Johnny Nargoodah is a Nyikina man from Fitzroy Crossing, who has spent most of his life as a saddler on remote cattle stations in Western Australia. Trent Jansen is a contemporary furniture and object designer from coastal New South Wales. The pair met in 2016, in Johnny’s hometown, as part of the Fremantle Arts Centre’s ‘In Cahoots’ project, where they collaborated on a leather work project with Mangkaja artist, Rita Minga. This was the beginning of a deep creative partnership and long-lasting friendship between the two.
Partu (the Walmajarri word for ‘skin’) is Johnny and Trent’s latest collaboration of conceptual furniture, which is exhibiting now at Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert in Sydney. Comprising of two collections with distinct styles, the leatherwork pieces explore the relationship between materials and the learning process involved in collaboration. ‘Saddle’ leans on Johnny’s experience as a saddler on cattle stations, and sees upholstery leather stretched taughtly across geometric steel frames. The pieces in this collection resemble objects cloaked in sheets, or barrels sucked airtight by an external force!
‘Ngumu Jangka Warnti’ (a Walmajarri phrase meaning ‘whole lot from rubbish’) is the second collection, which uses aluminium mesh Johnny and Trent found in a scrap metal yard as the base for the furniture frames. They cut this wire material into the shape of a chair or table, and battered it into form with hammers and concrete blocks. The resulting structures are then laminated with saddle leather to form a waffle-like skin through which the mesh imprint can still be seen.
‘Saddlers used to come and repair saddles using leather, making twisted rope out of cowhide,’ Johnny explains of his profession, and the significance in the choice of material. ‘The smell of that leather is so good. It brings back memories, triggered those old memories of walking around the saddle room in Noonkanbah shed. There is a sensory response, that’s important.’
Johnny and Trent spent 18 months developing these pieces for Partu, where sketching and swapping their ideas became a key part of the process. They only met in person three times over these months, in two-week stints where Johnny would travel from Fitzroy Crossing to Trent’s workshop in Thirroul, close to Woollongong on the NSW coast. In the interim, Trent and his team would source components and build sections of pieces in preparation for Johnny’s next visit.
Separated by thousands of kilometres and the Tanami Desert, the distance between Johnny and Trent meant they had to experiment with the traditional boundaries of collaboration. Trent details a process he calls ‘sketch exchange’, where the specifics of design jargon can be overcome by communicating purely through drawing.
‘When you work in a collaborative context outside of a shared disciplinary understanding, it’s hard to get anywhere because the words mean something different,’ he explains. Instead, he and Johnny spent most of the first trip sketching their ideas and swapping them, encouraging the other to adapt and change designs with their own input. ‘It’s not as linear as it sounds, not as back-and-forth,’ Trent laughs. ‘But I was wanting to generate these outcomes that were legitimately co-created, as symmetrical as possible in their co-authorship.’
The resulting pieces are a fusion of both Johnny and Trent’s disciplines, and a meeting of their independent creative sensibilities. “History – the leather gives it a reference to the history of Fitzroy Crossing,’ Johnny states, a point Trent echoes.
‘I’m keen for people to understand these narratives that come out of places far away from where they might live, like Indigenous workers on cattle stations and the backbone they form of that industry,’ Trent says. ‘I want to express how important Indigenous workers are for Australia as a contemporary industrial nation, and how that has contributed to the idea of Australian-ness.’
But in the end, it’s about the act of friendship and storytelling the making facilitates that matters most. ‘We work together because we enjoy each other’s company and we enjoy the cultural exchange as well as the skills exchange,’ says Trent. ‘Working with Johnny is part of my life now.’
Thursday, June 11th – Wednesday, July 15th
Gallery Sally-Dan Cuthbert
20 McLachlan Ave, Rushcutters Bay
New South Wales
Trent will be discussing the show with Australian Financial Review Design Editor, Stephen Todd, from 6-6.30pm on July 2nd, in the gallery and on Instagram Live. RSVP to attend in-person at [email protected], or follow Gallery Sally-Dan Cuthbert here to watch the streamed event.