Sonja Carmichael collecting Ungaire (swamp reed), 2019, Minjerribah. Image courtesy Freja Carmichael

Weaving memory, living embodiment

Standing proudly in front of the three Gulayi women’s bags woven by my mother and sister, Sonja and Elisa Jane Carmichael, in the Australian art collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, I look back to my very first experience with Quandamooka fibre work. My significant engagement with the Queensland Museum collection reunited me with the bags and baskets woven by the hands of our Ancestors from Quandamooka and introduced me to the work of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from near and afar. In the presence of these spirited works I was reminded of the expansive visual language, meaning and innovation of artistic traditions belonging to our First Nations communities. Each woven basket and bag, looped net and intricate adornment or string work reverberates with a strong sense of place and shared stories of people and Country.

Whether old or new forms, First Nations fibre practices are grounded in histories and knowledges that run deep and interconnect across the lands and waters. Our many nations inherit specific fibre traditions relative to Ancestral, spiritual, environmental and historical contexts, all of which are interconnected with culture. The common thread across these distinct practices is their emergence and living attachment to the lands. For our Quandamooka Ancestors, weaving was a way of life – ceremony, expression and exchange on Saltwater Country. Ancestral learnings of the sand, land and sea environments and their materials underpinned the making of our finely woven flat bags of Ungaire – a freshwater reed that grows in shades of pink and green on Minjerribah.

This fibre was skilfully looped and knotted into a diagonal woven pattern to create distinct flat bags for carrying items such as seafood, shellfish, plants and berries as people travelled across Country. My family’s woven bags in the Queensland Art Gallery collection, physically located in the building alongside Ancestral works, embed the intrinsic link between culture, people and place. Like other communities, our weaving traditions were impacted by colonisation with the loss of homelands and attempted cultural erasure. For several generations, weaving practices were interrupted.

Kylie Caldwell collecting weaving material, 2018. Image courtesy the artist
Kylie Caldwell collecting weaving material, 2018. Image courtesy the artist

Over a decade ago, ways of knowing and physically engaging with weaving traditions were through Ancestral material in museum collections. Their legacies alongside community memory guided a strong regeneration of practice and knowledge. We are again collecting reeds on Minjerribah and sensitively preparing the precious ungaire, taking care to only take the required amount of fibres to ensure the ongoing growth of the reeds. These filaments are transformed into new translations of Ancestral methods grown out of contemporary experiences of Country. Other materials and techniques imbued with narratives of place are also explored for expressing what it means to be Saltwater People today.

In the process of strengthening Quandamooka weaving practice, The Wake Up Time Weavers – a Bundjalung women’s collective located in Casino in the Northern Rivers region – visited Minjerribah in early 2015. The group shared their weaving journey and experiences. As nearby nations, along the eastern coastal areas, Quandamooka people and Bundjalung people share in similar fibre traditions. These parallels are documented by historical flat bags in collections that show related materials and techniques underscoring the physical links to these areas and neighbouring regions. The intergenerational exchange on Minjerribah with Elders and women from both nations retraced historical and kinship relationships across the lands by weaving together again.

The Wake Up Time weavers include the artist Kylie Caldwell (Bundjalung). Her fibre practice is informed by the wisdom of Bundjalung Jargoon (Country) through her known understandings, deepened by lived experience. She sources, gathers and weaves with the reeds, referred to as buckie rush, that grow on her people’s lands. Her increasing familiarity with this material drives a strong sense of customary techniques, relearnt from studying historical works in collections. The legacy of previous generations is celebrated and continued through basketry and sculptural forms that relate to Country and the functional objects used in the past.

Delissa Walker with her grandmother’s Kankan, Daintree rainforest, 2019. Photo: Freja Carmichael
Delissa Walker with her grandmother’s Kankan, Daintree rainforest, 2019. Photo: Freja Carmichael

Further north, along the eastern coastline, Delissa Walker (Kuku Yalinji) continues the calling in her fibre practice through her rainforest Ancestral lands. Her ongoing making of Kakan – basket from black palm – is grounded in the insights transmitted and carried across time, connecting Ancestors, current weavers, and future generations. From an early age, her grandmother Wilma Walker, an inspiring senior weaver, taught Delissa how to collect, prepare and weave the palm into the specialised traditions of the rainforest.

Alongside her basketry work, she also explores the possibilities of weaving black palm fibre into other styles. Fundamental to her practice, and inherent to Aboriginal methodologies of caring for Country, is nurturing and preserving the environment. In every black palm Delissa harvests, she ensures life is given to another by planting or caring for new growth. Weaving with the materiality of the land, and the processes and meanings encompassed within these practices, provides a deep sense of knowing that she is continuing the proud work of her grandmother and Ancestors.

T’uy’t’tanat Cease Wyss, Shḵwen̓ Wéw̓ shḵem Nexw7iy̓ay̓ulh (To Explore, To Travel by Canoe) (detail), 2018, Lau hala, coconut hull fibre, seagrass, red cedar bark, wool, abalone shell, mother of pearl buttons. Installation view, The Commute, Institute of Modern Art, 2018. Photo: Carl Warner
T’uy’t’tanat Cease Wyss, Shḵwen̓ Wéw̓ shḵem Nexw7iy̓ay̓ulh (To Explore, To Travel by Canoe) (detail), 2018, Lau hala, coconut hull fibre, seagrass, red cedar bark, wool, abalone shell, mother of pearl buttons. Installation view, The Commute, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2018. Photo: Carl Warner

Ancestral memory is embodied in the living material that is harvested and transformed by the hands of First Nations people to give expression. Like Ungaire, buckie rush and black palm, across the Great Ocean, T’uy’t’tanat‑Cease Wyss (Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Stó:lō, Irish, Métis, Kanaka ʻŌiwi, Swiss) draws strength from the aromatic red cedar tree. Living on her unceded Coastal Salish lands, Vancouver, Wyss’s practice highlights the expansive, living embodiment of nature that is fibre work. She is an ethno-botanist, community-engaged gardener, interdisciplinary artist and weaver working with traditional Coastal Salish techniques in wool and the cedar tree, a plant that has ensured the survival of her people for thousands of generations.

Her recent woven ceremonial cape, titled Shḵwen̓ Wéw̓shḵem Nexw7iy̓ay̓ulh (To Explore, To Travel by Canoe) (2018) traced her Ancestral lineages through the use of materiality and techniques that associated with her Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and Hawaiian territories. The warp of the weaving comprised of stripped and prepared red cedar bark and the weft consisted of bands made from twined coconut hull fibre, wool and lau hala (pandanus leaf).

In late 2019, with a group of other First Nations artists and curators, I visited Wyss and her lands as part of a collaborative First Nations curatorial project resulting in Transits and Returns at Vancouver Art Gallery. We walked, listened and learned in her recent participatory creation, Harmony Garden, in X̱wemelch’stn pen̓em̓áy, the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Nation’s Capilano Reserve. This cared‑for environment was overflowing with abundant plant life that carried historical and cultural value representing plants used for food, medicine, weaving and pigment dying. Such a space as the Harmony Garden reiterates how knowledge and memory is deeply imbued within the land.

Harmony Garden in X̱wemelch'stn / Squamish Nation Capilano Reserve. Photo: Freja Carmichael
Harmony Garden in X̱wemelch'stn / Squamish Nation Capilano Reserve. Photo: Freja Carmichael

This multi‑layered wisdom of the land is evidenced in Quandamooka weaving practices and in the deft fibre work of Kylie Caldwell, Delissa Walker and T’uy’t’tanat‑Cease Wyss. This small but powerful sample of First Nations fibre practices speaks to how knowledge has risen from the swamps, marshes and forests to be nurtured and sustained through spiritual, cultural and physical relationships with Country. In the same way that weaving supports Ancestral life and being, contemporary fibre practices remain a vital means of cultural continuity and connections to place, to lineage and to belonging for First Nations peoples.

Freja Carmichael is a Ngugi independent curator, writer and arts worker, belonging to the Quandamooka people, dedicating her projects to the preservation and promotion of First Nations fibre art and collaborative curatorial approaches.

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