There’s a new evolutionary principle at work in the design industry: the rise of the allegorist. Exquisite form and exceptional function are no longer enough. A design must have a narrative that renders it worthwhile. Australian indigenous design takes this storytelling to epic proportions.

Aboriginal designers and craftspeople are delivering beautiful and functional pieces.

Among them is Alison Page. The Tharawal woman is an interior and jewellery designer, and the head of the National Aboriginal Design Agency, a social enterprise owned by 10 community leaders.

The agency was the big idea Page brought to Kevin Rudd’s 20:20 summit in 2008. With the government’s help, the project launched in March this year and is now connecting indigenous traders with the big end of town.

Page says contemporary Aboriginal design is intrinsically valuable. “In Aboriginal culture every stroke and mark has significance. Contemporary design is becoming homogeneous. It’s often just shapes and colours. Traditional decorative arts have always been about telling stories. This is something Aboriginal art has always done well and Aboriginal design will excel in.”

Design from indigenous communities has the potential to tell a uniquely Australian narrative. “The designs draw on our common values; connection to each other, connection to the land and the stars and the importance of family and knowing where you come from,” says Page. “This can result in true objects of desire.”

Indigenous traditions aren’t just significant, they’re sacred. Page isn’t too worried about tinkering with ancient beliefs.

“Aboriginal arts – painting, song or dance – are all just different languages for storytelling. We have to use the language of the world we live in now. Dancers will incorporate hip-hop moves and contemporary design is the language I learned at the University of Technology, Sydney.”

Up and coming textile designer Lucy Simpson says her connection to Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay culture is the driving force behind her designs. The stories she tells through her prints range from creation myths to memories of fishing with her father.

“It is the essence of these stories, and the connections they hold to people, place and memory, that are the lifeblood of my inspiration,” she says.

Simpson is a recent graduate of the NSW College of Fine Arts but her Gaawaa Miyay textiles and homewares brand is already gaining attention. She recently became the first textiles designer to collaborate with Julie Paterson of screen-printing sensation Cloth.

When she was growing up, Simpson’s family would collect echidna quills and emu feathers for her jewellery making. She says she has loved designing since before she even knew what it was. She also believes a career in contemporary design is not diverting her from her ancestry but immersing her in it.

“It enriches my soul to be able to breathe life into old stories, practise age-old traditions and create a new style of cultural expression through visual storytelling,” she says.

Designer and woodworker Damien Wright moved to Gunyangara near Nhulunbuy in East Arnhem Land with his family in 2010 to set up the Dharpa Djama woodworking studio under the direction of Garrawi Yunupingu, a Yolngu man and Gumatj clan leader. The exercise started as an exploration of Geadayka (Darwin stringybark) timber and ended up in a coming together of ideas.

“The people have a concept of Bala-ga-lili: two ways learning. I was not there to bark orders at the people whose country I was on. I was there to learn about Gunyangara culture,” he says.

“The Yolngu relationship to place and material is infinitely more abiding than anything I can attempt to understand. The challenge is to find ways of respectfully honouring that knowledge and that right to own a view of the land, form and logic.”

Working alongside mentor Bonhula Yunupingu (Garrawi’s nephew) and the Yolngu community, Wright helped the workshop make boats, tools, musical instruments and even a boardroom table. The thrill is engaging a proud craft tradition. “The Yolngu people have fascinating woodwork skills that are part of everyday life,” he says.

Wright is mindful of being another white fella trading Aboriginal culture as a commodity. “I am an infant and fool at understanding what you can and can’t do – relationships are vital.” He points to the prolonged mistreatment of indigenous artists in the fine arts industry. “There were mistakes made that need not be repeated. Those mistakes are ever-present and dissuasive. The applied art/craft world is different. It’s probably going to make its own mistakes,” he says. “Still, it takes real commitment and courage from the people involved to continue to pursue positive change.”

Sasha Titchkosky of design company Koskela is providing an opportunity for the craftswomen of Elcho Island to preserve a craft and make an income. For the past two years, the women have created intricate woven lights for Koskela’s design-savvy customers, for which they are paid upfront. “We saw an opportunity to take indigenous weaving to a market beyond the fine art industry,” says Titchkosky.

The National Aboriginal Design Agency is working to open more avenues for design and craft in remote communities. “Aboriginal employment schemes have failed before; there may be a lack of transport, or childcare issues,” Page explains. Indigenous design could be different. “It’s about more than just money. It’s about having an opportunity to engage in a culturally significant career while still living in Bowraville.”

– The Australian Financial Review

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