PROFILE: GRACE LILLIAN LEE
INSPIRED BY HER FOREBEARS, THIS ARTIST BRINGS HER ‘PLAY’ ON TORRES STRAIT ISLANDS CRAFT INTO THE SPOTLIGHT.
Inspired by her forebears, this artist brings her ‘play’ on Torres Strait Islands craft into the spotlight
HOW TO CATEGORISE GRACE LILLIAN LEE — the Cairns-born creative who is fast working her way to centre stage with standalone expressions of sartorial design, performance and curation? The Cairns Post had a crack, ranking Lee number 22 on their 2016 list of ‘50 Most Influential People in Far North Queensland’, while Arts Queensland similarly polled her productivity, rating the artist number 1 of ‘16 Queenslanders To Watch’. It’s big praise for the busy Lee, whose 2017 diary spreads across multi-disciplines, multi-states and the development of a mentoring program that matches Indigenous Australian designers in remote locations with fashion brands and universities. Yes, she actively resists definition, but ‘Amazing Grace’ just slips from your lips after viewing film footage of the four fashion performances she has curated for the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) since 2012 (her fifth is coming up on July 14). They strip the catwalk of the usual clichés and replace with immersive dream-weavings of Indigenous sound, song, artefact, style and story-telling. These wondrous productions, feeding into the follow-up show that Lee took to the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival in 2016, evidence a sharp curatorial eye (educated at RMIT University’s School of Fashion and Textile Design) and an extraordinary layering of woven assemblages that begs the “who, what, where and how to buy?” Lee laughs, in full humility, and informs that what seemingly reads as a confusion of Elizabethan ornament and Indigenous craft is her personal play with the traditional palm leaf weavings of the Torres Strait Islands. ‘Play’ understates the complexity, cultural loading and curatorial interest in her makings (as featured in the recent exhibition Who’s Afraid of Colour? at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), but it suits Lee’s buoyant personality and her substitution of palm leaves with high-vis webbing. The artist informs that a diffusion line of her jewellery is now available at the NGV and Christine in Melbourne, before elucidating on the ‘why’ of it all. “My mum is German, Danish and English,” she says, “but my father’s side wasn’t so well known. He was born on Thursday Island to a Chinese father and a Torres Strait Islander mother. Grandma brought him to the mainland when he was three and identified him as fully Chinese, because it was better not to be of Indigenous descent.” Saddened to learn of this suppression of lineage, Lee decided to escort her grandmother back to the Torres Straits in 2010 — “some 57 years after she left” — for the emotional unveiling of her sister’s tombstone. “It was amazing to meet the rest of my family and it made me want to create opportunities for people like myself to connect with their history through the act of creation and performance.” And that she has, tirelessly weaving the craft traditions of the Torres Straits into her own work while teaching Top End communities to redress the catwalk as a platform for empowerment. Acceptance is so much more than the title of one of Lee’s conceptually loaded assemblages; it is her ongoing cultural agenda.
Visit gracelillianlee.com; ciaf.com. au.
from top: Grace Lillian Lee wearing one of her Woven neckpieces. An Enlightenment body sculpture from the designer’s 2016 show at the Cairns Regional Gallery. An Indigenous dancer modelling one of Lee’s weaves at the Spirit Festival.