In retrospect, perhaps I imagined it. These fugitive perfumes—earthy, humid, slightly vegetal—were an olfactory epiphany, possibly even a synaesthetic moment. I was visiting Local Colour: Experiments in Nature at the UNSW Galleries in Sydney’s Paddington, surrounded by floating lengths of cloth, a brace of Aboriginal baskets, a row of tiny weavings. Gentle and understated, Local Colour was nevertheless a powerful sensory experience. It addressed the twinned subtlety and intensity of natural dyes married to cloth and fibre, ancient practices being revisited and revised today. Contemporary artists and community-based artisans with generations of knowledge are everywhere experimenting with natural alternatives to industrial chemical dyes and addressing urgent questions of environmental sustainability.
Local Colour, curated by eminent weaver and educator Liz Williamson, explored this recent efflorescence, which springs in part from recognising and honouring specifically regional and traditional ways of working with natural fibres and raw materials, often (though not always) the domain of women. Showing works by 21 artists and collectives from Australia and elsewhere, the exhibition was fresh, energetic, and unusually sustained through Williamson’s rigorous curatorial premise: presenting works by artists who worked with natural dyes sourced locally, manifesting specific knowledges. Eventually, the exhibition illuminated long-standing questions in art, culture, and everyday life.
This was an unusually harmonic ensemble. The distinguishing palette of intense but restrained soft hues inhabited a range of mid-tones (the few exceptions I will address later): soft primroses and pale yellows, occasionally turmeric’s bright gold, a brace of pale browns and greys, some charcoal tints, lilac and beige, greens in every permutation, all sourced from plant dyes. It took a little while to adjust one’s eyes to the refinement of these limpid tints, which served to reveal how attuned we have become, in the last 100 years or so since the introduction of modern industrial chemical dyes, to brilliant high-toned colours. And this was the exhibition’s major proposition, even conundrum.
Natural dyes often index the natural world, and are beautiful and evocative, yet have been overshadowed for the last century and a half by brighter, more assertive and far more permanent colours. Today we must relearn the delicacy of natural hues, after generations of habituation to chemical dyes. How to reverse the chromatic values of more than a century of industrialisation to value the ephemerality of the natural world? Local Colour was persuasive precisely because it reiterated its colour values (in all senses) with its distinctive palette derived from leaves, roots, flowers, and barks. This shared tonic range was not limiting but enabling.
The crucial issue with dyes is that they stain fabric, becoming an inherent part of its support, whereas (with the exception of watercolour) paint sits on top of it. Dye and fabric therefore become one, indissoluble. This means that with natural dyes the standard artist’s colour theories do not apply; what matters is experimentation and specific local knowledge. Given the importance of the receiving fabrics for dye, a sustained conversation between transparency and opacity ran through the exhibition. Understated hues were often dyed into physically thin supports: the chiffons from the Indian workshop Aranya Natural, for example, were almost transparent, like natural light filtered through the trees and plants that originally furnished the dyes.
Local Colour did include several telling exceptions to the norm of natural delicacy, with the opacity of sturdy Australian Indigenous grasses underscoring the point that the support, in receiving a dye’s indelible stain, always modifies its colour. The first exceptions were two startling colours from distinguished Aboriginal weavers from Arnhem Land: the intense black of Mandy Batjula Gaykamungu’s elegant Bathi Mul—black dilly bags—sourced from pandanus found around Milingimbi, is the truest black in Aboriginal weaving. It is associated with the distinguished senior artist Margaret Rarru, whose magnificent black baskets are also currently showing in the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.
For the occasion of Local Colour, Rarru granted Batjula Gaykamungu permission to use this particular dye, a customary certification that guarantees that the expertise required to release this soft smoking black from its plant sources has been carefully guarded as valuable local knowledge that is now transferred from one artist to another. Close by was the unexpectedly shocking pink seen in the tightly woven Bullbe (2015), a honey collecting bag by Margaret Djogiba from Gunablanya in Western Arnhem Land; this pink is specific to the region and is sourced from the seeds of the local plant Windilk (Haemodorum coccineum, related to Kangaroo Paw). Strikingly, these emphatic colours also depart from the general rule that plant-derived colours often signal their natural sources.
What are these sources? The late Elsje van Keppel was faithful to dyes (and imagery) drawn from the Western Australian natural environment. Her Spinifex Stitching (1997) exploring the tough scrubby desert plant proclaimed the local ethos that subtends so much Australian work with natural dyes. Spinifex Stitching is a tour-de-force marriage of sophisticated dyeing and stitching over layers of fabrics, from silk to felt to silk again, in a major work that recapitulated and extended her customary methods.
Its rhythmically repeated stitching brought an unexpected urgency to the complex colour modulations of the fabric, structure and softness together that was both surprising and satisfying. Wider than an arms-span, and with its cruciform colour modulations showing a body’s extent, Spinifex Stitching embraced the viewer just as a canvas might, but also required fine close-up discriminations between the rows of intense stitching, as well as attention to modulations in the colours of the dyed and screen-printed fabrics. Materiality matters: this effect could only be achieved with fabric.
In South Australia, India Flint has researched sustainable plant dyes in the rapidly changing local environment for over three decades. Her Landgarland I and II (both 2017) directly transcribe plant forms onto fabric, preserving their shapes as well as their substance as dyes, in a process Flint calls “eco-print”. This is an ostensibly celebratory motif, yet there is a valedictorian melancholy in these magisterial panoplies, described in her titles as “garlands”. Each arrangement of plants is bilaterally symmetrical, its own mirror-image, in a sombre acknowledgement that the process of gathering and registering plant materials is ambivalent, suggesting not so much continuing life as potential death.
Like Flint, Icelandic Hildur Bjarnadóttir works with her immediate environment, a plot of land in southern Iceland where she lives. Consensus (2017) is an expansive field of colour composed of various patches of differently dyed fabrics, sourced from plants including tea-leaved willow, wild thyme, woodland geranium but also, discrepantly, acrylic paint. The inclusion of the last guarantees that the nature Bjarnadóttir addresses is no longer “pure”, and that she rigorously evokes the changing character of the land. As she says, “I am more concerned with where the colour comes from that what it looks like.”
Whatever the location, each choice of dye, material and method is indelibly bound to meaning. The pixelated structure of weaving, for example, carries rhythm and repetition; by constructing expanded structures from minute components, weaving speaks to multiplication, becomes more than the sum of its parts. Jude Kentish has often worked with cloth, but since 2006 has steeped it in natural dyestuffs, enjoying the serendipitous self-forming effects. Yet she is not usually a weaver, and her inclusion in Local Colour shows that many artists working with textiles are not identified with the textile art movement. Kentish’s tiny Kobble Creek Weavings (2018), named for the rural area northwest of Brisbane where she lives, were exquisite.
Made on a little cardboard handloom, they enlisted multiple dyed threads in an insistent lyric: this is Kobble Creek, and its dry sclerophyll vegetation, evoked through what Kentish calls “stacks” of colour. If Flint’s experiments in nature are exercises in transferring actual plants, and Bjarnadóttir’s are evocative of her territory, Kentish’s hand-weavings are mnemonic of her garden and its surrounds. Her thirteen colours were derived from just three plants—silky oak, yellow stringy bark and a fungus—plus two mordants and a vinegar wash; it’s a rich haul from scant resources, and a fine example of the great variety of colour that dyeing releases.
Local knowledge depends on being able to hold territory. The survival and evolution in India of local knowledges and styles of textiles, especially through regionally based women’s cooperatives and workshops, is very important economically, as well as culturally. Liz Williamson has travelled widely in India, researching, conducting tours and working, including teaching at the prestigious National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad from 2009. India is a fertile field for studying natural dyes: an extraordinary number of textile enterprises provide for continued contemporary making from embedded customs and skills, but also for the provision of incomes for women: textiles give thousands of women a modicum of independence. For Local Colour Williamson sourced textiles from the culturally-distinct regions of Kerala, Mumbai and Kutch in the country’s far west. Aranya Natural in Kerala, for instance, is part of a welfare establishment training differently abled people.
Aranya Natural uses traditional dye sources such as indigo, tea and eupatorium (and now also eucalyptus) as well as waste, and employs a variety of textile-printing techniques, including shibori learned from Japanese experts. In Local Colour their lengths of silk chiffon Arashi shibori were ethereal, refined, and oddly sumptuous despite their restrained patterns and monochromes. From bustling Mumbai, on the other hand, Adiv Pure Nature, established in 2006, gathers urban waste through its Temple Project, an inspired application of recycling. Adiv makes dyes from temple offerings abandoned after worship, starting with the ubiquitous marigold flowers (most notably in a range of table linen in collaboration with the famous Californian restaurant Chez Panisse), but also using dyes sourced from hibiscus and coconut. Various mordants achieve different effects, and the company’s in-house chemist tests for light fastness. It’s now a thriving export business.
Now back to vibrant colour and two outstanding exceptions to the rule of natural restraint. Sidr Craft, established in 1992 in Kutch, in the far northwest, makes bandhani wedding shawls, using both the indigo plant and lac (derived from a small insect), though they also use some chemical dyes. (But there’s no mistaking indigo’s vegetal scent.) Bandhani (from which our English word bandana derives) means tie-dying, and Abduljabbar and Abdullah Khatri’s contemporary bandhani is exceptionally fine, the revealed white dots underscoring the saturation of the silk fibres with deep blue indigo and lustrous crimson lac.
Indigo, the only naturally blue dye, is still significant and prized: Williamson attended the Indigo Sutra dye conference in Kolkata in November 2017. Indigo is also the core of a long-standing project by American Rowland Ricketts, who has studied growing and working with indigo in Japan, and uses it across a variety of materials, in this case felt. His Drawings (2016–18) were marked by the progress of the indigo itself in the dyebath across the felt, a beautiful demonstration of the infinite care that his slow processes require, as well as the way this thick fabric gradually absorbed the dye.
Local Colour is a significant Australian manifestation of a widespread international movement that has developed from understanding that artificial dyes used in fabrics, cosmetics, hair, colour and the food industry are a huge environmental health problem. Williamson has attended ISEND (International Symposium Economic Natural Dyes) meetings in Asia, organised jointly by UNESCO and the World Craft Council, and WEFT (World Eco-Fibre and Textile Forum), first held in Sarawak, Malaysia in 1999. (Williamson met Jude Kentish at the 2006 ISEND conference in Hyderabad.) Both organisations address the revival of natural dyes for industrial use. The artists and artisans in Local Colour continue to be informed by substantial research being undertaken into sustainable natural dyes. Yet these are extremely complex questions. Can local knowledge, if respected, deliver sustainable solutions? What are the best possible uses of limited, even finite, natural resources?
Next, thinking through Local Colour, why work with textiles? One immediate answer is personal affiliation, the intimate connections that biography, culture and location confer. This sense of attachment is often strongest with women, and I feel this attraction, learned from both men and women in my family: I’m a textile tragic. Yet for many years, textiles were more or less absent from contemporary art exhibitions in Australia, and internationally; mid-century modernist stalwarts as the Polish weaver Magdalena Abakanowicz and Indian sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee (both in the 1986 Biennale of Sydney), or the Australians Jutta Federsen, Mona Hessing and Ewa Pachuka, faded from view. This puzzled me for years: how to reconcile my passion for textiles with its relegation to the fringes of contemporary art; and how to make sense of the self-limiting aspects of some textile artists’ practices, with their typically conventional formats, ambivalence about use or display.
With exceptions, such as the male-controlled textile industries in India and Pakistan, textiles are dominated by women, and the sources of much of its genres, styles, imagery and ethos are found in women’s experience and cultural references. I see these as fundamentally enabling, encouraging the knowledge, affiliations and desires specific to women’s lives. That said, textile art can encompass fussy inhibited works that, despite undoubted skill, derive from received notions of femininity, and an attenuated notion of the traditional, resulting in an enormous sector of conventional crafting that at its worst is culturally derivative and devoid of energy. Clearly some exercises in the medium are light years away from the late modernism that subtended the participation in major contemporary exhibitions of the great mid-century artists I have mentioned.
This situation has recently changed, determined by an important shift governing major contemporary art exhibitions. A great resurgence of interest in textiles worldwide is integral to an increasingly fluid and open attitude towards genre and media. These sources are varied, partly due to curiosity in metropolitan centres about art from global cultures, which entailed opening up to previously marginalised media. A key figure is the canny British artist Yinka Shonibare, of Nigerian heritage, whose unflagging proclamation of “African” cloth in his work problematised the European trade in textiles as an aspect of African identity, while also challenging imperialism. In the Australian context, after the departure of the great modernist weavers, this shift was heralded by the subversive espousal of Narelle Jubelin in the mid-1980s of the feminine medium of petit-point. Today artists as different as Jenny Watson, Mikala Dwyer, Raquel Ormella, and Sarah Contos enlist cloth, as their projects require its feminine and amateur references.
On the international scene, I registered a determined intervention in the status quo at Carolyn Christov‑Bakargiev’s dOCUMENTA 13 in 2012 in Kassel, with the inclusion of Norwegian Hannah Ryggen’s intense modernist tapestries. Locally this was seen in Stephanie Rosenthal’s 2015 Biennale of Sydney with veteran Sheila Hicks, who also featured in the 2017 Venice Biennale, along with artists such as David Medalla, Rina Banerjee, and Lee Mingwei, whose The Mending Project was seen in Australia in the 2012 Biennale of Sydney. Clearly, the international exhibition circuit has opened up to artistic considerations of cloth. And Anni Albers’s recent retrospective at the Tate Modern is only the latest benediction of the proposition that artists work, unpredictably and legitimately, across many media.
Gratifying as major shifts in the art canon are to practitioners and enthusiasts, I am not concerned here with how the contemporary art world constitutes its parameters. After all, this changes often and rapidly. What is really fascinating is how particular media, in this case textiles, offer sensory opportunities that cannot be found elsewhere. This I call “the argument from sensuality”. Textiles, above all, suggest intimacy, the often unspoken knowledge that fabric is the second skin, with the implied promise of comfort. That is how textiles are generally encountered, and the skin’s senses of touch and pressure translate immediately in the gallery context in coming to terms with textiles.
Hannah Ryggen’s tapestries, for instance, are dense and woolly, sheltered users (and viewers, by extension) from sharp winds in northern climates. In Local Colour, Aranya’s floating chiffons spoke of heat and humidity, the barest whisper of cloth on skin. Then there are scents: the dry spicy aroma of Indian mordant‑dyed cotton; wax lingering on Indonesian batiks; the way lanolin remains with wool, reminding us of its animal origins; in Australia, the brightly satisfactory smell of sun on clean linen. This entire repertoire of association, emotion, memory is a huge reservoir for artists.
Associated is the argument from socialisation, which concerns gender. Locality means the practices of women, as communities are always sustained by women’s work. In Australian textiles, from the mid-1980s onward, this sphere was splendidly complicated by the arrival of Indigenous fibre works, almost all by women, thanks to curators such as the indefatigable Diane Moon, Louise Hamby, Diana Young, and Judith Ryan. Moon and Ruth McDougall, in particular, at Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, exhibit and acquire textiles for the Gallery’s focuses on contemporary Indigenous Australian and Asia Pacific arts.
A profound shift has taken place in Australian cultural frames: almost every major contemporary art exhibition in recent years has included works by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island women working with fibre and textiles, and currently we see this superbly manifested in the Women’s Wealth project in APT9, which explores works in textiles from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands. This is nothing less than a revision of Australian artistic canons, which will in turn impact on international understandings of contemporary art.
Which brings me back to Local Colour: Experiments in Nature. I admired its rigour, its advocacy for a refined address to correspondences between natural fabrics, dyes and imagery across art, craft and industry. But in the end, Local Colour was most valuable for opening up not only specific questions about making natural dyes, and working ethically into the future with natural world’s threatened resources, but for widening our sensory world. This exhibition offered colours that came from different sources to those familiar colours used by painters and showed that these colours function in very different ways. This acknowledgement of a larger sensorium has huge implications, not only for Australian makers: inevitably, local ways of being will live on in, and for, the wider world.
- ^ Quoted in Jessica Hemmings, “Material Colour”: http://www.norwegiancrafts.no/articles/material-color.
Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster in Sydney. Disclosure: she worked with Diane Moon and Ruth McDougall at QAGOMA for over a decade until early 2014.
Local Colour: Experiments in Nature was on exhibition at UNSW Galleries, Sydney, 28 July – 15 September 2018. It is touring to Ararat Gallery TAMA, Victoria, later in 2019.
Card image (detail) from Aranya Natural Est. 1994, based in Kerala, India, Arashi Shibori in Eupatorium, 2018; Arashi Shibori in Eucalyptus, 2018; Arashi Shibori in Tea Waste, 2018. Silk chiffon, thread, Eupatorium (Chromolaena odorata), Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus grandis) and tea (Camellia genus) waste; ferrous sulphate mordant for eupatorium and eucalyptus lengths, aluminium sulphate for tea waste. Private collection, Sydney. Installation view, UNSW Galleries. Photo Jennifer Leahy/Silversalt Photography