Everywhere you turn at this time there’s news of some new venture in First Nations fashion. The ladies fashion mags are full of it, the museums are leaping on the bandwagon and now, being Australia, we have to have a Fashion Award! I blame CIAF “ for the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair started the whole thing off in 2013 under the auspices of fashionista Grace Lillian Lee.

CIAF will be operating virtually from August 14th.

Now Darwin is putting its fashionable hand up. Following the success of Country to Couture, an annual event held as part of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair since 2016, the DAAF Foundation with the support of the NT Government has launched the National Indigenous Fashion Awards (NIFA), to sit alongside the Telstra NATSIA Awards and the National Indigenous Music Awards, all of which should take place in Darwin in August.

The NIFAs have been developed to provide a global platform to celebrate innovation, diversity and ethical practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creatives, as well as hoping to develop this sector. Nina Fitzgerald, creative ­director of NIFA, an Indigenous woman herself, says the new awards are simply a response to the success of the textile design movement in Indigenous communities ranging from the Mornington Peninsular in Victoria to Hope Vale on Cape York.

In addition to financial prizes totalling $60,000, award recipients will be provided with opportunities for sustainable growth, such as small business development, industry mentoring, financial support and promotion, and skills development by major public institutions and key fashion media.

For its inaugural year, NIFA has nominated 33 designers and artists across six different categories, though sadly, its inaugural ceremony will have to be live-streamed across NITV’s social media channels. The virtual ceremony will take place a day before the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair’s very own digital-only program for 2020, kicking off on August 6.

NIFA’s Fitzgerald hopes that the vibrant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories which have connected Australia’s First Nations Peoples to this country since time immemorial will transcend cultural boundaries, and can help to bring their cultures to the widest possible audience.

This often involves non-Indigenous collaboration. As Bendigo Art Gallery’s First Nations Curator, Shonae Hobson explains in relation to ‘Piinpi‘, her forthcoming survey of contemporary Indigenous Australian textiles and fashion, there is a  combination of both ‘designed’ and ‘hand-crafted/stitched’ pieces throughout the show. For example, the Grace Lillian Lee works are designed, woven and assembled by her. The Babbarra dresses from Maningrida in Arnhemland are designed and fabric printed by the artists but sewn by Raw Cloth, a retail outlet in Darwin. 

So, who are NIFA’s selected 33?

Cultural Adornment and Wearable Art Award”recognises worn items, created as fine or expressive art, used to define or express culture:
Lillardya Allirra Briggs-Houston from Ngarru Miimi
Peggy Griffiths from Waringarri Aboriginal Arts
Jan Griffiths from Waringarri Aboriginal Arts
Debra Beale of Debra Beale Jewellery at Boomalli Art Gallery in Sydney
Lisa Waup from Baluk Arts, Mornington Peninsular

Textile Design Award”recognises designs of woven, knitted or other textile constructions, as well as dyed, printed or surface ornamented textiles: 
Lillardia Allirra Briggs-Houston from Ngarru Miimi
Ivy Nargoodah, Eva Nargoodah from Mangkaja Arts and Margaret Albert of Rukaji Designs,
Kieren Karritpul from Merrepen Arts
Dymphna Kerinauia, Kaye Brown, Michelle Woody, Nina Lydwina Puruntatameri, Cornelia Tipuamantumirri, and Bernadette Mungatopi from three Tiwi art centres working with North
Ikuntji Artists at Haasts Bluff
Selina Nadjowh from Injalak Arts Centre, Oenpelli

Community Collaboration Award”recognises of effective and productive relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the textile and fashion industry: 
Julie Shaw of MAARA Collective with Bula’bula Aboriginal Corporation
Hopevale Art x QUT with Guuliil of Hope Vale Arts and Cultural Centre
People, Culture & Country, a QLD State Schools Art Project
Babbarra Women’s Centre with Publisher Textiles
Lisa Gorman (Gorman) and Tommy May, Sonia Kurarra, Daisy Japulija, Nada Rawlins, Lisa Uhl from Mangkaja Arts
Marnin Studio Women’s Resource Centre with Design Within Country
Ikuntji Artists with Magpie Goose
Kaiela Arts Artists with Spacecraft Studio
Tennant Creek Aunties with Rise-Ngurrajuta 

Environmental and Social Contribution Award”recognises excellence and leadership in environmental and social development understanding and practice in relation to textiles and fashion:
Ninti One Limited
Anindilyakwa Arts of Groote Eylandt for Bush Dye
Liandra Gaykamangu for Liandra Swim
Perina Drummond for Jira Models

Special Recognition Award”recognises a group, organisation, or individual that has shown an exceptional contribution to the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander textiles and fashion:
Bede Tungutalum, Tiwi Elder
Lenore Dembski for Paperbark Woman
Perina Drummond for Jira Models
Grace Lillian Lee, who seems to have started it all
Selina Nadjowh for Injalak Arts

Fashion Design Award”recognises a commercial fashion label with a minimum of two collections of original design of clothing, jewellery or accessories:
Liandra Gaykamangu for Liandra Swim
Julie Shaw for MAARA Collective
Denni Francisco for Ngali
Cheryl Creed for Murrii Quu Couture

All winners will be announced on 5 August via a live broadcast through NITV’s social media channels at 7.30pm.

The way collaborations benefit remote artists can be explained by the experience of Ikuntji Artists in the community of Haasts Bluff when Alice Napitjinpa Dixon’s work was chosen as one of the winners of a competition with 3,000 entries to collaborate with Gorman Clothing. “Overnight when [the news] was published on social media, 2,500 new followers signed up, and quite a significant amount of sales occurred on our website as well,” Art Centre manager Chrischona Schmidt reported. Nampitjinpa’s brightly coloured depiction of her Tjukurrpa shows the porcupine man travelling around Talaalpi, west of Kintore, looking for ants. Meanwhile, tracking behind him are women out hunting, hoping to make the porcupine/echidna their tucker for the evening!

Later, Australia’s first major survey of contemporary Indigenous Australian textiles and fashion will now open at Bendigo Art Gallery in September 2020, postponed from an original opening date of July due to national COVID-19 gallery closures. Featuring the work of Indigenous artists and designers from the inner city to remote desert art centres, ‘Piinpi‘ will shine a light on Australia’s leading First Nations creatives, and a design movement that is fast becoming a recognised fashion phenomenon. 

The rapidly expanding Indigenous fashion and textile industry is one of the freshest and most exciting fashion movements of our time, said Jessica Bridgfoot, Director of the Bendigo Art Gallery. It is a celebration of Indigenous art, history and culture, showcased through the lens of contemporary fashion and design. We want to ensure that as many people as possible can see this important exhibition, so postponing the opening of ‘Piinpi‘ until September is the safest option at this stage. We are also closely monitoring travel guidelines for First Nations artists and communities from regional and remote locations, and hope they will be able to celebrate the exhibition if not in September, at a later date.   We will also ensure people in remote communities can access the exhibition through digital platforms, online tours and other programs.

Curated by Bendigo Art Gallery’s First Nations Curator, Kaantju woman Shonae Hobson, ‘Piinpi‘ features works by Grace Lillian Lee, Lyn-Al Young, Maree Clarke, Lisa Waup x Verner, Hopevale Arts & Culture Centre, Lorraine Connelly-Northey, MAARA Collective, the Yarrenyty Arltere Artists, AARLI Fashion, LORE and many more.

The word ‘Piinpi‘ is an expression that the Kanichi Thampanyu people from the East Cape York use to describe changes in the landscape across time and space.  Throughout the gallery we will present beautifully crafted fabrics and wearable fashion items, each expressing a connection to culture and to Country in ways that are distinct from anything else being produced around the world, Ms Hobson said.  

It is wonderful to see our garments and our designers recognised in a museum, which is quite a Western space. First Nations people have some of the best art in the world and our fashion is no different.  It’s the same storytelling, it’s still the same narrative and design, just different form and medium.Â 

Key works featured in the exhibition will be acquired by Bendigo Art Gallery and will form the beginnings of the Australian Fashion Collection, a new collection focus for the gallery.