MEET | Bábbarra Designs
A Space Run by Women, For Women.
Ingrid Johanson and Jessica Phillips | Managers at Bábbarra Women’s Centre
Aboriginal fashion designers and textile artists from Bábbarra Designs are taking their creations global with an exhibition at the Australian Embassy in France this September! We were lucky to catch some of the designs at DAAF in Darwin this August, and can’t wait to see what they have planned. We caught up with Ingrid Johanson and Jessica Phillips, Managers at Bábbarra Women’s Centre to hear more about the exhibition, the culture and linguistic diversity it celebrates, and the women involved.
WORDS | via Bábbarra’s Ingrid Johanson and Jessica Phillips
Bábbarra. A Space Run by Women, For Women.
Bábbarra Designs is a textiles enterprise developed at Bábbarra Women’s Centre (Bábbarra), located in Maningrida, an Aboriginal community on the coast of the Arafura Sea in West Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. The name ‘Bábbarra’ comes from a Kunibídji women’s site, a fertile freshwater billabong south of the community. Established as a women’s refuge in the early 1980s, Ndjébbana leader Helen Williams founded the centre with a strong vision for Maningrida women’s rights.
During the 1990s, Bábbarra artists began working in etching, lithography and screenprinting through a series of workshops and, over time, our collection of screenprint designs grew. One of the oldest continuously operating Indigenous textile enterprises in Australia, today Bábbarra supports more than 25 artists, and has over 70 screen designs reflecting imagery from a diverse range of Arnhem Land country and cultures.
It continues to be a space run by women, for women. The centre is governed by the Bábbarra Women’s Governance Group, and has expanded to support activities and skills development for women. Bábbarra governs five remote women’s centres on homelands (Cadell, Mumeka, Buluhkaduru, Ji-Mardi and Mankorlod), and also runs small social enterprises including a community opportunity shop, a sewing team and a laundromat.
Welcome to Maningrida, Ndjébbana Country. With 12 Languages and Over 18 Clan Groups.
The Bábbarra Women’s Centre is located in a region of exceptional cultural and linguistic diversity. Maningrida itself lies on Ndjébbana country, which is owned and cared for by the Kunibídji people. ‘Maningrida’ is derived from mane djang karirra, meaning ‘the place where the ancestor spirit changed shape’ in the Ndjébbana language. Inland from Maningrida, sandstone escarpments are scattered with rock art, and there are dense eucalyptus paperbark forests, freshwater rivers and seasonal floodplains. On the coastal areas, salty waters harbour mangrove ecosystems, migratory shorebirds and a rich variety of seafoods. Many people in West Arnhem Land still live on their homelands (small settlements on traditional clan estates), of which there are 32 in the Maningrida region, in an area of more than 7000 square kilometres.
The artists from Bábbarra represent 12 language groups across this region. Maningrida has approximately 2500 inhabitants who live between the community and their regional homelands, and is recognised as one of the world’s most linguistically diverse communities per capita. At least 12 distinct languages are spoken, with individuals often speaking four to six of these. Both Bábbarra Women’s Centre and Maningrida Arts and Culture are owned by Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, a homelands-focused organisation supporting and advocating for people who live on their traditional homelands.
Bábbarra Women are Changing the Narrative.
In Australia and around the world, Indigenous women are among the most marginalised and disadvantaged of all social groups. They are also often the most economically vulnerable group in a society.
Bábbarra Women’s Centre works to change this narrative. A core objective since its inception has been to enable women to gain greater economic independence. Financial independence empowers women to make decisions that impact their own wellbeing and that of their families, communities and ancestral lands.
There are very limited ways for people to generate sustainable incomes in meaningful ways in this region. Working in the arts and cultural sector affords one of the best opportunities for doing two things that most people want to do: remain in Arnhem Land with their families and work to earn a reasonable income.
Bábbarra Women’s Centre is a place that honours the wisdom, resilience, power and cultural authority of women. Women who work here say it makes them strong and connected to the community.
Bábbarra Women’s Centre also acts as the support hub for the homeland women’s centres at five remote outstations: Buluhkaduru, Ji-marda, Mumeka, Mankorlod and Cadell. We work closely with other teams at Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation to try to ensure the best infrastructure and resources are in place.
We founded a Maningrida cleaning enterprise, which is now run as an essential service within Bawinanga. Our op shop, which receives goods donated from across Australia, sells second-hand goods at affordable price from the op shop as well as through pop-up op shops throughout the community.
We operate a community laundromat, which is open daily. In remote communities like Maningrida, washing machines can be expensive to buy and service, so this enables all the community and homelands to access these basic facilities most of Australia take for granted. Our community laundry helps people access important washing facilities, and lead healthier lives.
The Bábbarra Women’s Governance Board, which meets on country every two – four months, ensures it is our knowledge, insights and voices leading Bábbarra Women’s Centre. And through this, older women teach younger women how to be strong leaders for the community and make decisions for the future of community.
Fashion From Country and Cultural Connection.
Themes in our artwork almost exclusively come from our country and cultural connection. The deep relationship we have with the land and seas of our customary clan estates strongly defines and governs the social, cultural, spiritual, and territorial aspects of our lives.
The main design processes that are part of Bábbarra Designs are screen and lino printing textiles. Screen-printing uses large silkscreens, often multiple screens per design. We print using fabric ink and a squeegee along our nine-metre table. We need at least two women in order to make each print run and, with multiple screens, one table-length of fabric can often take a whole day.
Linocut printing uses hand-carved tiles of linoleum, which we chisel here outdoors. They are then covered in fabric ink and pressed by hand onto base fabric. We often use three or four layers of colour in our designs.
After the printing is finished and the fabrics are touch-dry, we bake them in an industrial oven for almost two hours. This ensures the ink is set and our fabrics can be washed in a cold machine cycle.
Most Bábbarra women are artists whose skills span a wide range of mediums including weaving and dyeing with harvested native materials, painting and sewing. Bábbarra also assists in the harvesting of the resources needed to continue these artistic practices.
Next Stop Paris.
Jarracharra: dry season wind showcases a powerful collection of Aboriginal women’s textile art from the Maningrida region. This exhibition features women pushing artistic barriers to depict ancient narratives using contemporary mediums.
Jessica Phillips and I chose the significant cultural title for the show from the Burarra language: Jarracharra. Jarracharra is the powerful cool wind that blows across Arnhem Land each dry season, signifying the beginning of a period of exchange between clans and an annual ceremonial coming together.
The title – Jarracharra – represents a metaphor for the way the Bábbarra Women’s Centre brings together different Aboriginal cultures and stories from across Arnhem Land. The exhibition presents a rich variety of textile designs from a range of Bábbarra eras the works hang together cohesively as one body, in the same manner diverse artists operate together at Bábbarra as one family.
The artists featured in Jarracharra often speak or understand more than six living Aboriginal languages, and have complex social and ceremonial links with all neighbouring groups. The majority of artists in this exhibition are Kuninjku; however, there are also artists from the Gurr-goni, Ndjébbana, Mawng, Burarra, Djambarrpuyngu, Djinang, Rembarrnga, Kriol and Kune languages.
Image | by Ingrid Johanson. Deborah Wurrkidj dying silk by hand using native leaves.
Celebrating Linguistic Diversity and Cultural Knowledge.
The exhibition is led by senior Kuninjku artists from the Kurulk clan, sisters Deborah Wurrkidj and Jennifer Wurrkidj, and their aunt Susan Marawarr. The show also celebrates the cultural and linguistic diversity of the region, encompassing work from nine language groups and a total of 17 women artists from Bábbarra Women’s Centre. The women’s deep and intrinsic cultural knowledge runs through all the works in this exhibition.
The screenprint designs shown in Jarracharra were developed over many years with generations of women during Maningrida community workshops. Jarracharra winds have brought people together for ceremony, dance and ritual for tens of thousands of years, just as the Bábbarra Women’s Centre has brought diverse women and languages together for over 35 years.
kunred, kunwaral, kabirriwayini, manme, kunmadj, and mayh.
The artistic themes that run throughout the exhibition relate to kunred (country), kunwaral (spirits), kabirriwayini (songlines), manme (wild food), kunmadj (woven objects), and mayh (animals).
Among the artists’ designs, certain sites and objects depicted are associated with djang. Djang is the Kuninjku term relating to the ancestral beings and powers of country, in the past loosely translated into English as ‘Dreaming’.
Examples of djang depicted in this exhibition include the yawkyawk female water spirit. Yawkyawk, which can be compared to the European mythological notion of a mermaid, live in certain Arnhem Land freshwater rivers. Yawkyawk are often depicted with long hair (which Kuninjku people maintain can be mistaken for seaweed), bare breasts and a fish-like tail. For the Kuninjku, yawkyawk is also the word used for ‘young woman’. Sonia Namarnyilk’s yawkyawk screenprint design reveals a yawkyawk living at her country near Manmoyi.
Kunmadj (dillybags) and mandjabu (fish traps) are items celebrated for their utilitarian as well as cultural significance. These are featured throughout Bábbarra’s designs by artists Susan Marawarr, Jennifer Wurrkidj, Linda Gurawana, Helen Layinwanga and Kylie Hall.
Another theme is wak, a sacred djang that relates to the black crow ancestor called Djimarr. Wak is shown on Deborah Wurrkidj’s four-layer screen design of the same name, with its intricate rarrk (crosshatching) across the layers coming together to create a sense of movement and depth. Rarrk is a painting technique unique to Arnhem Land artists, with strong links to clan and moiety identities. The rarrk technique involves painting consistent cross-hatched strokes over many layers and is evident across the hollow log, bark and textile designs in this exhibition. The artists paint rarrk using native reed stems that have been whittled down to create thin, brush-like utensils.
Deborah Wurrkidj refers to the Kuninjku division of the world into ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ knowledge,
There are strict cultural rules around which themes are appropriate to depict in artwork for public display. All the artworks for public viewing are known in Kuninjku as kunyarlang (outside or public), while those things with sacred or secret meaning are called manjamun and are not for wider viewing.