A decade ago, when I was first starting my own business, I went to the home of Annette Sax and Robert Williams. Robert was setting up my accounting system, while Annette showed me her workshop. Annette was one of the first Koorie women I met in business. She showed me puppets that she used in education programs to share Taungurung knowledge, and told me about the Nepalese artists who created them using intergenerational knowledge of felt production.
That day I was introduced to the concept of supply chain. I imagined a chain of relationships between Indigenous people around the world, designing, creating, and living the knowledge that has been passed down to them by their Ancestors. This thought has stayed with me and has driven much of my own research, decision making and dreams.
Fast forward to a sunny autumn day in North Melbourne where I met their son, Iluka Sax-Williams, for coffee. He has recently returned from Nepal with his father Robert, to meet the fair-trade artists producing garments for Anette’s new fashion label, Wa-ring.
I had watched the trip playout over Instagram. Iluka was in the backrooms of creative studios, talking, laughing, connecting with makers. He was preparing pieces for local cultural festivals and testing his design technics on Nepalese materials. The dreams we held of continuing international, intergenerational Indigenous supply chain collaboration was happening.
‘Our Ancestors have actively been trading for many millennia. Whether it may be food, resources, tools, or weapons, all have impacted the techniques, skills, and services our people could implement to provide for family and community’ Iluka explains.
‘In Nepal, their practises have been passed down for thousands of years. Working with businesses that are still creating with this knowledge, it’s really powerful. I was working with people in ceramics and textiles. One day I carved my own line work into one of their sound bowls. I have connections out there that I will now have for life.’
Iluka Sax-Williams is a Tibrean (Torres Strait) and Taungurung artist. His broad artistic practice involves acts of cultural reclamation, pyrography, traditional dance, fashion and modelling. He is best known for his burning of possum and kangaroo skins.
‘I had been exposed to burning a bit, working with possum skins to make cloaks, and learning from my mother and uncle up on Country. It really took off at an education conference I went to with Mum. I did a demonstration for teachers. It was my first time ever using kangaroo skin and I was so into it, no one could get me to leave it alone long enough to have lunch. I was about 17 and had lots of people coming up to me and asking questions. It took off from there.
Having a family support system where I can ask questions about culture and business, and then build on this knowledge in my own way, it’s second to none. The cool thing is that now I do workshops with the kids from VACCA [The Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency]. It’s a state-wide Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation protecting the rights of Aboriginal children and families. I can now share and spread our culture, pass it on.
The workshops I do are with families and the family get to keep the cloak we make. If the kids are too young, we leave the skins to burn for when they are ready. The kids, they know that’s their culture, and they take pride in knowing that this is ours. And it’s about family working together. I really love it.’
As a cross-disciplinary artist, Iluka recently teamed up with glass artist and teacher Dan Bowran to create ‘Marririning’, which means to ‘Renew’ in the Taungurung language, for the Victorian Metro Tunnel project. This project recovered old glass work items from numerous project dig-sites, which Iluka and Dan transformed into Coolamons (an everyday item used by Indigenous people across Australia to hold food, water, resources, and cradle babies).
‘Through this project, an architectural firm bought my work and placed it in their building, and I have had my photos displayed on buildings, but my dream is to study and go into architecture. Growing up in Melbourne, in such a colonial setting, you want to leave your print somewhere. To reach that point where I can activate my design into this urban setting and bring it to life. That’s the dream.’
Iluka’s wood and ceramic pieces, made in Nepal, will be on show in the upcoming Yirramboi Festival exhibition KIN (5 May – 14 May, Meat Market, 3 Blackwood Street, Melbourne). His series of work is titled “MAAB” which in the Taungurung Language means to Give, Offer or Sell.