Back Story (long)

“I am Felicity (aka Flick) Wright and have been a textiles enthusiast (tragic!) since learning to sew at five years old. Over the decades I have both stumbled over and sought out opportunities to be involved with making and promoting beautiful fabrics. I have been especially lucky to spend my adult life, since 1986, surrounded by Indigenous Australian textiles – batiks, screen-printed and lino-printed fabrics, natural fibre weavings, ghost net weavings and more. The header photo was taken at Injalak Arts with Daniel Garlngarr and Reuben Manakgu – who made me smile and proud every day I worked there.

Flying Fox Fabrics was born in Cambodia. In 2010 I lived in an apartment in the very heart of Phnom Penh directly opposite the National Museum.  I was had begun a two year placement with Australian Volunteers International (AVI) as a Management Adviser to Live & Learn Environmental Education. I was taking a break from my career working with Indigenous artists and art centres. After hours I wandered around the Riverside area and quickly found a shop on my street, only a block away, called Kravan House. I was particularly interested in social enterprises and Cambodia was full of them. Kravan House stocked incredibly beautiful handwoven silk scarves and a range of bags and purses made from ikat, silks and cotton fabrics. As a lifelong fabric tragic I quickly became a regular customer. The owner was friendly and welcoming and explained she’d set up Kravan House in 2003 to employ and empower people with disabilities. She herself had been born with physical disabilities and found the discrimination extremely unfair and frustrating and so took the plunge of setting up her own business. I love social enterprises and fair trade, plus I love quality handicrafts so this little shop was my happy place.

Working with villagers on the Tonle Sap (largest freshwater lake in SE Asia) was part of the eco-tourism component of volunteering with Live & Learn Environment Education Phat Sanday 2011

One day it dawned on me that the sturdy yet beautiful bag I bought for my son, with its wonderful pockets and compartments, was made with fabric hand screen printed with Cambodian designs. The thought occurred to me – ‘I wonder if these could be made out of fabric hand printed by Indigenous Australian artists?’ My CV with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and art centres goes back to 1986 and includes working with artists in more than 70 remote and regional communities/towns. Whilst I love all forms of Indigenous art/culture, textiles are closest to my heart. At Warlukurlangu Artists (1986-88) I’d overseen batik production alongside the paintings and supported exhibitions. I’d had the privilege of being Manager of Injalak Arts (1991-95). In those days the screen print workshop was a focus of Injalak Arts’ production and we had an amazing time. In the years since I had undertaken a number projects and consultancies with art centres that screen printed on fabric including Tiwi Designs, Ernabella Arts, Babbarra Designs, Erub Arts and Bula’bula Arts.

Pretending to spear fish. Life as a consultant to remote community art centres can be tough – here with Walter Lui on Erub, in the NE Torres Strait during a visit for business planning 200

My volunteer placement in Phnom Penh ended in August 2012 but I was involved in a number of projects in Cambodia. These included a charity I funded that delivered free soccer and fitness training to disadvantaged children in a suburb in the south of Phnom Penh and supporting community-based ecotourism projects in Chi Phat and on Lake Tonle Sap.

Soccer Skills & Fitness Centre – the project I foudned welcomed a small group visitors from Australia traveling with Dragonfly Tours Cambodia in December 2013

In late 2012 I received an email asking me to go back to Injalak Arts to be change manager and business planner, as a short term consultant. It was a surprise but Injalak Arts was close to my heart and the outgoing manager was keen to leave.  It was amazing to be back. Thankfully fabric printing at Injalak Arts had resumed in 2011 after a decade long pause and the new designs and enthusiasm of the printers and artists was wonderful.  For a period of time I moved back and forth between Cambodia and Australia, assuming I’d resume my life in Cambodia soon. I never planned to be at Injalak Arts long term! As recruitment fell through (we got dumped by the successful candidate) just before the dry season I agreed to stay on, knowing how manic the dry season can be and the remaining administrative staff (Liz Martin and Danny Kennedy) were fairly new and had never done a dry season. The art centre gets thousands of visitors a year in the dry season (and none in the wet), so it’s not like anything you can imagine.

Transporting fabric (and all other freight) in and out of Gunbalanya in a light aircraft in the wet season was part and parcel of working at Injalak Arts from 2013-2019.

It was during this time I established the Cross-cultural Collaboration (CCC) Project for Injalak Arts. All those lengths of fabric being printed on the 8 metre table begged value adding.  The market for fabric lengths is good, but limited to people who want to interact with a piece of cloth. Yet so many people loved the fabrics but had no use for them. I remembered my idea about the bag makers in Cambodia and decided to give it a try.

I started the project with my personal credit card and around 25 metres of printed fabric from Injalak Arts whilst I was a consultant. I wanted to see if it would work so the only risk Injalak Arts took was the fabric. It started with one partner – Kravan House. The first batch of bags and purses came back to Australia – and the artists loved them. Happily so did the public. Then I tried some more partners. Once it had proven to be a success Injalak Arts paid back the $20,000 I’d paid out to producers to start it. In time it expanded to work with five social enterprises in Cambodia. Meanwhile a few months, then a dry season, turned into a year, then to … then six years!! All bags, purses and cushion covers were sold through Injalak Arts and for the duration of the CCC project. It was extremely popular with Indigenous Australians too.

Michelle Woody with a CCC bag made from Manme (Bush Foods) hand printed fabric from Injalak Arts

All proceeds from the CCC Project went to Injalak Arts and the expenses were only fabric, freight, customs and payments to producers. My time on the project was part of my work as Mentor Manager. On my breaks going back to Cambodia to visit my partner, I could check in on the partners and also my other commitments there, like the Football project. Over time the CCC project generated tens of thousands of dollars for the Cambodian artisans and hundreds of thousands of dollars for Injalak Arts. “

In Phnom Penh with Shin, Assistant Coach for Soccer Skills & Fitness Centre, the charity I founded and sponsored for more than three years. It provided weekly free trainings for disadvantaged children in Boueng Trabailk in football and fitness.

Pioneering social enterprises

Working with and being passionate about art centres since 1986 is the foundation upon which Flying Fox Fabrics is built. Working in the Indigenous arts sector as a manager, researcher, consultant, mentor, curator, entrepreneur and writer has given me an unique perspective and unparalleled experience. I am extremely grateful to all the incredible Indigenous people I have worked with over the last 34 years.

With team members of Injalak Arts: Daniel, Obi, Virgil, my son Lindon and Gabriel during renovations to create Provenance Arts in Darwin. Wearing Injalak Arts of course. 2018