Milingimbi Island sits just off the coast of East Arnhem Land, one of Australia’s northern-most points. It is the largest of the Crocodile Islands, located between two rivers and separated from the rest of the country by a narrow channel. When the tide comes in, two-thirds of Milingimbi is submerged.
This watery landscape is where Yolŋu designer Liandra Gaykamangu grew up. She would follow her older sisters onto the mudflats to forage for black-lip oysters and other shellfish. Her father would take her out in his boat to catch stingrays and barramundi. Although there definitely are crocodiles around, she says, she still goes swimming in lots of places.
But rather than the sensation of the cool waters or the taste of an oyster cut straight from a rock, it is the aerial view of this environment that inspired her latest collection, River Run. What she sees out the plane window every time she flies home is a network of estuaries, rivers and mangroves winding from the Arafura Sea down into the desert, traversing from East to West Arnhem Land along the coast.
“As you fly over the top, the way that the river systems swirl and kind of snake inland, it is just so beautiful,” she says. “Especially when you notice how different it looks depending on the season. We’re going into wet season and a lot of the rivers really swell up, as opposed to June or July, where it’s quite dry and everything looks smaller from above.”
One of the prints on her swimwear and resort garments is a psychedelic representation of these waterways: sprawling red, orange and yellow lines against a solid purple. The colours are inspired by the palette of the sunsets and the soil. The lines of the swimsuits are minimal, reminiscent of the simplicity and athleticism prevalent in the fashion of the 1990s.
Gaykamangu founded Liandra Swim in 2018 when she was 26 and still working as a high-school teacher. The decision to start a swimwear label came from her roots. The ocean and swimming are integral to the culture and livelihood of the Yolŋu people, and where she feels most at home. The respect and love of the environment at the core of this way of life extends to her use of materials – she uses synthetic fabrics made from downcycled plastic waste in the swimwear, and the resort wear is mostly made from natural fibres.
Her commercial growth and success have been gradual. She has been featured in Vogue Australia and in 2021 she participated in a pathways program run by the Indigenous Fashion Project and David Jones. Earlier this year, she opened the Next Gen runway at Australian Fashion Week. All of this has led her to a role as the co-chief executive of the non-profit Enterprise Learning Projects, which supports Indigenous people to achieve their business and entrepreneurship goals.
For Gaykamangu, each collection encapsulates a different aspect of her heritage. While she stays away from traditional Songlines, describing them as too precious and nuanced to risk misinterpretation, her designs are often accompanied by cards explaining something of significance to First Nations people that is captured in the garment.
“This collection in particular is more of a love letter to the Northern Territory and the landscape of my home,” she says. She usually names each piece after an inspirational Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander woman, but for River Run the names are Glyde, Blyth and Hale – rivers in the Northern Territory.
Although she doesn’t teach anymore, a desire to educate Australians about the culture and history of the landscape they inhabit is central to her creative process. She wants people to appreciate the vastness and versatility of the Northern Territory in its entirety – especially hidden sites that can be easily forgotten and overlooked when people fly into or over Darwin. To get a really clear view, she says, it’s better to be in a charter plane, as they fly lower to the ground.
“One of my favourite places to fly over is this incredibly ancient, little-known place,” she says. “It is a cave system with all these pillars that was a meeting place and a significant place for people to come together for a long time.”
The place is called Nawarla Gabarnmang, meaning hole or cleft in the rock, and it lies east of Kakadu National Park. It is a shelter carved out of a quartzite outcrop.
Archaeologists have determined that Aboriginal people started to camp there about 50,000 years ago. The pillars were naturally formed over millions of years but, being only a metre apart, they were too closely spaced for the shelter to be properly enjoyed and so, at some point, the people began dismantling and moving individual pillars. Modern visitors describe it as cathedral-like and Gaykamangu says it feels like a colosseum.
Its interior is equally fascinating. On the floor are slabs of rock that were used as pillows by the elders. The walls and ceiling have been decorated with layers and layers of artwork. The changes of painting style and technique are evidence of the centuries spent beneath the rock – morphing, decorating and engineering it as an architectural space.
“I don’t think people know about these locations and places that really could rewrite Australia’s understanding of First Nations history and culture and what it means to be nomadic,” says Gaykamangu.
The second print of the collection is a rippling series of concentric lines in a shade of coral pink that is slightly lighter than the background. It is featured on a one-piece swimsuit with an asymmetric line across the chest reaching up to a single strap on the left shoulder. The bikini made from the same fabric is shaped in a simple triangle, with a silver ring at the centre of the bust holding both sides together. The same ring is in a belt around the waist of the bottoms, this time sitting above the left hip.
The print is also on a loose-fitting top that slips off the shoulder and is ruched along the seams of its short sleeves. It’s designed for easy wearing over a swimsuit after a dip in the ocean. So is a simple slip dress made from the same fabric. Its spaghetti straps and soft V-neckline make it slightly more versatile – a dress that could be worn in a bar or a restaurant as easily as beside the pool.
Gaykamangu says she wanted the print to be a tribute to the vastness of the ecosystems that live within the river and how the oysters in these systems have been harvested by Indigenous people for thousands of years. In this way both the print and the collection are multifaceted, juxtaposing the beauty and opulence of something as small as an oyster with the rugged landscapes in which she and her sisters find them, evoking favourite moments she has shared with her family on the land.
“It’s so quiet when you’re out in the mud and everyone’s having a laugh and the kids are running around and you can’t hear any of the noise of the community, but you can see it all kind of happening as you look back.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Island life".
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