On October 14, Australians will vote in a referendum to enshrine recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution. If the vote goes through, an advisory group of Indigenous representatives will be established to give independent advice to parliament and government on matters relating to First Nations people.
In the lead-up to the vote, a number of Aboriginal-owned organisations – from fashion labels to jewellers – have released merch that not only allows you to wear your vote on your sleeve, but can help spark important conversations around the Voice.
The upcoming referendum, and the Uluru Statement From the Heart (which first proposed a First Nations Voice in the Constitution), has inspired many First Nations artists and designers to both explore the moment through their practice and create works that amplify their message and perspective.
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For its 2023 fashion collection, Yarrabah Arts & Cultural Precinct in Queensland used words from the statement on its graphic hand-stitched designs.
A new painting by Reko Rennie, YESMOTHERFUCKERSYES, combines the original “yes” font used in the 1967 referendum with the artist's signature “Aboriginal camouflage”. The acclaimed contemporary artist has long explored his Kamilroi heritage, Aboriginal identity and issues faced by Indigenous communities in his works. This striking, primary-coloured piece will be on show at Rennie's upcoming exhibition, Remix, at Station Gallery in Melbourne.
The 1967 referendum, where Australians voted overwhelmingly to change the Constitution to officially count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as part of the population, similarly saw Aboriginal communities using fashion to share their message and spark discussion. First Nations slogan shirts, first worn in the 1970s, continue to be worn by both “yes” and “no” advocates during this campaign.
“It’s imperative to note that Mob merch with a message – you could call it political or protest fashion – is nothing new,” Clothing the Gaps co-founder Laura Thompson tells Broadsheet. “It is something that has been present at rallies and marches for decades and is synonymous with the fight for First Nations justice and rights in this country for the last 200 years. These tees carry messages about what we want to see in the world and visibly change spaces. They allow us to speak without speaking. When worn with the right intention to spark conversations, these tees are our power tools to influence social change.”
A number of Aboriginal designers and Indigenous-owned fashion labels are making a statement with their merch in the lead-up to the referendum.
Clothing the Gaps
The Victorian social enterprise and fashion label has released a range of tees, from minimalist styles in black or white emblazoned with the word “Yes”, to graphic pins, posters and T-shirts as part of its Voice, Treaty, Truth collection.
“All of our merch is created from conversations happening in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community,” Thompson tells Broadsheet. “We believe that all three elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart [Voice, treaty and truth] are three equally important conversations, it’s just that right now the ‘Voice’ conversation is one that we must have as a nation in the lead-up to the referendum.”
The Clothing the Gaps team says its community has shared a number of stories about how its merch has triggered conversations around the Voice. “When someone is wearing their values on their tee it means they not only support the message but they are open to talking to someone about this campaign or issue too,” says Thompson. “We become walking billboards and conversation starters, and we can start yarns with people in our circles of influence, most often in places where First Nations people are absent.
“More than ever, we need allies to get up, stand up and show up for First Nations people. Over 80 per cent of First Nations people support a Voice to Parliament, so be confident, loud and proud when writing ‘yes’.”
House of Darwin
Indigenous-owned clothing label House of Darwin, founded by Larrakia man and former AFL player Shaun Edwards in 2020, has released a limited-edition T-shirt in collaboration with fashion label Jungles Jungles. It’s printed with major milestones in recent Aboriginal history – from the 1967 referendum to the passage of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976 and the composition of the Uluru Statement From the Heart in 2017.
“House of Darwin and Jungles Jungles supports the yes campaign,” says Edwards. “We know the journey towards reconciliation still has a long road ahead, but we believe that each moment our nation acknowledges our history and gives our Indigenous people a voice will result in a better future for all Australians. We stand on the history of the Northern Territory, and all of the movements before us, to say we support the yes campaign.”
Haus of Dizzy
For Haus of Dizzy founder Kristy Dickinson, jewellery has always been a vehicle to spark conversations. A Wiradjuri woman, Dickinson launched her vibrant, dazzling accessories brand in 2015 having noticed a gap in representation in the world of fashion accessories and jewellery. Haus of Dizzy has released a pair of “Yes” earrings and a matching necklace in the colours of the Aboriginal flag.
Uluru Statement From the Heart
The group behind the Uluru Statement From the Heart has released a wide-ranging selection of merch, including T-shirts emblazoned with slogans “Vote Yes”, “You’re the Voice” and “History Is Calling”, alongside “Yes” caps, tote bags, pins, posters and bumper stickers. But two collaborations with First Nations designers are worth a special look.
The organisation has collaborated with fine jeweller Mondial Pink Diamond Atelier on an elegant pin designed by Tharawal artist Alison Page, which incorporates the piti (vessel), tjutinypa (digging stick) and tjara (shield) gifted to members of the referendum council by the Mutitjulu Community, based in Uluru. A portion of profits from the pin go towards the Voice campaign.
A collaboration with fashion etailer The Iconic, The Voice Makarrata Tee was designed by Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara artist Sally Scales. Its colourful design reads “Voice Makarrata” on the front, and “I support the Uluru statement” on the back.