Artist Paula Savage has taken out the prestigious 2023 Melbourne Design Week Award. The award – a $5000 cash prize presented by Mercedes-Benz – recognises an outstanding contribution to Melbourne Design Week and celebrates the power of big ideas.

Savage, a Mualgal woman from Moa Island in the Torres Strait, reimagines traditional basket weaving techniques in her works. Titled Home Reefs, the pieces shine a light on the fragility of three local reefs in the face of climate change and notes their important role in the local way of life. “With the baskets, they look like the reefs,” says Savage.

Dollar Reef, No. 2 Reef and No. 3 Reef are the three works she created especially for the Melbourne Design Fair, Australia’s largest presentation of contemporary and twentieth century collectible design. Gorgeous and explosive, all her weavings spill colour and texture in intricate ways. Each piece is an example of storytelling – with personal connections for Savage. Her home, Moa Island, is the second largest island in the Torres Strait. With a population of less than 500, its community has a close connection with the land, sea and sky.

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The history of Moa and its reefs are a heavy influence in Savage’s work. “The first reef is Dollar Reef, that’s the main reef for all island people to make money off, to hunt for food and to harvest all the crayfish. The others are the same. Because we have three big reefs in between us from Thursday Island, we normally drive our dinghies over it or past it. It’s an everyday thing.”

Though it tells a contemporary story, Savage’s basket weaving is deeply rooted in a traditional connection with her island home. “We’ve got nothing else to do on the island besides all the ladies coming together and we all just sit down and do weaving,” she says. “My grandma died – no one was there to show me [how to weave] but I have aunties that direct me in a way. I just picked it up from there.”

With her award-winning works, Savage combines materials like sea cord, shells and seeds with raffia dyed in shades of green, blue and orange. “Every colour tells the everyday story of everyone travelling past the reef,” she says.

Representing an intrinsic connection to her home and the reefs, Savage hopes her art can make a difference in the face of an ongoing existential, environmental threat. “The message would be, look after the reef, the ecosystem, since climate change is a big thing now,” she says.

Melbourne Design week is on from the 18 – 28 May, presented by the NGV, find out more here

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with NGV.