Tayenebe / Exchange: Tasmanian Aboriginal women and fibre work

Zoe Rimmer, Basket, exhibited in Tayanebe, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2009.
Zoe Rimmer, Basket, exhibited in Tayanebe, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2009.

The baskets that the women use for fishing have some worth, from the great amount of work that must go into them, and so they place considerable value on them and will only exchange them with reluctance.

Nicholas Baudin, 1802

Tasmanian Aboriginal baskets have long been objects of cross-cultural engagement. Since the French first stepped upon our shores in the late 1700s these light, ephemeral, spherical forms have captivated visitors who desired, bought, traded or took them.

On proceeding a little further I came upon the natives camp, it seems that they had only just come to evidently watch for an opportunity of escape. My appearance had started them off, suddenly evidenced, by my finding a fresh kangaroo on a small fire not skinned, a waddy, several native baskets, knives and forks stolen from settlers, several spears and a young puppy, two necklaces made of small sea shells and a basket containing crystalised gum ... I secured all the articles and proceeded in the direction they had taken when I picked up another waddy and a second puppy drop’t in the hurry of their flight … The articles taken from the natives were duly handed over by me to the Government. Colonel Arthur and Judge Montagu visited me on the next day, and inspected the trophies secured.

Henry James Emmett, Van Diemen’s Land, October 1830

The skill, time and desire to make plant fibre baskets is inextricably linked to place. Country provides the sense, the reason and the materials, from which to make a basket and in which such a vessel will be useful. Traditionally a basket would wear out in its country, with the maker preparing to replace it before its purposefulness ceased. That which a basket was originally made to carry signalled where people moved and when. Used both on land and under water they were integral to everyday life. Sea or inland food, freshwater tubers or mutton fish (abalone), crayfish and warreners, objects of trade, ochre, stone for toolmaking, and luminescent maireener shells from which prized necklaces were and are strung, are but a few items which Tasmanian Aboriginal baskets originally contained.

Today, 180 years after the Black Line campaign of 1830 that led to the surrender and offshore exile to Flinders Island of all but a handful of remaining Tasmanian Aboriginal people, finely woven twined plant fibre baskets are again being made. This span measures the extent of damage, of time needed for a culture to repair and regroup before making again becomes everyday. Colonisation swept through Tasmania, a blight few Aboriginal people survived, putting some practices to rest. Thirty-seven Tasmanian Aboriginal baskets made between the 1830s and 1900 are known to still exist, seventeen of which are held in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the remainder in five other institutions internationally. Only five of the historic baskets have their makers’ names recorded, three were made by Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834–1905) and two by Truganini (c.1812–76).

Each of the thirty-two baskets from the 1800s without named makers have become for Tasmanian Aboriginal women one possibly made by their own direct ancestor. These precious objects have provided the motivation, inspiration and means for Tasmanian Aboriginal women to revive the craft.

It tells me a lot about our early people, about our mothers and their families and their movements in the seasons. The plants would be better in some areas than they would be in others, so it identifies movements in the Country or on the land, and that’s so important as far as what I’ve got from first discovering the plant, to then discovering more about my own people.

Audrey Frost, 2008

Baskets, 2008, by Vicki maikutena Matson-Green, Patsy Cameron and Audrey Frost. Photo: Simon Cuthbert
Baskets, 2008, by Vicki maikutena Matson-Green, Patsy Cameron and Audrey Frost. Photo: Simon Cuthbert

From this recognition of shared inheritance has come the unified revitalisation of plant weaving by Aboriginal women across the island. This approach is particularly significant because the other major women’s cultural work in Tasmania, shell necklace stringing, a continuous cultural practice reaching back thousands of years, has been carefully maintained within only a few distinct family groups since the 1800s. The anonymity of the makers of the historic baskets has led to a broader sense of responsibility across the Tasmanian Aboriginal community for the reinstatement of plant weaving and its ongoing transmission. Today their purpose is different; these baskets more often carry intangible aspects of culture.

We’re weaving our stories into our baskets.

Eva Richardson, 2008

Between 2006 and 2008 Arts Tasmania, under the instigation and management of Aboriginal Arts Officer Lola Greeno, provided a series of seven plant-weaving workshops across Tasmania for any Tasmanian Aboriginal women who wished to attend. These were named Tayenebe, a south-east Tasmanian Aboriginal word meaning exchange. The success of Tayenebe was predicated on a few, mostly Elders, teaching their skills learnt during a previous weaving revival phase in the early 1990s. The final Tayenebe workshop was held in the traditional country of all the women, at Larapuna in far north-east Tasmania.

Country is more than just the land, it’s Community, culture, nature and spirituality all intertwined. Country is a place of belonging and a way of believing you feel like you’re home in your Country.

Zoe Rimmer, 2008

Vicki West, Sharnie Everett, Colleen Mundy and Zoe Rimmer collecting blueberry (Dianella tasmanica), Bruny Island.
Vicki West, Sharnie Everett, Colleen Mundy and Zoe Rimmer collecting blueberry (Dianella tasmanica), Bruny Island.

The impact of the Tayenebe workshops was unprecedented. More than 35 Tasmanian Aboriginal women and girls participated and the potential for an exhibition of the ensuing work became apparent. More than 70 objects woven over the past two years from different types of lilies, rushes, sedges and irises or shaped from bull kelp (Durvillaea potatorum) are exhibited in Tayenebe. Most of the woven works feature the S-twist direction-twined twist, unique in Australia. Similarly, specific to Tasmanian Aboriginal culture are kelp water carriers featured in the exhibition alongside experimental kelp forms. The process of making is as important as the works themselves. The baskets represent the restorative experience of weaving through which reconnection with extended family, ancestors, skills and knowledge, plants and country is occurring.

Vicki West, Kelp water carrier, exhibited in Tayanebe, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2009.
Vicki West, Kelp water carrier, exhibited in Tayanebe, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2009.

For most of us, this is a learning journey of the knowledge of the grasses, where to collect them, how to treat them, the best ways of weaving, the traditional craft actually, which is the way the Old People used to live. It was very much a community sharing experience, every aspect of their life.

Vicki maikutena Matson-Green, 2008

Tayenebe has from the beginning been about exchange: between generations, across Tasmania and now nationally and cross-culturally. The readiness for Tasmanian Aboriginal women to undertake this process of sharing reflects the generosity and resilience of a people who have been continually ransacked for more than nine generations. Intercultural exchange, within and between Aboriginal women, is the core of the project. One family exhibiting kelp and woven land plant, fur and quill work in Tayenebe consist of four generations, all actively making (aged from seven to 88 years of age). During the extended period that Tayenebe was exhibited at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery multiple public, education events and fibre workshops were held.

Verna Nichols, Basket, exhibited in Tayanebe, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2009.
Verna Nichols, Basket, exhibited in Tayanebe, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2009.

Weavers shared their stories, and alternative ways of working together cross-culturally were developed that didn’t require the relinquishment of this cultural practice particular to Tasmanian Aboriginal women. When Tayenebe heads over the sea interstate from March 2010 for its five state and territory two-year tour so will travel the energy and spirit of more than twenty women and girls whose work it features. The reinstatement of twined basketry and kelp work across Tasmania has occurred because it was time. Our ancestors’ baskets are patient, they survived to show us the way.

Your heart’s got to be in it. Your heart and soul have to be in it, and if you don’t have that all you are doing is just weaving a basket. And it would mean nothing.

Nannette Shaw, 2008

Colleen Mundy, Basket,  exhibited in Tayanebe, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2009
Colleen Mundy, Basket,  exhibited in Tayanebe, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2009

 

Tayenebe was exhibited at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 2009, and will be exhibited at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, in 2010.

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