In the dusty outback streets of Ngukurr, a small hillside community about three hours’ drive from Katherine in South-East Arnhem Land, Maureen (Murrarngulu) Thompson’s suitcase causes quite a stir. Unlike the mundane black baggage one commonly sees in airports and hotels around the world, Maureen’s suitcase wears a replica of her colourful painting ‘Witchety Grub’.
Maureen is one of four indigenous women painters involved in the Aboriginal Artists Project which sees their work displayed on luggage and travel accessories made by Melbourne designer Catherine Manuell. The artists are involved in the process of reproducing their work onto sturdy vinyl – viewing the vinyl and assessing the quality of the colour and sharpness of the image before it is stretched across luggage frames – and receive direct and ongoing royalty payments, as well as a set of the products that display their paintings.
The project was initiated by Catherine in 2007, after her niece Emily, on a school camp in Ngukurr, brought back a postcard that featured ‘Witchety Grub’. Already a keen art lover, Catherine pinned the vibrant postcard to her noticeboard where she admired it for many months. ‘I never tired of it,’ she says. ‘There was something about that amazing painting that appealed to me. I wanted to know more about the woman who made it.’
In her quest to unearth information about Maureen she was introduced to works by other artists including Amy (Jirwulurr) Johnson, also from Ngukurr, Evelyn Pultara, from the Utopia region in Central Australia, and and, later, Dianne (Nyuniwa) Robinson, from Indulkana in South Australia. ‘I was drawn to paintings by each of these women and started to think about how I might work with them. I thought the colour and shapes in their work would reproduce well onto bags. Luckily they were interested in working with me too!’
Working with Women
The project is about more than making luggage easy to spot on airport carousels. All of the artists in the project are women, though Catherine explains that wasn’t the original plan. ‘I was looking at individual artworks with an eye to which paintings would reproduce well. It just happened the pieces I most loved were by women. Now that it’s turned out this way I can see real benefit for the communities. Women are the heart of families, and for them to have an income is good for everyone.’
Catherine adds, ‘One of the important aspects of this project is that it allows these talented women to stay in their communities, if that’s what they want to do, rather than having to leave in search of work. It brings much-needed funds to remote places where there is often high unemployment.’
Maureen’s daughter Faith, who is also an artist, agrees. She says her family is ‘glad Mum’s work is selling. We’re grateful to her, and proud. She records our history.’ Faith says her mother started painting when she was in her forties, having watched other artists with interest for many years. ‘One day she was given a canvas and a local artists encouraged her to have a go. Now she paints nearly every day.’ When Faith travelled to London earlier this year, people at Heathrow Airport were keenly interested in her luggage. ‘People asked where my suitcase came from, and if I’d done the painting on it. I told them it was my mum’s work.’
Amy (Jirwulurr) Johnson says when she saw her paintings on the suitcases she was surprised and pleased, and that her work receives much attention too. ‘When people see the suitcases they want one too. I’m happy about that.’ Amy paints as often as her health allows. A diabetic who undergoes dialysis every second day, she says painting brings her happiness. ‘I like to work on my paintings,’ she says. ‘I don’t like to sit around.’ The ongoing remuneration Amy receives from the project is invaluable for her and her family, and she is regarded with considerable respect by her community.
Catherine says the project has been rewarding for her too, opening a door to a world of art with which she was previously unfamiliar. ‘I’ve learned so much from working with these women. Their work is distinctive and reflects the area and culture of each community. Maureen’s work tells stories and histories about her land and the spirits that live there. Amy’s work is like a map of her physical world, with billabongs, and plant and animal life that are significant to her area. Her paintings are detailed and thoughtful. Evelyn paints using lines, which makes her work very special. She focuses on her totem, the bush yam. And Dianne, who’s the youngest artist, creates really confident and accomplished paintings of seeds, seedpods and bush flowers.’
Catherine recalls her first trip to Ngukurr, a town cut off from the outside world by a mighty flooded Roper River for up to six months of the year, and accessible only by boat or air during that time. Here, she met Maureen, Amy, and their families.
‘When I went to Ngukurr in 2007, I’d never travelled to the outback before,’ Catherine says. ‘We drove from Darwin to Katherine then on to Ngukurr, spending days in vast areas of nothingness, finally arriving in this hot, isolated town where we knew nobody. It was quite strange, but we were made to feel welcome. We were lucky that a wonderful man called Eddie Chisholm, who was managing the Ngukurr Arts Centre at the time but now works as a ministerial assistant for the Northern Territory government, acted as our guide. He arranged a picnic for Amy, Maureen, my family and me by the river where we were surrounded by anthills, snakes and even a local crocodile they’d named Flowerpot. Eddie was instrumental in getting this project up and running.’
Since that journey, Catherine has been to most of the areas where the artists live and work, as well as making contact with their local arts centres. ‘The centres are incredibly important,’ she says, since they supply the artists with a purpose-built space to paint, store, exhibit and sell their work, as well as canvases and paints. They also assist with some of the challenging logistics of the project, helping to liaise with artists who do not all live within town and speak little English. ‘To get a message to Amy, for example, we call the Mimi Arts Centre and ask them to let her know we’re trying to get in touch,’ Catherine says.
During her travels, Catherine has discovered other artworks she would like to share, and is now in the process of finalising a card project. ‘Some of the paintings won’t reproduce well onto luggage – which needs a lot of detail – but they are so exceptional they deserve another form of exposure. We’ll be working with Dianne, and six other artists who are new to us.’
‘I’m excited that we’ve found a way to keep this collaboration going,’ Catherine says. ‘It’s good to know money is coming into these communities, but this is also about empowerment and recognition, and encouraging people to appreciate these incredible Australian artworks.’
About Catherine Manuell
Catherine is no stranger to initiating projects. In 1987, she left behind a short career as a primary school teacher to start a millinery business. ‘I began in a simple way, having some lessons from my Grandmother, but I was mostly self-taught, and working from home. After two years, I found a studio in the city, a little wooden-floored room in a building with many artists and fashion designers. It was a great time.’ As well as supplying her hats to numerous local boutiques, and department stores Myer and David Jones, Catherine worked as a freelance fashion designer with labels including Metalicus, Stussy Sista and Kookai.
In 1998, she launched her luggage and accessories company, Catherine Manuell Designs, which now has more than one hundred Australian stockists, another fifty overseas, two Australian signature stores, and distributors in New Zealand and the United States. The Aboriginal Artists Project is proving to be of enormous interest to customers here and overseas.
Luggage in the Aboriginal Artists Project can be seen at http://www.catherinemanuelldesign.com
Cards in the project will be available through Readings Bookstores nationally, and at select art galleries.
Maureen (Murrarngulu) Thompson’s work is available through the Ngukurr Arts Centre: http://www.ngukurrarts.com.au
Amy (Jirwulurr) Johnson’s work is available through the Mimi Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Centre: http://www.mimiarts.com
Dianne (Nyuniwa) Robinson work is available through the Iwantja Arts Centre: http://www.iwantjaarts.com.au
Evelyn Pultara lives in the remote township of Wilora in the Northern Territory. While there is no arts centre there, her work is available through Mbantua Fine Art Gallery and Cultural Museum in Alice Springs: http://www.mbantua.com.au