Kyra Mancktelow, Blak Skin – Blue Jacket, 2021, ink and gold leaf on paper, 47 1⁄4 × 31 1⁄2".

Kyra Mancktelow, Blak Skin – Blue Jacket, 2021, ink and gold leaf on paper, 47 1⁄4 × 31 1⁄2".

Kyra Mancktelow

Last year, Kyra Mancktelow won the prestigious Emerging Artist Award at the annual Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA). Still in her mid-twenties, the artist has developed ingenious ways of addressing traumas of colonial history and asserting her Indigenous heritage. Attracting particular attention are monumental ink prints on paper of life-size garments Mancktelow fashions from tarlatan fabric, a thin open-weave cotton stiffened with starch. The clothing is copied from historical records to create printed impressions that cipher the coercion of First Nations people to assimilate to colonizers’ customs.

Mancktelow adopted this method for her NATSIAA entry, Moongalba II, 2021, which exhumes a little-known fragment of Queensland colonial history linked to Minjerribah, a landmass now known as Stradbroke Island, where the artist has family ties to the Quandamooka people. The work comprises two large monoprints—each roughly fifty by thirty inches, on white Hahnemühle paper—of re-created school uniforms worn by Indigenous children of the Myora Mission at Moongalba on Minjerribah. From 1892 to 1896 this institution was an industrial and reformatory school enforcing European customs and training children to be “profitable” members of settler society. Mancktelow creates her prints by soaking the tarlatan garments in dark ink and pressing them flat on a light ground. The resulting images—of a girl’s dress with long blouse sleeves and a boy’s shirt and shorts—combine a haunting ephemeral quality with the forensic detailing of outlines, weave, stitching, loose threads, and rough edges. Moongalba II speaks movingly of loss and remembrance.

The idea of dress as a vehicle of assimilation continued in Mancktelow’s recent exhibition “Gubba Up.” Gubba is an Aboriginal word that loosely means “white,” so the title implies “whiten up” or “become white,” as a societal command. Facing each other on opposite gallery walls were two imposing ink impressions of tarlatan uniforms sewn by the artist and modeled on those worn by British military personnel in the early decades of Australia’s colonization. One image, titled Blak Skin – Red Coat, 2022, registered the flattened imprint of an officer’s scarlet coat with buff lapels and rows of buttons picked out in gold leaf. The traces of the red-inked garment were noticeably faded in places, smudged and torn by the printing process. Superimposed over the lower edge of this symbol of imperial conquest was the solid dark silhouette of a hooked boomerang, a traditional combat weapon used by Aboriginal men. This template was echoed in the facing picture, Blak Skin – Blue Jacket, 2021, with the imprint of a blue split-tailed military jacket shadowed on the lower right by an Aboriginal club.

Though these powerful images staged stark encounters between emblems of Indigenous cultural resistance and the garb of European invaders, the historical specifics informing the works were not apparent. Such detail was supplied by gallery notes, which describe, among other episodes, the British colonizers of what became Sydney giving military coats and jackets to Aboriginal men, attempting a “civilizing” enterprise to “gubba up” Black bodies. A third piece in the exhibition, Gubba Up, 2021–22, read as a riposte to the idea that European garb would somehow benefit Indigenous people. Arranged in a rough line against the back wall of the gallery were four objects placed on low plinths. Draped over the two inner supports like abjectly deflated castoffs were the dried-out, ink-infused red and blue uniforms used in Mancktelow’s printing process. In contrast, the two outer plinths displayed what looked like newly crafted versions of a combat boomerang and club from Minjerribah, which pugnaciously asserted the survival of Australian Indigenous culture against the odds.