Saturday, December 5, 2020

After a fashion – creative industries from First Nations culture

When I first heard that Victorian regional gallery, Bendigo Art Gallery, was planning an exhibition about contemporary Indigenous fashion I was impressed. The Gallery has had a long history of fashion exhibitions, drawing on its own collection and in partnership with other institutions, notably the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is fascinating to consider how a leading regional Australian museum and an internationally renowned museum on the global stage, while in many ways so different, have so much in common. The exhibition is far more than a single event in a Victorian regional centre – it is an expression of a much broader contemporary Indigenous fashion phenomenon nation-wide. It hints at the potential of the creative economy and creative industries to build stronger communities. Both the economic importance and the community and social importance of creativity and culture are tightly interlinked because of the way in which creativity and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up.

I have been to both museums quite a few times and it is fascinating to consider how a leading regional Australian museum and an internationally renowned museum on the global stage, while in many ways so different, have so much in common. Previous fashion exhibitions included Marimekko: Design Icon 1951 to 2018’, ‘Grace Kelly: Style Icon’ and ‘The Golden Age of Couture’, all of which I managed to see and thoroughly enjoyed. There were many more which I didn’t see: Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion’, ‘Desert Lines: Batik from Central Australia’, ‘Undressed: 350 years of fashion in underwear’ and ‘The White Wedding Dress: 200 years of wedding fashions’ to name a few.

Earlier days in a national phenomenon - fashion parade, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, 2013.

As the Gallery website notes ‘Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion ‘brings together a selection of garments and textiles by First Nations designers and artists from around Australia. The first major survey of contemporary Indigenous Australian fashion to be undertaken in this country, Piinpi sheds lights on a growing industry which is blossoming and set to become Australia’s major fashion movement. ‘Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion’ celebrates Indigenous art, history and culture through the lens of contemporary fashion.’

The language of fashion
The name of the exhibition is derived from a word commonly used across regions of East Coast Cape York Peninsula to refer to Indigenous seasonal changes and the regeneration of Country. In fact the importance of changing seasons for communities located across Australia is a central idea in the exhibition. In incorporating Indigenous languages into the exhibition, it is another part of the enormous long-term community effort to revive and maintain Australia’s own languages, those spoken nowhere else in the world. In many ways, happening as it does at community level, this is almost invisible – yet it is one of the most inspiring community movements I have encountered, offering inspiration to other Australian communities for their own challenges and ambitions.

‘Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion brings together a selection of garments and textiles by First Nations designers and artists from around Australia. The first major survey of contemporary Indigenous Australian fashion to be undertaken in this country, Piinpi sheds lights on a growing industry which is blossoming and set to become Australia’s major fashion movement.’

Previous major exhibitions about First Nations culture and history have included references to Indigenous fashion and I’ve taken note of those examples in the various exhibitions over the years. These have included Songlines, which presented an ancient culture for a contemporary world and Encounters, with its unfinished histories, as well as many exhibitions more specifically focused on visual arts. However, to my knowledge this is the first comprehensive exhibition devoted solely to contemporary Indigenous fashion.

Potential of creative economy and creative industries to build stronger communities
The news of the exhibition was extremely exciting because my long-term area of interest and expertise is the creative economy and creative industries. However, by some happy accident I also found myself working for over six years in the Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government. Here I was responsible for programs that supported First Nations languages and culture. I became particularly interested in the potential of the creative economy and creative industries to build stronger communities.

‘Both the economic role and the community and social role of creativity and culture are linked because of the way in which creativity and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up.’

At one stage I was also responsible for the Indigenous cultural programs in that ACT, NSW and Queensland. In this role I began to appreciate how major events such as the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair played a role in highlighting and promoting Indigenous fashion. This involved presenting designs that had evolved from collaborations between community-based Indigenous art centres, often in remote areas, and educational institutions, such as the School of Design at the Queensland University of Technology, with its focus on fashion. In 2013, the year I attended the Fair, an inaugural fashion parade of work was presented by young Indigenous models.

Early fashion parade, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, 2013
 
Broader impacts – creativity and culture integral to everyday life
What interests me are the broader impacts of creativity and culture. Both the economic importance and the community and social importance of creativity and culture are tightly interlinked because of the way in which creativity and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up. This is the basis of Impact and Enterprise, the unit I teach at the University of Canberra, part of the Master of Arts in Creative and Cultural Futures.

The exhibition manages to combine several of my related interests in one. I was very keen to see it but as events unfolded, it was becoming less and less likely. At first it was possible that the exhibition might not go ahead at all, then it was due to occur in a state still locked down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point a friend announced that she was poised to cross the border into Victoria the moment restrictions were eased, following the State’s world-beating performance in battening down its COVID-19 second wave. She was visiting family in regional Victoria and planned to stop in Bendigo and visit the Gallery. I remembered that the exhibition was supposed to be on around that time. As a result she was able to visit the exhibition and obtain a catalogue for me. At least I could experience the exhibition remotely – as is so common with cultural experiences in our current disordered times.

Much less known success story

Coincidentally Victoria’s success in turning back a rising tide of infections reflected a much less publicised success story with the pandemic – the way in which by acting resolutely and engaging communities, First Nations leaders managed to halt the entry of COVID-19 into remote communities. If the virus had gained a foothold amongst often vulnerable community members, it could have been a disaster. Yet the First Nations experience showed how Australia could be an example to the rest of the world in many ways not always obvious to the wider public.

I understand the Gallery has made a conscious strategic decision to build on its previous fashion and design strengths and to expand its Indigenous representation. Many of the 106 works in the exhibition are drawn from the Gallery collection. It is a sign of the strength of this community-based phenomenon that the designers and artists are drawn from language groups across the country. It is interesting that some of the work in the exhibition is drawn from ongoing collaborations presented at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair long after my visit there for the first fashion parade.

‘Coincidentally Victoria’s success in turning back a rising tide of infections reflected a much less publicised success story with the pandemic – the way in which by acting resolutely and engaging communities, First Nations leaders managed to halt the entry of COVID-19 into remote communities. If the virus had gained a foothold amongst often vulnerable community members, it could have been a disaster. Yet the First Nations experience showed how Australia could be an example to the rest of the world in many ways not always obvious to the wider public.’

The exhibition is far more than a single event in a Victorian regional centre – it is an expression of a much broader contemporary Indigenous fashion phenomenon nation-wide. It hints at the potential of the creative economy and creative industries to build stronger communities. The exhibition runs until 17 January 2021, so you have until early next year to see it. Whether you are able to see it or not, its national and international significance will still be of massive relevance to not only First Nations communities, but also to Australian culture and its creative economy more generally. If you are able to see it, I am sure you will have managed to be part of what will be seen in years to come as a major defining event for Australian culture. 

Update
There is some excellent news about the exhibition on contemporary Indgenous fashion, recently at the Bendigo Art Gallery. It is coming to the National Museum of Australia from 20 February (in two days time) until 8 August 2021. How fabulous – I will get to see it after all, and you can too. Explore some great design and see the potential of the creative economy and creative industries to build stronger communities. https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/piinpi-contemporary-indigenous-fashion#.

See also

Updates on creativity and culture an email away
‘After many decades working across the Australian cultural sector, I have been regularly posting to my suite of blogs about creativity and culture, ever since I first set them up over 10 years ago. You can follow any of the blogs through email updates, which are sent from time to time. If you don’t already follow my blogs and you want to take advantage of this service, you can simply add your email address to the blog page, and then confirm that you want to receive updates when you receive the follow up email. If you want to make sure you don’t miss any of my updates, simply select the blogs you are interested in and set up the update by adding your email’, Updates on creativity and culture an email away

Always was, always will be – a welcome long view in NAIDOC week
‘Being involved with Australian culture means being involved in one way or another with First Nations arts, culture and languages – it’s such a central and dynamic part of the cultural landscape. First Nations culture has significance for First Nations communities, but it also has powerful implications for Australian culture generally. NAIDOC Week is a central part of that cultural landscape’, Always was, always will be – a welcome long view in NAIDOC week.
 
Contemporary Indigenous fashion – where community culture and economics meet
The recent exhibition 'Piinpi', about contemporary Indigenous fashion, has a significance for Australian culture that is yet to be fully revealed. The themes covered by the exhibition are important because they demonstrate the intersection of the culture of First Nations communities with creative industries and the cultural economy. In attempting to address the major issue of Indigenous disadvantage, for example, it is critical to recognise that one of the most important economic resources possessed by First Nations communities is their culture. Through the intellectual property that translates it into a form that can generate income in a contemporary economy, that culture is pivotal to jobs and to income. It may not be mining but it mines a far richer seam – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value, just like our iron and coal. At a time when First Nations communities are talking increasingly about gaining greater control over their economic life, this is highly relevant’, Contemporary Indigenous fashion – where community culture and economics meet

Standing out in the crowd – a regional road tour of arts and culture
A recent regional road tour through Victoria to South Australia showed how a focus on arts and culture is a pointer for how regional centres can take a path other than slow decline. It also showed how a small country on the edges of the mainstream can become a global design force by staying true to its language, locality and culture – the things that make it distinctive in a crowded, noisy marketplace dominated by big, cashed up players, Standing out in the crowd – a regional road tour of arts and culture.

Regional Australia recognised with City of Culture listing for Bendigo and surrounds
‘It’s been apparent for some time that regional centres and smaller cities and towns can be interesting and creative places and that cities that have missed out on the benefits of globalisation in the era of neo-liberalism can be brought back by community action and imagination. It’s certainly not happening everywhere but it’s true of many lucky regional towns and cities and some suburban and outer suburban areas – witness Sydney, where it’s increasingly clear that the excitement never really stopped at the edges of the inner city. The regional rollout of interesting keeps on happening’, Regional Australia recognised with City of Culture listing for Bendigo and surrounds.

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.
 
Out of sight, out of mind – building knowledge on sustaining the creative and cultural sector in regional and remote Australia
‘Creative organisations and artists often collect information and research in order to report to funding bodies about how grant funding has been used. Apart from the need to report on funding or to make a case to government, or society in general, the creative and cultural sector also needs evidence and understanding for its own purposes. While government funding bodies might need the sort of information collected from funded organisations, the organisations need it far more – for their planning and to report to their Boards and their communities. They need it to know whether what they are doing is effective and worthwhile – or whether they should be doing something else.’ Out of sight, out of mind – building knowledge on sustaining the creative and cultural sector in regional and remote Australia.
 
The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.
 
Growing up across many worlds – the daily life of ‘In My Blood it Runs’
‘An important new film about Dujuan, a young Aboriginal boy living in Alice Springs in the centre of Australia, is both engaging and challenging, raising major issues about growing up Aboriginal in modern Australia. ‘In my blood it runs’ is a film for our troubled times, that tackles the challenges of a culturally divided country, but also finds the hope that this cultural diversity can offer us all for our overlapping futures’, Growing up across many worlds – the daily life of ‘In My Blood it Runs’.
 
Changing the landscape of the future – a new focus on cultural rights
‘The arts and culture sector has spent far too many years pressing the case for why Australian culture is crucial to Australia’s future, without seeming to shift the public policy landscape to any great degree. Perhaps a proposed fresh approach focusing on cultural rights may offer some hope of a breakthrough. What makes this approach so important and so potentially productive is that it starts with broad principles, linked to fundamental issues, such as human rights, which makes it a perfect foundation for the development of sound and well-thought out policies – something that currently we sadly lack’, Changing the landscape of the future – a new focus on cultural rights.
 
Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world
‘What interests me in exhibitions about Aboriginal Australia is what they mean for Australians generally, even if most Australians won’t ever see them. After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect examples, undone because they were unable to learn simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. It made me realise that we can gain a much richer grasp of Australia through recognising that First Nations culture and heritage is part and parcel of our own Australian heritage’, Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world.

History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research
‘Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face’, History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research.

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage,’ Valuing the intangible.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

Death by a thousand cuts what is happening to the Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government?
‘The Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture – what is happening to them?’ Death by a thousand cuts – what is happening to the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government?

The gap in Closing the Gap
‘Experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.’ The gap in Closing the Gap.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

Like a long-lost masterpiece
‘Many decades ago when I was much younger and a student I used to march in National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee marches. They were shorthanded to NADOC marches, back in the days when Islanders hadn’t yet been included and there was no ‘I’ in the name. I realised a while back that I must have been marching under the new Aboriginal flag at its birth. I had a poster from those years which I used to cart around with me from city to city until one day when I was about to move yet again I decided to donate it to the National Library of Australia’, Like a long-lost masterpiece.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Stephen
    We will be submitting a contribution to the consultation for IVAIS. Might need to check a few historical facts with you.

    Have you seen the terms of reference???? Hope you submit.

    ReplyDelete