‘Art is like therapy’: Ouback designers channel grief into healing through fashion

Dunja Karagic
6 Min Read

The work of two designers driven by a sense of shared grief has been unveiled at a unique fashion show in far northern Western Australia.

Broome’s Town Beach Jetty was transformed into a bustling runway for this year’s Kimberley Aboriginal Fashion Textiles Art (KAFTA) event showcasing a growing number of First Nations designers across the state’s Kimberley.

Marninjarra designers Joycelyn and Amber McCarthy walked hand in hand down the runway, teary-eyed and smiling.

Amber and Joycelyn McCarthy say seeing their work on the runway was healing.(ABC Kimberley: Dunja Karagic)

The aunt and niece from Fitzroy Crossing had been working on their collection, Yitilal, for five years.

“It was really emotional because it’s our journey together, we’re both grieving mums to suicide,” Joycelyn McCarthy said.

“All that emotion coming into our design and them seeing it on the catwalk finally finished.”

The Kimberley has one of the highest suicide rates in Australia, sparking numerous coronial inquests and inquiries over the years.

Healing through art

Joycelyn lost her 29-year-old son to suicide three years ago.

a model walks down a jetty barefoot with the ocean behind her

There were 13 collections by Aboriginal designers from the Kimberley.(ABC Kimberley: Dunja Karagic)

She said art was pivotal in helping her grieve and heal, and hoped their designs would inspire other families dealing with similar pain.

“Fitzroy has got so many mums who are grieving at the moment, we have lost so many young people to suicide and [we’re] just making them see it in a different lens through art,” she said.

Amber McCarthy lost her 16-year-old daughter to suicide two years ago.

“Art is like therapy, it helps you clear your mind, relaxes how you’re feeling mentally and physically,” she said.

“With me, going through bereavement and still going through it, our art and collection helps us stay focused and helps us mentally.”

A dancer wearing a red skirt performs on a jetty

Burrb Wanggarraju Nurlu Dance Crew performed on the runway at this year’s event.(ABC Kimberley: Dunja Karagic)

Their designs, incorporating prints of crocodiles and barramundi, represented the importance of the Fitzroy River to their community and drew inspiration from the devastating Fitzroy Crossing flood in 2023.

“The flood that we had recently was one of the biggest floods that we had … in many years,” Amber said.

“There was a lot of communities being impacted.

“It’s taking collection from what we do on a daily basis, we go out fishing, barramundi is one of the main source of food we get in the Fitzroy River.”

Walmajarri designer Brodie George, also from Fitzroy Crossing, said Indigenous fashion helped start important conversations.

Women on an outdoor catwalk.

Brodie George, founder of Jalayimiya Swim, says fashion helps spark important conversations.(ABC Kimberley: Dunja Karagic)

She said the warm tones in her swimwear represented flames inspired by this year’s Keep the Fire Burning NAIDOC theme.

“I think fashion is seen as a surface level thing,” she said.

“But I think by it being Aboriginal fashion, it starts the conversation, people start to ask questions and it opens up that conversation of the more in-depth and the levels of what is going underneath.”

Kimberley models celebrated

Kahlia Rogers, who has previously modelled at Paris Fashion Week, said the event was also a critical opportunity for emerging models from the Kimberley.

“It’s really important, showcasing different designers from the Kimberley, and also getting up and coming models to get the chance to strut the runway,” Ms Rogers, 24, said.

Woman wearing pink shirt smiling with water behind her

Kahlia Rogers says it’s important to showcase designers and models from the Kimberley.(ABC Kimberley: Dunja Karagic)

“Some girls it’s their first time walking on a runway … it’s really exciting for them.”

Growing interest

Amber and Joycelyn’s works were one of 13 collections from artists and designers across the region at the event, which drew a crowd of about 500 people at the weekend.

Nagula Jarndu manager Eunice Yu said the event was an important opportunity for artists from far-flung remote communities to share and celebrate their work.

“Each collection tonight spoke to a different background,” Ms Yu said.

“It’s a fabulous opportunity for different people in the audience, but also to our own mob with the young people who accompany the collection and with their families and they can see how it happens and gets pulled together.”

Promoting models from the Kimberley

The event also helps promote and celebrate Indigenous models.(ABC Kimberley: Dunja Karagic)

Joycelyn and Amber McCarthy said having their family members model their designs to a packed audience brought them even closer to healing.

“Both of our daughters were in the fashion parade,” Joycelyn said.

“So, it was their journey as well with us … it was sort of like us going to that healing journey.”

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