A Landmark Exhibition of First Nations Fashion

Stories of Country, culture and ancestry have been told through textiles by Aboriginal people for thousands and thousands of years.

Shonae Hobson is a Southern Kaantju woman from Coen on the Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland, and she’s also the First Nations curator at Bendigo Art Gallery on Dja Dja Wurrung Country. Here, she has curated a world-first exhibition, Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion.

‘Indigenous fashion is so diverse, with many artists and designers working in a variety of mediums and styles,’ Shonae says, explaining the concept driving the show. ‘For me, it was about bringing together a selection of works that showcased the nuances of our material culture, as well as the richness of and innovation of Indigenous fashion and design today.’

The word piinpi is an expression from east Cape York used to describe the natural regeneration of the landscape that arrives with seasonal flux. Rather than follow a western exhibition structure (which is typically organised along linear concepts such as chronology or regionality), Shonae organised her featured works according to season. As a result, the show is deeply seeded in Indigenous knowledge.

‘The exhibition is based thematically on Kuuku Ya’u seasons and the show has been curated with the intention to take audiences on a journey across Country,’ says Shonae. ‘Common themes including bush foods, resourcefulness and sustainability are all conveyed through the artists’ designs.’

The exhibition is sectioned into Dry, Wet, and Cool seasons linked by the contemporary engagement of traditional practices. The Dry season exhibits work harvested from the land, such as materials tinted with natural earth dyes or baskets made from dried pandanus leaves. The Wet season signifies heavy rainfall and regeneration, and features hand-painted garments and basketry in vibrant colours. The Cool season is a time for being on Country to gather materials, and is represented with bush dyed textiles, shell jewellery, and possum skin cloaks.

Among the highlights are five new works by Gunai, Wiradjuri, Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta woman and artist Lyn-Al Young, commissioned by the gallery specifically for Piinpi. Lyn-Al practices an ancient singing process when crafting the garments for her eponymous label, LYN-AL. Guided by her ancestors, she follows songlines and imbues the elements of her dyed silk pieces with positive words and energy.

The exhibition also represents the First Nations designers working in urban centres. Featuring the work of Teagan Cowlishaw (of AARLI Fashion), Maree Clarke, Lisa Waup and Shannon Brett (of Lore), the streetwear section of Piinpi displays the designers seeking to reclaim Aboriginal identity through contemporary fashion. This part of the exhibition recognises the Blak artists in urban areas using wearable fashion to make statements of resistance against colonialism.

‘The space is being led by Indigenous people when, for so long, our stories and histories have been told through the lens of the coloniser,’ Shonae says of the rapidly growing First Nations fashion community. ‘What we are seeing with the Indigenous fashion industry is a new wave of cultural leaders and artistic innovators who are really shaping the future of the industry, and making important statements through their work.’

‘Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion’ will be exhibited from 12 November, 2020 – 17 January, 2021 at Bendigo Art Gallery. See more information here.


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