Telling stories of Aboriginal culture from the distinct groups of the indigenous peoples of Australia — through artwork and design — became a calling for Elissa Nampijinpa Conoscente, founder of Sunzi, a White Plains-based resort-wear company.
A designer herself, Conoscente was born in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, to Macedonian immigrant parents but grew up mainly in the Brisbane area and came to love the beach culture of the Gold Coast region. After studying small business, fashion design, and clothing manufacturing in Europe, Conoscente traveled extensively, and upon her return to Australia eventually scored a job in the wardrobe department at Warner Bros.
“Every time I went home to Australia, I would develop deeper friendships with the Aboriginal artists I had been introduced to through friends of mine. I have always loved the culture.”
“I made a lot of costumes and worked on films and got a lot of experience,” she says. “I then toured around the whole of the UK, worked at the BBC in London, designed costumes for cruise ships, and finally opened my own business.”
After some time in Europe and then starting a family, she moved to the States, settling in White Plains. Feeling quite homesick while supporting her son, who was battling health issues, Conoscente began to think of ways to incorporate authentic Aboriginal artists’ work into fabric, first with beach towels and swimwear and then with scarves, sarongs, jewelry, and more — all with a desire to translate traditional stories into contemporary-fashion accessory collections.
Aboriginal Australians (or First Nations people) are one of the oldest known civilizations on Earth, and the more the designer and entrepreneur learned about their culture and heritage, the more she had the feeling that they had been “taken for a ride.” In 2018, she was inspired to start a company called Sunzi, which began with a simple product: a scarf.
“Every time I went home to Australia, I would develop deeper friendships with the Aboriginal artists I had been introduced to through friends of mine,” she explains. “I have always loved the culture, ever since I was a little girl… the drawings in the caves, the stories, the songs, and the music always captured me.”
Sunzi is a twist on the Scottish adjective “sonsy,” which means to have an attractive or healthy appearance. “I wanted to find a name that was joyful, playful, colorful, and allowed women in particular to feel good about themselves, no matter their body image,” the founder says.
After traveling to remote areas of Tanami Desert in Australia, where the designer met with elders of the Warlpiri people, she became committed to artistic collaborations that would help acknowledge and respect native peoples as the traditional custodians of Australia. Through pictorial storytelling, the territorially anchored groups have maintained deep connections to the land, waters, and culture. Conoscente says she hopes to help the Warlpiri elders make Aboriginal Australian culture and philosophy understandable to the wider world.
The gorgeous, colorful fabric designs seen on Sunzi pieces, which are available at sunzisilks.com, reflect collaborations with artists like Otto Jungarrayi Sims, an accomplished Walpiri painter, visual artist, and activist who honors stories of his community (Yuendumu) and those of his ancestral country at Kunajarrayi and Yanjilpirri. His artwork, along with the artwork of his famous father, Paddy Sims, depict storylines that have been passed down generationally for millennia, which richly describe the surroundings and the landscape, including the flora and the fauna.
“No matter where we come from, indigenous people have so much to teach us, and their stories are so important.”
– Elissa Nampijinpa Conoscente
To protect the artists Conoscente works with in Australia, she says she educated herself about intellectual property and the importance of compensating the authentic tribespeople who were willing to work with Sunzi to create artistic clothing and accessories.
“The tribes’ elders are really grasping onto ways of being able to have their stories told and ways to share their culture with the rest of the world,” she says, “and the artists I work with like to work with me because I pay them directly.” Conoscente complies with all cultural laws and a portion of each sale is donated directly back to the indigenous Australian groups to help improve their quality of life.
The relationship between Conoscente and her artist friends and collaborators is one that she finds extremely rewarding. The elders of Yuendumu gave her the name Nampijinpa, an honorary “skin name” that means “water that reflects in the sky.” In Aboriginal cultures, a skin name is part of a system of kinship and social classification used by some communities to organize relationships within their circles.
“No matter where we come from, indigenous people have so much to teach us and their stories are so important,” Conoscente says. “When we look, we can see our connection; it doesn’t matter what color we are or what country we come from. We can learn so much from each other.”
By delving into the rich cultures from her homeland, the creator has made some profound observations that continue to impact her.
“Every single thing they do — from how they speak to their children to how they teach their young and how they talk to the outer world — everything is about respecting each other, giving to each other, and not asking for anything back except for friendship,” she explains. “Sticking together and being positive is how the Aboriginal people think, and I love to take that from their culture — and something so simple as wearing colors and patterns can just make you feel so good.”