Hanging from wires and arranged on stands around the gallery’s white walls, the 150 hand-made hats making up the Alice Springs Beanie Festival’s ‘Colours of the Country’ exhibition are an explosion of colour, imagination and eccentricity.
Starting life as a party put on by a bunch of friends to show and sell the results of crochet workshops held in remote Aboriginal communities, the Alice Springs Beanie Festival has evolved into a four-day event which attracts visitors, and hats, from around Australia and overseas, as well as a healthy cross-section of its home town.
“People are quite blown away,” says festival artistic director Merran Hughes, “especially first-time visitors. You know, they hear “a beanie festival” and they’re expecting a little stall with a couple of cakes at one end…but it is something very different from that, something very unusual, something you’ve probably never seen anywhere else.”
Constructed from wool, felt, twistie packets, knitted string, barbed wire and bread bags, and adorned with everything from ininti seeds and emu feathers to plastic fish and jellybeans, the hats have been inspired by a range of competition categories, including ‘Colours of the Country’, ‘Flora and Fauna’, ‘Mad Hatter’ and ‘Most Festive’.
There are beanies representing rainforest, mountains, malevolent spirits, witchetty grubs and black cockatoos; hats with horns, appliquéd lizards, faux dreadlocks and ankle-length earflaps.
“Come and see the ones with the bosoms!” someone calls to her friend across the gallery.
The works in question, made by Pitjantjatjara artists from Ernabella in Central Australia, are crocheted woollen beanies embellished with arms, breasts, faces and ostrich feather hair.
The fat fold of a sumo wrestler’s stomach forms the brim of one beanie, with his arms hanging down as ear-warmers. The ‘meno-thermal-power surge-relief pack’ hat has built-in features such as thermometer, fan, teabags, spare key and wine pouch for the menopausal woman. One maker, inspired by a Leunig cartoon, has knitted herself a big-nosed bloke and turned him into headwear.
In addition to operating a horse market of hats where thousands of handmade beanies are traded, the festival incorporates textile demonstrations and workshops, knitting and crochet ‘olympics’ and an incredible gallery exhibition of wearable artworks.
Despite the glamour and pompoms, organisers are still “deadly serious” about the festival’s central aim of promoting Indigenous textiles and appropriate industry development for Aboriginal artists. The festival has strong links with several remote Aboriginal art centres, where workshops are run in the lead-up to the event each year.
The women of Ernabella Art Centre, in particular, have a long involvement, and their demonstrations of traditional spinning and basket weaving are a festival feature. The Ernabella women, some of whom have been producing textiles since the days of the mission’s wool industry, use the Pitjantjatjara word mukata for beanie and often weave traditional stories into their work.
In 2006 and 2007 the festival secured funding to run workshops in seven of Alice Springs’ twenty-one town camps. These involved a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal textile workers visiting the camps once a week with a kitbag of wool and crochet hooks and sitting down under a tree with women who wanted to make beanies.
“The wonderful thing about craft,” says ‘beaniologist’ and town camp project worker Liz Scott, “is that women will sit and do it and share stories — that is something that goes back eons in time, and there is that sharing of space and sharing of skills and sharing of energy. And sometimes there is silence and sometimes there is conversation happening in different languages…and other times we sit around and have the best laughs, an absolute giggle. And at other times it will be serious talks.”
There was a lot of serious talk when stories about the extent of child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities broke in the national media last year.
“For the women to open up about their mixture of feelings of shame, relief that this stuff was coming out, the horror and the grieving that it involved for them, and their vulnerability with that exposure I think was a really healthy thing,” Scott says.
“And that we could all sit and talk and share those stories and that information and the emotions about it all in a cross-cultural environment I think was very, very important.”
As community development, beanie making is textbook perfect. The hats are popular and practical — providing warmth, protection from nits and sometimes a hiding place — and making them is fun, relatively easy and promotes a sense of pride. The industry requires little equipment, services a genuine market and develops on the ground — literally, where Aboriginal women often prefer to sit.
Organisers have a vision of beanie making developing into a micro-industry with the capacity to reduce poverty in the Northern Territory. If Akubra hats can become a mainstream fashion statement, why not desert beanies?
But the flow-on effects of the festival and its associated projects go beyond small-scale economic development. Just as the non-threatening piece of headwear lures an art-wary public into Alice Springs’ Araluen Art Centre in greater numbers than any other event on its calendar, beanie making workshops draw women in remote communities into art centres, where they often become engaged in other projects. Ernabella artist Ungakini Tjangala, for instance, now an established painter with works in the South Australian Gallery, began her career making beanies.
The proliferation of eccentric woolly hats around Alice Springs in winter, not to mention the creativity and technical skill of works on display in the festival’s exhibitions, demonstrate that another festival aim — the promotion of the beanie as a regional art form — is enjoying success.
Perhaps the festival’s greatest strength, though, is in finding common ground between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, whose lack of interaction and understanding is one of the underlying factors in the social dysfunction of Aboriginal communities.
“I think small things are going to change people,” says Alice Springs artist Dan Murphy. “Half the problem is that the town is so divided. The Aboriginal people and the white people really don’t have a lot of interaction. I think we really need to interact together and have fun together and get to know each other and meet people and be able to say hello in the street.
“The thing about the beanie festival and projects like all those women going out to town camps — they’re only little but they’re really positive and they can be really strong, and little things like that are going to help these problems.”
“It’s all about building social capital,” says festival originator Adi Dunlop, “Sometimes you need a hook or a tool to get people together…”
Textile artist Nellie Patterson is sitting around a cut-down 44-gallon drum with her family, turning kangaroo tails in the coals when I go to see her, and despite having spent the weekend demonstrating traditional Pitjantjatjara textile making, she is knitting a beanie.
The colours she is using are powerful, Nellie says. The combination — of purple, pink, green and blue — is both bright and ‘noisy’.
“What does the noise do?” I ask.
“Ahhh, it rises up inside you!” she exclaims in a whisper, clutching my arm and laughing.
It seems the humble crochet hook is picking up stitches in the social weave of Central Australia.
For more information: http://www.beaniefest.org