Ask Jenni a question about her art and she will answer with an example of another Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artist or arts organisation in Canberra and what a wonderful job they do in contributing to the rich Indigenous arts landscape in Canberra. This is a testament to how truly passionate Jenni is about advocating for and supporting Indigenous artists, showcasing traditional work and introducing modern mediums to traditional techniques.
Jenni’s strong connection to the Canberra arts community comes from her involvement across a long list of different mediums. From majoring in sculpture at university to screen printing at Megalo to her studio at the Canberra Glassworks, Jenni has built a wide skill set and an impressive list of achievements.
An accomplished career
Jenni is an award winning visual artist and writer of Aboriginal (Arrernte), Chinese and Anglo-Celtic descent who has been recognised for her community and individual work over her career. She graduated from the then Canberra School of Arts, now ANU School of Art and Design, in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts (Visual), majoring in Sculpture. Since university, Jenni has worked in mediums such as print making, photography, textiles, mixed media and glass. As a writer, Jenni has published six anthologies and a collection of poetry, with her writing being translated into Arabic, Spanish and Polish. In 1999 Jenni founded the ACT Indigenous Writers Group and remained the project coordinator until 2013. Jenni also received an ACT Creative Arts Fellow for Literature in 2003.
In 2011 Jenni was recognised for her contribution to the community on an honour roll of 100 inspirational local ACT women to mark the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day. In 2013, Jenni received the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award for her piece, Golden Brown Reeds Fish Trap. Her work is in numerous public and private collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, National Museum of Australia, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Art Gallery of South Australia, Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, Corning Museum of Glass USA, and the British Museum, UK. Jenni is represented by Sabbia Gallery in Sydney and Paul Johnstone Gallery in Darwin.
Image: Jenni at work
Supporting the sector
In 2003, Jenni started the Indigenous Textiles and Glass Artists (ITAG) organisation with Lyndy Delian. ITAG is run in a traditional manner under the guidance of elders, responding to what the artists need, which includes advocacy for artists and negotiating on their behalf with arts organisations such as Megalo and the Canberra Glassworks. Jenni explains that Indigenous artists tend to work alone or in small groups and are reluctant to approach arts organisations due to barriers presented through issues like historical colonisation and discrimination. ITAG approaches organisations on behalf of artists and organises for a small group to, for example, go to a workshop at Megalo. After the initial experience with the group, Jenni finds artists feel comfortable to pursue their own paths. ITAG’s work enables Indigenous artists to connect with arts organisations and build their professional capacity.
Since its beginnings, ITAG has had more than 80 exhibitions and facilitated programs such as digital storytelling at PhotoAccess. With support from artsACT, ITAG has offered workshop programs at the Canberra Glassworks. ITAG has a waiting list of artists wanting to take part, with Canberra Glassworks continuing to offer learning and development opportunities for members. Jenni says receiving funding helps to develop artists’ skills. ITAG has taken artists’ work to interstate, regional and metropolitan audiences, and connected with other communities.
As well as the ACT community, Jenni wants to develop the skills of regional artists. Jenni and Lyndy Delian came up with the idea of the Honouring Cultures program, which partners with the Canberra Glassworks to give regional artists the opportunity to come to Canberra Glassworks for skills development and hosts international artists for a skill exchange and collaborative work. The program has seen artists from New Zealand, Asia Pacific and the United States working with ITAG artists. In 2015 Canberra Glassworks hosted Māori artists who worked collaboratively with ITAG artists on Distant Warriors, an ANZAC centenary exhibition inspired by the stories of Indigenous Australian and Māori soldiers who fought in the First World War. Jenni describes ITAG as a cohesive, cooperative group; perhaps one reason ITAG was awarded an International Women’s Day Community Award for groundbreaking work in supporting Indigenous artists in 2010.
As an established artist heavily involved in the arts community, Jenni noticed the information and skills artists need to progress professionally were not being taught. This led to the foundation of Kemarre Arts in 2006, the ACT’s first independent Aboriginal-run social enterprise. In 2012, it was awarded the ACT NAIDOC Award for Most Outstanding Agency. Kemarre Arts runs grant writing, professional development and marketing programs for artists, while also having a publishing arm. To help artists market and sell their work, Kemarre Arts offers guidance on pricing their work and assists in making connections with galleries. Artists are also shown how to create smaller arts and crafts to sell at markets, and meet consumer demand, making them more self-sufficient. Jenni is currently working with talented emerging print makers and weavers to help them establish an online presence and turn their art into a direct income source. The aim is to impart skills and knowledge to give artists independence from Kemarre Arts.
While maintaining Kemarre Arts and ITAG, Jenni also has her own artistic practice, with a studio in Canberra Glassworks. Her work with glass started in 2008 through a group residency. Jenni, Lyndy and two other members of ITAG had a stall at the Old Bus Depot Markets, where they watched the powerhouse transform into the Canberra Glassworks. Deciding they wouldn’t mind a go at glass, they approached the then Glassworks’ Artistic Director, Kirstie Rea, who came to look at their work. At the time the four were working on enamel designs on glass, usually using plates from op shops to apply their designs. Kirstie saw working with glass as a logical next step in their practice and supported the group’s funding application to artsACT, which was successful. The funding helped the group complete a number of workshops to develop different skills, and over time the group brought in more Indigenous artists to work with glass.
In 2011, Jenni received a Thomas Foundation Artist in Residency. It was during this residency she began experimenting with weave patterns in glass. Taking inspiration from traditional Aboriginal weaving techniques, she pays tribute to the oldest living weaving practices in the world; recognising ancient cultural practices through the contemporary medium of glass. Jenni started to wonder if she could weave glass, but glass does not behave like that. In order to create items traditionally woven from native flora, such as eel traps, fish traps, dilly bags, bicornual baskets, and message sticks, Jenni used a centuries old Italian cane glass technique.
Using these techniques, Jenni says, gives an even more unique dimension to Aboriginal weaving practices that are tens of thousands of years old. As Jenni explains the process of achieving the pattern and shows how the glass bends in certain places on her glass eel trap to create a weave pattern, it is truly awe inspiring that this idea translated so clearly. The only way to fully understand the intricate nature of this technique and how Jenni achieves the patterns and colours on her final pieces is to see the process. The detail and commitment Jenni puts into her work is apparent when she says it took two years of trial and error to get the colour of Pandanas right.
For Jenni, working with glass is twofold. Firstly, using glass redirects public attention to traditional Indigenous arts to highlight the oldest weaving tradition in the world, a fact that should be celebrated and promoted. On the other side, Jenni’s work with glass demonstrates the capacity of contemporary Indigenous artists to use modern mediums for cultural expression. While Jenni acknowledges glass is less accessible because of the expenses involved in materials and equipment, she believes it offers the artist so much and is a versatile medium. Jenni sees modern mediums as giving a new expression to cultural content and would like to see more Indigenous artists taking advantage of opportunities to incorporate them into their practice.
Image: Jenni at work
Connection to culture
In 2012, Jenni and Lyndy were selected by the Australia Council for the Arts to attend the Festival of Pacific Arts in Honiara, Solomon Islands. The Festival brought together a multitude of artistic practices and artists from across the Pacific, most of whom had not seen studio art glass before. The Canberra Glassworks lent two small kilns and two engravers for Jenni and Lyndy to run workshops, which were so popular they were packed out for the two weeks of the festival. After experiencing such a positive response, Jenni and Lyndy sought and received support from Canberra Glassworks for an Honouring Culture program.
Through ITAG and Honouring Cultures, pathways are being developed for Indigenous artists to experience working with glass. The next stage will be to introduce carving and print making artists to Canberra Glassworks and Megalo in 2017. Canberra Glassworks and Megalo established a program called Glint, which pairs a glass artist with a print artist to upskill and exchange ideas. Jenni sees Glint as being a good model for attracting regional Indigenous artists to Canberra. She believes the ability of organisations to partner due to the close community ties and crossovers of disciplines is one of the unique drawcards of Canberra. Many people in the arts community have known each other for decades, with Jenni citing her friendship with sculptor Mariana Del Castillo and others, with the ongoing interest each takes in the other’s work indicative of how solid the cross-arts support network is in Canberra. These fruitful connections are special to the unique Canberra arts landscape.
Alongside Jenni’s work within the community, she is working towards her own exhibitions this year. Jenni will be exhibiting at Tuggeranong Arts Centre in July, at two galleries in Darwin in August, and has a solo exhibition later in the year in Singapore.
Jenni continues showcasing traditional culture through glass through her research into the colourings of lesser known native plants, wild flowers, grasses and bull rushes. Considering Jenni spent two years perfecting the colour for Pandanas, it is safe to say this new body of work will accurately reflect the rustic and beautiful colours of the Australian native landscape.
Jenni's work, along with that of four other glass artists from Canberra Glassworks, was selected for the Made in Australia exhibition in Berlin, Germany. The exhibition will run from 29 June until 13 July, 2017. For more information on the Made in Australia exhibition visit the website http://berlinglas.org/home/australia-now-2017/.
Image: Jenni at work
If you would like to know more about Jenni contact her via email at email@example.com.