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Mornington Island artists take designs from canvas to catwalk

8 March 2017   |  indigenous artists, art centres, Cairns, Far North Queensland, fashion, designers

Mornington Island artists take designs from canvas to catwalk

Roz Pulley, The Cairns Post

February 21, 2017 2:47pm

Original article here

TWO years ago, artists on Mornington Island saw an opening in the market for a bold, new product.

In a departure from painting canvases, they embraced a concept that has set the art scene alive with its vibrancy and simplicity.

Their stories are now being threaded into dazzling textiles and adornments that have appeared on fashion catwalks in Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns, and sold in major art institutions.

“The artists were painting but there were no workshops to try anything new,” says Mirndiyan Gununa arts centre manager Grace Barnes.

“We needed a change. We’d gotten into a rut,” she says.

In December 2014, the collective of mostly female artists began experimenting with felt — initially producing wall-hangings and scarfs.

“We had a workshop to look at felting as a different art form. The artists loved it. They look at it as though they are painting using wool, instead of paints.”

Cairns Indigenous Art Fair was on the horizon and Mornington Island’s felt collection made its debut.

“We were shocked at how well it was received. The artists don’t understand the fuss others are making of it and were amazed to be called fashion designers,” Grace says of the predominantly older artists on Mornington Island.

“The reason we’ve loved it as an art centre is because we’re engaging our mob here. For us, it’s delving into fashion, but also creating activities for artists.”

Grace says the exposure at CIAF had an unexpected bonus — re-engaging young people.

Dolly Loogatha at work in the MiArt Studio, Mornington Island.

“We saw those lovely models modelling our felts and thought why don’t we involve our kids,” she says.

Cairns designer and fashion curator Grace Lillian Lee was brought in to run a workshop, which in turn led to a community fashion show on Mornington Island and the chance to present at Melbourne Fashion Festival in 2016.

“Our young ones became our models, which was great for us,” Grace Barnes says.

“The children hadn’t previously been interested in the art centre. They were disengaged, weren’t going to school, weren’t working— we’re talking about kids who self-harm — but they loved the fashion performance.

“Some were the children and grandchildren of the artists, so it really brought a bonding moment, not only for family, but for the art centre and community.”

Grace Lee was an immediate hit with young and old.

Rhondell Williams with a MiArt Designs bag from Mornington Island. Photo by Grace Lillian Lee

“The artists loved her. She was given a language name within two weeks, which is very special,” Grace Barnes says.

“Her language name is Kardarra, meaning water lily, in Kayardilt language. It’s so appropriate, as her middle name is Lillian and her Chinese name means ‘jade orchard’.

“She really had an effect on community. When she left, all the artists went to the airport to say goodbye. That’s when we decided we needed to keep her close to us.”

Grace Barnes says fashion has become a platform to experience the world beyond Mornington.

“I was able to take four kids to Melbourne to model. It was their first time visiting a big place on the mainland. Some had never been on a big plane before, didn’t have photo ID and needed help to open a bank account.

(L-R) Netta Loogatha, Dolly Loogatha, Elsie Gabori and Ethel Loogatha with bags and accessories from MiArt Designs, Mornington Island. Photo by Grace Lillian Lee

“They’re definitely stepping out of their comfort zone, broadening their horizons and seeing how fashion can open doors for them or create opportunities to share their stories.”

Initially, it was just the girls modelling, but that’s changed.

“At first, the boys were timid. The girls embraced it. But last year we selected three boys and three girls to go to Cairns for a three-week mentoring program in the lead-up to CIAF,” Grace Barnes says.

“It’s life changing. It’s built their self-esteem. They walk taller in their community. One of the girls has been used in an advertising campaign to promote CIAF. She’s taken everyone’s eye.

“It also encourages them to make connections and potentially come to Cairns to study.”

Grace Lee says the workshops are helping forge a business for Mornington Island artists, with their latest collection of hand-painted, neoprene bags now stocked at the NGV Design Store in Melbourne’s Federation Square.

Rhondell Williams with a MiArt Designs bag from Mornington Island. Photo by Grace Lillian Lee

She says the three-ways bags — which can be used as backpacks, over the shoulder or as carryalls — were the result of research into market trends.

“We had a talk about where we saw the label going and the artists showed interest in bags.

“We decided it was a good outlet to express the work they like to paint.

“It’s a capsule range of 35 pieces. We hope to produce more. We want to keep their practice alive.”

Grace Barnes says one particular occasion stands out for her in the past two years.

“We were at Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne and Letisha Gabori was modelling felts created by her mother, Amanda, for Melbourne Fashion Festival, while artwork by her late grandmother, Sally Gabori, hung on the wall.

“To see the continuation of art and culture through three generations was really special. It’s one memory I will always cherish.”

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