A Landmark Exhibition of First Nations Fashion

In recognition of NAIDOC week, on Monday, artist and Ngugi woman Elisa Carmichael shared her insights on how traditional Indigenous craft-based practices remain present in the work of many First Nations artists today. Many of these artistic traditions are over 65,000 years old, and all of them express deep knowledge of Country and culture through materiality. Elisa’s essay also shed light on how many First Nations artists working today reinterpret these ancestral techniques in a contemporary context.

Fashion is a particularly rich medium for First Nations designers to explore these intertwined traditions, as seen at Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion – a world-first exhibition opening today at Bendigo Art Gallery. Put together by Southern Kaantju woman and curator Shonae Hobson, Piinpi celebrates Indigenous storytelling, and explores the rapidly evolving First Nations fashion community.

Sasha Gattermayr

From left: Rayarriwarrtharrbayingathi Mingungurra Amy Loogatha; Alison Kirstin Goongarra; Dorothy Gabori; Agnes Kohler; Grace Lilian Lee – (collaborator) Burrkunda, dress 2017. Synthetic polymer paint on cotton. Collection National Gallery of Victoria. Photo – Leon Schoots.

Left: The entrance to Bendigo Gallery. Right: Pieces by Trudy Inkamala, Beautiful, all my ideas, dress, bag, necklace, head piece 2019. Cotton, calico, woollen blanket, wool. Courtesy of the artist and Yarrenyty Arltere Artists. Photo – Leon Schoots.

Elisa Jane Carmichael garments displayed alongside Yarrenyty Arltere Artists collection. Photo – Leon Schoots.

Arkie Barton’s Rainbow Dreaming dress; Dreamtime jacket and Spinifex flares displayed alongside Shannon Brett’s Femme gem dress. Photo – Leon Schoots.

Lyn-Al Young, Ngoorntook (winter) 2020. Photo – Leon Schoots.

Photo – Leon Schoots.

Peggy Griffith’s Legacy Dress displayed alongside garments from Hope Vale Arts and Cultural Centre x QUT Fashion. Photo – Leon Schoots.

Grace Lillian Lee, Hibiscus Sunrise – 1/4. Cotton webbing, assorted beads and corals, canvas, cotton drill, permaset paint. Photo – Leon Schoots.

Margaret Rarru’s Madonna bathi and Madonna bra is displayed alongside Maara Collective x Bula’Bula Arts collection. Photo – Leon Schoots.

Melba Ngarridjdjan Gunjarrwanga and Deborah Kamanj Wurrkidj textile prints. Courtesy of the artists and Bábbarra Women’s Centre. Photo – Leon Schoots.

Grace Lillian Lee, A weave of reflection – 1/5 2018. Cotton webbing, cane, goose feathers, cotton yarn. Photo – Leon Schoots.

A main room of Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion. Photo – Leon Schoots.

Sasha Gattermayr
12th of November 2020

Stories of Country, culture and ancestry have been told through textiles by Aboriginal people for thousands and thousands of years.

Shonae Hobson is a Southern Kaantju woman from Coen on the Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland, and she’s also the First Nations curator at Bendigo Art Gallery on Dja Dja Wurrung Country. Here, she has curated a world-first exhibition, Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion.

‘Indigenous fashion is so diverse, with many artists and designers working in a variety of mediums and styles,’ Shonae says, explaining the concept driving the show. ‘For me, it was about bringing together a selection of works that showcased the nuances of our material culture, as well as the richness of and innovation of Indigenous fashion and design today.’

The word piinpi is an expression from east Cape York used to describe the natural regeneration of the landscape that arrives with seasonal flux. Rather than follow a western exhibition structure (which is typically organised along linear concepts such as chronology or regionality), Shonae organised her featured works according to season. As a result, the show is deeply seeded in Indigenous knowledge.

‘The exhibition is based thematically on Kuuku Ya’u seasons and the show has been curated with the intention to take audiences on a journey across Country,’ says Shonae. ‘Common themes including bush foods, resourcefulness and sustainability are all conveyed through the artists’ designs.’

The exhibition is sectioned into Dry, Wet, and Cool seasons linked by the contemporary engagement of traditional practices. The Dry season exhibits work harvested from the land, such as materials tinted with natural earth dyes or baskets made from dried pandanus leaves. The Wet season signifies heavy rainfall and regeneration, and features hand-painted garments and basketry in vibrant colours. The Cool season is a time for being on Country to gather materials, and is represented with bush dyed textiles, shell jewellery, and possum skin cloaks.

Among the highlights are five new works by Gunai, Wiradjuri, Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta woman and artist Lyn-Al Young, commissioned by the gallery specifically for Piinpi. Lyn-Al practices an ancient singing process when crafting the garments for her eponymous label, LYN-AL. Guided by her ancestors, she follows songlines and imbues the elements of her dyed silk pieces with positive words and energy.

The exhibition also represents the First Nations designers working in urban centres. Featuring the work of Teagan Cowlishaw (of AARLI Fashion), Maree Clarke, Lisa Waup and Shannon Brett (of Lore), the streetwear section of Piinpi displays the designers seeking to reclaim Aboriginal identity through contemporary fashion. This part of the exhibition recognises the Blak artists in urban areas using wearable fashion to make statements of resistance against colonialism.

‘The space is being led by Indigenous people when, for so long, our stories and histories have been told through the lens of the coloniser,’ Shonae says of the rapidly growing First Nations fashion community. ‘What we are seeing with the Indigenous fashion industry is a new wave of cultural leaders and artistic innovators who are really shaping the future of the industry, and making important statements through their work.’

‘Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion’ will be exhibited from 12 November, 2020 – 17 January, 2021 at Bendigo Art Gallery. See more information here.

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