In Conversation

Emily McCulloch Childs

Founded in 2013, the Indigenous Jewellery Project (IJP) is the first nation-wide Indigenous Australian contemporary jewellery project. IJP’s founding curator Emily McCulloch Childs and leading contemporary jeweller Melinda Young worked with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-owned art centres across Australia, running workshops on country with traditional Indigenous jewellers. In 2016 and 2017 workshops focused on documenting and expanding traditional Yolngu jewellery practice.

ADC CEO and Artistic Director Lisa Cahill spoke to curator Emily McCulloch Childs about the project in preparation for the opening of Bulay(i):Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Artists with Indigenous Jewellery Project. 

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how your love of art grew?
I am a curator, art historian/writer, gallery director, publisher and researcher. I grew up around art, artists and in galleries so I absorbed art by osmosis. I began studying art at a very early age, with my grandfather. I was more interested in looking at art, thinking about it and discussing it, rather than making art.

I love the way art can communicate visually, but I communicate differently: not as a visual artist but as an art writer/curator. I enjoy helping communicate it further to an audience. I like that dialogue artists have with the world. I have inherited a responsibility to support, engage with and critique artists but I also feel incredibly fortunate as it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Meeting Aboriginal artists and curators in that field changed my life when I was about 18: it opened my eyes to the enormous, unique talent and knowledge we have in Australia.

What was the pivotal moment for you that began the Indigenous Jewellery Project?
It was a combination of many things, but having art centres and galleries say yes, you are right about this gap: this is a project that is needed. I see it as helping to grow the practice and recognition for Indigenous jewellery within the contemporary jewellery/craft worlds and to grow the genre of contemporary jewellery within the Indigenous art world.

I also wanted to engage more deeply with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists: instead of just being a ‘receiver’ of art as most of us curators are, I wanted to actively engage with artists to create projects and learn more about their practice and help it to grow.

Can you explain the key elements of the project?
The Indigenous Jewellery Project involves workshops, research and development, photography and exhibitions with Indigenous jewellers. I also have made films with a filmmaker before and would like to again. The workshops are really the foundation for the project and a lot gets done in terms of making, upskilling, learning new skills, maintaining and researching traditional skills. We are open to anyone who wants to make jewellery: we have children who are amazing jewellers, we have male jewellers, lots of young women, right up to elders and senior artists.

I try to learn as much as I can in the workshops about jewellery knowledge, language and culture, and land, as these are all foundational aspects of Indigenous art.

You've spent a lot of time over the past 18 months particularly working with Indigenous artists in their communities. How have the artists responded to the IJP?
We’ve been focusing mostly on Yirrkala over the last 18 months: Melinda Young and I have run three workshops there. The response has been overwhelming. At Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, the art centre predicted we would get around 13 jewellers: we now have almost 40! The jewellers really love it: they love making jewellery, they recognise the significance of the practice themselves, and they want to show it to the world. The last time we were in our workshop in Yirrkala one of our jewellers, Marrawaymala Yunupingu, whose a very talented young jeweller, asked if we could come up once a month! We’ve had such a strong response from people who are just jewellers: jewellery is their only art practice. I feel like they have been waiting quietly in the wings for us. 

What were some of the issues that you have had to navigate? 
One of the main issues we have is the enthusiasm which is great but we often run out of materials and have to slow everyone down a bit: the concept of making not a lot but less, stronger work we had to talk about last time in the workshop. Working cross-culturally it’s important to learn how to communicate effectively with Indigenous artists, I’ve found it’s better for example to sit and speak with people in small groups rather than stand in front of everyone and lecture them. I’m non-confrontational naturally so that works well but sometimes when there are issues I’ve had to learn how to communicate effectively in a really non-confrontational way. Also we don’t speak the local languages: but we are trying to learn!

One thing our workshop teacher and I have learnt is that Yolngu artists pick things up very quickly by observation, so we’ve learnt less verbal instruction and more ‘doing’ works really well. I’ve learnt some jewellery skills along the way so I make in the studio with the jewellers, which is a way of engaging and teaching in itself (although they quickly surpass my skill level!).

You have said that language is an important part of the IJP. Can you explain why? 
Language contains knowledge: with all Indigenous art. Art is the library, and language is the key to the door of that library. Yolngu jewellery has language as part of its materials and subject matter. Art can be another way of preserving knowledge: with that comes language. 

What do you hope to achieve with the IJP?
The highest aim would be nationally, and internationally, recognised contemporary jewellers from Australia who are Indigenous, who are exhibiting at galleries like ADC, who are able to have a career in contemporary jewellery, if they wish. We’ve really built a little jewellery family with Bulay(i) who all understand the need for this sort of project and importance of both traditional jewellery and contemporary jewellery and it is incredible: I can’t ask for much more. I feel like we are already achieving what I set out to achieve. It just will keep developing and the jewellers will get better and better. And will become teachers in time. That is one of my dreams: to also help Indigenous jewellers become teachers as well.

What is next for you?
It’s a national project so we are looking forward to working with people from other areas, including in my home state of Victoria. I think this is really important: even though we were established to help jewellers living in remote areas, there are also other jewellers and artists who either want to practice contemporary jewellery or, I think, should look at doing it as a way of mixing up their practice a bit!

We want to keep developing Bulay(i) and have some ideas for it for next year. We also have some new jewellers to work with: stay tuned!

Related events: 

Bulay(i): Curator Talk with Emily McCulloch Childs 
Friday 6 October 2-3pm
Through workshops held in 2016 and 2017, Indigenous Jewellery Project founding curator Emily McCulloch Childs helped to expand the jewellers' practice to include new techniques and materials such as metals.
Hear Emily discuss her experiences and how the project came about to help maintain, innovate and document traditional Yolngu jewellery practice.
Where: Australian Design Centre, 101-115 William Street, Darlinghurst
Free event. Bookings required

Explore the exhibition Bulay(i):Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Artists with Indigenous Jewellery Project here

Bulay(i):Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Artists with Indigenous Jewellery Project is on show at ADC 6 October - 15 November 2017. 


Image: The Bulay(i) Project Crew: Shirley Ganaparra Gurruwiwi, Mandy Y. Wanambi, Batjulu Louise Wunungmurra, Pamela Marrawaymala Yunupiŋu, Mothara Sally Wirrpanda, Melinda Young, Marrnyula Mununggurr, Madinydjarr Yirrinyina #2 Yunupiŋu, Emily McCulloch Childs, Madajtula Robyn Yunupiŋu. Image by Abbie von Bertouch, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka