Aboriginal artist Alice Pepper reflects on her community’s unity during recent summer bushfires, and how it inspired her design of the Melbourne Vixens Indigenous dress.
On Sunday September 20th the Melbourne Vixens will close out the 2020 Suncorp Super Netball Indigenous round in their match against the Queensland Firebirds in Cairns. They’ll do so wearing their Indigenous dress, designed to reflect on the disastrous bushfires that marred Australia’s recent summer.
Alice Pepper, an accomplished Indigenous artist and community worker based in Gippsland designed the dress as a healing process.
“I acknowledge I’m a proud Gunnai woman from the Gippsland area, and I’ve got blood connections to different other clans as well. Which is Gunditjmarra, Arrunte from Alice Springs and Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti up near the Murray River.”
The impact of the bushfires on regional communities, and in particular Indigenous regional communities, has been amplified by the COVID restrictions in place.
“There was, at the start, crisis support for people directly affected by the fires… but then COVID came and then we went into lockdown. So we haven’t really been able to gather, heal, come together and really talk about what happened,” Pepper said.
This is a key aspect of healing for Aboriginal communities.
“Usually when Aboriginal communities go through something like this, the thing that we like to do is come together as a big community, have our ceremonies and get involved in our culture, because that’s part of healing.”
Through her work with community organisations, Pepper had come to know Judi Buhagiar, Eastern Region Manager of Netball Victoria. When Buhagiar suggested the Vixens’ Indigenous dress reflect on the region’s battle with bushfires, Pepper stepped up.
“There was a bit of a short timeframe… I sat down with a canvas at four o’clock in the afternoon. And when I started, I couldn’t finish. I just didn’t want to stop, so I went until about four o’clock in the morning.”
Pepper describes it as quite an emotional experience.
“Once I got started, the feelings just came out of me and I could imagine this part of country, and this part of country, and it was very fresh at that time. We’d lost a lot of our Totem animals.”
The design itself depicts the strength and unity of family and community and the landscape of East Gippsland—mountains, bushlands, rivers and seas.
The blue represents the donations of water when the area had none. The footprints symbolise the evacuations needed to escape the fire front. The large circle shows the generosity of the community coming together to offer accomodation, food, water and childcare.
“After a traumatic experience watching our country burn, the new sign of life gives a sense of calm and healing. That’s what we need to do as well after such a traumatic time is find ways to heal. We need to look after the land because in turn, the land looks after us and if it’s sick, we’re sick.”
Being part of Indiginous round is also important to Pepper, who sees first hand the impact it has at a community level.
“There are mainstream sports organisations that have embraced it, which starts conversations within the club around Aboriginal culture, and it’s given people a bigger understanding of what our artwork means and what our language means. There’s different clans and we’re not all the same and so it’s given people a better understanding of Aboriginal people.
“For Aboriginal people with a feeling of feeling comfortable, culturally safe within their sporting clubs, and the pride of being able to celebrate their culture within the sporting club with their mates… that might be non-Aboriginal. Out on the field they’re part of a team and that’s camaraderie, but then in the club rooms it still carries on.”
The Suncorp Super Netball Indigenous round kicks off tonight when the Magpies take on the Lightning, and catch Alice Pepper’s dress design in action on Sunday when the Melbourne Vixens play Queensland Firebirds in Cairns from 1pm AEST.