• Tahleise Willett, 18, models a notorious 'punishment dress' designed by her grandmother. (Matthew Mallett (CIAF))Source: Matthew Mallett (CIAF)
The dress was part of a collection paying homage to the Yarrabah mission days.
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
15 Jul 2019 - 11:52 PM  UPDATED 17 Jul 2019 - 9:59 AM

Indigenous elders from the community of Yarrabah, 45 minutes drive south-east of Cairns, are reclaiming their history through fashion. 

Invited to share a message for the Buwal-Barra fashion showcase at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF), they chose to recreate three dresses from the mission days, when First Nations people in Queensland lived on missions or reserves under the restrictive Aborigines Protection Act.

Yarrabah Mission was managed by the Anglican Church from 1892 to 1960. 

The 'ByDaBell' collection - a nod to the town bell which controlled daily life on the mission - includes an everyday dress, a church dress and the notorious punishment dress, made from a potato sack. 

Each was worn by local girls who were forced to live in dormitories from around the age of 10.

Aunty Millie Maywee was among them.

"The older girls, older than myself, if they did anything wrong they would get punished and the matron would make a bag dress for them to wear and also shave their hair," she recalled.

"We would all meet down in the church and we would look at her and we would feel a bit sorry for this girl.

"Even if they did a little tiny thing, they would get punished."

Aunty Millie said elders wanted to recreate the dresses "to let the world know" about the history.

Her granddaughter, Tahleise Willett, modelled the punishment dress for the fashion performance.

"I’m very proud to be representing and so emotional because this is the first time it ever got recognised," the 18-year-old said.

"They sit back at their little room and just sew all day, so why not show it off, what they do – it needs to be out there. And the history and story behind it needs to be heard."

'They walk in and they are so amazed': CIAF celebrates 10 years

The fashion show was a highlight of CIAF, one of the country's most prestigious Indigenous art events comprising traditional song, dance, weaving and visual art. 

Now in its tenth year, CIAF draws around 50,000 visitors and features 600 visual and performing artists from across Queensland.

Enoch Perazim, Corporate Manager of the Lockhart River Art Centre in Cape York, says the event is invaluable for artists living in remote areas.

"Within three days we generate 12.5 per cent of the business," he told NITV News.

"Over the past 10 years we’ve had artists that have come through and this has been a platform for them to be introduced and exposed."

The art provides a window into the diversity of Queensland's First Nations communities, from the outer islands in the Torres Strait to Cherbourg in the state's south-east. 

"We get people that are holidaying up here from Melbourne – they walk in here and they just are so amazed by what’s here on display," says Girramay man Abe Muriata from Cardwell, south of Cairns. 

The Queensland Government started CIAF in 2009 in a bid to build a stronger, more sustainable and more ethical Indigenous arts industry.

– For more on CIAF catch NITV's The Point (Ch34) Wednesday, 8.30pm.

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