It’s not difficult to find reference to Indigenous ethnographic designs in contemporary Australia. Motifs from Adelaide’s Balarinji Design Studios coat Qantas’ Boeing fleet and elders wore Victorian possum skin cloaks at the 2006 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Melbourne.
What is more difficult is determining the nature of the relationship between contemporary Indigenous people and the design world at large.
The inaugural Australian Indigenous Fashion Week (AIFW) which opens in Sydney tonight has quickly – in the lead-up – become a landmark for Australian fashion. It is providing a platform for Aboriginal designers such as Grace Lee, Mia Brennan, Alison Page, Lucy Simpson and Desert Designs to showcase their work.
Many of the principles we associate with “design” were formed by the Bauhaus, a German school of design originating in Weimar in 1919, accentuating simplicity and the sense that form is dictated by function. The centrality of this form of design is to some extent fixed in the design world. Aboriginal design has consequently been marginalised and given less agency in the creative world. Aboriginal design is hardly ever referred to as such, and is often dismissed as craft or art.
But designing, as a creative practice, has always been an integral part of Aboriginal communities in Australia. While Bauhaus design is widely regarded as the pinnacle of international design, it most certainly isn’t the oldest.
Early Indigenous design
As a mostly nomadic people for nearly 60,000 years, Australian Aboriginal groups were challenged with designing and carrying everything they owned. Every object had to be designed to serve more than one purpose – South-Eastern possum skin cloaks were garments, but typically also imprinted with maps of the land and family “dreamtime” stories.
In the case of many tribes in the Western Australian desert, woomeras (colloquially known as spear-throwers) are lined with maps and stories. These objects were not just functional, but beautifully complex and aesthetic.
There is a long-standing tradition of map-making in most Australian Indigenous communities. While the forms these maps take are often varied, there is a consistency in their relationship to the mapmaker.
Possum skin cloaks typically comprise of several possum pelts sewn together with Kangaroo sinew. One side of the cloak is entirely furred, while the other side of the fleece is adorned with designs that function to communicate the cloak-wearer’s story.
This story is typically place-related but is often representative of an individual’s distinctiveness, heritage, kinfolk and cosmology. As with many traditional Indigenous designs used in Aboriginal painting and rock art, there is a blurred line between spiritual and literal imagery.
The act of making a possum skin cloak is as important as the artefact itself. The cloak grows in size as the wearer grows up. Typically a child would be given one pelt at birth and each year would attain another so the cloak remains an ever-growing and usable object.
Aboriginal design in a contemporary landscape
Who determines which material objects and cultures are embraced by the international design marketplace?
The Australian fashion world can be a dim and dark place for contemporary Aboriginal designers who have long suffered from a tendency of being seen as museum pieces with traditional ways of knowing, traditional ways of life and traditional ways of designing.
Aboriginal design objects such as possum skin cloaks and kangaroo tooth necklaces rarely struggle to find a place in a museum.
Contemporary Aboriginal design is design made by contemporary Aboriginal people. It is no longer locked in the past and indeed it can be authentic, even when it is not traditional.
The recent shift in the fashion world towards supporting contemporary Aboriginal designers is a powerful step in the right direction. AIFW will further raise the profile of Aboriginal designers and Aboriginal fashion models – not as a cultural curio but as engaged with design and fashion as anyone else working in the industry.
What was until now seen as a customary creative practice can today be accepted as a dynamic modern fashion movement.
And long may that continue.
The Australian Indigenous Fashion Week launches in Sydney this evening.