Friday, December 9, 2016

Fibrecraft of Indigenous Australia

 In Australia and the Torres Strait Islands, the indigenous people have traditionally made objects with everyday functions using the materials to hand, recycled from animal and plant fibres such as tree bark, hair, palm fronds and grasses.  In combination, these natural fibres have created clothing, shelter, shades, fishing nets, sieves, canoe sails as well as bags and baskets.

String bags were made for food gathering, to carry and store food and personal items and tools.  They are often called Dilly bags, thought to originate from the Turrbal word dili but there are many other names given to them depending on their place of origin.  They are usually oval in shape, collapsible for ease of storage, with a twined string or cord for slinging around the carrier’s neck.  Grasses or roots are twined to make the string needed to stitch or weave the bag.  The bags are identifiable by the type of stitch used to make them, usually knots with or without loops or twists, to create an open structure of great strength.

1.1: Dilly bag made from grasses and kurrajong bark, maker unknown, acquired 1898, by Australian Museum Sydney
1.2: Detail of knotting in large string bag (Wurra-wurra) made from bark fibre cord, ochre pigment, maker unknown, acquired 1895 by Australian Museum, Sydney
The continuation of the craft technique through sharing and collaboration is very important in Australia, but with respect to the indigenous culture the teaching of Dilly bags generally remains with the indigenous people rather than the greater contemporary basket making community.

Baskets made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are generally either woven or coiled.
In coiled baskets, a foundation coil is made from a bundle of flexible stick fibres or grasses, over which a working strand of fibre makes a series of buttonhole stitches to cover the bundle core.  This core is tightly coiled, spiralling outwards and upwards in the case of a basket, with the buttonhole stitches wrapping the bundle and occasionally catching the buttonhole stitch on the coil beneath.

1.3: A small coiled basket with handle made using Pandanus fibre from South Australia, maker unknown, acquired 1958 by Australian Museum
1.4: Coiled bag with purse lip opening, plant fibre, Victoria, maker unknown, acquired 1900 by Australian Museum
Woven baskets generally use a method called weft twining.  Here there are two elements: bundles of fibres or split leaves form the WARP, and 2 or sometimes 3 working fibre strands for the WEFT set interlacing and interlinking with the warp bundles.  Pandanus and palm fronds are incorporated in this way.  The pandanus plants are easily propagated and are resilient to adverse environmental conditions making them ideal for weaving purposes.
1.5: Bicornual basket (referring to the two horns on the lower corners) from split canes, southern rainforests of Queensland, maker unknown, acquired by Australian Museum, Sydney

1.6: Twined grass and Pandanus basket with ochres from Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, maker unknown, acquired by Australian Museum

1.7: detail of 1.6 above
Not all Aboriginal fibre work is for everyday use, of course.  The same techniques are used with natural fibres in elaborate ceremonial objects and for body adornment, often incorporating feathers, eg. parrot, lorikeet or emu feathers.  The finished articles can be beautifully painted with naturally occurring yellow and red ochre pigments.
1. 8:Ceremonial headdress made from paperbark and human-hair string and decorated with emu feathers and ochres (photo courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney website
Armed with the experience and skill to make beautifully crafted functional items, many Aboriginal people have gone on to create more innovative sculptural fibre work through art movements established in the central desert regions such as Ernabella.

I was fortunate enough recently to view an exhibition in the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, given by the artists of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara (APY) Lands of Central Australia.  The APY Lands are vast, covering over 10% of South Australia near the tri-state border with the Northern Territory and Western Australia.  The APY art movement originates from the art centre at Ernabella established in 1948, making it the oldest continuously running indigenous art centre in Australia.
The exhibition, entitled Nganampa Kililpil, brought together more than 100 artists from across the Lands, sharing unique cultural and artistic traditions.  One collaborative sculptural fibre art installation, Punu Kutjara (Two Trees), was created by 38 weavers and helpers and reflects the vast and abundant country through the depiction of two trees surrounded by many animals, birds and insects.  

1.9: Punu Kutjara (Two Trees) in Hazelhurst Gallery

1.10: One of the Trees from Punu Kutjara
The sculptures are prepared using traditional knotting, wrapping and weaving techniques with local grasses (Kutanu, wangunu and tjanpi) found in the local rockpools, creeks, gullies and claypans.  All these places are deemed sacred and life-giving to the Tjanpi weavers.  The weaving incorporates raffia and plastic string recycled from modern life bringing vibrancy and colour into the installation.

1.11: Detail of weaving in Punu Kutjara sculptural fibre animals

 1.12: Detail of weaving with raffia and plastic string in Punu Kutjara sculptural fibre animals
All the sculptures are models of ancestral spirits; every animal is a dreaming subject which lives on through the creativity of many generations of women.  In this way the desert women can express their cultural heritage in an artistic medium that suits their lifestyle.

All photos have been taken by me except 1.8.


1.  Keller, Christine (2010) Craft and Design Inquiry, issue 2, From Baskets to Bodies: Innovation from Aboriginal Fibre Practice
2.  Nganampa Kililpil: Our Stars (2016) Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, NSW, Australia
3.  Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, NSW
4.  Tjanpi Desert Weavers (2011), Macmillian Mini-art Series no.19, Macmillan Art Publishing, Australia

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