In late 2011 the State Library of Queensland held an exhibition called Flash Women at kuril dhagun. Can you tell us about the exhibition? What was your involvement, who else did you work with, and how did the show come about?
I was assistant curator for the Flash Women exhibition held at the State Library in 2011. I worked closely with curator Clare McFadden to bring together an eclectic, vibrant and stylish collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s favourite fashion pieces. I did some of the ground work before Clare came onboard. I provided a lot of the contacts for community members featured in the display and gave guidance regarding the space.
kuril dhagun exhibitions usually evolve from community interests and needs. This concept came from discussions about Indigenous beauty; the questioning of identity because of appearance, the mainstream stereotyping Indigenous women as unattractive, and lateral violence occurring within the Indigenous community. In spite of these issues, we decided to create an exhibition that celebrates our women, their diversity and their culture through various items of clothing.
Take us through some of the women who were involved and interviewed through the Flash Women project, and how you went about curating their stories.
There were fifteen women that contributed to the Flash Women exhibition and all were noteworthy. We had a list of people who we wanted to include and interviews were undertaken. We curated the show so that it included a woman’s story and her favourite item with a photograph of her wearing the item.
Raelene Baker shared her experience of being involved in the Miss OPAL pageant in 1969 when she won the crown. She was on the cover of OPAL magazine wearing the dress, sash, gloves and purse, which were all included in the display.
Nancy Bamaga said there was no prouder moment than when she graduated from university wearing her academic cap and sash made in silk showing colours of the Torres Strait Island flag.
Walbira Murray contributed her dance belt and dance sticks that she wears and uses when she practices her traditional Aboriginal dances, as it makes her feel like a flash woman.
How was the exhibition received? Do you think it changed people’s perceptions of indigenous women’s relationship to fashion?
We had lots of positive feedback from visitors. Flash Women presented social histories that were of interest to older generations and featured beautiful designs by upcoming fashion designers and artists that appealed to younger generations. The items on display were all very different but they all had a common thread, which was the connection to culture and country; whether it was the subtle blue of the Torres Strait in Santa-Marina Rodgers’ skirt suit, or the obvious Aboriginal pattern on Fiona Wirrer-George’s wedding dress. I think the articulation of cultural relevance was surprising to some of our Non-Indigenous viewers.
In your essay in TFA Issue 3, you gave us a really comprehensive history of dress in Indigenous Queensland up to the 1960s. Since then, there have been drastic changes in fashion and dress generally. Can you give us an introduction to the way that Indigenous designers engage with contemporary fashion?
Indigenous designers were unheard of before the 1960’s as Indigenous employment was largely restricted to labour and domestic work. Thankfully there have been a lot of advancements for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since the 1960’s in regards to education and employment opportunities and, in turn, living conditions. Particularly in the last twenty years there have been some really exciting Indigenous designers surfacing.
How do you think contemporary Indigenous designers reconcile their connection to the stories and practices of the past with contemporary design’s obsession with the new?
Indigenous designers often draw their inspiration from cultural themes, narratives, motifs, patterns and symbols. These stories are ancient yet they are not practices of the past; they are a withstanding and current reflection of cultural identity. In some cases that knowledge has been successfully maintained over generations, and in other cases, because of the imposed government policies that attempted cultural genocide, cultural knowledge has had to be revived. Cultural practices evolve just as society does. Elements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture interwoven with contemporary fashion are innovative and new, as these traditional stories were not previously expressed through clothing.
Fashion in general often resembles trends from the past, certain cuts and styles can be recognized from eras gone by but they are reinvigorated by the designer’s personal touch.
Talk us through some examples of the ways contemporary Indigenous designers reference traditional techniques, themes and motifs in their work.
Grace Lee is a promising new designer of Asian, Australian and Torres Strait Islander heritage and was also featured in the Flash Women exhibition. Her Intertwined collection integrated traditional Torres Strait lino patterns and weaving techniques in her edgy new designs. The linear patterns were modernized when printed in gold on fine black fabric and the weaving that is usually small and intricate, was accentuated by the use of thick gold leather. One of her vests was worn by Ruby Rose in Melbourne for Spring Fashion Week.
Another emerging fashion designer is Nicolas Donlen, who uses natural materials such as feathers, fur, shells, bark, seeds and natural fibres. His designs are aesthetically beautiful and are typically for red carpet events. Nicolas had his Australian Coat of Arms frocks displayed in kuril dhagun in 2009; three stunning dresses made from fur of a kangaroo, bark from a wattle and feathers of an emu. In 2010 Nicolas won the Fashion Award at the Indigenous Annual Deadly Awards for his traditionally infused Couture Designs and producing fashion shows around Brisbane. He has had his gowns worn by award presenters at many Deadly Award Nights and been awarded the Best Dressed since. The Deadlys are an annual celebration of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievement in community, music, sport, entertainment and they are a very significant event for Indigenous people.
In your essay, you discussed how important the idea of ‘country’ is to Indigenous culture, including dress. Does country continue to be an important concept in contemporary Indigenous fashion design? How does this idea play out in the work of ‘urban’ practitioners?
Country continues to be important to Indigenous people regardless of their geographical location.
How do you see Indigenous and non-Indigenous design to have intersected over the past few decades in Queensland?
The recent Rodarte case has been the most publicized appropriation and theft of Aboriginal designs. The US label’s 2011 Fall collection utilized Aboriginal artwork and used it without any context or acknowledgement of the story or cultural connection which the artwork represents.
A great example of a beautiful partnership is between designer Yaneira Velasquez and artist Peter Muraay Djeripi Mulcahy who worked together on the uluru dress. Juliette Knox modelled the uluru dress and it was her image that became the hero image for the Flash Women exhibition. Julliette is a entrepreneur with her online business The Little Black Dress Empire and it was interesting that she felt a particular connection to this dress over any of the designer little black dresses that she sells.
The National Aboriginal Design Agency assists in brokering relationships between manufacturers (including textiles), architects and designers with Aboriginal artists, such as Queensland’s Bibi Barber. In this process the artist and the manufacturer work together on the concept so that the design tells an appropriate story.
What avenues are there for Indigenous fashion designers to show and distribute their work? Are new opportunities such as the Australian Indigenous Fashion Week important for the development and celebration of Indigenous design?
Since colonisation, Indigenous people have been a part of the low socioeconomic class and as such excluded from high end fashion. Now there are exciting new pathways to enter this field and initiatives to encourage design, printing and production, business enterprises and arts practice.
In Queensland, UflaUpla: National Indigenous Textiles Forum was held this year at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair which highlighted opportunities for Indigenous people to enter the industry, foster collaborations and discussions.
Nationally, The Australian Indigenous Fashion Week will launch in 2014 and will be held in Sydney 11 & 12 April 2014, expanding to a week-long event in 2015. This is a really exciting celebration of Indigenous culture and a incredible platform to showcase our best Indigenous fashion designers.
Published in Issue 4, on October 8, 2013.