“It started as a hobby and from there people would say to me, ‘I love your jewellery’ and I identified a market,” she told NITV. “I suppose my aunties have always made jewellery so it was in the family.”
Cleonie initially took her inspiration from contemporary fashion: “I would look at what’s on the catwalk and see how I can Indigenise it.” The proud Maljangapa woman of the 'Pooncarie' Paakantj nation draws on traditional practices and art by incorporating natural materials such as gumnuts, jacaranda pods and quandongs as well as painting in her designs.
Each piece often requires a careful crafting of the individual elements around a central theme. She explains how she combined painted squares on gumnuts to represent Barkindji land, the ‘corner country’ of Wilcannia, “with camel bones from out our way.”
The travel involved in selling her creations at various stalls and festivals gives Cleonie the opportunity to expand her range. “Sometimes people will come up to me and ask ‘What can I do with this?’”
“A lot of Aboriginal people support me and collect things for me. Often when I visit places I will be invited to go out on other people’s country and I try to represent their story with what we find.”
Community support of her work has also led to a partnership with Starwin Shopfront, a social enterprise that sells screen-printed silk and clothing designed by Tiwi Island and Maningrida women. Cleonie takes the off-cuts that are gathered up and integrates them into her jewellery.
“I like that each piece is unique, I can’t do them in bulk but that is what makes it special.”
From the very beginning Cleonie wanted to work towards creating her own business.
Three years ago she came across Global Sisters, a not for profit organisation that provides financial training to women of diverse and often marginalised backgrounds in order to help them start up their own businesses. For Cleonie this “savvy little women’s group” has brought a human face to the world of commerce.
“I decided I wanted to become a social enterprise because I loved the idea of supporting each other as sisters.”
The program creates a network of graduates and Cleonie has been able to engage with other women to diversify her own work such as buying fabric from a Burmese ‘Global Sister’ to use in her designs.
The program also helped her to set up the basics of her small business from accounts and microloans to helping identify the gaps in her business plan. “I can always get a hold of them,” she told NITV.
By “doing all of the trial and error stuff together,” Cleonie has been able to take on the risks of becoming an entrepreneur whilst being a kinship career for her grandkids.
“If it was just through a bank, just financially driven, I would have given up long ago.”
The support has helped Cleonie to dream big for her business. “I feel really positive. I would like to get to the point where my jewellery is a household name.”
With her hard work, Cleonie is well on her way to achieving her goal. Her work has been showcased at numerous exhibitions, festivals, galleries and hit the catwalk at Indigenous Fashion Week.
She is also keen to branch out her business to provide authentic souvenirs for the many tourists who come to Australia.
Culture is central to Cleonie’s business focus and she has been involved in teaching art and craft workshops at high schools, with the Department of Health and was even commissioned to make a game for Aboriginal kids in detention centres.
“To me, that is what culture is about, passing on that knowledge.”
After her experience with Global Sisters, Cleonie is now a keen proponent of the social enterprise model for other Indigenous businesses.
“Often we see job creation as just about getting Aboriginal people into mainstream jobs but this social enterprise is a great model… we are our own business owners.”
To purchase Cleonie's designs, visit her Facebook page.