in the past and not relevant today.

I want readers to have the opportunity to think about what Australia could look like, especially in terms of the trajectory of our shared environment, if our people were put in the driver’s seat when it comes to managing Country.


And finally, what are you most looking forward to about Melbourne Writers Festival?

I am so excited by many of the writers who are speaking as part of the smorgasbord of events for Melbourne Writers Festival, but I am particularly in awe of Jazz Money so the Opening Night is one I’m counting down to!


Visit Readings Bookstore to get a copy of the acclaimed Plants: Past, Present and Future.