University of California, Los Angeles: Stunning textiles draw from 65,000 years of Aboriginal cultural practices

A new exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA will be the first ever in the U.S. devoted to the work of contemporary textile artists from Aboriginal-owned and operated art centers in northern Australia.

Since the 1960s, screenprinting has become a vital form of Indigenous expression, perpetuating traditional knowledge and reinvigorating its visual manifestations. Artists who work at the art centers are custodians of their land, language and inherited ancestral stories. Their textiles draw on 65,000 years of continued cultural practices in Australia’s Northern Territory and provide a sustainable income for those living on ancestral lands.

The exhibition, “Aboriginal Screen-Printed Textiles from Australia’s Top End,” presents more than 70 textiles and seven videos conveying the significance of flora, fauna, ceremonies and ancestral stories to Aboriginal artists. It will be on display at the Fowler today through June 19, 2022.

For thousands of years, Indigenous designs have been traced in sand, painted on bodies and rock formations, and carved, incised or applied to objects made from wood, bark, shell or fiber. Textile artists transfer the motifs to cotton, silk and linen cloth; augment the customary palette of muted ochres with vivid modern inks; and add layers of complexity with the use of multiple screens, offset shadow printing, and ombré or colorwave techniques.

Indigenous artists from five art centers — Tiwi Design; Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association; Injalak Arts and Crafts Aboriginal Corporation; Bábbarra Women’s Centre; and Merrepen Arts, Culture and Language Corporation — played active roles in shaping the Fowler exhibition. While their textiles are gaining wider recognition because of their use in high-fashion apparel, housewares, interior furnishings, and collectibles in Australia and abroad, the exhibition provides a platform for the artists’ own voices and perspectives, which are crucial to appreciating their work.

The exhibition is organized around the five art centers, which curators chose for their formative textile practices and contemporary innovations, as well as because of the cultural diversity they represent.

Tiwi Design, located on Bathurst Island and formed in 1969, is one of Australia’s oldest Aboriginal art centers. Its textiles have been influenced by Tiwi burial poles (tutini) and geometric patterns (jilamara) applied as body painting for important ceremonies. Colorwave printing, in which two or three colors of ink are blended on the screen, has become a signature of Tiwi Design’s vivid, large-format textiles.
Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association, situated on Melville Island and established in 1985, is a cultural hub for 60 Tiwi artists. In the 1990s, Jilamara was the only art center screen-printing silk lengths with fiber-reactive dyes, which yield a vibrant image on both sides of the fabric. Recently, bold and colorful Jilamara fabrics have gained popularity in the Australian fashion industry.
Injalak Arts and Crafts Aboriginal Corporation, formed in 1984, is located near the rock art site of Injalak Hill in Western Arnhem Land, which has been continuously occupied by humans for 65,000 years and is home to the Kunwinjku people. In 2011, Injalak Arts artists shifted away from an earlier technique in favor of hand-painting images onto transparencies and transfering them to mesh screens. This light-sensitive, photo-emulsion-transfer process allows artists to use their customary hatching to render more complex effects, such as so-called “X-ray” silhouettes of animal skeletons and internal organs.
Bábbarra Women’s Centre was founded in 1983 in Maningrida in Central Arnhem Land, the Northern Territory’s largest Aboriginal community. Wind, fog, plants, animals, water spirits and sacred beings are depicted with permission from each clan’s custodial manager. Crosshatched lines can reveal or obscure sacred meanings.
Merrepen Arts, Culture and Language, established in 1986, supports Ngen’giwumirri and Ngan’gikurunggurr artists of the Daly River region. Its textiles reimagine local billabongs and landscapes whose colors and textures change with the dramatic and extreme Top End seasons.
Fowler Museum at UCLA
In addition to the sections focused on each art center, smaller modules address the introduction of cloth to the Top End in the 18th century through trade with South Sulawesi fishermen from Indonesia, the use of printed textiles in Aboriginal communities for attire and ceremonial activity, and the incorporation of Indigenous fabrics into mainstream Australian fashion and interior decoration. Short videos show artists printing, glimpses of Aboriginal life in the Top End, techniques of large-format screen printing, and garments made from Aboriginal textiles presented at an annual Australian fashion event.

The exhibition is curated by Joanna Barrkman, the Fowler’s senior curator of southeast Asian and Pacific arts.