A project links in­dige­nous Aus­tralian artists with dis­abled Cam­bo­dian ar­ti­sans

In Aus­tralia's far north, where his­tory is in­scribed on rocks and rogue croc­o­diles roam the streets, In­dige­nous Aus­tralian artists are weav­ing a new pat­tern of trade with the help of dis­abled Cam­bo­dian ar­ti­sans

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - Words and pho­tog­ra­phy by Mark Roy

cre­ation Mother wades through the clear, flow­ing creeks of the Stone Coun­try, wo­ven bags hang­ing from her head. Na­mar­rkon, the light­ning man, cuts a fright­en­ing, alien fig­ure as he claps his stone axes to­gether, bring­ing thun­der­heads rolling in across the rocky es­carp­ment.

In a small arts cen­tre by a pic­turesque lake in Aus­tralia's far north, im­ages from these an­cient yet vivid Abo­rig­i­nal dream­time sto­ries are be­ing hand-printed onto long rolls of fab­ric.

“It all comes back to the rock art,” says In­jalak Arts co-founder Gabriel Mar­al­ngurra. The printed de­signs are drawn from ochre paint­ings found in the rock for­ma­tions strewn across a stone plateau that rises dra­mat­i­cally from the north­ern flood­plains of Arn­hem Land – a 97,000-squarek­ilo­me­tre area of Abo­rig­i­nal-owned lands in Aus­tralia’s North­ern Ter­ri­tory.

Nes­tled at the very west­ern edge of Arn­hem Land is the In­dige­nous com­mu­nity of Gun­bal­anya, home to In­jalak Arts and a pop­u­la­tion of 1,200 mainly Kun­win­jku peo­ple.

To­day, the swollen wa­ters of the nearby lake have flooded the red dirt road be­hind In­jalak Arts cen­tre. A salt­wa­ter croc­o­dile has been spot­ted walk­ing the streets close by. In­side, mas­ter print­ers Vir­gil Nalorl­man, Rueben Managku and as­sis­tant Daniel Nawirridj are at work on an in­tri­cate de­sign fea­tur­ing a pos­sum by Kun­win­jku artist Gra­ham Badari. Mix­ing bright pink and white inks di­rectly onto a sten­cilled screen, the print­ers stroke the colours back and forth across the linen.

The fin­ished roll is des­tined for Ph­nom Penh, part of a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the Arn­hem Land artists and a tal­ented group of de­sign­ers and gar­ment work­ers in Cam­bo­dia. Mar­al­ngurra says the cross­cul­tural project is prov­ing an eco­nomic suc­cess for all in­volved.

“We are proud of our cul­ture and happy about what we came up with, adapt­ing the rock art to screen print­ing,” he says. For him, the project pro­vides not only a steady source of in­come, but rich suc­cour to Kun­win­jku cul­ture, feed­ing into a tra­di­tional art prac­tice be­ing handed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next: “We are get­ting more younger ones in­volved, get­ting the up-and-com­ing artists.”

When Kun­win­jku artists say a rock paint­ing is war­alkur­rmer­rinj, it means an an­ces­tral be­ing placed its spirit upon the stone in the form of a pic­ture. Us­ing white clay, coloured ochres and char­coal, the rock art tells the sto­ries of these spir­its. Sto­ries of the cre­ation time, of bush medicine, foods, the sea­sons – even of first con­tact with Euro­peans; their strange ships, an­i­mals and weapons.

These days, In­jalak artists are mas­ter­ing new tech­niques to tell their tra­di­tional sto­ries, us­ing light-sen­si­tive emul­sions, silk screens and acrylic paints. Nawirridj takes up a hairdryer, ready­ing the printed fab­ric for its cross-cul­tural jour­ney.

If dis­abled peo­ple have good

skills… it means they can stand on their own and show

the pub­lic they can sup­port them­selves and their fam­ily"

In a small sewing work­shop be­hind a bou­tique on Ph­nom Penh’s Street 240, one of the cap­i­tal’s quirkier shop­ping en­claves, seam­stress Pich Sophee cuts a dress from one of the Aus­tralian fabrics. Sophee is part of a closely knit team at A.N.D. Fair Trade, a Cam­bo­dian fash­ion brand that works with lo­cal ar­ti­sans. Along with fel­low so­cial en­ter­prises Vil­lage­works, Watthan Ar­ti­sans and Kra­van House, A.N.D. trans­forms In­jalak's rolls into wear­able art: hand­bags, tote bags, back­packs, shirts, tops, dresses and ac­ces­sories.

In a coun­try where low-wage jobs at gar­ment fac­to­ries are of­ten the best op­tion for those joining the work­force, these small-scale en­ter­prises try to make a dif­fer­ence to the lives of a few Cam­bo­di­ans. Their work­shops of­fer bet­ter pay and con­di­tions than the fac­to­ries, and many of their ar­ti­sans work from home.

In the city’s north­west­ern neigh­bour­hood of Tuol Kork, work­ers from Kra­van House are piec­ing to­gether the lat­est cre­ations for In­jalak. Wit­ness­ing their deft­ness of touch, it comes as a sur­prise to learn that all of these em­ploy­ees have a dis­abil­ity.

Kra­van House founder Hok Thanan is a dis­abled per­son her­self, with mal­formed hands from the na­palm used in the Viet­nam War. From a young age, Thanan was told she would al­ways be re­liant on hand­outs. “When I was young they said I am dis­abled, that I can­not do any­thing,” she re­calls. “I lis­tened to them, but I said one day I will earn in­come my­self, help dis­abled peo­ple and bring change.”

In the late 1990s, a num­ber of char­ity or­gan­i­sa­tions were help­ing dis­abled peo­ple with train­ing and skills, but no real mar­ket ex­isted for their prod­ucts or abil­i­ties. So, in 2003, Thanan set up Kra­van House.

“I set up the shop and pro­vided a mar­ket,” she says. “If dis­abled peo­ple have good skills… it means they can stand on their own and show the pub­lic they can sup­port them­selves and their fam­ily.”

The col­lab­o­ra­tion with In­jalak has been a boon for Kra­van House work­ers, who take a keen in­ter­est in the cross-cul­tural prod­uct. “They ask first, what is the type

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