Aboriginal art takes on new forms with some Kashmiri influence, writes MAMATA SALAKAPURAPU
An Aboriginal pattern in vibrant colours beckons to me from a loaded table. A long-time lover of the simple but deeply alluring Aboriginal designs, I am instantly drawn into the swanky gift shop.
It turns out to be a cushion cover with an embroidered Aboriginal design, something I’ve never seen before. There are also pillow covers, throw rugs and carry bags, in the most captivating desert patterns which I’ve seen before only on large wall paintings, usually with extravagant prices. But these are simply stunning.
The embroidery on them is distinctly Indian, I tell myself. I look closely, and sure enough, it’s Kashmiri chain stitch, hand embroidered.
On the next table I see more Kashmiri-ware – papier mache jewellery boxes. But the painting on them is not Kashmiri – it is Aboriginal!
Is this Kashmiri stuff on sale, or is it usable Aboriginal art?
Suddenly I realise why I am transfixed: this is a wonderful fusion of Kashmiri crafts and Aboriginal art.
And the result is breath-taking.
The cross-cultural collaboration
The undulating patterns of the desert art of the first Australians, lend themselves beautifully to the elegant Kashmiri chain stitch. Just as the Aboriginal art must cover the entire canvas, the Kashmiri chain stitch technique is traditionally worked across the entire canvas, so that the base fabric is not visible at all.
It made perfect sense to South Australian artist Carolyn Wilson when she first encountered Kashmir’s beautiful stitch craft heritage, and she was quick to identify the potential for combining the two art forms.
While both forms are so distinctly different, they are also similar in many ways, not least that they have survived centuries, handed down to artists and artisans from generation to generation. The techniques used are unique to both their regions, and both are legacies of their culture.
It is this commonality that Wilson seeks out in her work with the arts and when she interacts with people from different cultures – believing passionately that the arts can be used to create a better world. In fact, she even calls her organisation Better World Arts (BWA).
And thus at BWA, a collaboration was born using the cultural craft heritage of the Kashmir region, and the traditional art of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of Central Australia.
“In effect, it is Australian Aboriginal art expressed via Indian Kashmiri handicraft,” says Carolyn, who first came up with the idea in 1996.
The Anangu art forms are sent to India, where they take shape into handmade rugs and cushions.
“Much of the work over the past 15 years has been carried out by Sidiq & Sons, who inherited the family business from their grandfather, a Kashmiri woodcrafter of high renown in his times,” Carolyn reveals. “I send them meticulous information through images, about size, finishing, colour-dye accuracy, wool… but Better World Arts would not have come so far if not for the skilled and dedicated craftsmen on the other side. The finesse and subtlety of every stitch that goes into the rugs and cushions, amply reflects their fine skills. The fact that they have lived on the Silk Route for centuries is so very evident from their work!”
And Carolyn’s own fondness for everything Kashmiri is just as evident from her descriptions of the “serene and beautiful” landscapes and people she has met there.
The work is produced in limited editions and every product comes with a certificate of authenticity, which ensures that consumers draw pride in the uniqueness of the artwork and enjoy their possession.
The products are then sold wholesale to celebrated Australian art galleries, and profits are shared between Better World Arts, the Australian art centres and the Indian artisan groups.
BWA is not just about arts: it’s also about creating a better world for disadvantaged communities, and as such, it has evolved into a social enterprise over the years.
For the Anangu people, BWA provides an opportunity to move away from predictable commercialised Aboriginal images with these new products. Equally, for the Kashmiri artisans, BWA has opened up an entirely new market.
“Australian Aboriginals do not have a manufacturing culture; and intellectual property is not a known concept in Indian handicrafts,” explains Carolyn.
The motive is to provide culturally appropriate and sustainable employment for everyone involved in the projects, while still ensuring that culture and skills are retained from where they originated.
Some 50 Aboriginal artists are part of the enterprise,and more than 60 Kashmiri artisans involved in producing the rugs and 25 working with the papier mache. Thanks to BWA, they are involved in sustainable, culturally enhancing work, and helping preserve centuries’ old tradition.
The Anangu artists are given royalties from the products. And the role of BWA does not end by simply sharing out the monies. The challenging task is to engage artists within the modern community and ensure that their social needs are met. A share of the profits is put towards community projects as well.
For people who come from Central Australian lands where there is no specific word for art apart from ‘walka‘, which loosely translates as “meaningful marks,” the rest of the country often emerges as foreign territory. They need help in every aspect of life like housekeeping, formal education, banking, health, communication etc., and access to these basic services often needs a translator. Though the government provides a lot of support to Aboriginals, many need assistance in effectively utilising services from indigenous community centres. This is where BWA steps in and fills the gap. The staff of BWA go beyond the call of duty to assist the artists in every way to the best of their ability.
Ngura Wiru Winkiku Indigenous Corporation that translates approximately as ‘Better World’ (literally ‘lovely country altogether’) is the result of persistent work by BWA in setting up a location in Adelaide to serve as an exclusive space for Anangu and other aboriginal artists. It is financed from the combined profits of BWA and the Australian artist communities without any aid from the government. Located in the same premises as the retail outlet of BWA on the Commercial Road, Port Adelaide, this is one place Anangu can call and identify as their own.
BWA has crafted many product lines from abstract art, and its art pieces are showcased across the country. The business has expanded to retails outlets in Adelaide, Alice Springs, Canberra, Darwin, Fremantle, Hobart, Perth and Sydney. In 2008 BWA was a finalist at the Telstra Business Awards in the Social Responsibility Category. Vogue Living magazine also did a major feature and BWA often finds its products listed in many “desirable gifts” lists.
The cross-cultural collaboration model has now been extended to Nepal, Tibet and Peru, and the products have diversified into lacquerware boxes, jewellery and handbags.
And how do the Aboriginal artists think of their collaboration with Kashmiri artisans?
“They reciprocate with song and dance when they see their abstract art take shape as tangible products!” says Carolyn. “To them, song, dance and art are all integrated in a oneness, reflecting an aspect of their life that cannot be separated. So there’s a story associated with each and every product”.