Babbarra Designs printed fabric at Nomad Art, Darwin

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Design on country

On printing textiles in Indigenous art centres

Raylene Bonson, Maxine Charlie, Gracie Kumbi, Isaiah Nagurrgurrba and Vivian Warlapinni with Frances Grant and Belinda Foster | Feature

Beginning with batik printing at Ernabella in the APY Lands in the 1940s, hand-printed textiles in Indigenous art centres have become a rich and varied tradition. It has emerged as a significant art form in recent years, particularly for art centres in the Top End.

The Tiwi Islands has one of the longest traditions, where the Bima Wear women’s centre has been printing and designing since 1969, alongside Tiwi Design and the Pirlangimpi Women’s Centre. Tiwi textiles are known for their bright colours and bold designs, and are often worn by the local community.

In Arnhem Land, Babbarra Designs in Maningrida and Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya have been printing since the 1980s. These centres are known for translating traditional designs used in bark painting and weaving onto fabric. Merrepen Arts in the Daly River region, closer to Darwin, has also been printing since the 1980s. Merrepen now screenprints complex, multi-layered designs. Nagula Jarndu in Broome is currently developing new and contemporary styles.

These art centres have engaged in a series of exciting collaborations in recent years, as Indigenous textiles have come to be appreciated for their beauty, accessibility, and cultural significance. These collaborations include Babbarra’s work with Spotlight, Injalak’s range of handmade accessories, Merrepen dresses (one of which won the Melbourne Cup Fashions on the Field) and Tiwi printers working with a range of homewares companies and designers. There have also been several significant exhibitions and institutional acquisitions of Indigenous textiles in Australian and internationally, including a recent and notable acquisition by the Kluge-Ruhe collection at the University of Virginia (USA).

Portrait of Gracie Kumbie, Merrepen Arts
Gracie Kumbie. Photo: Merrepen Arts

Merrepen Arts

Gracie Kumbi___I’ve lived at Naiuyu Community all my life. It’s a quiet community and a good place to go out bush and collect bush tucker and pandanus. I take my kids out to teach them about their culture.  There’s a rich river and billabong and we fish for turtle, barramundi, and all sorts of bush foods. 

I work at Merrepen Arts as the Indigenous Art Coordinator. Most days I print textiles. My design is the Merrepen sand palm, which represents the dilly bag. We get the string out of the palm, roll it up and make dilly bags; we also eat the middle of the palm. I also have stingray and yam designs. I used to go fishing with my husband and see the big fish being chased by the stingray, that’s what made me do that design. 

We began printing in about 1987, but it wasn’t like it is now. We had a workshop five years ago learning about more complicated techniques, and we’ve been printing like that ever since. 

The most exciting thing about working at the Art Centre is creating new designs, printing them and choosing new colour combinations. I love people wearing my designs in dresses. It makes me proud. I don’t like to wear dresses myself. I turn my fabric into tablecloths for my house.

Babbarra Designs
Babbarra Designs

Babbarra Designs

Raylene Bonson___I am a printer and designer at Babbarra Women’s Centre, in Maningrida. I’ve lived here all my life. Sometimes I stay in an outstation – Mumeka. We go fishing there, and collect pandanus to weave. At work, sometimes I do screen printing, sometimes teaching other people how to print, sometimes drawing and cutting. Local people here love wearing the skirts that we design. That makes me proud. I’ve got my own designs made into skirts – maybe I’ll wear them for the Darwin art fair!

My dad was a bark painter. Some of my designs are inspired by my dad’s artworks, like the mimih spirits. I’ve thought about my own designs, like fishtraps and dilly bags, since I was a little girl when I was watching my dad. I used to draw my designs in the ground from when I was a tiny girl. Fish traps, dilly bags, that’s my story. We used to catch fish in the traps, then put them in the dilly bags. It’s special to me that those designs are now on fabric. Our fabric art isn’t art in the same way as those bark paintings; we use bright colours, acrylic colours, not ochre. I hope in the future we have more exhibitions and collaborations, and to see more people wearing my designs.

Isaiah Nagurrgurrba at Injalak
Isaiah Nagurrgurrba, working on Djenji (Fish), 2011, screen print on linen. Photo courtesy Nomad Art

Injalak Arts and Crafts

Isaiah Nagurrgurrba___I am currently the Co-Manager at Injalak in Gunbalanya, and have been working at the Art Centre for more than 25 years. Gunbalanya is my birthplace. For a long time, my brother and I have sat with the old people here, especially our grandparents. We used to sit with our grandfather while he painted on bark, and he would tell us the stories. He would tell us that we would paint our stories in the future.  

I always do rock art style, because my grandfather used to do painting on bark, traditional way using clay and ochre. So, for me, I always do rock art style, using red and white, to represent the rocks and the ochre. 

Rarrk represents ceremony. Ceremony is still happening here, so rarrk represents people’s country, and a person can only paint their own ceremony. Rarrk is really important to us, in bark painting and in fabric. Our printing is going really well at the moment. We’ve had some really exciting exhibitions, and we’ve got a good relationship with a factory in Cambodia that turns our fabrics into clothes and bags and things. 

In the future, I want to see more young people coming in and working here, as tour guides, printers, everything. Especially my grandkids!

Vivian Waxrlapinni at Tiwi Designs
Vivian Warlappinni outside Tiwi Designs. Photo: Frances Grant

Tiwi Design

Vivian Warlapinni___I live in Wurrumiyanga, formerly Nguiu, on Bathurst Island, in the Tiwi Islands. The missionaries came here in 1911, and it’s still a strong mission base, so we now do a lot of cultural things with a Catholic influence. For example, when we have a funeral ceremony, we do a Catholic service first and then traditional way.

Most of the designs that you see now are by the old people, and some of them have passed away now. The patterns represent peoples’ tribes, and represent Jilamara, which means body design. These designs used to go on the face and body in ceremony and now they’re printed on fabric. Each family has their own design, and everybody in the family wears that design. It’s like tartan in Scotland – every family has their own design.

My father worked at Tiwi Design for over 30 years. It started with woodblock printing, then screen-printing, and then fabric printing. I’ve been working at the art centre since I was a teenager, and I’ve been there full time since 2007. I do screenprinting and crush ochres for the artists to paint with. I also stretch canvas and am a tour guide when tourists come to visit. I tell them stories about our culture, and explain how we do things here. 

Probably one of the most exciting things that has happened was travelling to the Festival of Pacific Arts on the Solomon Islands to do printing there. It’s also exciting to see our fabric being worn: once in Darwin I saw a man wearing a shirt in fabric that I had printed!

Photo of Maxine Charlie, Nagula Jarndu
Maxine Charlie with her crocodile design at Nagula Jarndu Designs. Photo: Frances Grant

Nagula Jarndu

Maxine Charlie___I live in Broome, in the Kimberley. Our language here is Yawuru, and us ladies at our Nagula Jarndu art centre are trying to keep it strong. We also teach it to the kids at school, and cultural dancing, it’s important for the kids to learn from the elders.  

I print whenever I get the chance, using foam cut-outs, which we make by drawing a design, cutting the shape out of the foam, leaving the negative space. My designs are very contemporary and about my surroundings; if any of the elders want us to do dreamtime stories they will tell us. The old people never wanted us to do traditional art – they keep the traditional culture for dancing. Printing makes me happy; it’s a healing thing.

Arlene Bonson, Maxine Charlie, Gracie Kumbi, Isaiah Nagurrgurrba and Vivian Warlappinni are artists and arts workers from art centres across northern Australia. Interviews with the artists were conducted by Frances Grant, and interviews were edited and compiled by Frances Grant and Belinda Foster.