Collecting Aboriginal Textiles

The textile arts in Australia are a vital and dynamic force, which are regularly dismissed in our cultural history. In People magazine of 24 September 1952 Frances Burke (1907-94), founder of Australia’s first registered screen-printing workshop in 1937, claimed: ‘Its appeal is universal. It will be art that can get right in among people.’ Textiles are now perhaps too familiar in our daily lives and often simply associated with usefulness. This perception leads to constant misunderstandings and a continual lack of appreciation for the inherent qualities of cloth. Collectors of Australian textiles need to be encouraged and reminded that contemporary textiles become the heirlooms of the future. Now is the time to consider addressing this dilemma.

Recently we staged a major textile exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria entitled Raiki Wara: Long Cloth from Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait. (raiki wara, meaning long cloth, comes from the words used by Pitjantjara women at Ernabella to refer to their own batik.) Visitors to the exhibition were surprised by the beauty and visual power of the works. “Where can I find textiles like these?” and “How can I display and look after them?” were constant questions. Anne Crawford in the Age newspaper of 5 September 1998 entitled the works ‘Social fabric’, alluding to the communal interaction involved in their decoration. This description also refers to the audience’s reaction – the conversations and dialogues. Consequently, the gallery was always filled with noise. The Sydney based artist, Bronwyn Bancroft of the Boomali Aboriginal Artists Co-Operative, noted that she ‘did textiles to give all Aboriginal community members access to a cheaper piece of art work that they could wear or put on their walls.’ Raiki Wara proved to be a significant vehicle to ignite a broader understanding about our indigenous textiles, an area that is perhaps one of the art world’s best-kept secrets.

The contemporary art of hand printing, dyeing or painting fabric is a vigorous area within Aboriginal Australia. The establishment and recognition of these particular textile arts is quite recent. An introduced medium, Aboriginal textiles are created primarily as art for decorative or aesthetic purposes and reflect the art styles, iconography and ritual design specific to the relevant community or language group. They are not historically infused with textile traditions relating to production, prestige or wealth. Therefore the works represent current art practice and their unique markings are produced with modern dyestuffs and pigments rather than ochre and vegetable dyes.

Textile arts are introduced via the non-Aboriginal arts advisor who organises specialised workshops. Perhaps the most fascinating development within indigenous communities is the adoption of the batik method. Distinctive and original forms of batik have evolved throughout Aboriginal Australia, beginning with its introduction at Ernabella in South Australia in 1971. The close collaboration occurring between indigenous and non-indigenous artists has created some significant departures in contemporary textile practice. The conventional approaches involved in following standard design repeats, scale of motifs, use of materials and the overall size of a work become irrelevant when working in a remote environment. Away from the formal strictures of art school or industry, the creative process takes over, producing some exciting work.

Five major textile centres in Aboriginal Australia are Ernabella, Fregon, Utopia, Ltyentye Apurte and Bathurst Island. The development and continuity of the textile arts in these communities is worth highlighting, in particular the decision of those artists to work with textiles over other mediums. Over twenty years ago batik production began at Ernabella nestled in the Musgrave ranges, in the north-west of South Australia. Formerly a Presbyterian Mission established in the 1930s, Ernabella returned to Aboriginal community ownership in 1973. A school and craft room were established in 1948 and the children were taught a variety of arts and crafts including drawing, spinning and weaving.

During the late 1960s and 1970s there was wide-scale interest in ancient textile patterning techniques including the South-East Asian resist dyeing methods such as tie-dye and batik. Winifred Hilliard, who was Ernabella Arts Adviser from 1954 to 1986, had the idea to introduce batik, and build on the women’s impressive drawing and painting skills. Through the Australia Council it was arranged for a visiting New York artist, Leo Brereton, to visit Ernabella in 1971 and hold a batik workshop. Brereton had just completed three months study of the batik technique in Jogjakarta. This extraordinary workshop lasted only one month and forever changed the course of Australian textile history. In 1974, three Ernabella women travelled to Indonesia to study batik at the Batik Research Institute in Yogyakarta. Cultural exchange between Indonesia and Aboriginal Australia still occurs, and now the artists of Indonesia are interested in the working methods and designs of their Aboriginal and Australian counterparts.

Batik is a form of resist dyeing that requires low technology, no sophisticated textile studio – just water, a heating source and lots of hard work. A design is painted onto the cloth with hot wax using an instrument called a tjanting – a small copper receptacle with one or more spouts attached to a wooden handle. The cloth is then dipped into a dye bath and the wax removed. This process is repeated several times, depending on the intricacy of the design and number of colours. Sitting at low tables in the Ernabella craft room, the women work the cloths horizontally, heating the wax using electric fry pans. The communal spirit-sharing time together, assisting each other with washing or wax removal, is an important factor in the women’s choice of the batik process for their art.

Tjunkaya Tapaya is one of the senior artists who originally studied batik with Brereton in 1971; she has over 20 years experience working with this technique. The silk length Raiki wara (1994) displays a technical virtuosity, a command of colour and line to create a ‘poetic’ composition (Fig.1). Forms shaped like flames dance across the surface, while linear borders flow out to the edges over a ground of dots. The scale of this fluid work is impressive and monumental.

Today the older women pass on their batik skills to the younger ones. 1998 is the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the arts and crafts room at Ernabella and this year has seen the major promotion of this important textile centre with a series of exhibitions and publications.

The smaller community of Fregon, set up as an outstation of Ernabella in 1962, has also established a successful batik program. Since 1974 the Kaltjiti community has incorporated textiles into its arts and crafts syllabus. The Fabric length by Tjapukula George (Fig.2) presents an experimental approach: by scraping the wax during the dyeing process, the artist has created the impression of a scratched surface.

Another significant batik centre is Utopia, situated in the Northern Territory, south west of Alice Springs. Unlike the centralised community of Ernabella, Utopia (originally started at the Utopia Station homestead) consists of seventeen outstations in the Sandover region in freehold land. The batik style here is raw and unrestrained – created outdoors. The cloths produced at Utopia became well known in the 1980s through the major exhibition Utopia: A Picture Story, commissioned and organised by the Holmes a Court collection and CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association), which represented eighty-eight artists. The exhibition toured from 1989 to 1994, travelling to Sydney, Adelaide, Ireland, Melbourne and France. These radiant silks left a lasting impression: fabrics that told stories about traditional Dreamings, the gathering of food, and designs relating to body painting ceremonies.

Utopia Batik was established in 1977 as part of adult education classes run by Jenny Green. The women were initially taught batik by Suzy Bryce and Nyangkula Brown, a batik artist from Fregon. Unlike the situation at Ernabella, here the artists worked outside, setting up windbreaks to provide shelter. The women paint the hot wax directly onto the cloth, working it across their laps. The wax is heated in old saucepans or hubcaps over an open fire. The work Bean tree Dreaming (1991) by Ada Bird Petyarr has thick markings that are characteristic of working outdoors. (Fig.3) In this environment the wax is applied quickly; occasional blots on the surface are caused by dust clogging up the tjanting, making the wax flow irregularly. Across the bold network of lines are fine veins of contrasting colour, an effect created during the dye process when the wax can crack and the dye seeps through the protected wax area. The results are spontaneous; the batik method in the hands of the Utopia artists has evolved in an informal expressionistic manner.

Hand screen-printed fabrics are also produced as a unique composition. The random placement of screens and the variation of base cloths, and application of pigments allows the textile artist a variety of options to manipulate the design. Tiwi Design is the first and longest established indigenous screen-printing workshop. It is best known for its distinctive T-shirt designs, which are popular souvenirs of trips to Australia. A screen-printing workshop was established at Nguiu on Bathurst Island, initially printing on paper, and then textiles, from 1971. Run by men, between 1979 and 1988 the workshop developed a repertoire of 120 designs, drawn from the floral and fauna of the island and the crosshatched distinctive patterns used to decorate the Pukamani or mortuary poles. The Fabric length (1983), hand printed by Tiwi Design on a striking red silk, measures over eight metres in length. (Fig.4) The textile has randomly placed motifs that are overlapped in several layers. The blending of colours on the screen allows a graduation of tones. There is no obvious repeat in this work. The length was originally commissioned by the fashion designer Linda Jackson but she found the material just too beautiful to cut and make into garments.

Silk painting has flourished at Keringke Arts at Ltyentye Apurte (formerly known as Santa Teresa, a mission community established in 1953), situated south east of Alice Springs. The Sydney artist Cait Wait familiarised the women with a range of textile techniques, from lino-block printing to experimenting with various forms of fabric painting including the use of gutta (a form of latex). From 1987 to 1993 Wait encouraged and nurtured the development of the textile arts. Kathleen Wallace’s irrernte-arenye singing 1997 (Fig.5) is an overwhelming composition. As your eyes adjust to the exuberant colours that aggressively compete for attention, three Spirit figures emerge, positioned in a maze of pattern. Wallace has applied the basic design in gutta to control and define the various colours. On the cloth’s surface sit raised outlines, forming an effect similar to a fine piece of cloisonn←.

Textiles serve an important economic role in various central Australian and top end communities as a means of generating income. Fabric works sell for small sums of money from $50 to $10,000, making them available to a broad market. However, textile artists are not granted the serious attention or exposure their works deserve. Textile exhibitions in general are rarely reviewed in the major newspapers and our knowledge of and exposure to Aboriginal textiles is reliant on the few commercial galleries and shops that regularly exhibit works, or through the promotion by local art advisors.

Textiles classified and created as an artwork are challenging to collect. They are not made to fold, wrap or even cut up and make into another construction and they do not relate to a body or clothing styles. Instead they are hung or draped – as a composition. Unlike a painting, the textile can be displayed on the wall for a period of time and then rolled and put away. However, textiles should be treated with respect, exhibited away from the direct sunlight, for limited periods of time and properly attached to the wall. The works should not be displayed by using short-term and damaging methods such as staples, blu tac or nails. Careful and simple preparation involving attachments of a headcloth sewn with Velcro or a sealed wooden dowel threaded through a slipcase are basic methods.

There are certainly places other than a museum for the display and enjoyment of textiles. Perhaps private collectors might consider following a particular technique, arts community or artistic style, and to hang these works on the wall alongside or instead of the ‘big name’ canvas works.

Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Victoria for her generous assistance with information referred to in this article and Katie Somerville, Assistant Curator of Fashion & Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria, for her helpful suggestions.


1 Bronwyn Bancroft, quoted in J Ryan, ‘A history of painted and printed textiles in Aboriginal Australia’, Raiki Wara: Long Cloth from Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 1998 p.24.
2 Jenni Dudley, Walka Wiru Tjuta: Beautiful Designs from Ernabella, (exhibition catalogue), Bendigo Art Gallery, 1993.
3 Batik from Ernabella: Ernabella Arts Incorporated, Canberra School of Arts, 3 July-2 August 1998; Warka Irititja munu Kuwari Kutu (Work from the past and present), Tandanya National Cultural Institute, Adelaide, 21 August-20 September 1998; Raiki Wara Long cloth from Aboriginal Australia and the Torres Strait, 4 September-19 October 1998 touring from 1999 – 2000, includes a group Ernabella textiles.
4 A Brody, Utopia: A picture Story: 88 Silk Batiks from the Robert Holmes a Court Collection, Heytesbury Pty Ltd., Perth, 1990.
5 The work was originally commissioned for an exhibition of Tiwi Design fabrics held at Hogarth Galleries Sydney in 1983, organised by the Coo-ee Emporium. Six major fashion designers were asked to select fabric for the Tiwi people to print that could later be made-up into fashion garments.

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