Across the tropical and desert regions of the Northern Territory a quiet revolution is taking place in the most neglected and least understood area of Indigenous creativity – in women’s fibre practice. While we may consider this region remote, it is the homeland of diverse cultural groups who express their identity through even the ordinary things they make. Objects, people and the environment are inextricably bound together by ancestral agency and “string” as the metaphor often used to describe these interconnections.
String, as this suggests, is a most important foundation material used in Arnhem Land to craft an exceptionally rich and diverse range of ceremonial and utilitarian items. Some items are now only made commercially, so the market place is actually sustaining centuries-old skills and facilitating new avenues of expression. Many weavers increasingly view themselves now as creative artists, willing to push the boundaries of their practice. Over the past twenty years this willingness to innovate and experiment has developed noticeably with the growing market appreciation and promotion of their art.
The diversification of Top End fibre art is not new. It is the result of ongoing creative dialogue that started with European contact and has continued with art enterprise developments since the 1970s. One of the most influential innovations has been the adoption of the coiling technique, first introduced to the Top End around 1926 by missionary Gretta Matthews. Ironically this was an Indigenous technique that she learnt from the Ngarrindjeri women of coastal South Australia before coming north to Warruwi (Goulburn Island). The Maung women of Warruwi incorporated this new technique into their existing basketry repertoire, making westernised baskets, table mats and the like for sale interstate.
Eventually, through lines of kinship and residency, women gradually transferred the practice of coil basketry across Arnhem Land to Groote Eylandt, down the Gulf of Carpentaria and westwards to Melville and Bathurst Islands, Wadeye and Daly River. Today it is one of the most successful innovative techniques practised in the Top End, even supplanting some classic basketry types in places. The women had no idea about the origins of coiling until they participated in a number of workshops with Ngarrindjeri weavers in South Australia, starting with the Two Countries One Weave exhibition at Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute Adelaide in 1991.
With the spread of coiling and commercial basketry, the Top End women also began using natural dyes. Before this baskets were left their natural colour, rubbed with ochre, or decorated with intricate ochre designs. The actual origins of dye technology is not remembered by the women who use it, although it appears that dying was an Indigenous Pacific Island technique introduced by the Fijian mission staff at Warruwi around the 1930s. At least this is the assertion made to me by Oenpelli based artist Thompson Yulidjirri who grew up at Warruwi and witnessed these technical exchanges as a boy. This is highly probable as the Fijians were involved in teaching basketry at the mission and traditionally used a similar pandanus fibre and the common yellow dye plant, Morinda citrifolia for their weaving – important basketry plants that are also found in the tropical north.
Over time, women across the Top End have experimented and developed their own repertoires of dye plants and distinctive colourings - from pale neutral colours, light greens, and varying hues of orange, brown, yellow, pink, purple and grey. Variation in colour intensity depends upon seasonal factors and how much material is used in dye bath. Colours can also be varied by the addition of certain mordants. A preference for bright or more muted tones and their construction into a wide variety of linear or geometric-based patterns is now one way of distinguishing the work of individual, as well as closely-related fibre artists across the Top End. Striking effects can also be achieved by the way an item is constructed and the innovative mixing of stitches has recently become a significant aspect of a bag or basket's aesthetic.
New forms and styles are continually being invented out of a discrete range of methods. Conical-shaped baskets once made exclusively by twining the fibre are also now made entirely with coiling. Knotted string bags once made with soft pliable fibres are sometimes made with the more rigid pandanus – creating a totally different effect. Artists also play upon the item’s spatial qualities, alternating between solid and open, airy construction by combining coiling with open-mesh knotting, looping or twining. Decorative effects are achieved by spacing the buttonhole stitch on coiled items to expose the base bundle underneath, or by varying it with diagonal cross-stitching. The open mesh of knotted or looped baskets may also be greatly exaggerated to heighten its effect. Some baskets are also embellished with crochet and plaiting detail, or the incorporation of seeds, feathers or shells. The variations in shape and decoration are seemingly endless.
The women usually work together in small groups, sharing ideas and assessing each other’s artwork. Out of this process, distinctive regional schools of fibre practice are developing in very much the same way as the men’s bark painting has evolved. The main techniques the women use are still based upon the classic ones of twining, knotting, and looping. Cutting across these is the widespread use of coiling that has in effect become a technical lingua franca, shared by women across the north. Coiling has recently spread to the desert Anangu Lands as well – sparking a major revolution in the art practices of Central Australia.
Again, this innovation was brokered by an outside agent, in this case by Thisbe Purich of the Alice Springs-based Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Women's (NPY) Council, who wished to impart an economic activity that the women could undertake in their own homes. She was familiar with the women’s coiling from the Top End and introduced the basics of the method during visits in 1995 to Blackstone (Papulankutja) and Jameson (MantaMaru) in Western Australia, just over the Northern Territory border.
The women took some time with experimenting and perfecting this new technique as the use of fibre was traditionally quite constricted in the desert regions, where most carrying implements or dishes were made from wood. Human hair was the most common fibre used for making items of dress and ornament as well as the circular head pads worn traditionally by the women as a cushion for carrying loads. Because it was a familiar shape, the women used the doughnut-shaped head pad, manguri, as the conceptual and technical basis for their coiled baskets, initially using any available material they could find, such as string, wool, native grasses and spinifex.
Experimenting freely with the local plants in their country, the weavers began to develop a good understanding of which plants yielded the most suitable fibre. The forms they made varied, some shaped like small bird nests complete with feather lining and in several cases with small carved birds attached. Some women preferred the oval coolamon shape while others made more Westernised round baskets. Armed with their needles and newly acquired knowledge the Ngaanyatjarra started to teach coiling during their travels to women who in turn passed the knowledge on to others.
Because there is no precedent for this type of basketry, the Anangu women have been exceptionally creative in the way they have approached this new art form. Raffia is now the preferred material and the decorative detailing has become very important, with artists often drawing ideas from existing practices. Those who had been taught crochet and knitting on the early missions sometimes overlaid their baskets with bright, crochet wool patterns. It is worth mentioning here also the rise to prominence of the humble knitted-wool beanie, promoted since 1998 by the annual Beanie Festival which is dominated by the talented Anangu artists. Also clever designers of innovative beanies, the batik masters at Ernabella were among the first to apply their knowledge of commercial dyes to creating vivid designs in their raffia baskets. But most women use the readily available pre-dyed raffia.
After another NPY sponsored workshop at Warakurna, attended also by other women from Tjukurla and Docker River, the women started attaching seeds and gum nuts decorated with bright acrylic designs to their baskets. Normally these are made into attractive necklaces and bracelets, bread-and-butter items whose artistic qualities were highlighted in Object’s Art on a String touring exhibition. Sometimes artists attach small poker-worked carvings, punu shaped into birds and animals, mini versions of the tourist carvings that have been made in the region for decades. Currently there is a vogue for stitching brightly-coloured wool patterns onto the basket. Emu feathers are another favourite embellishment.
In 1996 the women were encouraged to also make fibre sculptures at a workshop with Renita Glencross, Philomena Hali, Thisbe Purich, Rochelle Stern and Niki Raffin. One of the most adventurous and talented exponents of genre is Kantjupai Benson who started making small figures with emu feathers, wool and grasses and is now making imposing life-sized figure installations to narrate important ancestral stories. Variations in this fibre technique have been encouraged since 2001 by workshops at Batchelor College in Alice Springs with artists from other desert communities producing both three-dimensional and flat figures in a variety of fibres. Alongside familiar animals and mythological figures, the artists working though NPY’s Tjanpi Baskets are including post-contact themes such as aeroplanes and more recently, a life-sized Toyota, which in ambition, even outdoes the five metre-long basket they made for the 2000 World Expo in Hanover, Germany.
These inspirational sculptures echo developments that were spearheaded earlier on in the north by the versatile and innovative Maningrida artist Lena Yarinkura. Her first major work made with her husband Bob Burruwal, was an installation of life-sized bound, paperbark figures that won the Wandjuk Marika Three Dimensional Memorial Award at the 1994 Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA). She then applied the classic twined basketry technique to craft more durable figures of mythological and everyday themes; from large three-dimensional mermaids to delicate bush mice. Soon her mother, sister and other relations started to make similar fibre figures, founding a distinctive school of sculpture dominated by the Rembarranga.
In 2004, Kunwinjku artist Marina Murdilnga added a new dimension to this sculptural oeuvre with her distinctive flat, fibre figures made with the looped string bag technique. Fibre artists in this Maningrida region have further extended their talents into printmaking, illustrating the mats, bags and other familiar items of their craft. The women at Peppimenarti in the Daly River district have derived inspiration from the iconic forms and techniques of their basketry as well, founding a fresh, new idiom of canvas painting in 2001. This language of weaving extends beyond cultural barriers to unite practitioners from many social backgrounds; as we can see in the fibre work of Fiona Galvino and Vicky Shukuroglou inspired by Indigenous basketry from the Top End.
These are just some the new and exciting developments in remote Australia, driven by the women's willingness to experiment and to absorb and exchange new ideas and methods. The most obvious manifestation of the women's powerful interpersonal networks is the rapid spread of coiling, that now extends right across the Top End and the central desert region, north to Balgo in the Tanami Desert, west to Kalgoorlie and south to Cooper Pedy. Here regional, cultural and historic factors have shaped the stylistic trajectory of coiled basketry resulting in a breathtaking array of new forms. A lot of the fibre items made by the women are also grounded in age-old practices that provide the critical cultural backbone of their art. The significance of these practices and their re-configuration in the present was eloquently expressed by artists of Bula'bula Arts, Ramingining for their collaborative entry at the 2003 NATSIAA. Their installation of six decorated conical bags and a feathered string skirt called Continuum 2003, was accompanied by this text:
Yolngu culture is timeless: It continues to adapt to new environments in which the arts and culture are seen and expressed. The members consider this is a strong statement about the continuity of Yolngu culture and are spirited that this installation will renew people's relationship with the past, to their land, and its ancestral essence.