EM­POW­ER­ING IN­DIGE­NOUS COM­MU­NI­TIES

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - LESSONS EARNT - GRACE LIL­LIAN LEE

Shortly af­ter fash­ion de­signer Grace Lil­lian Lee grad­u­ated from RMIT Univer­sity in 2010, she trav­elled to the Tor­res Strait Is­lands with her grand­mother, who hadn’t been back there in more than 57 years. “I wanted to em­brace my con­nec­tion and learn more about this part of my lin­eage,” says Lee. “The most ob­vi­ous route was through cre­ation.”

Lee be­gan learn­ing tra­di­tional weav­ing tech­niques from artist Un­cle Ken Thai­day, who was born on Erub Is­land (also known as Darn­ley Is­land), home to a re­mote Tor­res Strait com­mu­nity of just 400 peo­ple. Thai­day has been ex­hibit­ing his ex­tra­or­di­nary sculp­tures in­spired by dance since the 1980s.

Lee trans­lated the palm leaf tech­niques she learnt into mod­ern tex­tile neck pieces and ac­ces­sories, which are now in­cluded in the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s col­lec­tion and stocked by iconic Mel­bourne bou­tique, Chris­tine.

While Lee’s work is cel­e­brated in chi-chi ur­ban de­sign cir­cles, she’s hap­pi­est ‘on coun­try’, men­tor­ing in­dige­nous artists in the ways of fash­ion.

Now based in Cairns, Lee works with com­mu­ni­ties to es­tab­lish fash­ion plat­forms for lo­cal artists and young peo­ple. “We work to­gether to de­velop their art into tex­tiles and adorn­ments and ex­plore the realm of fash­ion,” says Lee. “We cre­ate cap­sule col­lec­tions, where the artists get to push their own tech­niques while dress­ing com­mu­nity mem­bers.”

The de­sign jour­neys cul­mi­nate in ex­u­ber­ant lo­cal fash­ion per­for­mances, which Lee is now cu­rat­ing in other parts of Australia; there’s one later in the year in Syd­ney’s Baranga­roo.

“It’s gen­er­ally the youth who are in­ter­ested — but more re­cently, the older artists have been mod­el­ling their own de­signs,” the de­signer says. “On Morn­ing­ton, there are only 1000 peo­ple, but about 200 come to the PCYC when we put on a fash­ion show. It’s so much fun.

“For the youth in par­tic­u­lar, th­ese events give them con­fi­dence in terms of be­ing proud of who they are and where they come from. See­ing the pho­tographs and recog­nis­ing how strong they are gives them a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on them­selves.”

Lo­cal model Ron­dell Wil­liams, now based in Townsville, has used the op­por­tu­nity to ven­ture into the main­stream fash­ion world, mod­el­ling at fash­ion fes­ti­vals in Mel­bourne and Bris­bane. “I met Ron­dell fish­ing with her fa­ther on Morn­ing­ton,” says Lee. “Now she’s one of the main mod­els we pho­to­graph; how­ever, any­one on the is­land who is in­ter­ested is wel­come.

“Peo­ple are drawn to fash­ion shows and im­agery, and if there’s a way we can con­nect with that to ex­press In­dige­nous cul­ture, that’s a pow­er­ful thing. I think it’s chang­ing per­cep­tions of what beauty may look like.

“Also, I like the idea of ques­tion­ing bound­aries. There’s been a lot of cul­tural mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion by the main­stream fash­ion in­dus­try, so why not give the op­por­tu­nity to First Na­tions peo­ple to use the plat­form them­selves?”

Mod­els wear Grace Lil­lian Lee’s artis­tic de­signs.

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