National Identity on Cloth: Australian Textiles From 1988 In European Collections

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Dotted throughout European collections, there are a selection of Australian textiles made or donated to the institutions in 1988. This date is of note as it the year of Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations, a controversial event as it marked the two hundred year anniversary of a country that had been consistently occupied for at least 40,000 years by its Indigenous peoples.

This Bicentennial year saw a sudden surge in the visibility of Indigenous Australian visual culture on the global stage. The most notable of this was the blockbuster Dreamings exhibition held at the Asia Society Galleries, New York, an exhibition that in many ways cemented the Western Desert dot style paintings as what most would now view as ‘authentic’ Aboriginal Australian art. Meanwhile touring exhibitions of both settler and Indigenous Australian textiles and fashion made their way across Europe. Textiles are easy to roll, fold and transport and flexibly fit into different exhibition spaces where there might be cabinet constraints, lending themselves to this form of touring exhibition. At this same time, two silk scarves by Jenny Kee, a key figure in the Australiana fashion movement, were acquisitioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum from Kee herself, one depicting flora and fauna of Australia, the other scarf showing symbols of Australian nationalism. Another significant textile entered the V&A collections at this time: samples of Terra Australis, a textile designed by Robertson Mead Handprints that had been used to decorate a ballroom during the bicentennial celebrations. This print depicts Cook surveying a map of Australia created on his voyages, a stark contrast to the other textiles, yet the only example specifically used during the Bicentennial celebrations.

This paper unpicks the journeys of these various textile pieces through Europe and America in 1988, to explore how Australian narratives of nationalism were constructed on a global stage during the bicentennial year. It draws from Anthony Moran’s writings on ‘indigenizing settler nationalism’ to demonstrate how Australia used soft power in its Indigenous visual culture to present a specifically Australian visual language. By exploring the journeys of these textiles and their subsequent stasis, forgotten and tucked away in various museum archives, this paper considers whether this ‘indigenization’ moment of 1988 turned out to be the window dressing Moran proposed it may be.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sept 2023
EventDesign History Society Annual Conference 2023: Displaying Design: History, Criticism and Curatorial Discourses - Matinhos, Portugal
Duration: 6 Sept 20239 Sept 2023


ConferenceDesign History Society Annual Conference 2023
Internet address


  • Indigenous collections
  • National identity
  • Textiles
  • Australian design


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