So, what is contemporary jewellery anyway? Artistically enamoured and curatorial busy bird Emily McCulloch Childs explains it as a genre that is created from a connection to place, cultural background and meaning. Six years on from founding the Indigenous Jewellery Project based on the Mornington Peninsula, this self-confessed contemporary jewellery addict has learnt to make her own jewellery from the best along the way — thanks to contemporary jeweller Melinda Young, with whom she works — and is excited about the future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island contemporary jewellery.
As a passionate admirer of Indigenous art and craft, Emily is keen to support, promote and revel in the wealth of Indigenous talent we have in Australia. She explains: “This skill set is in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people’s DNA. It doesn’t matter which kind of workshop we do through IJP, artists pick up new skills so quickly. I’d always admired jewellery from the Top End maybe because of my connection with Aboriginal art (Everywhen Artspace) or just because it’s beautiful. There was a seminal exhibition called Art on a String, which was touring in 1999/2000. It consisted of necklaces created by artists living in Central Australia and Arnhem Land, including those made from shark vertebrae. I began collecting Indigenous jewellery then, but many of the necklaces I gathered broke because the human hair tradition had been replaced by more fragile wool, elastic and fishing line in creating work for sale. I began to think about how I could help Indigenous jewellers maintain their traditions while upskilling techniques at the same time. That’s where it all started.”
Luritja artist Alison Napurrula Multa Pantjiti told Emily that traditionally “jewellery is our central art practice”. Now partnering with the Australian Design Centre, Australian National University and Craft ACT Craft + Design Centre, exhibiting at Artisan in Queensland and gaining funding from the Australia Council and the Australian Government Indigenous Languages and Arts Program, IJP will be leaping into the Melbourne Contemporary Jewellery and Object Biennial entitled Radiant Pavilion, running from September 7-15. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island artists’ work will be exhibited in the Nicholas Building alongside contemporary jeweller and sculptor Anna Varendorff’s work. As curator of this IJP exhibition, Emily will also speak on IJP at a symposium. She continues: “This is very exciting. It’s a big deal. Indigenous contemporary jewellers are merging ancient and modern skills to create wearable art created out of sustainable materials such as seed and shell beads, shark vertebrae, leaves and bark, as well as metals. We have done 11 workshops since we began and had children aged six right through to elders participating. Most IJP workshops are provided on country and run from five to 10 days. We often set up studio on the floor and make. I love it.”
As Australia’s first and only national Indigenous contemporary jewellery project, IJP aims to provide a “presence of Indigenous jewellers within the Australian contemporary jewellery context and a contemporary jewellery presence within the Aboriginal art context”, says Emily. Whether it’s a magnificent Emily Beckley pendant worn by brides or a Matilda Nona eucalyptus ring crafted in silver, the fruits of IJP’s labour are certainly wildly evocative, varied and here to stay.
Born from a sense of place and fired into a contemporary creative space for all to see.