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Jarracharra: Australian textile art in India

First Nations artists from Arnhem Land tour in India to display their traditional designs and exchange iconic ideas

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Jarracharra, an exhibition of traditional textile art from Australia’s western Arnhem Land region, has just concluded in Kolkata, India.

An initiative of the Bábbarra Women’s Centre (Bábbarra Designs), a world-class textile producing art centre, it took to Kolkata its particular style of art – beautiful landscapes, spirit beings, bush foods and crafts from its region.

It follows a highly successful international season that began in Paris in 2019, when five Aboriginal artists from Maningrida – a community based in Australia’s western Arnhem Land region – took it there. It was the year that the United Nations had declared as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, to encourage the world to appreciate the significant contribution they make to our rich cultural diversity.

“The purpose of the [2019] exhibition was to promote indigenous Australian textile design to a global audience and reach beyond the confines of the Internet and social media,” says Jessica Stalenberg, manager, Bábbarra Women’s Centre, Bábbarra Designs.

The exhibition Jarracharra (Dry Season Wind) proved so successful that it has gone on several international tours – with the latest stop being India.

Jarracharra in India
Source: Supplied

Jarracharra was on display in Kolkata’s Indian Museum from December 15, 2022 till January 22, 2023. Two artists – Janet Marawarr and Deborah Wurrkidj – also toured in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru.

Jarracharra: Unlocking tribal knowledge in India

The experience in India has been incredible, Marawarr tells Indian Link.

“At the opening in Kolkata, we did our traditional dance,” she begins. “I was happy with the way our fabric was displayed at the museum with bamboos. We also learned different, newer ways of making cloth. It’s definitely been an interesting trip.”

With Jessica Stalenberg (Source: Supplied)

As part of their tour, Marawarr and Wurrkidj also explored heritage textiles in the states of West Bengal and Odisha. Wurrkidj’s personal favourite was the Tussar silk woven by members of the Santhal tribal community from the Trijanga village at the Navajeevan Collective.

“I liked how they spun silk,” she says. “I also appreciated the paintings on the silk.”

The Tussar silk is weaved using multiple techniques and patterns. They are made from rearing silkworms or moths.

Jarracharra artists in Odisha India
Janet Marawarr and Deborah Wurrkidj meet Odisha’s Santhal women (Source: Supplied)

Marawarr was taken by the fine painting style on the silk. She even purchased a painting of a jungle vine – a design she can relate to through her own work. Around the world, Marawarr is renowned for printing on a range of textile surfaces using lino cut and screen-printing techniques. Her designs tell her ancestral stories in loose patterns and bright colours.

Both Marawarr and Wurrkidj were also impressed with the traditional Kantha embroidery work which involves stitching patchwork cloth from rags.

The magnificent art of wax printing, also known as Batik in West Bengal, took the duo by surprise.

“We visited the Alpha Textile Studio, Sadaf India Studio and Beej Studio as part of our tour,” Stalenberg shares. “They were incredibly generous and shared their natural dye textiles and stories of their origin with our group.”

Opening of Jarracharra
Welcome dance at the opening (Source: Supplied)

The aim of this trip was to exchange knowledge with other women’s groups in India and bridge the gap between the two cultures.

“On our visit to a village in the Sundarbans, I shared our Jarracharra book so they too can see how we make our designs,” smiles Marawarr.

Wurrkidj’s fibre baskets made of wetland grasses struck a chord too: highly regarded for this craft learned at her grandmother’s knee, she has been exhibiting these and her trademark bark paintings and hollow logs across Australia and Europe for the past two decades.

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LISTEN: How Indian Australians can learn more about Australia’s Indigenous culture

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The idea behind Jarracharra

The Bábbarra Women’s Centre was established as a women’s refuge in the early 1980s, supporting the financial independence of Maningrida’s Indigenous women who speak the Kunwinjku language.

Ndjébbana leader Helen Williams founded it with a strong vision for Maningrida women’s rights. It is operated by the 40-year-old Aboriginal-owned Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation which generates economic opportunities for the region’s clan groups to live on their homelands.

Bábbarra Designs is the main social enterprise operating at the women’s centre. Stalenberg tells us, “During the nineties, the women were introduced to Lino printing on fabric via a series of workshops. In 2003, they were introduced to screen printing by senior textile designer Bobbie Rueben. Both art forms took off as the women were able to use a contemporary medium to tell sacred women’s stories and share indigenous knowledge about the food they eat, their songlines, dances and their country. The designs that are exhibited span many years of development from 2003 to 2019. The designs capture stories about culture in a way that can be shared with a wide audience and preserved – in cloth.”

Jarracharra was co-curated in 2018 by then managers Ingrid Johanson and Jessica Phillips. It features 44 textile designs created by 17 artists.

Following the India tour, Jarracharra will go to Cyprus and Ghana. The artists will include some of the new textiles developed at Tharangini Studio – Bengaluru’s oldest heritage textile studio – as part of a slightly-revised collection. (Visiting Paris for the very first time, the artists were so fascinated by the architecture that they included the iconic Eiffel Tower and The Louvre in their new designs.)

Deborah Wurrkidj and Janet Wurrkidj in Kolkata for Jarracharra
Deborah Wurrkidj wearing her Man-djarduk Wild Bush Apples Kurta, and Janet her Kunkurra Kurta. Printed in Australia, made by a talented tailor in Kolkata (Source: Supplied)

“We hope that the tour has helped all the groups we have been introduced to find points of intersection in culture and potential collaboration in design. It has been wonderful for the artists to discover new techniques and we hope that this initiative brings about future collaboration,” Stalenberg concludes.

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Prutha Chakraborty
Prutha Chakraborty
Prutha Bhosle Chakraborty is a freelance journalist. With over nine years of experience in different Indian newsrooms, she has worked both as a reporter and a copy editor. She writes on community, health, food and culture. She has widely covered the Indian diaspora, the expat community, embassies and consulates. Prutha is an alumna of the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bengaluru.

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