Indigenous Designs on Fabrics

The amazing world of Australian Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander fabrics

The last decade has seen an exciting explosion of creativity and production throughout remote Australia. Established and new remote community print workshops have been creating a range of vibrant new designs (artworks) printed on fabric There are two main types of fabric design production a) hand printed in a remote community or elsewhere using a screen-printing process and b) licensing of artworks for reproduction through a digital printing process. The first one, hand printing with two people on either side of a table using a squeegee to push ink through a big screen with a stencil design, is what really excites us.

Photo above: Reuben and Daniel printing the top screen of Marebu (mat) design at Injalak Arts

The latter is a machine process, like printing with an ink jet printer but on fabric instead of paper. It’s also very cool and you can get complex and very colorful prints and accurate copies of original paintings (for example), but it remains a mechanised process.  For us nothing beats the hands-on human printing process that not only generates livelihoods for printers but also is a joy to watch. My favorite part of every day as the Mentor Manager of Injalak Arts was the time spent in the print workshop with the printing teams and the excitement and satisfaction that comes from lifting the screen to see the image suddenly transferred to the fabric.

An overview of hand-printed fabrics

More than 50 years ago hand printing on fabric using silk screens was started on Bathurst Island, around 90 km north of Darwin, by Tiwi people. Since then a number of mainland art centres have joined the two pioneers Tiwi Design and Bima Wear both located in Wurrumiyanga community. A huge congratulations to Bima Wear that celebrated its 50th Birthday in 2019 and here is a video of the ladies celebrating with a dance at Government House in Darwin.

Bima Wear with the Hon Vicki O’Halloran AO Administrator of the NT in Darwin for the 50 Year Anniversary celebrations 2019. Note the amazing skirts.

Art centres that print fabric onsite

Many of the most active art centres that design/print/dye fabric onsite are in the Northern Territory including: Babbarra Designs in Maningrida, Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya, Merrepen Arts in Nauiyu, Ikuntji Artists in Haasts Bluff, Jilamara, and Munupi Arts on Melville Island and Anindilyakwa Arts on Groote Eylandt. Some art centres go through periods of activity including Palngun Wurnangat in Wadeye, Bula’bula Arts in Ramingining, Ngukurr Arts in Ngukurr and Djilpin Arts in Beswick. In Western Australia we find Nagula Jarndu,  Waringarri Arts, and Mangkaja Arts. In Queensland there are Erub Arts and Hopevale. Check out the online stores many of these art centres have. If you know of any not included here – let us know!

Kelly Didon printing in the studio at Ikuntji Artists, Haasts Bluff NT

Handprinted Indigenous fabrics have been seen in all the best places. The support of high profile Territorians has been a key factor in promoting their existence and making the beauty and versatility of the designs more apparent. Examples include: Senator Nova Peris wearing a silk dress with Gabriel Maralngurra’s Brolga design for her maiden speech; Kristy O’Brien greeting the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall wearing frocks with a range of different fabric designs from Injalak Arts and Merrepen Arts; and the Northern Territory Administrator Hon Vicki O’Halloran who has a stunning wardrobe.

HRH Prince of Wales meets Chief Minister Michael Gunner and his wife Kristy O’Brien wearing Eva Nganjmirra’s Mandem (water lily) design on silk.

2019 – big happenings in Indigenous fabrics

There has been a steady drum beat of support for Indigenous fabric design through the work of art centre staff and also external stakeholders. Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation has championed Indigenous designed fabrics through its Country to Couture showcase each year since 2016 as part of its August festival. Art centres and artists have collaborated with designers to create gorgeous clothing. Grace Lillian Lee has been Creative Director since 2017 and her work is outstanding. This year publicity reached new heights generating awareness across the country. See this video for Injalak Arts’ first runway collection that Flick facilitated with Black Cat Couture in 2017.  See highlights from the 2019 event featured by Vogue here.

Injalak Arts collection for Country to Couture in 2018 was a collaboration with Black Cat Couture. All the fabric was hand-printed in Gunbalanya by members. Injalak Arts has an online Etsy store with a beautiful range of fabrics for sale.

Really big INTERNATIONAL news: In 2020 five art centres will be featured in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Fowler Museum, UCLA curated by Joanna Barrkman. The working title is Screen Printed Fabric from Australia’s Top End. The featured art centres are Tiwi Design, Injalak Arts, Merrepen Arts, Jilamara and Babbarra Designs. A catalogue is currently underway and Flick has been commissioned to contribute an essay on The Economics of Screen Printed Textiles.

Where can I get products made from authentic Indigenous fabrics?

In addition to Flying fox Fabrics there are a handful of other dynamic social enterprises creating clothing,  accessories and homewares from art centre fabric have also contributed to greater awareness and availability. Whilst printed fabric is beautiful in its raw state, it’s a joy to see it being worn and used in daily life. If you are curious follow these links for clothing: Publisher Textiles, Magpie Goose, North, accessories: Ooroo and homewares: Koskela, Willie Weston, Publisher Textiles

Some art centres are entering into partnerships to either print offsite or license their designs. This year saw the launch of a collaboration between Mangkaja Arts and fashion brand Gorman where paintings by elders were reproduced on fabric.

We seek out beautiful hand-made fabric whether it is hand-woven, printed, waxed or dyed. The majority of our fabric is designed by Indigenous Australian artists.

Aboriginal designed fabrics printed by hand

We source beautiful hand-printed fabrics from remote community art centres. All the Aboriginal fabrics are designed by their members, Aboriginal artists, who are paid royalties for their designs. We love fabric hand-printed in the community because it generates livelihoods for the printers and also has that special hands-on community feel – glitches and all. However, a number of art centres do not have the facilities to hand-print, cannot meet demand or members prefer to work on other forms of art practice and delegate the printing. Luckily there are some excellent hand-printing partners in cities that have established relationships with art centres. Publisher Textiles in Sydney is the most active with partnerships with a number of art centres.

Selina and Sylvia in the print workshop at Injalak Arts printing dilly bags design. Visit their online Etsy store to purchase direct from the art centre.

Art centres

Babbarra Designs – in Maningrida, Central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Was originally established as a women’s centre auspiced by Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation. Over time Babbarra evolved its activities to include fabric printing with lino tiles and silk screens. Membership is still restricted to women and the centre is now world renowned with outstanding designs promoted through social media following and exhibiting fabrics internationally. Printing takes place on and offsite.

Juliette bag made from Babbarra Designs lino printed fabric

Bula’bula Arts – in Ramingining, Central Arnhem Land (east of Maningrida) is one of Australia’s most well known art centres. Famed for bark paintings and weavings, community members and artists are also widely known as the actors and storytellers in the film Ten Canoes. Onsite fabric printing has occurred at various times over the last 30 years and was restarted a few years ago with some new designs. All fabrics are printed onsite.

Wadeye Women – based in Wadeye in the NT, Palngun Wurnangat Aboriginal Corporation is a women’s organisation with many micro businesses including fabric printing. All fabrics are printed onsite.

Nancy bag ‘Owls on a Branch’ design by Clare Jongmin, Wadeye

Tiwi Design – on Bathurst Island north-east of Darwin is a large art centre that has been continuously printing on fabric for more than 35 years. Tiwi Design has been a leader in Aboriginal fabric printing and has inspired many other art centres including Injalak Arts. Flying Fox has trialled products in vintage Tiwi Design fabrics printed over 20 years ago and they look fabulous.

Juliette Bag Tiwi Design vintage fabric

Ikuntji Artists – is our first desert art centre and products will be coming soon. Based in Haasts Bluff around 220 km west of Alice Springs, the art centre has been working with members to create fabrics designs hand-printed offsite.

Injalak Arts – is located in Gunbalanya, Western Arnhem Land. A large and highly productive art centre with more than 300 members. Originally established as a fabric printing workshop it grew to support a wide range of arts activities including painting and weaving. Fabric printing experienced a renaissance in 2011 and there are now more than 45 designs in production including highly popular designs by women. All fabrics are printed onsite.

Other fabrics

We also source fabrics from Cambodia and Africa and some production partners use vintage and recycled textiles.

African Adire

The tradition of indigo dyeing goes back centuries in West Africa. The earliest known example is a cap from the Dogon kingdom in Mali dating to the 11th century. Resist dyeing has long been used to achieve simple and complex patterns with a variety of techniques including Onikan (a form of tie-dyeing) and Alebere (stitching raffia into the fabric).  In Nigeria Adire Eleko is resist dyeing with cassava paste painted onto the fabric. Traditionally done with different size chicken feathers, calabash carved into different designs are also used, in a manner similar to block printing. Since the early twentieth century, metal stencils cut from the sheets of tin that lined tea chests have also been used and brushes. In contemporary practice wax often replaces cassava paste and a subtle palette of indigo has been usurped by bright inorganic dyes. Adire Eleko is the original “African wax” rather than the mass machine produced bright fabrics (often designed and printed in Europe) that have become known by that name. Read an interesting article about Adire here.