There is something refreshing, modern even, about original Aboriginal canvases with their mesmerising, repetitive patterns and confident use of colour. Ironic then, that this unique art form – the creative embodiment of ancient cultural mores, stories and beliefs handed down through generations – is as old as the rocks and landscapes of which it speaks: the vast Australian territories of the Aboriginal peoples..
Clockwise, from left: this bold, abstract and almost geometric canvas (now sold) has a decidedly modern aesthetic with it’s clashing pinks, oranges and yellows and caught our eye when we recently visited the Bay Gallery Home studio in the Cotswolds town of Tetbury. An artist at work at one of the Aboriginal art centres in the Northern Territories. ‘Betty’ in pink wallpaper shown next to the canvas that inspired it. A large canvas entitled ‘Women’s Dreaming’ Kartna Jukurrpa by Valerie Napanangka Marshall.
A quick glimpse at the fascinating AIATSIS map (Aboriginal Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) – which attempts to geographically illustrate the multiple social groupings by clan or dialect, is an instant education in the sheer cultural variety of the continent’s indigenous peoples. And yet, these captivating paintings – rich with history and cultural heritage – have had precious little exposure in the West until recent years. I myself was stopped in my tracks when I first encountered a vast Aboriginal canvas in a client’s home. Shipped back from abroad and hung, pride of place, in the client’s sitting room, the arresting artwork was a true conversation-starter that reflected the family’s adventures abroad. The painting also provided a brilliant touchstone for the final, overall room scheme, more of which later.
Jump down ⇓ for four excellent reasons to consider Aboriginal artwork (and similarly stylish, Aboriginal-art-inspired homewares) for your own room re-design – but first a little expert insight…
Clockwise, from left: a selection of large canvases at the gallery in Tetbury, amongst which features ‘Mina Mina Dreaming’ by Helen Nungarrayi Reed in blue; the same subject by the same artist is depicted in a purple palette in the subsequent image; bold colours abound, and yet some of the most stylish and striking artistic endeavours are rendered in white or entirely in monochrome as illustrated here (browse the Bay Gallery Home website for currently available artworks). This rainbow-pretty ‘My Country’ canvas is the work of Aboriginal artist Michelle Pula Holmes.
We caught up with Alexandra O’Brien, curator and founder of dedicated Aboriginal art and interiors brand Bay Gallery Home, at her showroom in the Cotswolds market town of Tetbury.
Alexandra grew up in Australia. Having flown over to the U.K. as a ‘rite of passage’ aged 25, she remembers feeling ‘very much at home’ on arrival and has lived here ever since. She first dealt in Aboriginal artworks in London in 2008, when asked to showcase canvases from the Australian central desert region on behalf of an Australian dealer, at one of a number of regular private art sales she held at her home. Following a move to Tetbury in 2015, Alexandra decided to establish a dedicated Aboriginal art gallery space in the historic market town. Her inventory is now primarily the work of Aborigines from across the Northern Territories, where Alexandra heads annually to buy. Currently, the gallery showcases work from around thirty artists from several different Aboriginal communities. Work is selected according to the quality and maturity of the artist – with many well-established artists represented – and Alexandra only buys work that she feels provokes an immediate, emotional response. That said, Alexandra is always keen to identify and celebrate the work of talented new generation and emerging artists both for variety and also to ensure that many of these original artworks remain affordable. Prices range from around £150 up to £4000 or more. A key driver for Alexandra was the urge to ‘give back’, support and promote the Aboriginal communities she represents. A vital secondary income for these artists are the royalties earned from the sale of their work. In addition, a large proportion of the proceeds are ploughed back into local initiatives and projects.
Without doubt, the ancient, Aboriginal way of life and it’s related belief system faces huge challenges in the modern world. Despite this, Alexandra is continually struck by the amazing resilience of the communities she meets and interacts with and the inspiring creativity and talent of the artists themselves. She describes a real sense of pride and purpose where the materials and resources needed to create these incredible artworks are made available.
Being in a niche art sector and in particular, being online, has enabled Alexandra’s original artwork business to grow by word of mouth amongst private collectors and enthusiasts. The geographical location of Bay Gallery Home means that many of her customers are day trippers and foreign tourists visiting Tetbury and the surrounding Cotswolds towns, who happen to walk in and become entranced by the vibrant originality of the works on display, frequently buying on the spot or getting in touch once they are back home to buy a piece that resonated with them.
Clockwise, from left: the original artwork (before stretching) used to create ‘Daisy’ brown wallpaper – note the bold neon highlights that have been captured in the wallpaper version shown adjacent; ‘Melita’ in pink – a soft-hued, pretty wallpaper perfect for restful bedrooms or for flattering your complexion in a dressing room; ‘Michelle’ blue wallpaper shown both on the roll and in situ. This design features Kangaroo plant (yes – Kangaroos depend on these) and Pigweed – both indigenous flora of the Australian outback – in a colourful carousel of leaves and blooms.
One of the most exciting developments in the brand’s story is the creation of the ‘My Country’ exclusive Aboriginal interiors range. One which we at Telescope Style were quick to celebrate and promote, when we first came across the collection and it’s arresting aesthetic, at one of Alexandra’s first London Design Week shows.
An ongoing and gradually expanding project, Alexandra first identifies outstanding, colourful and original artworks that she feels would translate well as rugs, tiles, wallpapers and, more recently, printed velvet and cotton furnishing fabrics which can also be made-to-measure. Through close collaboration with wallpaper manufacturers, weavers and print houses – meticulous colour correction and staying true to the artists’ original palette are a must – Alexandra is bringing these fascinating designs to a much wider audience, with many interior designers and architects numbering amongst her clients. Alexandra is also keen to encourage clients, both trade and consumer, to experiment with the designs.
The Aboriginal wallpapers – a particular favourite of ours and indeed also available through Telescope Style – are completely unique and the homewares range as a whole is currently the only collection of it’s kind worldwide. The paintings represent ancient Aboriginal mythology and culture through abstract depictions of the Dreamtime as well as the botanical landscapes that provide the backdrop to the Aboriginal way of life. Many of the wallpapers are detailed and vibrant illustrations of Outback flora, and in particular, feature medicinal plants traditionally used for healing and nutrition. The detail of these artworks-turned-wallcoverings is such that walking past them is simply not an option. You just have to stop, study them and appreciate the colours, creativity and skill involved in their creation!
Clockwise, from left: ‘Betty’ pink wallpaper depicting outback plants traditionally used for bush ‘tucker’ and bush medicines; ‘Lilly’ green wallpaper illustrating the verdant Australian landscape after the rains; and, the ‘Water Dreaming’ Puyurru rug which is handwoven, available in a variety of finishes, sizes and manufactured according to Goodweave principles.
So, how is Aboriginal design relevant to your space right now and why should you consider it when designing your home?
1. For a home filled with stories…
Perhaps you have a family connection with Australia and wish to mark that in the decoration of your own home. Perhaps you explored the Australian Outback during a gap year or visited the Aboriginal territories and were enchanted by this most ancient of indigenous cultures, it’s heritage and aesthetics. Perhaps you feel a strong connection with the landscape of Australia and want to celebrate that.
Also, opt for original artwork to introduce a further layer of ‘stories’. Individual artworks often provide a vehicle for one of many, varied Dreamtime narratives. Alexandra is adept at revealing the secrets of the paintings and an hour spent with her at the gallery, learning about the meaning, ideas and beliefs behind a number of artworks, had us charmed and fascinated by turns.
2. For a considered, ready-made colour palette…
It goes without saying that both original Aboriginal artworks and the art-inspired homeware range introduce incredible colour with style, soul and originality. If you are drawn to a particular colour palette, the artwork, rug or wallpaper that embodies this might even provide the touchstone for a new room scheme. Borrow shades of varying intensity contained within the design to dictate upholstery, flooring, paint and accessory choices. However, getting the balance right is important in order to avoid an overly matchy room scheme and you might want to seek the advice of a professional interior stylist or designer if you don’t feel ‘colour confident’.
3. For bold, statement style…
As mentioned previously, the bold patterns and colourful, contrasting nature of the original paintings make them a ready-made focal point for any room scheme. Some of the largescale canvases simply demand attention and will no doubt start many a conversation. Such ‘statement’ canvases are perfect for hanging above a fireplace in a sitting room for example, where a single ‘wow’ piece is required. Equally surefire head-turners are the ‘My Country’ range of Aboriginal art wallpapers (fabrics are imminent!!). These ‘art-on-a-roll’ wallpapers provoke a similar level of curiosity and interest, especially given that the onlooker is unlikely to have viewed anything comparable. Already longstanding converts we’re contemplating going all over (ceiling too!) with the sublime ‘Melita’ in pink in a small and elegant dressing room, in addition to having used a number of papers already here at TS Towers.
4. For ‘go anywhere’ appeal…
Infinitely adaptable and perhaps more affordable (feature wall anyone?) the ‘My Country’ wallpapers lend themselves to almost any interior setting. Both original artworks and wallpapers suit urban ‘industrial feel’ residential spaces as much as they do Cotswolds country cottages, Victorian townhouses and Edwardian villas. They add modernity, abstract pattern and colour to classic homes and yet sit happily with period furniture. Conversely, they work brilliantly in sleek, modern interiors, lending spirituality and soul.