Where are textiles heading next? New Exuberance finds out

Approaching the textile medium as a conduit for connection and collaboration, curator Meryl Ryan believes textiles bring pathos and secret histories to art, design and fashion. “It strikes me just how much textiles permeate our lives,” she says. “They have utilitarian, practical, aesthetic and personal applications. We wear them, wash and dry them, and decorate with them. We relate to textiles through memory, imagination, self-image, or experience in so many ways.”

Bringing together 30 artists and designers for New Exuberance, Ryan has worked with First Nations curator Carly Tarkari Dodd and designer Stephen Goddard to present an overview of current textile practice in Australia. “The original aim was to focus on the creative work reinvigorating contemporary Australian textile design,” Ryan explains. “Through ongoing consultation with the JamFactory team, it evolved to reflect more broadly on textile-based practices and a vital new optimism. At the heart of this exhibition is a universal and positive story about connection, authenticity and the trace of the hand.”

Illustrating the importance of connection, several collaborative practices are a key part of the exhibition. There are partnerships between The Social Studio x Atong Atem x Romance Was Born, as well as Lisa Waup x Verner. In addition are Wah-Wah Australia collaborations, various creative partnerships with First Nations artists, and works from Babbarra Women’s Centre, Ikuntji Artists and Tiwi Design. Reflecting on the experience of curating the exhibition, Ryan reveals, “The diversity, invention and vibrancy seen in this collection of work is compelling evidence of how much creative and emotional energy artists and designers are devoting to their pieces, regardless of whether they are destined for the wall, floor or body.”

WAH-WAH x Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, 2022, Australian merino wool as worn by Ramesh. Stylist Kirsty Barros. Photo Lexi Laphor. Courtesy of WAH-WAH Australia.

Ten new furniture pieces were commissioned specifically for New Exuberance and among them are a series of chairs upholstered with fabrics created by First Nations artists. Blending structural form with storytelling and fabric design, Caren Ellis Design and Keturah Zimran worked together to create a furniture collection reflecting elements of history and the landscape. Working out of Ikuntji Artists, Zimran paints her mother’s story and her own, often referencing the sandhills and rock formations (Puli Puli) found on Country. With Zimran’s stories in mind, Ellis created a curvilinear rounded design imbued with meaning and cultural importance. For New Exuberance, additional artists were invited to contribute textile designs. “Reimagined as sitting stones or pods, each chair features the textile design of a different Ikuntji artis tincluding Roseranna Larry, Anmanari Napanangka Nolan, Mavis Nampitjinpa Marks and Kumuntjai Napanangka Jack.”

Adding to the vibe of the exhibition are the vibrant splashes of colour permeating each design. Neon coloured glamour sacks by Frida Las Vegas (Stavroula Adameitis) joyously reference the nostalgic visual iconography of Australian suburbia while Wah-Wah Australia’s (Kaylene Milner) knitted jumpers feature the striking work of Sri Lankan-Australian artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran.

“When asked where contemporary Australian textiles are heading, Ryan points to a space of cultural generosity and inclusivity.”

Numerous multi-coloured pieces from a collaborative capsule collection by Romance was Born, artist Atong Atem and The Social Studio illustrate the outcome of a community-driven project developed and manufactured from start to finish by the creators. Similarly, Gunditjmara and Torres Strait Islander artist Lisa Waup’s clothing collaboration with Melbourne-based fashion designer Ingrid Verner and Craft Victoria is adorned with monochromatic spiral designs visually recalling elements of wooden shields.

When asked where contemporary Australian textiles are heading, Ryan points to a space of cultural generosity and inclusivity. “In textile-based creative practices today, positive and progressive approaches are gaining traction,” she says. The importance of the individual is also becoming more apparent. “There is increasing attention to gender fluidity, adaptive fashion, size inclusivity, upcycling, sustainability, collaboration and acknowledgement of back-of-house support, particularly in fashion.” Summing up the experience of curating New Exuberance, Ryan concludes, “Exuberance, curiosity and hope keep us from giving up. For me, that is the spirit underlying New Exuberance.”

New Exuberance: contemporary Australian textile design
Benalla Art Gallery
29 September – 3 December 2023

New Exuberance is a Jam Factory touring exhibition.

Feature Words by Briony Downes