Floating Life

Among the numerous shows highlighting Indigenous woven materials in recent years, the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art’s Floating Life: contemporary Aboriginal fibre art (2009) is an exhibition with a twist (no pun intended, seriously). Curated by the legendary Diane Moon and showcasing the extraordinary breadth of fibre work from GoMA and the Queensland Art Gallery’ collection, this exhibition does not confine itself to the expected examples of fine woven mats and dilly bags, fish traps and baskets. Rather it takes as its starting point the basic element of string, the simplest of woven forms, and explores how string functions in a variety of artistic modes. Don’t be surprised, then, to encounter in the pages of this gorgeous catalog, bark paintings from Yirrkala, for the central importance of the Djang’kawu sisters’ dilly bags to the creation myths of the Yolngu finds celebration in barks by Dhuwarrwarr Marika and Wanyubi Marika included here. Similarly, the string-bound coolamons of the Kimberley, represented by fine examples from Rosie and Lily Karedada, are central to the story of the two brolgas that Mabel Juli renders in rich ochres. 

Moon highlights the use of bark string to bind tunga, ceremonial baskets from the Tiwi Islands in which food is offered to the workers at mortuary ceremonies. The show includes striking examples by Timothy Cook and Pedro Wonaemirri. Fish net designs painted on Michael Anning’s Queensland rainforest shields establish the connections of Yidinyji people to string and sea. The meanders inscribed on Aubrey Tiggan’s engraved and ochred pearl shells from the northwest resonate with the hairstring they depend from and echo in the painted patterns of Jacky Giles’s Centralian acrylics. String is a metaphor of connection across the continent as well.

But the bulk of the work on display celebrates the artistry of weaving as we traditionally think of it. And artistry is what is paramount in the selection of works here presented. Although the catalog provides photographs and details of scores of objects, what is included is a mere fraction of the hundreds of pieces that were included in the exhibition, which was on display at GoMA from August through October of 2009. Moon’s introductory essay, “Visible songs: captured flight,” provides a good overview of the variety of woven forms that constitute the wealth on display, and the variety of techniques by which objects are created from simple string. The detailed photographs of the weave of baskets invite contemplation of such mastery, from the plain, unadorned loop-woven symmetry of an early 20th-century basket from Stradbroke Island, to coil-woven pandanus mats and the tight twining of a waterproof dilly bag with its subtle shades of dyes that enhance our appreciation of the weaver’s skill.

In the series of essays that follow, curators and contributors examine the place of weaving in hunting and fishing, in the gathering of vegetable food, in the creation of communities and the fostering of families. Thematic explorations of light lead to a consideration of banumbirr, the elegant feather and string morningstar poles from Galiwin’ku, as well as to Gulumbu Yunupingu’s painted starscapes. Feathered ornaments in the form of armbands and headbands are exotic and resplendent, and built upon bundles of bark string. Similarly, string is the substratum for Palawa shell necklaces from Tasmania that attest to the survival of tradition in the island state. Elizath Djuttara’s traditional bark fiber Wanydjalpi (Yam) and Alan Griffith’s commercial wool and wood ceremonial crosses (balmarra), three meters tall, turn string into sculpture.

The latter half of the catalog is devoted to short essays focused on individual artists. Judy Baypungala from Ramingining makes mats and bags that look simultaneously archaic and ultra-modern, minimalist and intricate. Likewise, Lena Yarinkura, building on the work of her mother, Lena Djamarrayku, has created new sculptural idioms out of traditional weaving techniques: the distance from her Dancing Belt to the stuffed and painted pandanus yawk yawk sculptures and thence to her assemblages that depict wayarra spirits made out of sticks and paperbark is not very far. And like Yarinkura, Yvonne Koolmatrie has turned her mastery of traditional forms like eel traps to the creation of magnificent and startling hot-air balloons and airplanes woven out of the same riverine grasses that surprise with their originality.

One of the delightful discoveries I made in perusing this catalog was the work of Shirley McNamara, an Indilnadji/Alyawarre woman from Mt Isa. McNamara weaves guutu(vessels) that take the shape of baskets and bowls, vases or goblets, out of the runner roots of spinifex. These bear no resemblance to the desert creations of the Tjanpi Weavers who use the grassy upper portions of the plant to create their baskets and sculptures. Instead, McNamara’s tightly coiled glossy strands have the look of wood carving, or of a kind of organic pottery built on a weaver’s wheel, if such an invention existed. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum lie artists like Lorraine Connelly-Northey, who simulates the craft of weaving by recycling industrial materials: gauze wire, mesh sheeting, fly-wire. The warp and weft of traditional practice is here provided in a simulacrum, stamped out or molded by mechanical processes. And yet, when Connelly-Northey adorns these works with parrot feathers or echidna quills, I’m reminded of Djamarrayku’s dilly bags that, though hand-woven out of traditional materials, can be decorated with bits of cast-off calico and brightly colored commercial yarn, as well as down and feathers.

Jonathan Jones combines the handmade and the industrial in his lumination fall series. Perhaps the most famous of these pieces in the large wall weaving of electrical cables and incandescent bulbs that won the inaugural Xstrata emerging artist award in 2006. But Floating Life also contains examples of his small paper and thread pieces, stitched on his mother’s ancient hand-operated sewing machine. The creative strategies of this most urban artist thus remind us of the fundamental importance of the transmission of skills from one generation to the next.

And in that revelation we find one of the great themes of this exhibition: the importance and power of tradition, the commitment to continuity, the passing on and the new flowering of genius. The art of weaving is associated most strongly these days with the women of the communities of Arnhem Land, but the renaissance of the work as art owes a great debt to Yvonne Koolmatrie. Koolmatrie rescued the traditions of Ngarrindjeri weaving from near oblivion in a startlingly brief apprenticeship with Dorothy Kartinyeri. She then took her knowledge north to workshops in Maningrida where the currents of the two traditions flowed together to revivify both.

As with other arts, weaving is a way in which the Dreaming is made visible. The waves still lap at the beaches of Yalangbara, where the Djang’kawu stepped ashore with their dilly bags. The morning star rises and casts it light on the feather-laden strings of the banumbirr, allowing the spirits of the dead to follow the lighted lines east to the island of Bralku. The Dreaming admits of change, of the incorporation of what is newly revealed, of accommodation to new understandings of the world. Floating Life brings together these strands of continuity and change in a dazzling display of beauty and skill.

The stunning display of banumbirr from the Queensland Art Gallery and the Elcho Island Artists and Bandigan Morning Star Collection

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