Aboriginal artists from Western Australia's outback have teamed up with leading fashion label Gorman for a unique collaboration.
Claudia Farhart

13 Aug 2019 - 10:53 AM  UPDATED 13 Aug 2019 - 10:53 AM

For years the waterholes and sand hills of the Great Sandy Desert have been captured on canvas by Ngarralja Tommy May with bold line work and rich colours. 

Now his distinctive translation of the Western Australian landscape adorn cotton and silk.

Mr May was one of five artists from the Kimberly region's Mangaja Arts community who have worked on a project with leading fashion label Gorman.

Their artworks have been interpreted into a limited-edition collection of nearly 100 items - including clothing, accessories and furnishing.

“These stories are from Country – from grandfather and grandmother, uncles and aunties,” Mr May told NITV News.

“These stories are good to me.”

The fashion label, founded by designer Lisa Gorman, was approached two years ago by Belinda Cook, manager of Mangkaja Arts Resource.

With the help of the Copyright Agency, a unique licensing agreement was negotiated, which they believe could set a national benchmark.

The artists also chose artworks which featured stories that could be shared publicly.

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Ms Cook said the team at the art centre are “thrilled” with the outcome.

“Gorman has such a great record of working with artists and showcasing top Australian artists, but they hadn’t worked with Indigenous artists before, so we made the call and got onto Lisa Gorman and she was really open to the idea,” Ms Cook said.

“So it took a couple years of discussion, really, with myself and her and the board at Mangkaja, just considering how we wanted to do it, and now we’re really happy with the final outcome and being able to share it with everyone.”

The participating artists are Mr May, Sonia Kurarra and Daisy Japulija as well as Nada Rawlins and Lisa Uhl who regretfully both died before seeing the final collection.

Ms Cook hoped that the collaboration would bring an understanding and appreciation of Indigenous culture to a broader audience.

“Even Lisa Gorman herself said she hadn’t realised the symbolism within the artwork – ... these are beautiful maps of country," she said.

“People don’t necessary know what Indigenous artists are painting, and I think this gives them an opportunity to engage with it and learn more on a level that’s really accessible.”

Ms Gorman told NITV News she had always wanted to collaborate with Indigenous artists but was hesitant because of cultural sensitivities.

Since she was approached with a proposal which had the support of the artists, she had confidence the project would work.

“It was fantastic and a really rich learning experience for me,” Ms Gorman said.

The fashion label also photographed the limited-edition line and the artists in the landscape in which the original artworks were created.

The shoot was something of a community event - with kids and other onlookers joining in behind the scenes to learn about hair, make-up and photography.

“I realised just how deeply the collaboration had filtered into the community up there," Ms Gorman said.

“It’s engaged the community, as opposed to being a relationship between Gorman and the artists – it’s more than that.”

Shaniqua Shaw, who lives in Fitzroy Crossing, was chosen as the the lead model in the official marketing campaign.

She and other Indigenous girls from the outback town also modelled the collection at the runway launch last week for Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, Country to Couture.

Ms Shaw said she felt very proud to wear the new range.

“I did enjoy it – I was a bit nervous and scared at the same time, to see other people looking at me modelling, but in the end I was so proud of myself,” she told NITV News.

“More Aboriginal girls and boys should model and be showing our skin.”