How First Nations artists reclaim colonial objects and have fun culture through garments

I began collecting a number of years ago Vintage Australian tourist scarves that portray First Nations people as primitive caricatures and noble savages. I now own greater than ten scarves with images starting from Western depictions of First Nations art and objects to Indigenous peoples in symbolic scenes.

Collecting these tourist goods just isn’t recent. Kitsch items are sometimes collected and reclaimed by indigenous people, artists, designers and academics.

My fascination with kitsch scarves is wearing them as outfits, which I recently did in Darwin From country to couture catwalk show.

As a creative response to my academic work, I wore one among my kitsch scarves to a fashion show.
Train Clark

I did this as a creative response to my academic work on First Nations fashion, art and magnificence and to have interaction with the practice of First Nations dress – using clothing and jewellery as art.

Aboriginalia and Koori kitsch

Artists similar to Destiny Deacon and Tony Albert use multiple names to explain items with Western depictions of First Nations people, art and objects, including Koori Kitsch and Aboriginalia.

These depictions could be present in souvenirs and knickknacks in the shape of tea towels, tablecloths, postcards, ashtrays, dolls, scarves, badges and patches.

Destiny Deacon (KuKu/Erub/Mer) has been using Koori kitsch objects for a long time. In a piece entitled Border Patrol (2006)Deacon photographs a white doll on a tea towel with Australian landmarks, plants, animals and hunting Aborigines.

Destiny Deacon, Border Patrol (2006), from the Totemistical series. Light jet print from the Polaroid original. 80cmx100cm. Edition of 8 + 2 APs.
Roslyn Oxley9 gallery

Tony Albert's (Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku-Yalanji) art often includes vintage souvenir ashtrays and textiles. Albert is credited with coining the term “Aborigines“to explain the portrayal of Western stereotypes about First Nations peoples and cultures in kitsch articles.

Kait James (Wadawurrung) has decolonized vintage souvenir towels through embroidered embellishments to focus on their problematic designs and reclaim them as First Nations art. James also recently revolutionized the Barbie doll by making a custom-made Aboriginal flag dress and a banner reading “Faboriginal Barbie.”

In the 2022 exhibition by Kayla Dickens (Wiradjuri) Return to senderThe collage backgrounds featured enlarged vintage postcards with superimposed images, symbols, and texts that addressed colonization and colonial-style sexual exploitation.

First Nations clothing

The natives also use Aboriginalia in fashion. Paul McCann (Marrithiyel) has embellished couture outfits with vintage textiles depicting First Nations peoples, animals and plants.

One of McCann's designs for Australian Fashion Week 2022, “Blinged Out Warrior,” disrupted a kitschy Aboriginal man's garment by placing it front and center on an iridescent top. This form of labor, called “clothing“, emphasizes the use of up to date artists’ clothing of their pieces.

While “Aboriginal” and “Koori kitsch” are popular terms, First Nations clothing is a more moderen definition that has not yet entered the mainstream. It is an emerging trend being adopted by many First Nations artists whose work is focused on engaging with or reimagining history, highlighting the present world or imagining a brand new future.

This could involve creating modern versions of traditional garments or critiquing and responding to colonial clothing that was imposed on indigenous people. Several artists also create works that reflect contemporary protest clothing, or futuristic pieces that represent fantasies or predict trends.

Peter Waples-Crowes (Ngarigo) Ngarigo Queen – Cloak of Queer Visibility (2018) contains a reworked possum skin cape with rainbow colours and a train to point his dual identities as Aboriginal and queer.

Peter Waples-Crowe, Ngarigo Queen – Cloak of Queer Visibility (2018).
Train Clark

Kelly Koumalatsos (Wergaia/Wemba Wemba) uses possum fur as a stamp to create cultural fabrics. Significant works use these fabrics to create colonial and western outfits paying homage to colonization.

When exhibiting her garments in galleries, Koumalatsos also includes old family portraits within the works to further contextualize the forced colonial clothing.

Kyra Mancktelow (Quandamooka) focuses on producing garments in sculptural or printed form to interrogate the colonial history of forced Western clothing and the removal of cultural clothing. The items she recreates range from forced military jackets to outfits worn on missions to contemporary shapes that reference the history of activism.

Kyra Mancktelow, Gubba Up, 2021–22. Two ink prints with gold leaf on Hahnemühle paper, each 140 cm x 92 cm.
Courtesy of the artist and N.Smith Gallery, Sydney.

Carly Tarkari Dodds (Kaurna/Narungga/Ngarrindjeri) exhibition, Royal Jewels (2022) presented indigenous versions of jewellery belonging to the English royal family. Using cultural weaving techniques to recreate the English monarch's jewelry collection, Dodd confronts colonization by turning the tables and inspiring the truthful telling of this land's story.

The artist Coffin birth (Charlotte Allingham, Wiradjuri/Ngiyampaa) illustrates designs depicting indigenous people in unique outfits throughout time. Coffinbirth specifically depicts or recreates First Nations culture or themes through popular culture graphics and comic-book style art.

Dennis Golding (Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay) creates hand-painted superhero capes to have fun the facility of First Nations identity. He often works with First Nations young people to develop their very own versions.

Disrupt, Reclaim and Indigenize

Many First Nations people have an innate have to dispel harmful narratives and creatively channel cultural practices.

This could be through artists exhibiting their work, fashion designers telling their stories, or on a regular basis First Nations individuals who enjoy practicing culture through outfits. When First Nations artists use colonial souvenirs and clothing, they will disrupt colonization and have fun their culture.

Wearing my kitsch scarves signifies that I’m joining a distinguished group of First Nations artists who use these objects and clothing of their works and inventive expressions.

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