A small art space in the heart of Darwin fills with soft thudding, as enthusiastic amateurs use simple paints and carved wooden blocks to hand-print in a traditional Indian style.
Overseeing them is Raju Rathi — a creative from Pushkar, who brought the blocks with him from home, where they can take weeks to carve.
“While they are doing this block range, it just sounds to me like back home, like being with my artists,” he said with a smile.
“It sounds like home.”
At home, Mr Rathi works with artists in remote areas and tries to bring their traditional work to a wider audience.
He also focuses on “upcycling” and repurposing older textiles for modern products.
His connection with the Northern Territory started in 2016, when he met Britt Guy, who runs the Creative Accomplice arts company, when she visited his shopfront in Pushkar while travelling in India.
It sparked a long, international back and forth.
“We began a long conversation about textiles, and obviously textiles are such a strong part of the conversation in the Northern Territory both with the Indigenous artists that are making the fabrics, but I also think the amazing people that wear the fabrics,” Ms Guy said.
“Really for me, it was about being able to bring an artist that I thought would be really excited about learning about the Indigenous textiles and then also be able to share a pretty rare and beautiful way of making textiles.”
Finding the familiar on the other side of the world
Mr Rathi is currently the artist in residence at the Accomplice art space in Darwin.
He’s brought the centuries-old tradition of hand block painting to Darwin, and he’s hoping to find a way to blend the style of his homeland with the ancient traditions of Aboriginal Australian art.
His first week in Darwin was spent meeting with textile artists from the Daly River region, and visiting galleries to learn more about Aboriginal art.
“I really loved that. It’s funny, what they do here with brushes, we make with weaving carpet… the same design — without knowing,” he said.
“The other day I went to see and I’m like… that’s how they make the carpet, they’re weaving carpet with the loom. And I’m seeing (the Aboriginal artists) doing it on wood, the same pattern.”
“I wasn’t sure so I was checking (my pictures from home). I was really like… ‘wake me up, wow’.
“I wanted to bring one of them back and show the people who are doing the weaving and I’m sure they’re going to be amazed to see what’s happening on the other side of the world.”
Over the next week he’ll travel to Gunbalanya in west Arnhem Land, to visit Injalak Arts & Crafts, which has about 200 artists and weavers as members.
‘It’s kind of an adventure’
A handful of participants in a workshop with Mr Rathi were taught how to prepare stretches of cotton, then use the blocks brought from India to print onto the fabric.
One participant, Sarah Smith, said the technique was more difficult than it might look.
“The technique is very detailed. It’s amazing the way the different designs overlay onto each other, and everybody using the same few blocks and four colours have made something completely different,” she said.
“It’s quite amazing.”
“I still make mistakes. It’s kind of an adventure,” Mr Rathi said of the detailed technique.
He works with artists in India who have been block printing for decades.
Creating the wooden blocks can take weeks, from design to carving it exactly out of rosewood or teakwood.
The fabrics are hand-stitched and can be in numerous styles.
A new kind of fusion
Mr Rathi said he was excited to experiment with the knowledge he will pick up on this trip.
“What I designed for our workshop, I thought it’s going to be a fusion, between what we do and what, here, the Aboriginal people do,” he said.
“I’m really into that, I want to bring back something that my co-artists can work (with), and we’re talking with the next project, if everything goes good… the two native arts, they’re going to be worked together and make something really nice.”
Britt Guy says the fusion of local and Asian cultures isn’t new to Darwin, but it is more familiar to restaurants or art forms like music and theatre.
“I think it happens a lot in our food and a lot in the way we celebrate important days in the calendar,” she said.
“But actually I don’t think it happens a lot in creative arts practice. There’s an assumption of the traditional arts, and then there’s the contemporary arts, and quite often they sit in two distinctive groups.”
Mr Rathi said he doesn’t know yet what he wants to create out of his trip — he’s just going to see wait, watch and see what clicks.
There’s no pressure from Britt, who said she’s not attached to any particular outcome.
“To me, residencies and collaborations are like friendships. You need to give people time to work out how they want to work together,” she said.