The Blak Laundry takes over Aboriginal artist Richard Bell’s ‘Embassy’ and airs the nation’s dirty laundry

The Blak Laundry takes over Aboriginal artist Richard Bell’s ‘Embassy’ and airs the nation’s dirty laundry
  • PublishedMay 6, 2024

Have you ever noticed the racist, colonial overtones of your laundry products?

White King, Colour Catcher, Purity, Thieves…

“Every blackfella sees it,” says Quadamooka artist Libby Harward.

You may think it’s unintentional, but many are the residue of historically racist tropes used in soap advertisements — both here and overseas — that associated cleanliness and purity with whiteness.

“Just a simple stroll down aisle seven in Woolies … you really start seeing some of these ideologies that are still so present,” adds Gamilaroi artist Dominique Chen.

Laundry products lined up on a shelf.
A-Musuem of Laundry Pow(d)er: an assortment of modern laundry products on display at The Blak Laundry.(ABC Arts: Lisa Skerrett)

Chen and Harward are creators and “launderers” of The Blak Laundry — a living contemporary artwork by and for First Nations artists.

It functions as multiple things: a working laundromat, an exhibition space, and a place for conversation and celebration of all things Blak.

The concept is simple: bring your dirty linen, pop it on a warm wash, and engage in critical conversation while it cleans.

Two women speak to a group in a laundry.
“We’ve had these beautiful collaborations with people… it’s been through a relationship, it’s not about a contract,” says Dominique Chen.(Supplied: Jo-Anne Driessens)How does The Blak Laundry work?
Debuting in 2023 at Munimba-ja Arts Space as part of Horizons Festivals — a contemporary multi-arts festival held on the Sunshine Coast — The Blak Laundry made its second appearance at the most recent annual Woodford Folk Festival.
A festival tent with signs out the front.The Blak Laundry tent at Woodford Folk Festival 23/24.(Supplied: Libby Harward)
Over six days, punters were invited to hang out in the space, peruse the artworks and library, join “pop-up rinse” DJ dance sessions and singalongs, or even pay to have their clothes washed alongside the garb of their favourite Blak artist.
“We always wanted a dirty shirt from Richard Bell,” says Harward.
A hand holds up black envelopes that read 'get intimate with Richard Bell'.Instructions for the intimate wash with Richard Bell read: ‘Take Uncle Richard’s dirty laundry item and put on a gentle wash (NB. Press cold; think gentle and sensual).’(Supplied: Libby Harward)
Daily “agitation sessions” — performance pieces designed to agitate ideas and discussion — were scheduled throughout the festival, featuring guests such as Waanyi artist Judy Watson, Butchulla songman Fred Leone, and Kabi Kabi artist Lyndon Davis.
Four people stand smiling in front of washing machines.Lyndon Davis and Fred Leone with Dominique Chen and Libby Harward at The Blak Laundry.(Supplied: Jo-Anne Driessens)
But as well as a conceptual space, The Blak Laundry offered Woodford’s more than 125,000 patrons something they’d never had: somewhere to wash their festival garb.
With multiple days above 36 degrees, plus a few torrential storms, the laundry’s three washing machines and dryers were pushed to their limits.
Harward and Chen explain how the tension between the laundry’s functions — as an experiential artwork, and as a service — is part of the idea.
“The need for washing here is greater than our capacity and so then it does bring these interactions, and that’s all part of the artwork,” says Harward.
“As Aboriginal people too, we really [notice] those subtleties [in] power dynamics of people’s expectations or entitlement to our spaces,” Chen adds.
A laundry sorting basket with the words 'dark', 'colour' and 'light'.The Blak Laundry will service delicate whites — but only if the machines have capacity.(ABC Arts: Lisa Skerrett)
Following the first torrential downpour and an influx of patrons, the laundry’s “drop-and-go” service quickly became untenable.
“I stood back and I was watching what was happening,” says Harward.
“We had two blackfellas sweating their rings out, and then we had people from the festival coming in and bringing their dirty washing. Some were engaging, but others [just] needed their clothes washed.
“What does that look like when we change this power dynamic?”
Bags of washing an umbrellas in a big pile.Bags of dirty washing pile up after a torrential storm.(Supplied: Jo-Anne Driessens)
If patrons got frustrated, Harward would take the time to explain the situation and point out the dynamics. For the most part, it would click.
“And then I say, ‘OK, it’s time that you do your own dirty laundry’,” she laughs.
Breaking colonial power cycles
The inspiration for creating a work that deals with the politics of Blak art came from “just being very tired, and very overloaded,” says Chen.
She explains it’s an exhaustion borne of the energy required to fit into colonial systems, including the art world.
Paintings hang on a wall next to a green t shirt which reads 'wash ya dot art'A gallery wall inside The Blak Laundry.(ABC Arts: Lisa Skerrett)
“[They’re] spaces that we were finding quite extractive [and] commodified our culture. So it was kind of a way for us to have a conversation with that,” she says.
Part of the appeal of setting the work in a laundry is that it’s approachable.
“Most blackfellas don’t go to a gallery, but they would have gone to a laundromat or they would have had family that were in domestic labour,” says Harward.
“There’s a connection to laundromats… memories and stories around washing machines, growing up and going to the laundromat, or sleeping in a laundromat when it was raining.
“Their relationship to the laundromat was strong.”
Three women sit in laundry while one reads stories.Waanyi artist Judy Watson recounts family stories of washing day.(ABC Arts: Lisa Skerrett)
Speaking to the art world
For Harward and Chen, the laundry is also an exercise in stepping away from the white walls of traditional gallery spaces and the hierarchical, competitive nature of the art world.
“We never had kings or queens, but sometimes some of our people and artists get extracted into this ‘high art’ space,” says Chen.
A man is crafting small sewing kits.Maiawali, Kurawali, Pitta Pitta and Gomeroi artist Dylan Bolger makes custom sewing kits for sale in The Blak Laundry.(Supplied: Libby Harward)
“In my cultural context, creative practice and art was, and is, in the fabric of our cultures. [It] wasn’t something that just sits in a gallery that you’ll come and look at, and pay money for and applaud and say ‘how wonderful, look at that culture’.
“We see the value of creative practice in a social sense, and in an everyday sense, and for that to be extracted… it feels very elitist.”
For Harward, the context for presenting art is inextricably linked to colonial values.
“One thing I’m always aware of when I make art [is] if it has any kind of object that someone can look at, and it’s placed inside a gallery or a museum, it always talks with — or back to — the collection and theft of our culture and the labelling and classification. Whereas when it goes on the walls in the laundry, I don’t think it does that,” Harward says.
Chen adds: “Because it’s our space.”
Two women lead a group of people sitting in a circle.“Even though we’re sort of curators of the space, we’re not gatekeepers,” says Dominique Chen.(Supplied: Jo-Anne Driessens)
Supporting emerging and established First Nations artists
The Blak Laundry has just had another airing.
Last weekend, Chen and Harward took over Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang artist Richard Bell’s Embassy at the University of the Sunshine Coast Art Gallery, as part of OCCURRENT AFFAIR, a major exhibition showcasing the work of Brisbane-established Aboriginal artist collective, proppaNOW.
As part of the agitation session, Chen and Harward launched a crowdfunding campaign in service of its long-term goal: to set up a permanent laundry that’s economically self-sustainable, providing income and a space for First Nations artists through laundry “takeovers”.
But to do that, they need more machines.
“We’re broke, but not broken, and we need help to keep our overloaded machines going,” says Chen.
A person loads laundry into a machine at the laundromat.Sharing the load.(Supplied: Jo-Anne Driessens)
In the meantime, Harward and Chen are looking to create future iterations of the work.
“We’re institutionally fluid: we can sit as a business, as an artwork … if anyone wants to talk and engage with the laundry, house the laundry, support the laundry — we’re open to ideas!” says Chen.
A table with folded t shirts for sale.The Blak Laundry T-Shirts on display.(Supplied: Jo-Anne Driessens)


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