Interview with Ikuntji Artists

Interview with Ikuntji Artists

Ikuntji Artists is a member based Aboriginal owned art centre, based in the small community of Haasts Bluff (approx 150 people), in Central Australia. It was the first art centre established specifically for women of the Western Desert art movement. Ikuntji artists has represented many internationally renowned artists, who are famous for their bold colour choice and decisive brush strokes. 

The Ikuntji x Magpie Goose collaboration was seeded at the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair in August 2017. At the Art Fair the following year, plans were made for Magpie Goose to visit Haasts Bluff and present the idea of a collaboration to the artists.

The artists showcased some existing designs that had been created in two design workshops with Tim Growcott (funded by NT Government Department of Business and Trade). These were developed for placement printing onto t-shirts and as lengths of fabric. Magpie Goose selected designs that we believed could be worked into screens for yardage printing. Once the agreement was finalised, Magpie Goose digitally developed these designs and had them exposed onto screens at Publisher Textiles, ready for printing.

Once colourways were signed off and base cloth ordered, the printing could begin. The collection was launched in late 2019 and is now in its third re-print! Magpie Goose customers can’t get enough - the collaboration has been a runaway success.

We recently reached out to Chrischona Schmidt, Manager at Ikuntji Artists, to reflect on the impact the Ikuntji x Magpie Goose collection has had from the perspective of Ikuntji Artists and their network of artists.

MG: What has been the impact of the collaboration with Magpie Goose?

Chrischona Schmidt (CS): “Our primary motivation for doing this collaboration - and our foray into textile design - was an investment into sustainability, and a diversification of the business - so that artists can always generate income. A lot of art centres rely on single income streams - it makes the art centre very vulnerable, and it makes the artists vulnerable. Particularly now (during Covid) - the ongoing passive income through the MG collaboration has been invaluable to artists. 

A huge impact has been the development of the artwork into screens, and the introduction to [commercial screenprinters] Publisher Textiles in Sydney. Some of our artworks were originally on small t-shirt screens and not repeat designs, so it was great that you could do the graphic design work to enlarge the artworks, work out the repeats, and arrange for the artworks to be exposed onto screens, and to cover these costs. That’s made a big difference to what’s available, and what we can use. 

The ability to print our own fabric through Publisher Textiles has become a really important part of our business. When you first came out [to visit the community + meet artists] we were in the trial phase of screenprinting. In this financial year (2019/2020) we’ve made $120,000 out of the fabric and t-shirt printing - it’s become a significant income stream for the artists and art centre that’s viable. 

Often fashion is only one season - or one collection - but now we have established the ability to do continuous printing throughout the year, and generate a sustainable income for artists and the art centre!

It was also really great for us to be able to buy the clothes from MG at a wholesale discount and sell them at the AIATSIS Markets in Canberra and Tarnanthi in Adelaide. It was a new format we could offer our customers, and make some extra income.” 

MG: How do the artists feel about the collaboration?

CS: “Super proud. One big thing is the artists who didn't get chosen keep saying ‘why wasn't I chosen?’ - but they didn't even have designs yet! I say ‘first you have to create a design, then we can start talking’. This collaboration has spurred an interest with our artists to create designs - they want to see their artwork more widely distributed. 

Keturah is one of the youngest artists MG selected for this collaboration - she is just so proud to see her artwork being worn. One of the artists who wasn't featured - Alison Multa - said that it makes her really proud that Ikuntji is being shown everywhere through this collaboration!”

Keturah Zimran (artist): “I like to see people wearing my design. And making clothes from my paintings was a great idea. We couldn’t have done this on our own. I am proud to see my design on the clothes with Magpie Goose. It’s something new and it’s good to try something new.” 

MG: What are Ikuntji Artists’ ongoing plans in the fashion and textile space?

CS: “We’re trying to get more funding to integrate fabric design into the business - there’ll be so many new opportunities for artists that way. 

This collaboration has been a ‘testing ground’. It’s helped us to explore: is this an ongoing thing we can do? Is this something artists want to do? For the artists to see their work on clothing too - are they feeling comfortable with this? From the initial run of t-shirts we did  to the fashion collaboration with MG - it was important for artists to follow through and see the whole process. Now they’re saying ‘yep - we’ve seen some artists featured - I want to be featured too!’ - so we’re starting to work on that. We’ve got lots more artists excited to start working in textile design.

There’s been a really positive impact in the art centre from the MG collaboration- it’s a good feeling. Because there’s such interest in textile design, we have applied for funding to develop it into an ongoing program. We’ve put in a proposal to work with textile designer Bobbie Reuben to do new designs for fabric lengths with new artists. We’re excited to play with more colours; and work with multiple screens to get that intricacy of colour that’s particular to Ikuntji Artists. 

We’ve noticed through this collaboration that there are a lot more opportunities for artists to license their designs for different uses. It’s different to creating a painting - it’s more versatile. The financial return may not be the same as selling a painting initially - but then it’s a continuous return. And it gives the art a different exposure” 

MG: What new opportunities have come from the collaboration? 

CS: “We’ve had a lot of people reaching out from the fashion industry wanting to partner with us.

MG connected us with someone from NT Local Courts who were interested in licensing one of our designs to be featured on the NT Local Court uniforms. Now we have Mavis Marks’ Womens’ Business design being licensed for court ties and scarves. That’s such a wonderful outcome - everyone’s so proud of it! They say OMG we’re going to go to the court and see our own designs there’. They’ll see their grandmother’s design being worn in the courts - that’s really special. And a great opportunity for Mavis + the art centre financially.” 

MG: Why are collaborations important?

CS: “We are a small art centre - we can't do what you guys are doing. To critique a collaboration between an Indigenous business and a non-Indigenous business takes away choices from Indigenous artists and businesses. Collaborations open up opportunities to our artists and facilitate outcomes that we are not able to have on our own in a remote Indigenous not-for-profit art centre. Art centres like ours are run on a shoestring. Giving artists the opportunity to work in a collaborative environment means that they can try out new things, media, techniques etc and also get more exposure through these collaborations and thus expand their repertoire.” 

MG: Tell us about you + your work?

CS: “I’ve been the manager at Ikuntji Artists since September 2012. I’m originally from Germany, however, I have lived in Paris, Perugia, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra, and then out bush [to Haasts Bluff]. I studied Art History, French Studies and Social Anthropology in Freiburg, Paris, and Sydney. In 2012, I completed my PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra about the 40-year history of art making at Utopia. It was the first research into an area without an art centre. After completing my research I decided to go and work in an art centre and work together with Aboriginal artists on country.”

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