The Genteel
April 22, 2021


A Donna Karan’s scarf in collaboration with Nomad Two Worlds. Source:

In 1877, famed English art critic, prolific author and cultural sage John Ruskin wrote, "great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts - the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art ... but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last." Though his words were dedicated to the majesty and monuments of Venice, Ruskin's sentiments find resonance in the narrative of all lands. In the vast cacophony of human experience, the art that is left behind becomes the aggregate of our existence, as an individual and as a culture. And as programs such as Nomad Two Worlds have discovered, creative expression and artistic collaboration can be illuminating, unifying salves in the quest to remedy entrenched social wounds.

In the vast cacophony of human experience, the art that is left behind becomes the aggregate of our existence, as an individual and as a culture.

It is not often that the extravagant and alluring world of Victoria's Secret shares a discernible link with the sacred symbolic divinity of Australian indigenous art. And yet, transposed through the captivating lens of Australian photographer Russell James, the two do not seem as incongruous as one might at first imagine.

Raised in Perth, Western Australia, James' rise to the upper echelons of the fashion industry was itself a nomadic occupational journey from sheet metal worker to policeman to model and finally iconic fashion auteur. Boasting a celebrated visual style renowned for juxtaposing contemporary fashion beauties against the beguiling architecture of natural landscapes, James' portfolio of work includes global advertising campaigns for brands such as Victoria's Secret, Revlon and Rolex, fashion spreads in WVanity Fair and Sports Illustrated, as well as the curation of numerous exhibitions and several books showcasing his photographic talents. Regularly lauded as a contemporary fashion photography master and considered to be a propos in the realm of photography greats Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Peter Lindbergh, James' visual aesthetic is familiar to the sartorial set. But it was an aesthetic of an entirely different kind that inspired James to pursue his vision of a philanthropic masterpiece.

Early in 2008, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd extended a formal apology to the Australian indigenous community for the reprehensible government policies that pervaded Australian parliamentary discourse for over 100 years, resulting in the governance aberration and social tragedy that came to be known as the Stolen Generations. The wounds inflicted by successive legislative councils' attempts to suffocate the indigenous heritage of Australia remain in the spirit of the nation whose deeds were for some, not soon enough remedied by words of regret. But for others, like James and indigenous artist and performer Clifton Bieundurry, they served as a creative catalyst to inspire reconciliation through collaboration.


Nomad Two Worlds emerged from James' and Bieundurry's shared ambition to enact symbolic cultural unification in the wake of the long awaited apology. Inspired by the palpable cultural shift that had taken place, both artists united their relatively dichotic styles to illustrate the potential of the new era in indigenous and non-indigenous relations. Although the photographer had long been considering the potential in a reconciliatory art project, it was not until several years after the original idea was conceived that the impetus for action was provided.

As James described to LX.TV, "we had the incredible stimulus of an apology by my own country's leader who apologised to the aboriginals, and we went about interpreting this apology through our visual backgrounds," motivated by "an artistic exploration of what reconciliation might look like." What began as an exhibition of work designed to bridge the divide between Australia's indigenous and non-indigenous cultures quickly evolved into an international philanthropic endeavour focused on encouraging economic development and preservation of marginalised cultures and ultimately empowering artists and artisans from indigenous communities around the world.

As the success of the original Nomad Two Worlds exhibition extended from Perth to New York in 2009, so too did the variety of artists wishing to partake in the creative process. The distinctive style of the Nomad Two Worlds aesthetic is a contemporary hybrid of James' iconic photography adorned with acrylic artwork from painters such as Bieundurry who lend indigenous "stories" to the canvas, designed to elaborate on the narrative of the subject. The reconciliatory aspirations of the Nomad Two Worlds initiative have been honoured by senior indigenous custodians of sacred Aboriginal sites, who granted James unprecedented access to document aspects of the indigenous culture and terrain rarely glimpsed by non-indigenous Australians.


Whilst Nomad Two Worlds has been an instrumental champion for the cultural and economic promotion of the Australian indigenous community through artistic empowerment, its aspirations have extended beyond its Antipodean origins. In collaboration with Donna Karan's Urban Zen Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, Nomad Two Worlds has instilled collaborative programs in Haiti in an effort to stimulate art-inspired tourism and assist with rebuilding whilst preserving the diversity of the local culture. As Donna Karen told, "I have always said that the answer to Haiti is in the hands of the people. It's the artists, the most creative people, who will revive it." 

This shared belief in the remedial potency of a vibrant creative community has aligned some of James' most famous subjects and sponsors with the Nomad Two Worlds Foundation's mission including Sir Richard Branson, Hugh Jackman, The Black Eyed Peas, Heidi Klum and several of her Victoria's Secret colleagues, all of whom have featured in the multimedia presentation and several other incarnations of the project. Inspired by the ethos of the Foundation, Jackman even decided to showcase the haunting musical talents of Bieundurry, his mother Olive Knight as well as fellow indigenous performers Paul Boon and Nathan Mundraby in his latest stage offering Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway in January of this year, marking the first time Australian Aboriginal performers were featured in a Broadway production.

It has now been more than four years since Prime Minister Rudd envisioned "a future where we harness the determination of all Australians, indigenous and non-indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us." Indubitably, such a gap can not remain indefinitely where creative expression seeks to fill the void of disharmony. Whilst not alone in its search for a creative catalyst for reconciliation and social cohesion, Nomad Two Worlds has sought to foster a new relationship between the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples of Australia based on a mutual respect and appreciation for the creative narrative that continues to transcend time, polity and the illusion of difference between us.



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