Associate Lecturer at the College of Fine Art in Sydney Tess Allas writes about when she was NSW Regional Indigenous Cultural Officer and first met the women of Boggabilla who formed the Euraba Paper Company which won the Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize in 2010.
I will make oppression work for me,
With a turn and with a twist,
Be camouflaged within stated ignorance,
And surprise you by my will
Romaine Moreton 1
In my previous life as the NSW Regional Indigenous Cultural Officer I was charged with the task of travelling the state to find out just what was happening 'out there' in the world of Aboriginal cultural development. This was a three-year posting based at the now defunct NSW Community Arts Association. Amongst the many artists’ groups I came across none affected me more than the small papermaking outfit in the small town of Boggabilla in north-western New South Wales. The year was 1998 and I was introduced to the Goomeroi students who were enrolled in an art course at the Boggabilla TAFE College. They were one year from graduating and were beginning to wonder how their new-found talents could be used within their community. Their teacher Paul West, who had endeared himself to the students and become their friend and mentor, suggested they think about their environment when thinking of future art projects.
Boggabilla and its nearby Aboriginal community, Toomelah, are situated on the banks of the Macintyre River. Across the river is the more affluent Queensland town of Goondiwindi, famous for its locally-owned champion racehorse Gunsynd.
I recently re-visited the papermaking women at Boggabilla. They spoke with a tired resignation of how businesses in Goondiwindi refuse to employ local Aboriginal people. When I asked what they thought the reasoning behind this was, Aunty May Hinch, a highly respected community elder, lowered her head and her voice and whispered: "racism".
In 1998, after their graduation from Boggabilla TAFE College, some of the women expressed an interest in re-learning their lost cultural practice of weaving and, using the reeds and the grasses that grow along the Macintyre River, this artform was again being created in Boggabilla, for the first time in several generations. Paul West secured funding and brought weavers from Maningrida in north Arnhem Land to visit Boggabilla for an arts residency. Their job was to teach the Boggabilla women the basic techniques of weaving and memories of this past practice returned, the women weaving baskets like their grandmothers once did.
At the same time as the weavers began reviving their practice, the other women in the art class agreed with Paul West’s suggestion that they could try their hand at making paper using the same grasses and reeds that the weavers were utilising. Aunties May Hinch, Marlene Hinch, Joy Duncan and Adrienne Duncan along with Margi Duncan, Stella O’Halloran, Gloria Woodbridge and Isobel Karkoe became the founding members of a brand new community art practice. Using reeds, grasses and bulrushes as their raw materials, the women beat the fibres into a workable pulp. This took place on the front and back porches of Paul West’s home using 44-gallon drums and the legs from old school chairs. Crude but beautiful paper was made from this practice.2 Deep as they are in cotton-producing country, the women sourced off-cuts from a Queensland-based clothing manufacturer and attempted to make paper-pulp from this material. Cotton off-cuts or ‘rags’ proved to be the most successful raw material for their papermaking needs. Not only do they use all the fabric that would once have been dumped as landfill but they also use the extracted coloured pigments from the off-cuts to dye their paper. These richly coloured papers are incredibly seductive and when seen stacked together they make an intoxicatingly beautiful landscape of pinks, greens, browns and yellows.
Such was the success of the cotton rag paper practice that a company was formed and by the year 2000 the Euraba Paper Company was beginning to make its mark. (Euraba in the Goomeroi language means “place of healing”.) They were commissioned to create paper for the cover of the international arts journal, Hand Papermaking. I remember in 2001 waiting for a friend in the library of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, browsing through the display of arts magazines and being struck by the cover of a North American papermaking journal. I knew that paper! I knew its look and I knew how it felt. It looked and felt like home. Paul West had written an article on the women and their practice for the journal.3 The editors were so affected by the story they commissioned the women to create 5,000 pieces of their paper for that particular edition. It took the women three months to complete the order; each one of those 5,000 pieces of paper was pulped by hand.
Domestically, the company was being noticed and in 2000 the women travelled to Canberra to receive the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Community Business Partnerships. With little money and a whole lot of faith, the Euraba Paper Company invested in two electronic beaters to replace the back-breaking work of pulping the cotton fabric by hand. Two Hollander Beaters were purchased from a company in Brooklyn, USA. The larger of the two beaters, affectionately known by the women as “Mr Big”, works tirelessly, albeit noisily, in the papermaking shed of the Euraba Paper Company freeing the women to concentrate on the more artistic aspects of creating paper; colour and design.
The designs the women concentrate on are of significance to the Goomeroi people and to the artists in particular. Some imagery that is repeated over and over again are the Murray River cod, the freshwater turtle, the grubs used for fishing and the river itself. The designs are either embossed into the wet paper during the papermaking process or are painted on, or in it - the paint actually penetrates the paper making the image an integral component of the paper. These artworks are now attracting attention in the contemporary art world. Work from the Euraba Paper Company has been included in exhibitions at the Moree Plains Gallery, Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre and at the Noosa Regional Gallery in Queensland. In 2009 Euraba Paper was included in the Melbourne Art Fair.
Every year but one since the inaugural Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize in 2005, the Euraba Paper Company and its artists have entered work for consideration (collaborative work as well as individual pieces) and every year they have been shortlisted. In 2010 the eight-panelled Gaduu – Murray cod won the Prize. This beautiful cast work depicts a cod swimming through the Macintyre River. Each of the eight panels contains images and stories that belongs to the 18 collaborators, three of whom in this case were men.
At the same time a ten-panelled work 'Bagaay (River)' (1990-2000) was included in the exhibition 'In The Balance: Art for a Changing World' at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. 'Bagaay' was created by the nine founding members of the Euraba Paper Company more than ten years ago. It is a work that documents the river through imagery and iconography such as scarred tree designs, echidnas, cod, turtles, water, grubs, boomerangs and people. Bagaay hung opposite the work of Indigenous photographer Nici Cumpston whose cinematic images of a decaying Murray River juxtaposed the life-blood imagery of the Euraba women’s piece to spectacular effect.
Over the years, Euraba has ebbed and flowed as papermakers have come and gone. At the heart of it though is a small group of women who through all the ups and downs of life remain papermakers, first and foremost. Aunties May Hinch and Joy Duncan are still there overseeing the work of Lola Binge, Leonie Binge, Christine Dumas and Thelma Bartman. Their dream is to pass their knowledge on to the youth of Boggabilla and Toomelah and, in doing so, instill in them a sense of pride which in turn will help them to overcome some of the obstacles they will face. The women’s strong sense of community is what keeps the papermaking business afloat and their art practice solid. Their strength and their dignity is what gives the paper its soul.
1 From the poem ‘I Shall Surprise You By My Will’ by Dr Romaine Moreton in Post me to the Prime Minister, 2004, Jukurrpa Books.
2 See The Early Days, Auntie May Hinch and Auntie Joy Duncan, acrylic on canvas, 2008, Website of Euraba Paper Company, http://www.eurabapaper.com.au/history.php
3 See Hand Papermaking Vol 15, No 2, Winter 2000.