how fashion can help us talk about indigenous culture
Talking to the young Indigenous designers exploring their past and future through clothes.
Image courtesy of Arkie Barton
In the 1980s Indigenous Australian art enjoyed a celebrated period of visibility across commercial art and fashion. Linda Jackson, Jenny Kee and Desert Designs all drew influence from the paintings and textiles of Aboriginal artists. But in the years since, few local designers have picked up where they left off, choosing rather to look overseas for inspiration.
Other than a handful of exceptions—like the relaunch of Desert Designs or Bangalore born designer Roopa Pemmaraju's ongoing collaborations—public interest has sadly languished. Looking at Australian fashion today it's clear we've become sluggish in embracing Indigenous artistry, let alone Indigenous fashion designers.
Obviously that doesn't mean the talent and community have ceased to exist—rather that we've failed to pay sufficient attention. But some areas of the industry are waking up to the need for Indigenous Australian business initiatives and mentorship programs to correct this disparity. Just last week we saw the Global Indigenous Runway at VAMFF spotlight a number of young designers. This new wave of talent are committed to folding their heritage into the wider landscape, and using fashion to engage consumers with their past.
One of 2016's participants was 21-year-old Kalkadunga designer Arkie Barton, who graduated from Brisbane's QUT last year. Her graduate collection featured bright multi-coloured abstracted silk prints, glitter encrusted skirts and a bomber jacket emblazoned with the words "DREAM TIME".
Arkie is distinctly aware of the "blurred, idealistic view of what Indigenous art is" that many non-Indigenous Australians hold. Speaking to i-D she reflects, "There's a disconnect. Everyone can recognise traditional art that graces our souvenir shops and gallery merchandise, but what about our contemporary Indigenous creative movements?"
She's been involved with these movements since she was a kid. When she was 10 her childhood paintings were exhibited alongside her artist dad. As she grew older she began to recognise fashion as an even more accessible platform to incubate cultural awareness.
Being something we interact with daily, Arkie explains that, for her, fashion is a way to introduce people to her community by making it part of her brand's story. Although she continues, "I don't want it to be too obvious within the aesthetic of the design. I want to bring my culture into the design process as inspiration, rather than directly referencing."
This process was nurtured at uni where she was encouraged to explore and reference Australian fashion designers rather than overseas talent. "It's so easy to go overseas now and ignore the beauty in your own backyard, which I think adds to that gap between Indigenous culture and mainstream Australia," she notes. Personally she took inspiration from the Utopian Women's Art movement, as well as Australian designers Ken Done, Jenny Kee, Romance Was Born and Emma Mulholland.
Similarly, 21-year-old Melbourne designer Lyn-Al Young is also set on breaking down stereotypes of Aboriginal art through fashion. Like Arkie she's been painting since she was a child, exhibiting work with her mum and sisters since the age of 15. Her hand-painted silk dresses borrow from the markings and colours of her Gunnai and Waradjuri heritage. "People associate dot painting with all Aboriginal people, but that's mostly found in central Australia," she told i-D. "My people are from NSW and Victoria and we traditionally used diamonds and lines for markings, which I incorporate into my own ideas."
But while Arkie and Lyn-Al have drawn attention and praise for their work, the historic lack of representation at the cutting table could be seen as a disheartening start to their career. Fashion is a gruelling business for anyone, and most young designers aren't saddled with the responsibility to use their growing platform to educate non-Indigenous Australians.
Both designers are taking it all in their stride though. Lyn-Al explains "I feel that what I'm doing now has been the most natural process". Continuing, "My culture is my identity and I don't think I could really express my fashion and art in any other way separate from my cultural roots."
For Arkie design also offers a level of catharsis as her artistic practice is ultimately informed by her personal decision to explore parts of her community she's felt separated from. "My dad's from Mount Isa, but I grew up in Brisbane," she says. "I've only seen a small fraction of my community, and I hope what I'm doing now is returning to where my roots are. What I know about culture is through the stories my family tells me, and through my grandma and uncle."
Considering our country's fraught history and continual disenfranchisement of Indigenous Australians, Lyn-Al acknowledges that a responsibility to her community is ingrained in her. Concluding she reflects: "If I and other Indigenous designers don't celebrate and promote our culture through fashion then who will? Who else can pay justice to our culture, our designs, ideas, creativity more than us?"
Text Emma Do