Feature Image |  Eunice Napanangka Jack, Ikuntji Artists Studio, 2018, Photo by Dr Chrischona Schmidt, Courtesy Ikuntji Artists.

DAAFF Yarns… with Ikuntji Artists

Our DAAFF Yarns series continues as we chat with some of our community’s key players, giving insight into Australia’s Indigenous arts industry and DAAFF’s role within it.

Today we’re in the remote yet thriving community at Haasts Bluff, around 230 kilometres west of Alice Springs in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Here you’ll find Ikuntji Artists, the very first Art Centre established by women in the Western Desert Art Movement.

Words | Camilla Wagstaff

This blog feature was originally published on daaf.com.au

Image | Haasts Bluff / Anyali Landscape, Northern Territory, 2018, Photo by Dr Chrischona Schmidt

Where it all began. From women’s centre to Art Centre.

The official story of Ikuntji starts in the 1980s, when a group of women began painting in the Haasts Bluff aged care facility. “The ladies were initially instructed by husbands and fathers, these women often assisted the men in completing their paintings,” says Ikuntji Artists Manager Dr Chrischona Schmidt. By the early 1990s they decided to pursue setting up their own Art Centre, setting up Ikuntji Artists in its first iteration in 1992. 

Under the influence of the then community president, the late Esther Jugadai, and following a series of workshops with Melbourne artist Marina Strocchi, Ikuntji Artists was initially established to fulfil the role of women’s centre, providing services like catering for elders and children in the community, artist Daphne Marks tells. The artists’ talent for painting on linen and handmade paper quickly flourished, gaining the attention of the Australian and international art world. The focus then changed from a women’s centre to an Art Centre in 2005, with the incorporation of Ikuntji Artists Aboriginal Corporation.

Ikuntji Artists today. The cultural hub of the Haasts Bluff community.

Today, work from both men and women working out of Ikuntji Artists is represented in a myriad of national and international galleries and institutions. Characterised by bold and vibrant colours, decisive brush strokes and culturally rich storytelling, Chrischona makes the point that this Art Centre, like other Art Centres found across the country, is also the cultural hub of the Haasts Bluff community, “maintaining, reinforcing and reinvigorating cultural practices through art”.

Image | Anne Dixon, Waru at Watarru, Acrylic on Belgian Linen, 710mm x 122mm, 2018. Photo by Christian Koch, Courtesy Ikuntji Artists.

Country to Couture. Exploring fashion and textiles.

More recently, artists working at Ikuntji Artists have begun to explore a fashion and textiles practice in collaboration with social enterprise Magpie Goose. “The collaboration was developed to showcase designs by senior artists from the Western Desert, enabling Ikuntji Artists to share cultural stories through a new medium and reach new audiences through wearable art,” says Chrischona.

Two years in the making, the first Ikuntji x Magpie Goose collection was launched in November 2019 to wide acclaim. It featured in DAAFF’s much-loved fashion show Country to Couture, also gaining recognition through the inaugural National Indigenous Fashion Awards in 2020. Commercially speaking, the collection has already been re-released four times since its launch– making it the most successful collection Magpie Goose has ever had!

Image | Women’s Business by Mavis Marks, Box dress, Ikuntji Artists x Magpie Goose collection on catwalk, Country to Couture 2020, photo by George Fragopoulos.

Internationally renowned senior artist Eunice Napanangka Jack was proud to have her painting Kuruyultu translated in the Ikuntji x Magpie Goose collection. “I was born at Kuruyultu, near the Rockhole there…” says Eunice. “I have been back to Kuruyultu for visits but I never lived there again in my country. I think about it every day.”

Keturah Zimran, a talented artist from the younger generation of Ikuntji Artists speaks of her work also featured in the collection: “The sand hills I paint are my mother’s story and the rocks I paint are my own story. My paintings are about my story and my mother’s. I like to paint; painting helps me forget my troubles. I paint every day.”

Ikuntji has recently collaborated on another handmade fashion collection with Publisher Textiles, with half the collection released late 2020 and the remainder to be released 2021. “The first release sold out in a matter of days,” says Chrischona proudly. “We’re looking at expanding it even further!”


Image | Lornie wearing the Rockholes Dress (Alice Nampitjinpa Dixon) Photo by Christian Koch, courtesy Ikuntji Artists.

Image | Geraldine Apati Marshall wearing Puli Puli Box Top and Bush Skirt (Keturah Zimran), Photo by Christian Koch, courtesy Ikuntji Artists.

Image | Frankie wearing the Watyia Tjuta at Talaalpi men’s shirt and Francis wearing the Eunice Napanangka Jack Kuruyultu men’s shirt, Photo by Christian Koch, courtesy Ikuntji Artists.

Image | Geraldine Apati Marshall wearing the Eunice Napanangka Jack Kuruyultu – Vanessa Dress, Photo by Christian Koch, courtesy Ikuntji Artists.

Covid-19’s challenges and opportunities.

Chrischona notes that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to Art Centres expanding their role and doing jobs they wouldn’t usually do. She points to the modelling and photography of Ikuntji’s textile collections as a good example. “We’d usually have someone come into community to do all that, but this year we had to do it ourselves. I see that as a really positive outcome of this year – it’s been an opportunity to find talent from within community and focus more on what community can do in its own right. The girls chose garments from family members to wear in the photoshoot, chose the spots they wanted to be photographed… so there was a real personal connection with each piece and place, a real sense of pride with the outcome.”

The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair and looking ahead.

Ikuntji is excited about plans for 2021, including (hopefully!) a face-to-face Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. “DAAF is a showcase of the breadth and depth of work coming out of Art Centres across the country,” says Chrischona. “For our artists, it’s an honour to be showcased there. It’s not just another art fair, it’s so much more than that. It plays a key role in profiling the artists and giving them visibility in the industry. It’s certainly the first point of discovery for many of our artists and projects.”

Chrischona says that while the online platform worked really well in terms of sales and reaching totally different audiences, especially overseas, nothing can quite replace the physical experience of the fair. “It’s not just the sales, it’s the opportunities through the conversations that take place, often by chance. That kind of serendipitous involvement that happens during the art fair that you miss in the online version. I reckon DAAF should do both the online and physical fair – then we’d have the best of both worlds…” 


Watch this space!

Image | Ann Lane Nee Dixon, ‘Pirrnpirrnga – Desert Bore’, 2019, Acrylic on Belgian Linen, 70 X 150 cm, Photo by Christian Koch, Courtesy Ikuntji Artists


Thank you to Ikuntji Artists for sharing their stories as part of the ‘DAAFF Yarns’ series.  

You can see more on Instagram as @ikuntjiartists, and discover their work over at ikuntji.com.au

Watch DAAFF’s Country to Couture 2020 broadcast HERE 

Thanks for reading! Be sure to subscribe as the series continues, and if you haven’t already, catch up on our last posts below:

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