A Longer Read

The Artists And Designers With 65,000 + Years Of Experience

Today marks the second day of NAIDOC week, which runs from November 8th – 15th  in 2020. This is an occasion where we come together to celebrate the deep history and incredible knowledge of our First Nations people. The focus for this year’s NAIDOC week is ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’, which acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the traditional owners and carers of the land. Scientific evidence has shown that Aboriginal people have occupied Australia for more than 65,000 years, making them the oldest living culture in the world!

Ngugi woman, artist and weaver Elisa Carmichael (known to many as Leecee!) joined us as a judge in the Handcrafted category of the TDF + Laminex Design Awards this year. Here, she shares her unique insights into how the skills of First Nations artists and designers are currently being utilised in the design and creative industries, and her hopes for the future.

Elisa Carmichael

Ngugi woman, weaver and judge of the TDF + Laminex Design Awards Handcrafted category, Elisa Carmichael. Photo – Mindi Cooke.

Projects from First Nations artists won big at the The Design Files + Laminex Design Awards 2020. Left: Tiwi Strong Women’s collection by North won the Textile Design category. Photo – Hilary Faye. Right: Tjunkaya Tapaya’s (of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers) ‘Tjanpi Teapot’ won the Handcrafted category. Photo – Isobel Egan.

Left: The fashion collaboration between Mangkaja Arts Centre and Gorman was shortlisted in the Textile Design category of the TDF + Laminex Design Awards 2020. Photo – Lillie Thompson. Right: The Ngyala/Together collection was a collaboration between Koskela and six Aboriginal art centres across Australia was shortlisted in the Lighting Design category.

Left: winner of the Collaboration category, ‘For Our Country’ by artist Daniel Boyd and Edition Office. Photo – Ben Hosking. Right: Shortlisted in the Textile category was the collaboration between the Bábbarra Women’s Centre in Arnhem land and Kip&Co. Photo – Caitlin Mills.

Elisa Carmichael
9th of November 2020

I am a Ngugi woman from Quandamooka Country, Mulgumpin and Minjerribah (Moreton Island and North Stradbroke Island). I come from a long line of strong women. Our country is abundant in materials, and caring for country has always been part of our ways of living and being. We have many cultural practices – song and dance, food, arts and stories. My family is inspired by our ancestral weaving practices, the process of gathering and nurturing materials and techniques to pass on to younger generations. The traditional weave for our gulayi (Quandamooka womens bags) and bunbi (little dilly bag) is a loop and diagonal knot, made with ungaire (fresh water swamp reed). This fibre is so strong, beautiful and precious to us. It needs to be collected at a certain time of the year, so it can regenerate. It is important that the practice of weaving and gathering is preserved and protected, so that Quandamooka people can continue to weave their stories of country into the future.

Our Quandamooka weaving practices were interrupted as a result of colonisation. When the missionaries came, cultural practices such as our traditional weaving and language were forbidden to be practiced. I didn’t grow up weaving or knowing about our weaving. It has only been in the last ten years that we have learned from and connected with the precious weaves of our ancestors through our Elder’s memories, research, yarning, community workshops and visiting museum collections. Once reconnecting with our weaving practices, I felt as though it was something I always knew how to do.

First Nation communities, artists and designers connect with different mediums and materials, and using their inherited ancestral skills to keep culture alive. Combining these skills with contemporary outcomes brings our voices and ways of life from the past into the future. Collaborations with artists, businesses and brands are another way to achieve knowledge sharing and up-skilling, creating new platforms for First Nations cultural expression to shine. We are adaptable, and there’s no modern day materials our work won’t translate well with!

There are so many talented First Nations people imparting their knowledge, wisdom and skills in really diverse and exciting ways, making powerful statements across the creative industries. Some examples of amazing designers and projects include the important work of architect and academic Kevin O’Brien, intricate woven textile designs Grace Lillian Lee has adapted to fashion, Jenna Lee’s boundary-pushing contemporary art practice, the unbelievable stage design work of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Head Designer Jacob Nash, jeweller Maree Clarke’s collaboration with the NGV, and the accessory designs of Kristy Dickinson at Haus of Dizzy, aka the Queen Of Bling!

The Design Files + Laminex Design Awards 2020 also spotlights a number of brilliant examples of First Nations creative collaborations across all areas of the design industry.

Kudjla/Gangalu man and artist Daniel Boyd joined forces with Melbourne-based architecture firm Edition Office to realise ‘For Our Country’, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial. This breathtakingly beautiful monument draws on Boyd’s distinctive artwork and its symbolism of cultural erasure, to acknowledge the history and sacrifice of Australia’s First Nations service people.

In the textile design category, four out of ten finalists represent collaboration with First Nations artists. Stand out projects in this category include the joyful collaboration between social enterprise Magpie Goose and women from Ikuntji Artists, as well as the Tiwi Strong Women’s Collection by North in partnership  with  female artists  from  Jilamara, Munupi and Ngaruwanajirri Art Centres.

Gorman’s beautiful womenswear collection from mid-2019 was created with Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Fitzroy Crossing, and the Bábbarra Women’s Centre in Maningrida collaborated with Melbourne-based brand Kip + Co to produce a powerful range of bedding and homewares featuring artworks from seven of their artists. This strong and varied representation of collaborative projects remind us of the diversity of First Nations groups across Australia. After all, pre-colonisation, we were an island of over 500 nations.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, Koskela have recently celebrated 10 years of social impact work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, with the release of their Ngalya/Together lighting collection, a collaboration with six First Nations art centres – Bula’Bula Arts, Durrmu Arts, Milingimbi Art and Culture, Moa Arts, Ngarrindjeri Weavers, and Tjanpi Desert Weavers.

It’s important for people to understand the essential contributions of First Nations artists and designers in education. We have visual cultures and traditions which have been practiced for millennia. Art and design is a way for us to share our stories our way, and to have our voices in the world. It’s a way for people to engage with ideas and perspectives they might not normally.

My hope for the future is for people to appreciate, nurture, listen and learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and practices. As the world’s oldest living culture, First Nations peoples are the first artists and designers, and have 65,000 + years of knowledge and experience behind us!

Find out what you can do to celebrate NAIDOC week here

This essay first appeared in the TDF + Laminex Design Awards newspaper, which can be viewed in full here.