By Alex Barwick
In the middle of the Australian desert, a gigantic soft sculpture is beginning to take shape.
The work is a collaboration between internationally acclaimed furniture designers from Brazil, artists from Larapinta Valley Town Camp, and Alice Springs-based designer Elliat Rich.
Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), the piece will welcome visitors to the Gallery’s first international Triennial of contemporary art and design, opening in December.
“You’ll be presented with a seven-metre-wide dome structure; it’s a steel structure which is clad in embroidered panels,” said Ewan McEoin, a senior curator at the gallery.
“People will be able to walk in and lie down on furniture that’s been designed by the Campana brothers’ studio and look at this universe of embroidery and the shared stories of the artists and designers.”
Brazilian furniture designers, the Campana brothers, were keen to collaborate with Aboriginal artists.
Humberto Campana travelled from Sao Paolo to Alice Springs, where he visited the Yarrenyty Arltere Artists in Larapinta Valley Town Camp. He was immediately captivated by their use of materials, as he has previously integrated soft toys and characters in his work.
“Humberto saw the creatures that the artists were making with embroidery, and it really spoke to him because he’s included material like that in his furniture design over the years,” said McEoin
“There was this nice kind of synergy … there was just an instant dialogue.”
Art creating social inclusion
Studio Campana has a history of working with indigenous communities, but this is their first collaboration with Indigenous Australian artists.
“I see my work, me and my brother’s work, today heading in the direction of working with the communities,” said Humberto Campana.
“When you work with the communities you bring social inclusion, when you include fragile communities in the work you create labour for them. I think this is important.”
The Brazilian designers introduced a “water” theme to the project, but have encouraged the town camp artists to interpret that how they wish.
“Humberto was looking at the Amazon River and the waterways of Central Australia and really what is the shared dialogue across these places,” said McEoin.
Art centre a ‘safe place’ for community
Large balls of brightly coloured wool tumble across the tables of the art centre. The Yarrenyty Altere Artists of Larapinta Valley Town Camp have been busy embroidering 40 panels with careful needlework to create waterholes, falling rain and windmills in their vibrant designs.
The art centre provides more than just a creative space for the town camp residents; set up in 2000 as a response to chronic social issues in the town camp, it’s played an important role in rebuilding strength in the community and creating economic opportunities.
“It’s a place where people can come in, sit around or just play with their kids,” said artist Marlene Rubuntja.
“It is a safe place for people, we care what problems we have, we sort things out.”
Marlene says the project has been a great opportunity to demonstrate both the strength of their art and the community.
“And doing this big thing, the world can see, I’m so proud of myself, what I’m doing in my life and to show my grandchildren I’m strong.”
Taking Central Australian creativity to the world
Winner of the 2017 Australian Furniture Design Award, Alice Springs-based designer Elliat Rich is responsible for managing the project in Central Australia.
“What makes me really excited about this project is bringing other artists and makers into this fantastic opportunity,” she said.
“Working with Studio Campana is an honour for me, but equally it is working with the artists from Yarrenyty Arltere.
“It feels great to really build on the amazing creative strengths of Central Australia and deliver that to the world.”
Ms Rich runs a studio-cum-workshop with partner and bespoke shoemaker James Young.
He and his team are tasked with upholstering over a kilometre of fabric that provides the canvas for the artists to embroider.
“I’ve approached this upholstery work as a shoemaker,” he said.
“There’s a lot with regards to the upholstery work … that speaks directly to lasting leather over the ‘last’, which is the form a pair of shoes is made on.”
Men of steel
Sparks fly at the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) where a team more familiar with making hot water tanks are welding together a surprisingly ornate but gigantic steel structure.
Traditionally this not-for-profit company that employs Indigenous people has focused on remote communities, but a cut in Government funding has led the organisation to diversify, taking up work in Alice Springs.
CAT and Elliat Rich have had previous success working together, producing the Anerle-aneme chair (which means “sit a little while” in the local Arrernte language), which featured at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.
With the dome almost complete, all that’s left is to pack it up and ship it to Melbourne in the next few weeks ahead of the exhibition opening in December.
Workshop Manager Aaron Bolger says it’s been a process of trial and error, but he’s enjoyed the current challenge.
“I’m just a basic boilermaker … so to come out here and be given the opportunity to work with people with such high profiles in different industries, it’s great,” he said.
Topics: contemporary-art, visual-art, art-and-design, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, alice-springs-0870, nt, melbourne-3000, vic