Words by Sasha Sarago Photography by Wayne Quilliam
The cultural epicentre of Far North Queensland, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) is home to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and artworks, spanning across Australia’s top end. Established in 2009, CIAF introduces a resurgence of contemporary cultural expression – and fashion is at the forefront of this revolution.
CIAF made its debut at Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF) in March this year. Birrimbi Dulgu Bajal, which means ‘Sea and Rainforest Dreaming’ in the local Yidinji language, brought the essence, art and culture of Queensland’s First Nations peoples to the catwalk.
Curated by fashion designer Grace Lillian Lee and choreographed by Fiona Wirrer-George, together 11 Indigenous artists and 20 models won the hearts of Melbourne’s fashion circles. Boasting the vibrant colours of the Great Barrier Reef and beauty of the lush rainforests, each collection paid homage to the stories, styles, traditional lands and its elements that is unique to each artist.
Maja, meaning ‘Rainforest’ in the Kuku Yalanji language, is the inspiration behind Yalanji Arts Centre’s collection. Rainforest woods and natural fibre accessories complemented by individual fabric prints captures the Mossman area, home to where these garments were designed and produced.
MIArt Designs collection Melaa Thaldin, created on Mornington Island by artists from Lardil, Kaladilt and Yngkoal mobs, incorporate handmade silk and felting techniques in their designs. Visually electrifying, the bright rainbow of colours is dreamlike and its texture is heavenly – soft to the touch.
Truly a family affair, Letisha Gabori and Rhondell Williams, affectionately known as the models from Mornington Island, were excited to take a hiatus from bush life and slip on a pair of heels to model their mother’s designs. Letisha says, “I am happy that I’m wearing this felt because some of them are made from my mum. I hope she feels proud about it herself.”
Carleah Flinders, daughter of Sown in Time designer Lynelle Flinders, fell into modelling by chance. Lynelle says, “She was there! The first lot of things [designs] I did, she was the only one who could fit it.” It’s an experience that Lynelle says has raised Carleah’s confidence.
Fashion’s textbook casting process took an exodus in favour of a more organic methodology; it was a creative collaboration of ideas between designers and models. “We presented it how it is meant to be – all together. The connection between our art, music, the whole lot, I think that speaks the real beauty of our culture. I think Melbourne didn’t know what was going to hit them,” says model Donna Busch.
A spike in cultural confidence, Carleah, along with fellow models Benita Williams, Nancy Nona and Savannah Bond, are now represented by BLAK Model Management. This is a shift in the right direction for the Australian fashion industry, notoriously known for its lack of diversity.
Curious about the inspiration behind this spectacular showcase, I asked Grace Lillian Lee to take me back to where it all began. She was intrigued by how fashion and art meet, and wanted to take this idea to a unique platform. Grace credits “not sticking to the norm and what’s expected” as the show’s blueprint. Together, the artists and models remained open to weaving a collectively cultural and personal visual narrative that went against the grain of traditional fashion.
Choreographer Fiona Wirrer-George expressed her reservations at first, due to her lack of fashion expertise, but soon realised she could lend her choreographic voice:
“My first voice is theatre and psychical expression and movement vocabulary. That’s where I feel the most comfortable in terms of conveying what the belly, what the spirt, what the heart wants to say.”
Fiona infused the element of water and how it mimics the movement of the snake into the dance component of the production, resulting in a highly spiritual and mesmerising choreography beautifully performed by dancer Hans David Ahwang. Nothing short of serendipitous, local songstress Taeg Twist was invited to lend her powerful vocals when the crew were at a loss for music. Brought in as a mentor, respected vocalist Deline Briscoe also came on board, along with music from hip-hop artist Mau Power.
Reminiscing about her previous journey in fashion, Grace recalls working as a creative assistant for fashion label Mimco. She remembers sitting in front of a computer, talking to people in China – people she didn’t know. This ‘soul destroying’ moment was the impetus to discover her true calling: “fashion with heart and soul”, manifested in the form of Birrimbi Dulgal Bajal. Grace and fellow designer Lynelle Flinders describes the work of CIAF as a “cultural renaissance”. Lynelle says, “I have always said this is a new renaissance, and this is a big wave and I’m just so glad I’m in front of it, and I’m going to ride this wave.”
Grace openly shares how fashion is empowering her to reclaim and celebrate her Torres Strait Island, Chinese and English ancestry – Indigenous cultural roots that many First Nations peoples and their ancestors were forced to relinquish from fear of retribution through colonial systems still present today. For Indigenous peoples, art and design acts as a medium for healing, a cathartic approach to reconciling intergenerational trauma.
“I did it because I was going through some Sorry Business myself, things from my past that happened to me came back and I was going through a bit of depression, and I thought … no … I have to do this. But I also did it to get an appreciation of textile art, and at the same time it was a healing thing,” says Donna Busch.
To enliven the cultures, dances, songs and stories of their ancestors – keeping the cultures alive today and for the next generation – is CIAF’s success. Predominately, the catwalk prepares you to ‘view’ collections; Birrimbi Dulgal Bajal guides you to ‘feel’ the collections, or stories, embedded in the designs. Each creation silently asks you to appreciate Country and articulate in your own mind what culture means to you.
When tears are shed from joy and goosebumps appear, there is a sense of satisfaction that Australia is that much closer to appreciating the resilience, excellence and inspiration that is inherent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and fashion. Grace Lillian Lee says, “There’s a bigger picture about just empowering young women and men to celebrate who they are and where they come from in the fashion realm.”
When I ask Grace, “Where to next for Birrimbi Dulgal Bajal?” she confidently replies, “London, Paris or New York.”
If you missed Birrimbi Dulgal Bajal, CIAF invites you to a brand new fashion showcase, Jana Jaral, scheduled for 15 July 2016. Jana Jaral, meaning ‘Respect’, is about positive feelings towards a person, culture or belief. It’s about respecting the old and the new coming together on one platform.
What better way to experience Jana Jaral than by visiting the homelands of where it all began?
Sasha Sarago is the editor of Ascension Magazine. She is a proud Aboriginal woman of the Wadjanbarra Yidinji and Jirrbal clans ‘Rainforest People’ of Cairns, Far North Queensland. She is also of African-American, Malay, Mauritian and Spanish descent. Sasha’s dream is to savour the breathtaking views of Positano; Moscato in hand as the founder of a globally inspiring lifestyle and media company.