Fashion label Magpie Goose showcases traditional Top End Aboriginal paint

Inside a large airy shed on the Tiwi Islands, two men are methodically screen-printing 30 metres of bright orange paint on white fabric.

Artist Mario Munkara points out the different design elements of the printed ceremonial pukumani burial poles, representing various styles of body painting and scarification used during funeral ceremonies.

"They used to have the scars around their chests, and the ladies used to have it on their breasts and shoulder," he says.

"Pukumani pole is traditional way for us when we carve, to think about our sorrow and the person who passed away."

The fabric, telling a very old cultural story, will soon be transformed into vibrant clothes for the new not-for-profit fashion label Magpie Goose.

The socially inclusive enterprise is the brainchild of former lawyer Maggie McGowan, who regularly travelled to remote Indigenous communities as part of her work in Aboriginal legal aid.

"I loved spending time at the art centres and got to see what they were producing, all these incredible fabrics and textiles I just fell in love with; these fabrics just seemed to tell a story in a modern way that I really loved," she says.

Art centres are scattered across the Northern Territory, often hundreds of kilometres from urban hubs, which can make their products harder to access.

Ms McGowan saw a gap in the market for the fabrics to be turned into clothing, and established Magpie Goose under Enterprise Learning Projects, headquartered in the Top End town of Katherine.

She hopes it will help people in communities learn about different aspects of running a business and developing retail skills as the label develops.

At Tiwi Designs, her partner Laura Egan shows off the brand's wide-legged pants printed with the pukumani poles to a group of artists.

"When I wore these pants in America, I had people calling across the street, they were like, 'nice pants!' And I said, 'yeah, these are from Tiwi!'" she says.

"Did they even have a clue where Tiwi is?" one asks.

"No, but maybe they walked away thinking, 'where's Tiwi?'" she laughs.

Brand a platform for local art centres

It's the wet season in the Top End and Injalak Art Centre in Gunbalanya, on the eastern side of Kakadu National Park, is unreachable by road.

The shop is full of lengths of printed silk, cotton, and linen, as well as bags, scarves, shirts and shift dresses.

"We want more people wearing Aboriginal printed fabrics, whether they're from here or anywhere… and we want to create that livelihood for our artists and designers," says manager Felicity Wright.

"It's wearable art, it's real, accessible art, and it's not just about hanging something on your walls … When I see people using printed Aboriginal fabrics in their everyday lives, it gives me a thrill."

Textiles make up about a third of Injalak's turnover, and Ms Wright said there had been a dramatic increase in engagement in printing once locals saw the possibilities of the finished products, which are as popular locally as they are elsewhere around Australia.

"Once we started making them into things the excitement went through the roof," she said.

"I almost never sell any Aboriginal fine art to Indigenous people, but they love buying clothing and things they can wear."

She says Magpie Goose is taking Aboriginal printed fabrics to an entirely new market.

"Every time you're increasing awareness, understanding, respect for Aboriginal design, you're increasing respect for Aboriginal culture," she says.

A contemporary take on an ancient art form

Screen-printing has been a part of operations at Tiwi Designs since the 1980s, and manager Stephen Anderson says it's clear evidence of the way Aboriginal art has continued to evolve and remain contemporary.

"Always Indigenous artists are seen as ethnographic kind of cultural icons, bark paintings and stuff, and [this offers] the opportunity to translate designs into bright colours to be contemporary, here and now," he says.

"Indigenous mob are not ethnographic curios."

Translating traditional designs to fabrics for use in fashion is also a way for Aboriginal people to honour their culture, Mr Anderson says.

"I see it as maintaining culture, not necessarily morphing into a fashion; it's actually a cultural maintenance process," he says.

Alan Kerinauia has been screen printing for 34 years, since he was a teenager, and says he loves seeing Tiwi prints on clothes.

"When I came down this morning and saw the ladies from Katherine, wow, in that outfit, like a little punch... it's beautiful," he said.

Mapping out beliefs through design

In Maningrida, along the coast in Central Arnhem Land, women from 12 different language groups come to work in the Babbarra Women's Centre.

"Their country, their family, their kinship is all reflected in their design," said manager Ingrid Johanson.

"There's different bush foods, there's different medicinal plants, and there's the very important spiritual dreaming stories that are shown in the designs, as well."

She says some of the women of Maningrida paint on hollow logs and use a crosshatching technique on bark, which inspired their work on textiles.

"They're the same stories and have the same significance to the artists, but textiles are a very exciting new way of interpreting very traditional ancient stories," Ms Johanson said.

Local senior artist Deborah Wurrkidj says she wants wider Australia to learn about the strength of the women in her community through their collaboration with Magpie Goose.

"We are strong ladies; we are all proud," she says.

Creating jobs through art

Maggie McGowan hopes that Magpie Goose will be able to work with communities to create work opportunities to move people away from welfare, and Mr Anderson from Tiwi Art agrees.

"The wider paternalistic view is that in community people are just wasting away: 'they need to come to the cities and learn and get on board with us and keep up'," he says.

"The truth is, in communities they're gems, repositories of knowledge and skills and capabilities. It's actually all here.

"More jobs and more income in the community is definitely what we need, and not just relying on funding streams."

The label's initial Kickstarter fundraising target of $20,000 was reached in a day, and they've since raised more than five times that amount in orders for the first range.

Artist Margaret Duncan, from Urupanga, will be producing designs for the next one, and is hopeful that the label's success will mean success across the board.

"I'm really proud of how we can do things because we have a good talent to do, and there's a lot of Aborigine people out there have the skill to do it," she said.