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.

A belated paying of respects

Golly, where has the time gone and what has happened to the planet in the last six months? I have plenty to share, it’s been a very eventful and successful 6 months for Flying Fox Fabrics but first I need to get something off my chest (actually, my heart).

Goodbye Mrs Sokha

Mrs Sokha (left) in 2015 with handprinted fabric designed by Selina Nadjowh from Injalak Arts during a photoshoot for the Cross-Cultural Collaboration Project I initiated and coordinated for them from 2013-19. Photo: Mark Roy

My last post was just after coming home from Cambodia. I had every intention of writing more regularly but then received the news from Mrs Thanan that one of her staff, Mrs Sokha, had passed away. When I visited the Kravan House workshop she was upstairs having just come back from the doctors. She’d had a lump in her breast but been afraid of a diagnosis so had delayed going to have it investigated but had become increasingly unwell. Mrs Thanan had been urging her to go but she’d been reluctant and kept putting it off. That day Thanan asked me if I wanted her to come down to see me and of course I said ‘no, please let her rest’. The workshop is in the bottom floor of a classic Cambodian masonry terrace house and some of the team live upstairs. It played on my mind that she was sick and I had a terrible sense of foreboding.

I will not start a long rave here bout the appalling lack of quality healthcare in Cambodia and the number of Khmer people in my life who have gone to bogus doctors/pharmacists for medical advice and the general lack of understanding of fundamental health issues and preventative health. But it’s important to at least give a little context as I have had more than enough firsthand experience. Exploitation (by pseudo health professionals) is rife and anyone who has lived in Cambodia will tell you that the standard hospital treatment for any and everything is an intravenous saline drip and an obligatory US$25- $50 overnight stay fee. I have taken to asking people about their prescribed medication and then googling it, more often that not it is vitamins or something completely inappropriate. It is truly shocking when I grew up in the incredibly well supported (but increasingly strained) public health system in Australia post Medicare. To say it has been confronting to live in Cambodia is an understatement.

The news really rocked me for a long time and I didn’t know how or whether to share it. I was aware the Kravan House team, which is more like an extended family was devastated and Mrs Thanan was in deep grief. I really want to share light and love and good news stories with you all. Last year was a very difficult one for me too and  so I chose to write nothing rather than publicise my grief. Now I am stronger and want to share with you in Thanan’s own (uniquely Camb-lish) words the story.

Messenger chat with Mrs Thanan Hok August 2019

Vale Mrs Sokha, may your daughter carry forth your kind heart and strong spirit. You are missed. Sending so much love to the team at Kravan House (who I have visited since – most recently in February 2020, just before the borders started closing).

Cambodia trip July-August

I (Flick) visited Cambodia in July for two weeks and caught up with partners. It’s the first visit back since Flying Fox Fabrics was launched but we have been doing business with them since 2013 so they are old friends and very keen to chat about the new venture.  Previous visits had always been rushed as I had to race back to managing an art centre, however, this time we really had time to chat and visit the workshops and document the stories of some of the artisans. A big part of the motivation to start Flying Fox Fabrics was to support the Cambodian makers so it was deeply satisfying to spend time with them and hear and see firsthand how working for social enterprises made them economically independent and also gave them dignity. I will be sharing those stories, photos and videos in coming weeks and months.

Flick and Thanan Hok, founder of Kravan House in their Phnom Penh workshop

As luck would have it we arrived in time for Phnom Penh Designers Week #ppdw – an annual event focusing on contemporary fashion and clothing. The week culminated in two catwalk shows on August 3rd: Menswear and Womenwear and we were gifted tickets by A.N.D. who were presenting their collection ‘The Birds and the Bees and the Flowers and the Trees’. The venue was the outrageously swanky Rosewood Hotel in the very distinctive Vattanac building. Their function rooms were on the 36th floor. The building opened in 2013 and, funnily enough, I’d watched it being built from the back of a motorbike traveling to and from Tuol Kork each day to work for two years. My next post will be about Designers Week.

The behind-the-scenes A.N.D. team at the pop-up next door to the fashion show


We are launched!

Welcome to Flying Fox Fabrics – a brand new start up. On June 26th we finally took the plunge and started a Facebook page, an Instagram account and told people about the online Etsy shop that had been quietly slowly getting stocked. The ladies in the photo are employed by Kravan House founded in 2003 and it was the first craft social enterprise in Cambodia. The founder of Flying Fox Fabrics has been a friend of the founder of Kravan House since she went to Cambodia in 2010 on an AVI volunteer placement as a business management adviser and lived only two blocks away in Phnom Penh. Thanan is disabled and founded Kravan House to provide employment options for others. As long term admirer of the local crafts, Flick would often visit and they would discuss ideas about how her business could be strengthened and they could potentially work together in the future.

Their first collaboration was in 2013 whilst Flick was working as a consultant with Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya (Oenpelli) but based in Cambodia. She took Injalak fabric samples to Cambodia and they were made into three different styles of bags. She paid Kravan House with her credit card (a true entrepreneurial move) and took them back to Australia in her luggage to see how they would be received. She started with fairly dull colored fabrics thinking that would be the market. They all sold through Injalak Arts onsite store and the money went to Injalak Arts. These baby steps paved the way for the growth of the Cross-cultural Collaboration Project (CCCP) that saw thousands of bags, purses and cushions covers made from Aboriginal designed and hand-printed fabric being made. The founder of Kravan House is Mrs Thanan Hok, a disabled woman who wanted to create opportunities for other people in Cambodia who experienced the same kind of challenges and discrimination that she did. Many years later, 26 to be exact, the shop is still open and Kravan House retails, attends international Trade Fairs and exports all over the world. Social enterprises like Kravan House thrive when business is steady and they can keep their employees and contractors busy with work. Retail is very seasonal and Flying Fox Fabrics can schedule production to generate activity and income during the down season.