Wearing 60,000 years of culture


“The timing is right,” says curator Shonae Hobson about the current explosion in contemporary Indigenous fashion. “And the timing is right because this space is really being led by First Nations people.”

Hobson has brought together 70 artists from across Australia for Piinpi at Bendigo Art Gallery. The survey is a testament to the breadth and diversity of this space right now, and includes wearable art and sculpture, runway fashion, streetwear, textile design, jewellery and more.

First Nations Curator at Bendigo Art Gallery Shonae Hobson.

If it’s a broad exhibition, that’s part of the point. One of the artists is Maree Clarke, who has a three-decade practice across body adornment, photography, lenticular prints, sculpture and major public art commissions. “Still, in 2020, when you say you’re an artist, people say ‘oh, do you do dot paintings?’” she says. “I just roll my eyes.”

Clarke has an interest in recreating what she calls ‘material culture,’ including possum skin cloaks, kangaroo teeth necklaces and river reed necklaces. This often starts with an object in a museum collection, followed by detailed photographs and research to work out how it was made. Different objects throw up different challenges. (Kangaroo teeth, she explains, need to be washed and boiled, prised from the jaw, scrubbed for plaque, and cleaned again before being sorted.) “It’s all a bit of a process and I tend to document everything that I do,” she says.

Clarke currently has an Australia Council fellowship and is working towards a major solo exhibition, Re-imagining Culture: Bloodlines, at the National Gallery of Victoria. The river reed necklaces in Piinpi are “based on necklaces that were given to people passing through country as a sign of safe passage and friendship,” she explains. One is crafted from glass, a medium she encountered working on another project at the Canberra Glassworks. While her tools change, she sees her work as ultimately about “telling our stories through art—stories of loss, survival and resilience of our mob”.

Practices like Clarke’s point to the limitations of traditional Western divides between fine art and fashion and craft-based practices. As Hobson says, “when you’re wearing a garment by an Indigenous designer, what you’re really taking with you is 60,000 years of culture and history.”

Grace Lillian Lee’s body armour pieces are also deeply rooted in identity. They are wearable sculptures, and pieces like A weave of reflection, 2018, balance extreme shapes with the intricacy of her weaving. They are bold, fierce and playful, and, for Lee at least, were somewhat unexpected. “I really thought I was going to become a fashion designer,” she says. “It wasn’t until 2010, when I took my grandmother back to the Torres Strait after she’d been away for 57 years, that I learned more about who I am and where I came from.”

Grace Lillian Lee, Body Armour – A Weave of Reflection Pink and Orange 2018. Photography by Wade Lewis. Image courtesy of the artist.

Torres Strait artist Ken Thaiday helped her reconnect with this side of her family history. He taught her grasshopper weaving, a technique used to make toys and small ornaments from coconut palm fronds. “From that, I used that technique to experiment with colours and materials,” she says. “It’s been an evolution of a decade.”

The body armour pieces are woven from brightly coloured cotton cord and “represent Torres Strait the way I see it,” she says. “When you’re a person who hasn’t been brought up with cultural privilege, there are a lot of questions. I want to celebrate this part of myself and be a part of it.”

Elisa Jane Carmichael has reworked the dinky-di symbol of the Akubra hat, using coiling and looping techniques to assert the long history and continuing presence of Quandamooka weaving traditions. Piinpi also includes simple dresses in bright, exuberant fabrics made by the women at Yarrenyty Arltere Artists in Alice Springs, as well as high fashion collaborations between Hopevale Arts and Cultural Centre and Queensland University of Technology, and Lisa Waup and Melbourne label Verner. Waup describes these as three-dimensional moving versions of her drawings.

Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, 2017 Elisa Jane Carmichael, Saltwater Footprints Collection. Photographer: Tim Ashton.

Similar kinds of collaborations were also seen in the 1980s with bush couture and designers like Linda Jackson. But Hobson says what is happening now is not a trend and has been building for some time. “It’s about self-determination, but it’s also about support as well. So I think it’s still in early stages,” she says.

One part of this is Aboriginal-run infrastructure and pathways for artists. (Bábbarra Women’s Art Centre in Maningrida recently organised and part-crowdfunded a major exhibition in Paris.) But in the past few decades, there have also been broad shifts in the visibility of women artists and designers, online marketplaces, environmental and ethical issues, and slow fashion. First Nations artists and designers are uniquely placed here. “I think there’s a lot there that can be learned from Indigenous fashion,” says Hobson.

In the short term, “Piinpi is another way to get our stories out there and people will take notice because the work is beautiful,” Clarke says. It’s a feeling echoed by Hobson. “One of the real highlights of Indigenous fashion is being able to wear the garments proudly,” she says. “It’s such an uplifting thing to be able to celebrate.”

Bendigo Art Gallery
12 November – 17 January 2021

National Museum of Australia (NMA)
8 February –  8 August 2021

Bendigo Art Gallery is reopening on 12 November. Please check the gallery website for ticketing information.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Jane O'Sullivan