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Esteemed artist Elverina Johnson on the power of the fashion industry and authentic collaboration

IMAGE VIA @YARRABAH / INSTAGRAM

WORDS BY FASHION JOURNAL

“This collection truly represents my strength and the strength of how much we can do as women.”

Fashion Journal is proud to continue an ongoing partnership with First Nations Fashion and Design aimed at highlighting and amplifying First Nations voices, talent, culture and stories across the industry. Fashion Journal acknowledges the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first Australians and traditional custodians of the lands on which we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

Working as a visual and performing artist for more than 30 years so far, Elverina Johnson is arguably one of the most esteemed and recognisable First Nations women in creative industries today. She’s a singer, songwriter, playwright, actor, photographer and artist, with a breadth of work that in 2017 earned her the NAIDOC Artist of the Year award. 


Discover more local designers in our Fashion section. 


More important than her breadth of work, however, is what it stands for. Elverina uses her art as an expression of pride for her Country (she’s a Gurugulu and Indinji Gimuy woman, whose traditional lands include the Great Barrier Reef). Her family name Bunya Badjil means ‘good woman’ and it’s a responsibility she takes seriously. She’s dedicated her practice to empowering women through First Nations design, working to the belief that arts can empower First Nations people by restoring a genuine sense of pride in culture. 

 

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A post shared by elverina johnson (@yarrabah)

In 2022, Elverina joins the First Nations Fashion + Design show at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week for the second time. Her work will this year feature via a collaborative apparel collection with Australian fashion label, Taking Shape, a partnership which she notes was “amazingly respectful”, standing as another example of the many roads to reconciliation. 

Hi Elverina, please introduce yourself to our readers.

My name is Elverina Johnson and I am a Gungganji woman from the Aboriginal Community of Yarrabah, situated 60 kilometres southeast of Cairns.

Tell us about your collection with Taking Shape. What can we expect to see at the First Nations Fashion and Design show? 

My collection with Taking Shape (TS) is something I am very excited about and I believe TS is excited about. The collection is bold and is an expression of celebrating who we are as women of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. People can expect to see amazing colour and stories in the collection, which is symbolic of understanding our growth and self-worth as women.

How did the collaboration come about?

I was contacted by the management team from TS about a month after I went into their store in Cairns, looking to purchase something nice to wear. I didn’t find what I really wanted so I decided to just buy a plain black jacket and told the lady at the checkout that I was an artist, and that I was going to paint the jacket myself.

She was interested in seeing my artwork, so I showed her some pics on my Instagram page and, from what I have been told by TS staff, the conversation went back to the senior management team who were interested in talking to me about the collaboration. That’s when they contacted me and now we have a whole collection ready for First Nations Fashion and Design at AAFW 2022. It’s exciting.

 

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Your pieces are beautiful and bold, talk us through the process of creating this collection.

After my initial conversations with TS and me getting the feel for what TS is as an organisation – and understanding who they represented and their core values – I liked what they stand for in valuing women of all shapes and sizes. Plus-size women are in their scope of what beauty and self-love should mean.

Having this information made the process of coming up with a concept for the artwork a lot easier. Being part of the whole creative process – from [bringing] my own creative ideas, to choosing which style of clothing I wanted the artworks on, to giving my approval after seeing physically seeing the samples – was of great importance to me.

TS is a great organisation to work with and the staff were amazingly respectful, which made working on this collaboration easier.

What does this particular collection mean to you?

This collection means so much to me in many different ways. When you’ve been working so hard, for many years, to tell your stories through your art, in whatever platform or space you are working in, and an opportunity like this comes along, you very quickly think about how far you’ve come and how you got to this point. It hasn’t always been easy, but you realise that the hardships you went through to get here are minimal compared to the blessings that are at hand.

It’s also very important to recognise that there are so many people along the way who assisted me in getting to this point – or any point of seeing your hard work come to the fruition of something great.

In a nutshell, this collection truly represents my strength and the strength of how much we can do as women, and [to] never give up and to believe there is more to come.

 

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What inspired the print designs in this collection?

The artworks draw inspiration from the way I have grown up with strong women in my life, who always encouraged me to see that in everything we do, it is all part of the weaving of our lives. And that yes, it will be hard sometimes, but there are others who are willing to come in and support you, and you also support them.

This parallel comes from seeing women Elders in my community weaving, and [shares symbolism with] the methods of weaving a mat or a basket, etc. Mistakes happen, but support to get it done is always there. When you have the right support, knowledge and know your purpose, it doesn’t matter how it turns out. But the fact that it did [turn outand it still looks beautiful and that others will see its beauty and purpose in the creation of a woven piece.

What were the major points of inspiration for your collection and more broadly, for you as a designer?

There were, and still are, many significant points of inspiration for me as a designer. A lot of it stems from where I live and the people who I surround myself with. My Elders, my family and my cultural upbringing as a First Nations woman and a Gungganji woman. For this particular collection, it’s the way in which mats are woven that, for me, signifies the importance of coming together and supporting one another as women. [It shows] we all have a part to play in creating something beautiful despite the time, efforts and obstacles that try to stop us from moving forward.

When things get hard, embrace the support you have around you.

 

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A post shared by elverina johnson (@yarrabah)

What does it mean to be involved in the First Nations Fashion and Design runway at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week?

It’s a great milestone to celebrate – being given this amazing opportunity to show my craft, tell my story and represent my community and family on this great platform (that is now changing to give more recognition to First Nations fashion designers and models). I am so grateful to First Nations Fashion and Design and Grace Lillian Lee to be given this opportunity. It’s something worth shouting about.

Who do you think is most exciting in First Nations fashion right now?

What’s exciting right now in First Nations fashion is that First Nations designers and models are starting be recognised, and are being given more opportunities to walk the runways and be part of the bigger platforms nationally and internationally. First Nations models are being signed up to major agencies, clothing companies are signing more First Nations artists as collaborators, this space [is unlike ever] before.

What about the Australian fashion industry needs to change?

I think the fashion industry is slowly changing its attitude, becoming more inclusive by bringing forward new concepts regarding inclusivity of First Nations design, designers, models, production teams, etc. It still has a long way to go, but this is a good start. As long as the conversations and opportunities keep coming, then barriers will continue to be smashed. It cannot be achieved without First Nations people involved in this industry.

What’s next for you and the team?

What’s next for me is to continue creating and pushing boundaries in the creative space, and making sure that our stories – my stories – are told through fashion and other mediums. And to create further opportunities for more First Nations designers and artists to be part of the bigger stage.

For details on Elverina Johnson x Taking Shape, head here.

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