In Yawuru Country, there's this concept called Liyan. "Some people say it's a sixth sense, some people describe it as your inner spirit," explains Eunice Yu, a community researcher and manager of Nagula Jarndu Art Centre in Broome. "We've got to feel right about how we approach things, and this was the case with nominating Rowena for NIFA."
Yu is talking to me over the phone as she sits outside Deckchair Cinema in Darwin on Larrakia Country. In a few hours, the venue will host the National Indigenous Fashion Awards (NIFA) and in 2023, the annual event has sold out. First launched in 2020, NIFA provides a platform to recognise the achievements and innovations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designers. Alongside the Indigenous Fashion Projects' Country to Couture Runway, the National Indigenous Music Awards and Darwin Aboriginal Art Festival, it's one of the most anticipated events to occur during Darwin Festival. This year, Yu, along with the other female directors of Nagula Jarndu, nominated artist Rowena Morgan for the Textile Design Award, and the excitement has only snowballed in the days since they received word from NIFA that Morgan had made the shortlist.
"I feel really humbled that they nominated me," Morgan says. "It's so surreal."
Last night on August 9, Rowena Morgan won the Textile Design Award. She was one of six artists and art centres celebrated. Lillardia Briggs-Houston, a multidisciplinary Wiradjuri, Yorta Yorta and Gangulu artist, took home the Fashion Designer Award, Ikuntji Artists received the Business Achievement Award, and the Wearable Art Award was given to Rhonda Sharpe of Yarrenyty Arltere Artists.
"I always knew I was creative," says Morgan, in the lead up to NIFA. "My parents encouraged me to explore it in many forms, whether that was entering colouring in competitions or using water colours. When I got to high school, I started learning more Indigenous stuff, you know, symbols, stories. I would sit and paint with my grandmother." By the time Yu joined Nagula Jarndu in 2018, Morgan was already a flourishing member.
Nagula Jarndu is a not-for-profit women-run Art Centre on Saltwater Country, and is the currently the only arts centre in Western Australia that focuses on textiles. "We have this legacy from our mothers before us who wanted to create a culturally safe space for women to be able to come and do the things that we want to do," says Yu. "We'll take our time to learn how to do things ourselves."
On any given day, step into Nagula Jarndu and you'll find "a busy hive of activity", according to Yu. The centre hosts up to 10 artists a day who create textiles at their own pace in the workshop, focusing on three types of printmaking: block printing by hand, screen printing and digital printing. It's an organic process, Yu explains.
"It's just amazing, the growth in Indigenous Fashion Projects across the country," says Yu. "To be on a national stage, it's exciting but it's also daunting. We don't know what to expect but we'll take it in our stride." For Lu, the recognition of Rowena Morgan and Nagula Jarndu affirms that they're heading in the right direction.
Right now, Morgan is just concerned with staying present, just getting to NIFA was a big achievement. I ask her how she's going to celebrate her win. "I'm more than likely going to have a cry," out of nerves more than anything. "I'm far from my family so that will be a sad part. But I get to be around all the inspiring women."
She hopes that the future will present an opportunity to collaborate with a designer on a collection, and hopefully more growth as a textile artist, especially when it comes to her own label, Nangarri Designs. "I create and grow pretty much all the time. I just love creating new pieces, because I'm a dot painter as well. I'm always mixing mediums; drawing, sketching, I don't just do lino, I do foam printing as well."
Read the full list of winners from NIFA 2023 here.