Plant Themes in contemporary Aboriginal Fabric Designs Part 1.

I was just browsing Facebook, as one does on a Saturday morning, and saw a post sharing: Illuminating Indigenous Culture Through Plants an article by Zena Cumpston. Very readable and it got me thinking. So many of Injalak Arts’ fabric designs featured or included plants, especially women’s designs. It was something I noted at the time as a a long-time lover of plants (an anthophile, apparently). Thinking of other art centres in remote Australia and it was a similar story. Indigenous women’s fabric designs celebrate plants and natural fibres and their multifarious uses in daily life again and again. This is true whether in Broome (WA), Haasts Bluff (NT), Wadeye (NT), Hopevale (QLD), Mangingrida or Merrepen (NT). It is also true of the Ernabella workshop designs in the 1990s and the early batik designs created by women at Yuendumu and Utopia in the 1980s.

Speaking to my own experience it was always fascinating and instructive to watch the design process at Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya in the Northern Territory. Visiting trainer/former staff member Jude White came on board in 2013 (for the third time over 20 years) to work with women members to create new fabric designs and develop printing skills. The art centre had received funding* to run a workshop focusing on engagement and inclusion of women.

Eva Nganjmirra’s Mandem (Water Lily) design printed twice (offset)

Since it was first established (1989) until it ceased production for a decade (sometime around 2001) the Injalak Arts print workshop had been dominated by men in both the design process and printing. During its revival Tim Growcott facilitated workshops in 2011/12 during which Eva Nganjmirra and Selina Nadjowh both produced individual designs alongside those of a number of male artists. The women’s designs included Mandem (Water Lily) by Eva (image above) and Manme (Bush Foods) by Selina (below). They were so beautiful and well received there was no question women could create gorgeous designs when given the opportunity.

Kristy O’Brien (left) wearing a cape made from Selina Nadjowh’s Manme design August 2020

It could be argued that Indigenous women have more of a feel for the fabric design process than men because of their affinity with natural fibres, textiles and clothing. The men approached the design process very much as if they were just making big paintings, and their designs have a two-dimensionality about them. Graphically and design-wise they are superbly executed and intricately detailed but do not necessarily resonate with being draped around 3D humans. Kunwinjku men nearly always produced images of game; fish, kangaroos, echidnas, birds etc. These work extremely well as ‘art panels’ when displayed on a wall. However, to use the men’s designs in clothing the key images usually need to be chopped up (dismembered). This is apparent in the beautiful jacket worn below where the Ngalkordow (Brolga) that is the central design feature is difficult to discern.

Senator Nova Peris-Kneebone giving her maiden speech in the Australian Parliament wearing Gabriel Maralngurra’s Brolga design. This was a landmark occasion as the first Indigenous woman elected to Federal Australian Parliament. 2013

In contrast, even in those early plant related designs Eva and Selina approached the design process differently to the men and created screens distinct in style, their images flowed and spread evenly across the entire fabric, both width and length, they also did not have an orientation. They were ideal for use in clothing, accessories and homewares.

Each time Jude facilitated a design workshop with the Kunwinjku women she offered them the opportunity to work collaboratively and/or individually on designs. Injalak Arts does not have a single collaborative men’s design (out of approximately 30 by men). From that first workshop in 2013 a key group of women (Priscilla Badari, Lynne Nadjowh and Sylvia Badari joined on occasions variously by Katra Nganjmirra, Gabriella Maralngurra and Merrill Girrabul) chose to work on designs collaboratively. When it came to discussing and choosing themes, plants and fibre art (originating from plants) dominated.

Selina and Katra printing Marebu (Mats) design with a single (top) screen at Injalak Arts

Out of that first workshop came the iconic Marebu (mats) design that went on to become a perennial best seller and can be printed with such different effects in a variety of colorways with either one or two screens. Marebu are woven from the leaves of Kunngobarn, the Pandanus spiralis tree, but first they must be laboriously collected, stripped of their spikes, dried and (often) dyed with naturally occurring dyes. It is women’s work to harvest and process Pandanus and make mats and all the other wonderful items that can be made from Pandanus. That process set the tone for the next six years of activity and women became increasingly active as designers and printers. The outcome of the workshops led by Jude, which occurred once or twice a year over six years, was 17 new women’s designs of which the majority were collaborative. These designs will be discussed (lovingly) in later blog posts.

Another photo of Kristy, who has championed Indigenous printed fabrics whilst First Lady of the NT. She’s wearing Eva’s Mandem design (same as first photo) whilst meeting HRH in Gove. 2018

NB: These and other fabulous locally hand printed designs on fabric are available direct from Injalak Arts’ Etsy Shop.

Caption for feature image: Mr Channa In, master craftsman and trainer at Kravan House, with a length of hand-printed fabric designed by Agnes Nampitjinpa Dixon from Ikuntji Artists in the Northern Territory of Australia. He turns fabric into beautiful bags. He is asking if the small images – Watiyatjuta (Many Trees) – on the design are hands. Phnom Penh 2020

*Shout out to NT Department of Business – a consistently helpful funding agency in supporting artist led business initiatives in the six years I was Mentor Manager at Injalak Arts to 2019.

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