Pacific Personalities Interview: Claire Kidu
Claire Kidu is a fashion artist from Kairiru Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG). Having navigated multiple obstacles in her career, Claire found her passion in a foreign country, studying the Branded Fashion Degree at Billy Blue College of Deisgn at Torrens University. She aims to one day work in a slow fashion brand, focusing on working with Papua New Guinean artists, artisans and designers. She hopes to use her education to document some of the works and processes of Papua New Guinean artisans to render local traditional attire, especially from her Kairiru Island culture.
Claire’s thoughts on sharing her cultural imagery are particularly telling and it’s becoming increasingly important to have this dialogue across the Pacific to protect the multitude of cultures, their original symbolism and inherent meaning.
In her words:
“Intellectual property rights are concepts I constantly think about while dealing with design. It is a difficult area in Indigenous culture where much of our imagery and stories are shared property. I often consider cultural land laws and processes when trying to navigate these issues in considering the depiction of shared property.
My personal process is to share my culture with caution and consideration.”
Claire finds inspiration in the strong women working in politics in Papau New Guinea and around the world, fighting male dominated systems, for better representation of future generations of women. Papua New Guinea's rugged natural beauty is also a constant source of inspiration for Claire and a theme in her designs.
Read the full interview below.
What's your motivation for studying fashion?
I was a terrible student in High School in Papua New Guinea, but somehow managed to get into the University of Papua New Guinea to study Law. It didn’t take me long to realise this was not my calling - I was still a terrible student at University.
I worked in radio and TV before becoming pregnant with my first child, Rea, in 1999. After that, I worked (while juggling life as a young single mother) in the night club scene. I enjoyed the theatrical aspects of running spectacular events that involved fashion shows and concerts, while continuing to participate in community theatre at Moresby Arts Theatre. This was my safe space and second home. I loved everything about the Moresby Arts Theatre, especially acting and costumes. I met my husband, Andrew, in the theatre when we were kids in High School but our lives took different paths from that point. He came back into my life when Rea was 4 years old. Rea and I followed Andrew to Sydney to start our lives together as a family and before long our family grew while Andrew’s work moved us back to PNG and then on to Queensland. I left formal work to raise our 4 daughters while Andrew did a lot of FIFO (fly in fly out) work.
I’ve spent 12 years out of the workforce, so when I tried to re-enter it after my youngest child started Kindergarten, I became painfully aware of my status as an invisible person in a foreign country. I accepted I would need to skill up to be taken seriously. I looked at a few options and came by the Branded Fashion degree at Billy Blue College of Design, Torrens University. I became so distracted by this option that I found myself at an Open Day at the Brisbane Campus with no real intention to follow this path - it seemed impractical. One of the lecturers chatted to me about doing a couple of weeks with no obligation to stay and she got me. I felt terrified on my first day. I was 41 in a room full of beautiful, intelligent young men and women who were incredible artists and seamstresses - and I couldn’t even sew! It took me a few lectures to admit that design was not only something I was good at, but also something I had secretly always wanted to do. I would never have admitted it before this, because fashion design seems to be an area reserved for an obscure minority. I also felt a bit silly because while I do appreciate beautiful things, I tend to be oblivious to trends and popular culture at times. Finding out Christian Dior couldn’t sew was also extremely comforting. This arc in my life story has brought so much personal joy and fulfilment that I often kick myself for not being brave enough to start earlier.
I would love to work in a slow fashion brand one day, with a focus on working with Papua New Guinean artists, artisans and designers. I hope to use my education to document some of the works and processes of PNG artisans who render PNG traditional attire, especially from my Kairiru Island culture. I would also love to be able to work in Costume for theatre, especially in works that would involve PNG and Pacific Island themes.
Where do you find inspiration?
These CAD drawings are part of a collection called "Unbossed". I designed these after researching a few women who are currently working in or toward political leadership in PNG and around the world. I looked at AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), Penny Wong, Dulciana Somare-Brash & Jennifer Baing-Waiko amongst others. Dulciana and Jennifer are looking to be elected to what is currently an all male Parliament in the 2022 PNG General Election. They are very strong candidates, and we are praying they can break the drought of a parliament void of women’s voices for 5 years now. This issue is one of my biggest current concerns for Papua New Guinean daughters, as I have a mother who has contested elections unsuccessfully in the past and a mother-in-law who was the sole voice of women in PNG Parliament for 15 years. She worked tirelessly to pass laws for women and children and almost managed to put 22 reserved seats on the floor for women, but was defeated by our male-dominated system.
Nature in my Design:
Nature is a constant theme and inspiration in my work. PNG is a rugged country and there is a sense of this in the pleats at the neckline of the dress I have chosen for Dulciana. She is standing for the seat of her people in Angoram District which is located on the Sepik River. Jennifer is an Agriculturist who will contend a seat known for being a huge food bowl in PNG. The gridded pintucks on the dress I’ve chosen for Jennifer are inspired by those that were hand sewn onto the 1927 Madeline Vionnet Silk dress and bring to mind the gardens of local PNG producers who Jennifer is always advocating for on her social media pages. Both Dulciana’s pleats and Jennifer’s pin tucks would need to be hand sewn, representing the huge artisan SME sector for which both constituencies are famous.
How do you consider intellectual property rights in your design process?
Intellectual property rights are concepts I constantly think about while dealing with design. It is a difficult area in Indigenous culture where much of our imagery and stories are shared property. I often consider cultural land laws and processes when trying to navigate these issues in considering the depiction of shared property. I’ve personally heard many thoughts from many voices on the subject of copyright and intellectual property registration where cultural imagery is involved, but in PNG the first legal copyright case is only being argued in court at present, so no Indigenous precedent has yet been set.
My personal process is to share my culture with caution and consideration. I speak to my family when creating prints based on artefacts and go to great pains to ensure my rights to share stories and images before doing so. Some objects are more sacred than others, and some images are created in a sacred space, so these are other issues I try to determine as well. In considering inspirational imagery outside my own culture, I try to stay in the realm of appreciation rather than appropriation. I also try to consider these images as I would images from my own cultural background. In terms of protection, I stay aware of my rights as an artist and usually consider the worst case scenario when sharing imagery. Social Media is an incredibly powerful tool for artists to become visible, but like any powerful tool, it needs to be managed skilfully in order to reap the true benefits.
What advice would you give to other creatives?
The main advice I would share with anyone who feels they might like to work in the creative industry is: do not be intimidated. My experience is that the school system can’t help but exclude us creatives a little bit, it’s just the way it works. I spent a long time thinking I was not an academic person before finding out I actually just like to learn slowly, and in detail. I try to advise my nieces and nephews this way as they navigate their own future career paths. I think our kids can often get extremely stressed by the education system and concerned with following the “right path” when quite often the right path is actually the one less travelled. Also: keep journals and keep creating!