New Things: Koskela lights made in Elcho Island

This is a story of new things.

Three and a half years ago Sasha Titchkosky was browsing the Internet when she came across a site displaying weavings from Elcho Island. She recalls being struck by their beauty. Sasha contacted ANKAA in Darwin for more information. A helpful person then put her in contact with the new arts centre manager at Elcho Island. From him she learnt about the Selling Yarns conference in Darwin, where she was able to discover more about indigenous craft in the top end.

Ten years ago Sasha and her husband Russel left their corporate jobs to start a design company called Koskela, specialising in Australian-made furniture and fittings. Sasha felt there was potential to present work made from Elcho Island to Koskela clients, but she had to think of a suitable product. Most homeware products were unsuitable, because there was direct competition from mass manufacturers. With this question in mind, she returned to the second Selling Yarns in Canberra, where a light bulb clicked, literally. Sasha thought that her clients might be willing to spend a little more on a beautiful light as a piece of sculpture than something purely utilitarian.

Sasha’s challenge was to develop a means of production that was sympathetic to the lifestyle on Elcho Island. It would be difficult to expect production on an industrial scale. So a frame design was developed around which fibre could be woven, allowing the application of traditional basket-making techniques. She took this idea to the Darwin Art Fair where she met art centre manager Dion Teasdale and Mavis Ganambarr, leading artist from Elcho. Mavis thought it was a good idea. Last year Sasha visited Elcho Island to confirm the arrangement and conversations continued when Mavis and Dion came down to Sydney.

Product development was a two-way process. As the lights began to be produced, some modification was required. Mavis didn’t like working with white-coloured frames as the colour showed through the weaving. So they stuck to black.

The arrangement is quite novel for Koskela. They normally work closely with manufacturers in developing products. The process maintains an industrial discipline in order to maximise consistency of output. In this manner, they had previously developed a series of lights with Mud Ceramics, which were quite tangible yet standardised in appearance.

The method developed by Koskela is rather designed to maximise variation. This is not solely to provide a more diverse product for the consumer, but also to be able to sustain the interest of the artists. Here the approach is more like an artistic commission, which depends on the enjoyment of the producer. The women weavers are more than technicians—a set of skilled hands. They also have a sensibility that is expressed freely.

Ten women were involved in their production. They were evenly divided between those living on the island community of Galiwin’ku and those who belong to Arnhem Weavers, a collective living in the Mapuru Homeland. There were some problems at first in adapting basket-making to the new task, but Mavis organised the women into groups so she could work through the process with them. After this, they seemed quite happy to go back to working on their own.

Earlier this year, Koskela exhibited their work as Yuta Badaya at Object Galleries in Sydney. The title means ‘In a new light’, with reference to the opportunity of showing traditional weaving techniques in a fresh context. According to the artist statement by Mavis, ‘I thought it would be interesting to take our traditional Yolngu materials and use them on Balanda objects. We all thought this would be a good way to show a new audience what can be done by Yolngu artists with materials from the bush.

There are two quite striking features about the lights. First, despite common methods, the results

are quite diverse. The women all employed similar traditional techniques: fibre gathering, use of natural dyes and string making. But the weaving styles were quite different and sometimes alternative materials were incorporated. Margaret Gudumurrkuwuy, for instance, includes shells and feathers in her lights. The range demonstrates a strong degree of artistic expression in the process.

Second, these pieces express a compelling tension between modernist design and handmade textures. We are used to traditional baskets that have a relatively loose organic form, which suits well their use as objects carried near the body. Seeing them stretched on a three-dimensional metal frame brings into contrast their handmade quality. It’s an interesting step towards a range of Indigenous products designed for urban use. And it’s a refreshing contrast to the dominant method today, where Aboriginal designs are licensed to manufacturers, detaching the form from the process of production.

The fourteen initial lights sell from between $890 and $2,000. The artists are paid an up-front fee, negotiated through the Art Centre, who is also paid a commission. Sasha sees it as important to support the Art Centre. The first buyers were individual clients who responded to an article in Vogue Magazine. They are now getting inquiries from interior designers, including a restaurant.

Koskela also sell Tjanpi baskets from the Western Desert. They have been keen to have some lights made by Tjanpi weavers and are now finding some women interested in this.

This is interesting not just for the beautiful objects that are produced, but also for the cultural politics. There are some who might be concerned at the intervention into traditional weaving. What results are not the baskets and bags associated with life around Elcho Island, but products specifically designed for city living. Electric lights on the island consist of bare fluorescent tubes. So we might be concerned about the experience of alienation in this process, as products are being made for an application that is quite foreign to the lives of those who produce it. While this might be taken for granted in an industrial context, we tend to subscribe to a sense of authenticity in what emerges from remote Aboriginal communities. We like to see images of works like grass sculptures in situ, at home with the community. These lights don’t seem to fit into life at Elcho.

This thinking can take us in circles. We want a product that the artists want to make, but they are making something that they think we like to have. Sometimes, the only way to get out these kinds of circles is to talk to someone directly.

Indeed, when I asked one of the weavers who came to Sydney for the opening how she enjoyed the weaving process, she did say that she found it awkward at first to be working with metal. She was used to making baskets free-form. It’s difficult to know how to take comments like this. It could well just be a teething process—indeed, she seemed to enjoy the attention the results were receiving.

Later, I asked Mavis how the women initially reacted to the task of weaving around wire frames. She said they were quite interested because it was yuta djama, a new thing. While this phrase is very familiar to us, it does seem important in this context. As would be expected, some are uncomfortable at first with new ways of doing things. But this seems outweighed in the end by a desire from the women to expand beyond a fixed traditional repertoire.

Taking a step back, this issue does raise the problem of how contingent the value of these works is on the perceived attitude of the producers. Would it matter to us if the person who assembled our iPhone resented the drudgery of the assembly line? I doubt anyone gives this a thought. But it is different in a cultural context. Scandals about carpetbaggers holding desert painters hostage to produce art works make us sensitive to this issue.

There is a sense that in purchasing one of these lights, we are acquiring some of the good will from the community. There’s an important social dimension to this, which shouldn’t be overlooked. This importance of this good will goes beyond our own personal satisfaction. Things carry stories. The lights naturally lend themselves to conversation. If a client enters the meeting room which is lit by one of these lights, there are likely to be curious about where it comes from. The resulting story will reinforce positive values in the company—allegiance to Australian culture, ethical vision, etc. With

companies eager to subscribe to values like Corporate Social Responsibility, there is a growing market for objects that reinforce this message.

But given the sophistication of marketing, such designs always need to be one step ahead of the manufacturers. We see this obviously in the tourist industry with boomerangs made in China. Once these flood the market, we become more wary of the value of the boomerang as a cultural artefact. One day, a company in China might indeed employ local artisans to produce almost identical looking lights to those designed by Koskela. While difficult to distinguish, they would lack the essential ingredient—the story.

Koskela have raised the bar. Critically, they have proven that there are alternatives to industrial manufacture in design. But we need to develop systems that ensure the value we give to them as cultural artefacts is true to the experience of those who produced them. We need to keep the story alive.

I asked Mavis what she’d like the Balanda to think about when they look at their lampshades. She said that she hopes that they can appreciate this ‘yuta djama and see that we in Elcho Island can made different things.’

It’s curious to put innovation into an indigenous context. We tend to think of Indigenous culture itself as a fixed entity: change emerges through contact with Western modernism. But we need to remember that today’s tradition is yesterday’s innovation. As the Jewish proverb advises, ‘Make your days new as of old’. Australian craft and design has a new thing. The story continues…

Originally published by Craft Australia in 2010

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