Earning a living in the arts sector is a challenge at the best of times. During the pandemic, which has seen dramatic job losses, wage cuts and business failures across the arts industry, it’s nigh near impossible.

It’s these difficult conditions that make Carriageworks’s Southeast Aboriginal Arts Market so valuable. Curated by Arrernte and Kalkadoon curator, writer, and presenter Hetti Perkins and Jonathan Jones, a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist and curator, the Southeast Aboriginal Arts Market directs all profits from sales to the artists.

“Unlike most markets, we seek funding and support and sponsorship to cover all the artists’ fees,” Jones says. “Normally, we pay for the stalls and pay for the artists to come, as well as marketing and programming.”

Rather than cancel the event due to Covid restrictions, organisers decided to run the Southeast Aboriginal Arts Market online for the second year in a row. “We wanted to maintain the market as a presence in the cultural calendar,” says Jones. “It’s sad that we can’t all be together and have those beautiful conversations, but one of the things that has been fantastic is being able to document everyone’s artwork.”

Australia’s densely populated south-eastern region is often overlooked in conversations about Indigenous art, says Jones. “When people think about Aboriginal art and culture, they think about up north or the desert or the Kimberley or the Torres Strait. They never really think about the amazing work that happens in this region.”

Artists in the southeast lack the support provided by arts centres found in other parts of Australia. In central Australia, artists receive support from Desart, the peak arts body for Central Australian Aboriginal Arts and Crafts centres, which provides administrative support to arts centres and runs a popular arts market. “They have this extraordinary infrastructure that supports artists and their development,” Jones says. “We’re keen to do the same thing ... Most of the artists we work with don’t have gallery representation. We’re desperately trying to support them to make sure they can keep those profits and maintain their cultural practice.”

Jones hopes to use the market to raise the profile of Aboriginal artists from the southeast and connect them with local audiences. “Art is such a good way for people to learn about where they grew up and where they call home,” he says. “We’re trying to change people’s perception of what Aboriginal art is and where they can find it.”

Jones shares five works from the market.

Nannette Shaw: Trowunna Culture (Bull Kelp Water Carrier)
Nannette Shaw – or Aunty Netty – is a Tyereelore/Bunurong/Trawoolway artist from Tasmania known for the intricate water carriers she creates. “One of the extraordinary materials that Tasmanian people work with is bull kelp, which grows in big forests off the coast,” says Jones.

Aboriginal people in the area traditionally used the kelp, which is malleable when wet but dries hard, to make vessels to carry water. “There are really significant historical examples of these in museums around the world,” Jones says.

Shaw taught herself to work with kelp and make traditional water carriers. “She reclaimed that cultural practice. Now she makes them regularly.” Shaw’s Trowunna Culture water carrier is “a significant object” that is connected “to much older traditions that have been woken up by cultural leaders like Aunty Netty,” says Jones.

Mitch Mahoney and Molly Mahoney: Diamonds
Siblings Mitch and Molly Mahoney are Boon Wurrung and Barkindj artists from Victoria who are part of the revival in the production of possum skin cloaks, once commonly worn by Aboriginal people in the southeast. According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, skins were added to small cloaks made for babies so the cloaks grew with their wearer over time.

Like Shaw’s bull kelp water carrier, a possum skin cloak “is a really culturally specific object,” says Jones. “No one else in Australia makes them – they’re something that’s very specific to the southeast region.”

Mitch and Molly have been experimenting in their work with the cloaks. Traditionally, a full-size cloak might comprise 40 possum pelts, but in Diamonds, the artists have used a single hide to create a possum cloak artwork. “It’s a diamond design, which is really significant in the southeast region,” notes Jones.

Nathan Dawson: Untitled
Nathan Dawson, a Gomeroi artist from Glen Innes in New South Wales, “speaks to the diversity of Aboriginal experiences”, says Jones. “One of Nathan’s key areas of interest has been Japanese drawing and painting. He has lived and worked in Japan for a number of years and has mastered pen and ink drawings and painting techniques.”

Dawson’s Manga-influenced work “really challenges the idea of what it means to be Aboriginal and what we are meant to be creating”, says Jones. “His work is often social commentary, and a lot of his work this year has been around Covid and the dysconnectivity of our community.”

Kay Lee Williams: Bush Dyed Pure Merino Wool Scarf
Kay Lee Williams, or, as Jones refers to her, “Aunty Kay”, is a Kamilaroi artist from northern New South Wales who works with natural dyes and materials to create scarves and baskets. “She goes through a process of collecting plant materials on country – leaves and roots and other materials – and binds those up to create bush dyes,” says Jones. In Williams’ Bush Dyed Pure Merino Wool Scarf, “you can see the gum leaves infuse the design and create patterns on the fabric. She’s been mastering that technique for a number of years now to create those beautiful works”.

Casino Wake Up Time: Nature’s Adornments
Casino Wake Up Time is “a collective of Kamilaroi and Bundjalung Aunties who come together and reconnect through weaving practices,” says Jones. “They have been starting to experiment more and more with that process.”

Casino Wake Up Time’s Nature’s Adornments is a small hand-woven bag featuring a painted design and a handle made from foraged gumnuts. “They collect their own grasses to bring those weaving practices back,” says Jones. “We’re really lucky to be working with them,” he says of the collective, who is working on a major project for next year’s Biennale of Sydney.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Carriageworks. Squarespace is giving five people $500 to spend at the Southeast Aboriginal Arts Market. Entries close November 23 and you can enter here.