Humming away in an unassuming mudbrick building in Maningrida, a remote Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, is the Bábbarra Women’s Centre. One should not be fooled by its humble exterior, for within its walls are some of Australia most exciting textile designs.
The centre began as a women’s refuge in 1983, which was a time when there were no employment opportunities for women in the region. However, in 1989, the Federal Government introduced the Community Development and Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme which offered training and development opportunities. Rapidly the centre became less of a refuge, and focussed on providing meaningful activities for women.
Once a centre that was solely focussed on community development, Bábbarra has now adopted a social enterprise business model, running micro businesses including a textile workshop, OP Shop and laundromat. It also engages in community development projects such as the refurbishment of five outstation women’s centres, and the Bábbarra Women’s Governance Board, to ensure that the women of Maningrida have a strong voice in the community.
Now no longer a women’s refuge, Bábbarra continues to provide a safe space for women to work in, and is determined to change the narrative about the economic vulnerability of Indigenous women and applauds their contributions to breaking the welfare cycle. The women see the centre as being a place to teach their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren about their cultural heritage, traditional practices and Dreaming. And what better way to do this than through the practice of art and design. Bábbarra’s (also known as Bábbarra Designs) crown jewel is, without doubt, its textile workshop.
The Maningrida community is unique in that it supports over twelve language groups from across the north and central regions of Arnhem Land. Bábbarra artists’ work reflects this incredible cultural diversity, and their different stories are they imbedded into the textile designs. Bábbarra artists are famous for their handcrafted lino-tile designs and their screen printing onto fabric. They boast more than 40 different screen print designs.
The workshop is particularly unique in that all their products are created, printed and sewn on site. They do however, have a close working relationship with Publisher Textiles in Sydney, who enable them to print lengths of fabric greater than 9m (the capacity of the Bábbarra screen printing table). Up until very recently, Bábbarra also needed assistance printing screens that were wider than 110cm (they had a new table installed in 2017 that is 150cm wide). This partnership has allowed Bábbarra to expand its markets and develop new business opportunities. For example, by working with Publisher Textiles, Babbarra was able to create and produce textile designs that were then used as art work for the Mantra Pandanas in Darwin in 2009. This commission put the Bábbarra artists at the forefront of the Indigneous textile designs’ augmentation.
The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 took its toll on the Indigneous fine art industry, with a further assault in 2011 when investors were prohibited from displaying artworks purchased through self-managed superannuation funds. It was a difficult time for artists, Art Centres and commercial galleries alike. It therefore became imperative that Art Centres found ways to diversify their businesses and attract new markets. The rise of textile art and design was a prime example of how the implementation of different mediums and techniques, that are positioned at an affordable price point, can awaken a sleeping giant. Indigneous textile design was contemporary, of high quality, and was suddenly being devoured!
The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF) was one of the first promotional platforms that dared to pair textile design with fine art. This caused controversy within the broader arts sector, and the art fair was criticised for combining ‘craft items’ with contemporary art. Bábbarra was the first centre to present an exhibition booth at DAAF that solely displayed and sold fabric.
The response to textiles at DAAF defied the critics, and now there are more than twenty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art centres and women’s centres that produce fabric as a core part of their business. DAAF certainly recognised and acknowledged the distinction between craft and fine art disciplines. However, during the economic downturn, it was imperative to provide opportunities for Indigenous art centres to build economic capacity for their communities. DAAF therefore embraced the textile design movement.
The Arnhem, Northern and Kimberley Artists Aboriginal Corporation (ANKA, formally known as ANKAAA) also recognised the need for artists and art centre managers to have a formal discourse about the future of Indigneous textile design. In August 2012, ANKA coordinated the “Travelling with Yarns” Indigenous textile forum which was hosted by Injalak Arts and Crafts in Gunbalanya, Arnhem Land. To record this insightful initiative, ANKA produced the publication “Talking Up Textiles -Community Fabric and Indigenous Industry”. It is still widely referred to by the sector as it captured the artists’ vision for textile design, and the role it could play in the sustainability of the industry.
It is incredibly exciting to see Indigneous textiles being offered exhibition opportunities across Australia. The Cross Art Project’s current exhibition: BÁB-BARRA: Women Printing Culture is on show in Kings Cross, Sydney from the 11 November to 16 December 2017. It celebrates each artist’s connection to Country, and how she draws from the world around her to create a design. Each piece of fabric in the exhibition provides a deep insight into the artists personal story and her ancestral history, giving audiences an incredible opportunity to gain an insight into the oldest living cultures in the world.
The women of Bábbarra are truly inspirational. They are more than artists and arts workers. They are activists who constantly fight against social disadvantage, and in doing so, are promoting self-determination to ensure that future generations can learn about their culture and practice traditional ways. Anyone who has had the privilege of walking through the Bábbarra’s doors, is changed forever. There is a je ne sais quoi that lies in the very fabric of the centre. It has an air of calm, nostalgia and wisdom. Perhaps it is the voices of those women, past, present and future, who have contributed to the ever-evolving place that is Bábbarra. Or perhaps it because everyone who supports the Bábbarra women know that they are contributing to a genuine social change.