Ikuntji Style is an avalanche of colour and pattern designed into clothing. The exhibition presents garments and homewares that have been given unusual cultural depth and meaning, with fabrics carrying stories from Aboriginal artists in the Ikuntji/Haasts Bluff community to Brisbane’s city centre. The designs in the exhibition express the artists’ relationships with Country. In their translation to fabrics, homewares, and clothing, they have been elevated to the world stage.
There are some important firsts in the story of Ikuntji Artists. In 1992, Ikuntji Artists was the first centre in the western desert established by First Nations women (becoming an art centre in 2005), and it was the first centre to develop a textile collection. Moreover, Ikuntji Artists is a great example of how art centres and their leadership may mediate between a remote community and new opportunities. Following an initial investment of $10,000 in two screen-printing workshops in 2016, the centre has created a thriving business that offers artists a steady income, in addition to more variable art sales. In turn, Ikuntji Style is also the first major exhibition about Ikuntji Designs hosted by a peak body like Artisan.
The art centre’s fabrics were first seen as part of a runway collection at the Summer Fashion Show, organised by Forkleaf, in November 2017, and then again in From Country to Couture at Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair in 2017. Since then, clothing in the exhibition has been worn by politicians and celebrities, including MP Linda Burnie, singer Jessica Mauboy, and comedian Celeste Barber. From the first release of 80 metres of fabric at Darwin Art Fair in 2019, the business has grown to sales of 3500 metres in 2021. Ikuntji Designs was also a finalist in the 2020 National Indigenous Fashion Awards. It is part of a Parisian collection by IDAIA with Le BHV Marais and has graced red carpets all over the world. The exhibition celebrates this journey from t-shirt printing to rapidly growing international fabric business.
Designs reflecting their Country and worn by people thousands of miles from their homelands is a source of significant pride for the artists. Art Centre Manager Dr Chrischona Schmidt describes fabric as a ‘bridge,’ saying: “People don’t really know how to ask the questions. So at least the fabric and the designs give them a way to start a conversation, which they didn’t have before.”
In workshops, Ikuntji artists continue to produce new fabric designs. These are translated for Publisher Textiles, Sydney where they are printed on fabrics sourced in India and China. Designers Magpie Goose and CJ Anderson also work with Ikuntji to produce clothing ranges, with accessories developed by Flying Fox Fabrics (and Cambodian artisans).
Many Ikuntji artists are represented in this collection, like Keturah Zimran, who is known as a painter, with her canvases of puli puli (rocks) and tali tali (sandhills) clearly recognizable in the fabrics. The graphic qualities of Pam Brown’s dog dreaming stories with their fine concentric lines are also distinctive. Colour gradients are removed for the fabric translations to create contrasts that are bold and vibrant.
Ikuntji Style offers an opportunity to engage with Ikuntji artists and their stories, and acknowledges the significant power in this small community of 150 people.
Louise Martin-Chew is a freelance writer living on Quandamooka Country (Redland City) outside Brisbane. She contributes regularly to national art magazines and catalogues and has authored many books, most recently Margot McKinney: World of Wonder (Museum of Brisbane, 2022) and her first biography Fiona Foley Provocateur: An Art Life (QUT Art Museum, 2021).