Published by Issimo Magazine on 20 November, 2013.

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A fashion venture using the work of indigenous artists from a remote community is a label of love, writes Toni Brient.

Her prints are not etched in moleskin journals with felt-tip pens. The artists do not hold concept meetings over soy lattes on chic Brunswick Street. The colour palette is not selected in the dairy section at the local grocery store. In fact, a visit by the artists to the nearest department store that stocks the garments would require an overnight bag.

For Indian-born Melbourne resident Roopa Pemmaraju, fashion truly is art. “I don’t want to follow the fashion trends, I want to follow the artists’ trends,” says the fine arts graduate.

Her self-titled label – with its bold colours and striking patterns – is stirring interest in the fashion world, already being picked up by chain department store David Jones. And showcasing her designs at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Sydney in April marks her second year in the business as an established designer. These prints are the work of indigenous artists in a remote community in Australia’s north. Roopa developed a love for Aboriginal art after arriving in Australia.

The Indian expatriate landed in Melbourne almost by accident, when her husband’s company in India offered him an overseas position. The connection with Aboriginal art seems to have been a tactic of assimilation. Fashion has allowed her to weave two cultures into one; the intricate patterns of Aboriginal artists manufactured with the careful skill of Indian craftsmen.

“You don’t get it anywhere else,” she says of Aboriginal art, “It’s organic in terms of their inspiration, and it’s true. It’s totally different.”

But despite the differences, Roopa recognises cultural similarities with India in the approach to art.

“They think the same. They have one specific language they do understand, it’s pure and organic, and that’s their imagination.”

Roopa’s intense respect for tradition enables the artists – both Indian and Aboriginal – to take control over their work.

“I don’t like changing anything,” she says, “I shouldn’t be disturbing that.”

It was the reverence and appreciation Roopa exhibited that grabbed the attention of Yuendumu, an Aboriginal community 290 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs. The local art gallery and collective, Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, facilitated the collaboration with Roopa. Warlukurlangu manager Cecilia Alfonso, who agreed to work with Roopa after being “taken by her designs”, says the community is pleased with the project.

“I don’t see a negative, really,” she says. “It’s a positive interaction with the rest of the world. My experience is that they want to engage with the wider world 

in a positive way, and that is one of the ways in which we chose to do so.”

Cecilia sent about 20 pieces to Melbourne initially. Once the artists saw the garments finished, the supply increased. According to Roopa, Cecilia’s role has been a vital part of the process, enabling her to correspond with the Aboriginal community and to produce work both parties are happy with.

“It was very easy for me once I got Cecilia on board,” Roopa says, “She has been very helpful. She taught me every single thing.”

But it was not always so easy. Roopa’s interest was not well received by other communities she contacted.

“I approached 15 to 20 communities initially,” she says. “They just said no to me instantly. I explained to them, ‘I know no one has done this before. You need to give me a chance. This is not something that I’m trying to mass-produce. It’s for a niche market.’”

 Both Roopa and Cecilia are aware of exploitation of Aboriginal artists, by fashion designers and others.

 But this is clearly not the case at Warlukurlangu.

“At no stage has she been exploitative,” Cecilia assures Issimo, “Some artists deal in a shonky way. But we don’t fall into that category”. 

Warlukurlangu artists are not only given a space to work, but provided with amenities that would baffle city galleries. It is not unusual for Cecilia and her team to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for artists. On occasion, they are even taken for trips to the local clinic. Roopa shares this profound attention to the needs of the artists. When asked about her plans for the future, her ambitions are not stereotypical of a thriving fashion designer.

“I’ve had lots of approaches from overseas clients, but I want to take it slow. I hope to bring in more communities in the next year. I just want to make it sustainable. Working with artists is very difficult. You need to be very focused, because you need to take care of their needs.”

When discussing her label, Roopa refers mostly to the communities she works with; to theirwork rather than her own.

As well as the Aboriginal artists in Yuendumu, she works with craftsmen in her homeland of India to manufacture the clothes.  The garments are handmade in the family business, a manufacturing house managed by her mother. 

As Roopa explains, the Indian craftsmen use a number of techniques in the manufacturing process.

Her garments use an expensive silk, hand-woven by the artists themselves. The colours are injected through various printing processes. 

Block printing is a traditional Indian craft dating back thousands of years, which involves the use of wooden blocks and dye to imprint colour patterns on fabric. Any embellishment on the garments, like lace detailing, is hand-sewn to the finished garment.

For both Indian and Aboriginal artists, Roopa’s garments are a new sort of canvas.

“It’s an okay thing for our culture,” says Aboriginal elder and Warlukurlangu chairman Otto Juntarrayi. “It’s a new way of showing our art. It’s awesome. The artists are really happy about it. They know their work has been sold in the big shops.”

Roopa Pemmaraju has an online popup sale from November 20-24, 2013. http://roopapemmaraju.com/collections/pop-up-sale

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AuthorToni Brient