Gorman Mangkaja collection breaks new ground for Indigenous fashion design collaboration

In the indigenous art world, painting another person’s country without permission is considered the ultimate offense and a capital crime.

So when Lisa Gorman was asked to collaborate with artists from Fitzroy Crossing in the far north of Western Australia, the fashion designer felt the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Putting aside her nervousness, the founder of the eponymous Melbourne-based fashion label agreed to take a trip that few Australian fashion had taken.

After more than two years, the Gorman Mangkaja collection, slated for launch next month, sets a benchmark in licensing agreements between indigenous and non-indigenous groups.

Models in demand

Fitzroy Crossing artist Ngarralja Tommy May paints his country in Western Australia’s great sandy desert with striking pinks and vivid blues.

Fitzroy Crossing artist Tommy May thought hard before collaborating with Gorman.(Provided: Charles Fréger )

The octogenarian had already been approached, but Gorman was the first company to come up with a partnership that would protect the integrity of their work and offer appropriate compensation.

It’s an opportunity he never thought he would have.

Showing his head and heart, Mr May said it was not a decision he made lightly.

“You have to think about it here, and here, and make a simple decision.”

Sacred stories

The five artists involved in the project paint only their country, depicting stories and places where sacred cultural knowledge has been transmitted for thousands of years.

This world, closed to most Australians, is where Ms. Gorman has been invited to enter.

Fitzroy Crossing model Shaniqua Shaw (right) will model in the Gorman Mangkaja collection.
Ms. Shaw (right) will be the face of the Gorman Mangkaja collection.(ABC Kimberley: Tom Forrest)

The Melbourne-based designer said she had wanted to collaborate with indigenous artists for eight years, but didn’t know how to approach it.

“It was a call that I have been waiting to receive for some time.”

The invitation

Shaniqua Shaw (right) will model the Gorman Mangkaja collection with Daisy Trinder (left).
Ms. Shaw (right) will model the collection with Daisy Trinder (left).(Supplied: Gorman)

In 2017, that call came from Mangkaja Arts director Belinda Cook, who was impressed by Gorman’s previous collaborations with Australian artists like Mirka Mora.

“It was so respectful of the artists and the featured artists in their own right, with a beautiful design, which I think is quite rare,” she said.

The center, which produces some of the country’s most sought-after Aboriginal art, had previously been approached with offers.

“It was more of a ‘We just want a picture, we’re going to do our thing and we don’t really care about your contribution,’” Ms. Cook said.

“Representation and respect”

With the help of the Copyright Agency, an independent organization that supports creators, the expectations of both parties have been clarified.

A confidential commercial financial agreement has been concluded, including the fees for each artist’s work.

Design decisions at all levels of the process were submitted to Mangkaja, including the final collection, which was reviewed and approved at the annual general meeting of the board.

The Gorman Mangkaja collection has been described as a new benchmark in collaboration.
The Gorman Mangkaja collection has been described as a new benchmark in collaboration.(Supplied: Gorman)

Proceeds from the sale of collaborative works will be donated to the arts center to fund an art program for young people.

It’s a process that Ms. Gorman said took about a year longer than usual, but well worth it.

“I was nervous about doing it right,” she said.

Fitzroy Crossing artist Tommy May painted water features from his country used in the Gorman Mangkaja collection.
Mr. May painted water features from his country for the collection.(ABC Kimberley: Tom Forrest)

New reference

A spokesperson for the Copyright Agency said the deal sets a positive benchmark for future collaborations.

“Fashion can be a fast-paced industry. When working with Indigenous artists, it is important for creators to understand that decisions may not be made for days or weeks.

Model Shaniqua Shaw said the Gorman Mangkaja collection was empowering for Fitzroy Crossing.
Ms. Shaw says the Gorman Mangkaja collection is empowering for Fitzroy Crossing.(Supplied: Gorman)

New opportunities

The community, which grapples with chronic rates of youth suicide, unemployment and intergenerational trauma, has been energized by new opportunities to showcase its culture to the world.

Model and Fitzroy Crossing resident Shaniqua Shaw will be the face of the 40-piece collection when it launches at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair 2019 in August.

She said the chance to wear clothes designed by her people made her feel powerful.

Model Shaniqua Shaw and artist Sonia Kurarra are residents of Fitzroy Crossing involved in the Gorman Mangkaja collection.
Ms. Shaw and artist Sonia Kurarra, both from Fitzroy Crossing, are involved in the project.(Provided: Charles Fréger)

Artist Natalie Davey assisted internationally renowned portrait painter Charles Fréger with the campaign on the outskirts of town.

“Having these clothes on the city’s catwalks, being exposed to social media, it will inspire the young people here to relearn the stories of these creations on a different medium. “

Joseph E. Golightly