Arn­hem Land by Hand

Mix­ing Indige­nous art with Mel­bourne de­sign, fur­ni­ture com­pany Mana­pan is bridg­ing the gap be­tween an­cient and mod­ern Aus­tralia.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - CON­TENTS -

Meet the Indige­nous ar­ti­sans creat­ing stun­ning con­tem­po­rary fur­ni­ture.

Milingimbi Is­land is about as re­mote as you can get in our wide, brown land — in fact, you’ve prob­a­bly never heard of it. It’s one of the Crocodile Is­lands off the coast of Arn­hem Land, about 440 kilo­me­tres east of Dar­win. It’s been home to Yol­ngu peo­ple for at least 50,000 years but Milingimbi is now at­tract­ing global at­ten­tion for a creative busi­ness, Mana­pan Fur­ni­ture, that was es­tab­lished there just three years ago.

Mana­pan pro­duces ex­pertly crafted con­tem­po­rary fur­ni­ture in a small but grow­ing en­ter­prise, owned and op­er­ated by the Yol­ngu com­mu­nity. It was the brain­child of busi­ness­man Mark White, found­ing di­rec­tor of the Mel­bourne-based shop­fit­ting com­pany, Ramvek.

White says he had reached a point in his work­ing life where he felt he had “done OK” and wanted to give some­thing back.

“So I looked around the world for op­por­tu­ni­ties where I might be able to help, but it turns out I didn’t have to look overseas,” he says.

“We have in­cred­i­bly tal­ented [Indige­nous] peo­ple who have ex­tra­or­di­nary skills and tra­di­tions, who just want a lit­tle help bring­ing their in­cred­i­ble prod­ucts to a na­tional and global mar­ket.”

The Yol­ngu peo­ple have been carv­ing wood, paint­ing, and weav­ing palms into tex­tiles for both daily and cer­e­mo­nial use for cen­turies. Milingimbi Is­land has a thriv­ing arts cen­tre and gallery that pro­duces and dis­plays paint­ings, lim­it­ededi­tion prints, carv­ings and didgeri­doos by Abo­rig­i­nal artists, and art from the is­land is in­cluded in sev­eral sig­nif­i­cant na­tional and in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tions.

Mana­pan — which means “com­ing to­gether” in the lo­cal lan­guage — is an in­spir­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Milingimbi’s Indige­nous cab­i­net mak­ers, master crafts­man Rob Cr­is­field, six de­sign­ers and White, with ad­di­tional in­put and sup­port from the Arn­hem Land Progress Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion.

El­der Keith La­pu­lung, Mana­pan’s chair­man, is pas­sion­ate about how the com­pany is build­ing bridges be­tween an­cient Yol­ngu cul­ture and main­stream Aus­tralia. “It is life-giv­ing,” he says. “We are creat­ing an en­tity that gives us all a sense of one­ness through work­ing with our artis­tic her­itage and mod­ern tech­nol­ogy. Mana­pan is con­nect­ing cul­tures.”

Five Yol­ngu men work in the pur­pose-built workshop pro­duc­ing the fur­ni­ture, which is de­signed to ex­press the sto­ries of both the cre­ators and the mak­ers, while an­other 10 are learn­ing the trade in the “men’s shed” next door. Work ex­pe­ri­ence schemes with the lo­cal school are also giv­ing young peo­ple some hands-on in­volve­ment with the com­pany.

White em­pha­sises that Mana­pan is not about creat­ing a work­force. “It’s deeper than that,” he says. “Mana­pan ex­ists to help peo­ple find their pur­pose, and to live their lives in the ser­vice of that pur­pose.

“It’s re­ally im­por­tant to our team that the items they are help­ing to cre­ate re­flect their cul­ture and tra­di­tions,” he con­tin­ues. “And it’s im­por­tant to them that their com­mu­nity prof­its di­rectly from their work.

“They see Mana­pan as a way to en­gage with the world with­out hav­ing to aban­don who they are or where they come from. In that sense, Mana­pan ex­ists to pro­vide the best of both worlds.”

The world of Milingimbi Is­land is small — at high tide two-thirds of its 70 square kilo­me­tres is be­low sea level, and for its pop­u­la­tion of “about 1200” English is gen­er­ally a sec­ond lan­guage. (Pop­u­la­tion fig­ures can fluc­tu­ate in Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties, due to fac­tors in­clud­ing sea­sonal changes — wet and dry sea­sons — and cer­e­mo­nial ac­tiv­ity.)

There is an air­port on the is­land with two flights daily to and from Dar­win, but when

FROM TOP Mana­pan com­bines an­cient cul­ture and cur­rent tech­nol­ogy; in­tri­cate wo­ven de­tail; the fin­ished prod­uct

— a stone-top coffee table. OP­PO­SITE PAGE Yol­ngu men from the Mana­pan workshop.

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