Last winter, a segment of Hugh Jackman’s one-man Broadway show featured didgeridoo players and singers from Australia’s aboriginal community. Artists Clifton Bieundurry, Nathan Mundraby and Olive Knight had come to New York as part of Nomad Two Worlds, a hybrid charitable and cultural organization founded by Australian high-fashion photographer Russell James. In 1999 James began using photography to explore the painful legacy of his country’s treatment of its indigenous population. From there the project grew, and not just as an artistic endeavor; it’s now also a foundation raising funds for marginalized communities and a for-profit business working with artisans to bring their products to the global market. He discusses its past, present and future. nomadtwoworlds.com
Q: At first the Nomad Two Worlds project was simply your own photographs. Why did you begin collaborating with indigenous artists?
A: In 2008 the Australian prime minister made a formal apology to the aboriginal community, and there was a genuine movement toward reconciliation. It made me realize that I needed to make my work a partnership, not just my own interpretation in a vacuum. So I started working with my good friend, aboriginal artist Clifton Bieundurry, traveling with him around his community in northwest Australia and photographing things of cultural significance. Then he would embellish the photos with his own artwork overlaid on top. It was a new medium, modern photography with ancient art, and we found it to be an incredible way to preserve and speak about culture.
Q: You now work with other communities as well, such as Native American artists. How did that come about?
A: When we were preparing for a gallery opening in Santa Monica, I contacted the Chumash society and asked for permission to host it on what was traditionally their land. It was a very emotional moment. They said, “In all this time, nobody’s asked.” That relationship continues to inspire our work with Native American society. I went out and shot Miranda Kerr in a tree in the California desert, and created an incredible collaboration with this amazing Shoshone artist named Jamie Okuma, who has worked with the Smithsonian Institute.
Q: Do you have a sense of how Nomad Two Worlds is affecting everyday lives in these communities?
A: We automatically donate 10 percent of everything we earn to our foundation, which supports organizations like the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, a group that works with indigenous populations. We also create role models who go back into the community. Olive Knight is now held in the highest esteem. She’s able to get the attention of the government and other elders and say, “Look, anything’s possible, let’s go further in the discussion.”
Q: Are there any other indigenous communities you plan on working with in the future?
A: We’re currently in discussions to do a collaboration in Somalia. A Somalian artist, K’naan, has really educated me about the incredible artisan community there. Social media has enabled remote indigenous communities in all kinds of countries to get in touch with us. We’ve had people reach out to us from Iceland, from the north of Canada. The potential for collaborations is unlimited.
Fact: Indigenous Australians born between 1996 and 2001 have a life expectancy 16 to 17 years lower than non-aboriginals.