Selling Yarns


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Buying with insight: the value of research

Selling Yarns 1: Australian Indigenous textiles and good business in the 21st century

August 2006

Delivered by Louise Hamby as part of the Selling Yarns conference held in Darwin in 2006. Hamby's paper argues that much of the 'text' required to substantiate, authenticate and provide insights to the value of Indigenous fibre work in Australia is lacking, and that more resources need to be directed to research in the fibre area in order for substantial texts to be produced.


Communication of information is essential for success in the business world whether your product is a Troop Carrier or a basket. The advertising, promotion and review of the work are key factors in shaping the future of the artist in the art world. However, what lies behind the buying of significant or collectable works is the topic of this paper. Before serious purchasing takes place the buyer wants 'text' to substantiate, authenticate and provide insights to the value of the work. The text can take many forms; an authentication sheet from an art centre, an article in a journal, a chapter in a book or perhaps the ultimate, an entire book about an artist. For Indigenous fibre artists in Australia many of the above texts are far and few between. Aboriginal fibre art, in terms of its value, is behind painting and sculpture not only in the marketplace but also in the realm of academic research. In order to overcome these challenges more resources need to be directed to research in the fibre area in order for substantial texts to be produced.

In the past the first people to produce published accounts of fibre practice were anthropologists and missionaries. For this paper I will be mainly using examples from Arnhem Land as it is the area where most of my research has taken place. All of the following men collected fibre items and included them to some extent in their writing from 1920s-1940s. The anthropologists Sir Baldwin Spencer, Lloyd Warner and Donald Thomson and to a lesser degree the missionaries Harold Shepherdson and Wilbur Chaseling contributed to the knowledge base of Indigenous fibre. From the 1940s there were few texts produced about fibre art. This has changed in the past 10 - 15 years. Some of the more recent publications about fibre forms will be examined.

The beginning of research and documentation must be at ground level. Artists need to initiate ideas about how they want their worked viewed. The role of an art centre with its managers or directors is a crucial one for artists who have this representation. Artists can work with their managers to promote their work. The beginning of this process is for the artist to make sure that all work presented to the art centre with their name is their own, even if brought by someone else to the centre. Tags or labels on work are the beginning of this process. Most art centres now label their baskets, bags and mats but very few are doing this for necklaces. The link between the labels and the database is important not only for inventory and sales but for establishing a record of a particular artist's work over time. This requires extra staff work which equates to more money. Maningrida Arts and Culture have been particularly diligent with entering all of their fibre work including necklaces into their database. The next level of documentation is the photography of the major works to be archived. These would then be available for authentication sheets provided when the work is sold but also for research. This type of information is sometimes combined with biographical information about the artist. Another benefit for fibre artists would be for more art centres to provide biographical sheets for fibre artists as well as painters and sculptors.

Having works in exhibitions whether they are group shows or solo exhibitions is a prime means of selling the work of artists to people who are not able to visit the artists or art centres where their work may be represented. The key to long-term sustainable income from such ventures is the written text, catalogue or book resulting from an exhibition. The combination of exhibition and text is a great reference for future buyers. Having the text at the source of production and in the greater market place, be it libraries, on-line or in bookstores serves not only as a record but for inspiration for artists. Visitors and potential customers, want to see books or catalogues containing work by the artist whose piece they are considering purchasing.

To understand how economic benefits can arise from research I would like to use as an example the exhibition and book, curated and written, by myself and Diana Young, Art on a String: Aboriginal Threaded Objects from the Central Desert and Arnhem Land. The 61 female artists and one male artist came from 24 cultural groups in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory (Hamby and Young 2001). Some of the artists were present for the opening at Object Gallery, then in Customs House at Circular Quay. Most of the works were wearable but also in the exhibition were curtains, a mat, and dog collar. Many of these items were made to make their wearers look good. As Nalmakarra Garrawurra said in response to Winnie's collar, 'for dog to look pretty' (Garrawurra 2006). This 2001 project attempted to draw people's attention to the neglected practice of threading objects and highlight some of the artists who practised this craft. Prior to Art on a String there had been exhibitions that included aboriginal items worn on the body. Two exhibitions devoted totally to items worn on the body that contained both Indigenous and non-Indigenous works were created with catalogues in the late 1990s In 1997 Doreen Mellor and Ray Norman curated Circles About the Body. In 1998 Edwin Ride curated the exhibition Armlinks.

In association with the showing of Art on a String at the School of Art Gallery at the Australian National University (ANU) in 2003 a symposium Translocality: Revaluing Indigenous Crafts was held as part of a series of cross-cultural events at ANU entitled, Fusion. There were formal papers and workshops like the painting one given by Yangkuyi Yakiti and Alison Carroll from Ernabella. This brought together many artists interested in this art form and included some of the artists from the exhibition. Some of the people who participated in this event are fulfilling the challenge set by the Indian textile expert, Jasleen Dhamija to take the discussion to 'the Aboriginal heartland of Australia (Hamby and Kirk 2006).' The event encouraged new relationships and strengthened old ones. These have led to other events and work like the relationship developed between Valerie Kirk and women from Ernabella. After spending time at Ernabella, Kirk developed an exhibition, Looking this way - Looking that way, featuring her tapestries inspired from her visit and necklaces from Yankuyi Yakiti, Tjunkaya Tapaya, Nyukuna Baker, Nora Rupert and Sam Watson from Ernabella. The exhibition was held in 2005 at the Endangered Textiles Gallery in Duffy in the ACT.

Another important relationship formed at the symposium for Art on a String was between Rose Mamuniny from Galiwin'ku and the Sydney jeweller Alice Whish. Because of their mutual interests several events occurred to assist artists in Arnhem Land. Two jewellery workshops held in November 2003 at Maningrida and Elcho Island were sponsored by Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists (ANKAAA) and the Donald Thomson ARC project. They were designed to increase the professional finish of work for the market and to make links with classic body adornment styles from the historic collection of Donald Thomson. At Maningrida, Whish and I worked with Dixie Wurrpamirra, Una Olsen, Elsie Marmanga, Shirley Minyingarla and Rachel Mason. At Galiwin'ku a workshop was held with Rose Mamuniny and Mavis Ganambarr, whom Whish had met at Ganambarr's show in Sydney at Bandigan Gallery. Another similar workshop was held at Milingimbi in 2005. Jenny Inmulugulu and May Marraganal from Goulburn Island joined those at Milingimbi and Rose Mamuniny from Galiwin'ku. A highlight of this workshop was production of body adornment items made from shark vertebrae. This process started with the whole shark and ended with a completed necklace made from the vertebrae.

The collaborations between Whish, Mamuniny and Ganambarr continued with a successful Australia Council Grant in 2005 titled Three Adornment Makers. The grant has provided the opportunity for work both at Elcho Island and in Sydney for the artists. Through the results of this work they have will be having two exhibitions, Three Makers at New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) and the exhibition titled Exchange, which will be opening on the 10th of November, 2007 at Object Gallery in Sydney.

Maningrida Arts and Crafts has been a stronghold of necklace making for some time. In the 1980s Diane Moon, then at Maningrida Arts and Crafts, instigated a large group of work that included paintings, fibre items and some body adornment which became the Maningrida Collection that is now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The necklaces were made from large seed pods, cones and other seeds many of them painted. At the time this was an adventurous undertaking. Unfortunately this exhibition did not have a catalogue. Moon has continued to show some Aboriginal necklaces in her curated exhibitions of mixed work like inland/island in 2000 at Object Gallery in which there were pieces by Lola Greeno.

The Maningrida practice of painting seeds, shells and pods and making them into necklaces was continued by the now deceased artist Lena Kurinyia with works in Art on a String. Another artist from Maningrida who has works in the show is Elsie Marmanga. Her classic red and white works are her signature style. In addition to her own work Elsie has been influential in getting other artists to make necklaces including her auntie, Dixie Wurrpamirra and a cousin, Susan Malgarrich. Susan often incorporates grass stems with the red bean tree seed beads and has made a collection of necklaces with distinctive pendants, some flat but others have been made into more three-dimensional structures. This year, 2006, in January, Alice Whish and I curated a successful selling exhibition, New Works from Maningrida at the Horus and Deloris Gallery in Prymont in Sydney. Some of the artists included, besides the previously mentioned Maningrida ones are Anne Darcy, Doreen Jinggarrabarra, Gloria Gumbawa, Kathleen Olsen, Mary Na-Balangkarra and Selina Cooper.

There are other examples of positive beneficial projects with documentation that have made opportunities for the artists who have been participants. One such project is Twined Together. This project originated as an exhibition of the fibre work of women from western Arnhem Land but grew to include the book Twined Together: Kunmadj Njalehnjaleken. The exhibition and book were launched at Museum Victoria in Melbourne May 2005. This is the first major reference book on fibre from the region. There were economic benefits of this project that extend beyond the Injalak community. The Twined project provided some impetus for other fibre exhibitions and catalogues. The travelling exhibition and catalogue Woven Forms: Contemporary basket making in Australia, initiated by Object Gallery was launched in September 17, 2005 (Parkes 2005). Its seven member curatorial team brought together the work of fifty-eight Indigenous and non-Indigenous makers across Australia whose primary practice was basket making or the application of those techniques. Two-thirds of the work in the exhibition are by Indigenous artists including Julieanne Bangalang, Marlene Burranali, Dorothy Dullman, Leanne Guymala, Garnbaladj Nabegeyo and Jill Nganjmirra from Injalak Arts and Crafts. Their work comprised a tenth of the entire show. Jill Nganjmirra continues to gain a profile including her prints which started with the twined together workshops in Melbourne. Lorraine Coutts, Roving Curator from Museum Victoria, has conducted cultural workshops with women artists from Victoria and western Arnhem Land. Coutts organised the printmaking one conducted with the Australian Print Workshop in Melbourne in which Nganjmirra has completed new etchings. Jill Nganjmirra's most recent fibre success is her entry in the 2006 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) exhibition.

Specific publications on individual artists, regions or styles of work would help to boost the profile of fibre artists. The inclusion of Indigenous fibre artists from Australia in international publications is also very useful. The most recent example is from the American publisher Lark Books. In January 2005 the editor Susan Kieffer sent out an international call for entries in their 500 series of books, this one was to be on the 'best in basketry today'. This was a great opportunity for Australian artists. I encouraged art advisers to enter works and personally assisted fourteen artists to submit the application. Out of the 500 international artists selected, nine were from Australia and six of these are Indigenous makers from Arnhem Land. 500 Baskets: A Celebration of the Basketmaker's Art includes the work of Marlene Burrunali, Marilyn Gumurdul and Wendy Namarnyilk from western Arnhem Land, the now deceased artist Djupuduwuy Guyula from Gapuwiyak, Robyn Djunginy from Ramingining and Bambalmirr Bidingal from Yirrkala (Kieffer 2006). These artists will increase their profile, particularly to the American craft market.

Looking into the future there will be exciting events planned that need the support of both individuals and institutions. One such project is being curated by Margie West, ReCoil, Change and Exchange in Coiled Fibre Art. The exhibition will highlight the history of cultural exchange of coiling from the Murray River in South Australia and Victoria to Arnhem Land and then to the Anangu lands in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. It will feature the work of both Indigenous and non-indigenous artists including Robyn Djunginy, Treahna Hamm and Nyninka Lewis.

In conclusion, there is a need for more substantial research and development of a body of contextual material in the Aboriginal fibre area. However there are examples of positive, strong initiatives being taken by Art Centres, organizations and individuals to bring about change. Written material that is publicly accessible about fibre artists is a key to establishing profiles for individuals, which will ultimately lead to the increased value of their work. Written text helps to legitimise fibre art in the market. How will all of this happen? My experience suggests that much has to come from the ground level. The artists themselves first of all need to take as much initiative as they can and express their desires to those people who represent them. Art centres desperately need additional funding for the basics for fibre artists including maintaining databases and cataloguing of work. This would contribute towards the building of exhibitions and catalogues. Government support, greatly needed, is not always forthcoming. So as a group of interested persons we need to think about other means of private funding. Another key factor is to entice individuals to volunteer their time and efforts to make fibre a more viable item in the marketplace. It is only through a combination of efforts on different levels that the profile of Indigenous fibre artists will be raised and subsequently the value of their work increased. I want to see a maker of baskets on the stage at the awards, and not just as the anonymous maker of the baskets that were danced, sung and then presented to the winners of the award.

Louise Hamby
ARC Fellow, Centre for Cross Cultural Research
The Australian National University


Louise Hamby is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow - Industry working with Museum Victoria on the project Anthropological and Aboriginal perspectives on the Donald Thomson Collection: material culture, collecting and identity. Hamby's PhD, Containers of power was an ethnographic study of fibre container forms from northeastern Arnhem Land.