Back in late February when East Gippsland artist Alice Pepper was designing the Melbourne Vixens’ third annual Indigenous-themed dress, the disaster freshest in her mind was not the mysterious coronavirus that had started its deadly march around the globe, but the summer bushfires that had devastated swathes of the state and country.
Pepper, a proud Gunnai/Kurnai woman, was deeply affected by the losses suffered by so many near her Lakes Entrance home, and the painting was a key part of her own healing process.
As a lifelong social netballer lured out of retirement for a premiership with Lindenow South in the Omeo and District Football Netball League in 2019, there was the additional thrill for the 40-year-old - who worked through the night to meet the tight deadline - of being involved in a project so close to her sporting heart.
The result will be there for all to see on Sunday, when the minor premier Vixens wear Pepper’s striking design for their Round 13 Suncorp Super Netball [SSN] clash with the Queensland Firebirds in Cairns.
“When I started it was like an outlet, it was like a debriefing for myself to reflect on the experience that we’d just had with the fires,’’ recalls Pepper, then employed by Local Aboriginal Networks.
“It was pretty traumatic for everybody, and everybody was just trying to pitch in to help, finding beds for people, donating water and food. Anything that we could.’’
The brief from Netball Victoria, initiated by Gippsland netball stalwart Judy Buhagiar and facilitated by NV’s and diversity and inclusion coordinator Sarah Last, was to reflect the coming together, strength and unity of people and communities in challenging times.
In March, before Suncorp Super Netball’s pandemic postponement, Pepper travelled to Melbourne to meet the Vixens in person, explaining her bushfire experience and the specific meanings and symbols embedded in this example of an art style traditional to the Gippsland area.
It depicts the ocean, lakes and river systems, plus the bushland, earth and mountains of Gunnai/Kurnai country. At the top of the dress is the head of a Vixen, looking over the countryside, hoping for rain. In the middle panel is the burned landscape of trees and natives, which contrasts with the green regrowth sprouting.
“The track of footprints going down the middle of the dress is our people being evacuated from the fires to Lakes Entrance, but we’re always gathering in numbers, so the circle in the middle is a really significant symbol of our people coming together,’’ says Pepper.
“The little circles in the front are the women and men gathering around the children. I was supposed to put seven in there to also represent the players on the court, but I put in one extra!’’
Among the interested onlookers on Sunday will be Australian coaching legend and Vixens patron Joyce Brown - a lover of Indigenous art and a keen sewer with a fondness for fabrics.
"I think the [themed] uniforms are fantastic,'' says Brown, who wishes there were more Indigenous players out on the court wearing them.
Queensland Firebirds' midcourter, Jemma Mi Mi, is the only Indigenous player currently on an SSN list, although past stars include trailblazer Marcia Ella-Duncan, and another former Diamond, Sharon Finnan-White. Brown saw plenty of the former and coached the latter.
“In football you see the natural talent and the mercurial skill level the Aboriginal athletes have, and it’s always been a bit surprising that we haven’t been able to attract more of them into our game. Sharon’s an exception and so’s Marcia,’’ says Brown.
“It is very disappointing. Maybe we’re not welcoming enough. There has to be more support for them, because the cultural shock must be massive, as we’ve seen with some of the male footballers. We need to do it a lot better, because we’re wasting so much talent, no doubt.
“I’ve coached in Darwin, I’ve coached in Alice Springs - a lot - and you see the talent racing round. I don’t know whether it’s too distant and football has sufficient money to attract people and look after them, put them [through] school and we don’t.’’
Pepper believes the barrier is a lack of information around access to development pathways, and, to that end, has helped to establish not-for-profit Aboriginal sport committees to help build networks and relationships.
This weekend, she hopes the visibility of Indigenous round inspires young artists as well as budding athletes.
Back in Melbourne's east, Brown's home includes an original painting by Michael Nelson Jagamara, whose mosaic adorns the main forecourt at Parliament House in Canberra.
“I’m right into art, as you know, and some of their beautiful paintings and some of their beautiful materials, apart from being meaningful, they’re so colourful.'' says Brown. "I love them. I love the Indigenous Round concept. I love the whole thing.’’
Written by Linda Pearce