Selling Yarns


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Old and new: the story of Selling Yarns 3

Selling Yarns 3: Weaving the nation's story – 28 February to 3 March, 2013


Excitement was buzzing through the air as the large crowd of participants of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people gathered in Visions Theatre at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra in February 2013. Selling Yarns 3: Weaving the nation's story was starting to be told by an amazing group of people who live across Australia and overseas. The group was welcomed by many people including Aunty Agnes Shea who represented the Ngunnawal people of the Canberra region.

Full attendance at the conference was never in doubt as the combination of formal papers, in formal presentations and fibre activities is always appealing to the diverse audience who come expecting to be stimulated by the ideas, images and the tactile experience of making. Jilda Andrews and myself planned four topics to be covered during the event: Transfer of Indigenous Knowledge, Fabric and Fashion, Contemporary Modes of Practice and Collaboration and Industry. Individual speakers certainly addressed these topics but everyone contributed to the telling of stories with Indigenous fibre at their heart. It was a conference about networking with others, collaborations and looking to the future of fibre practice in Australia with a focus on actual processes and materials. This was achieved by reflecting on old ways and objects and using new ideas and materials to prepare a future for new Indigenous artists and their families.

The importance of tradition cannot be underestimated in Indigenous fibre practice. Classic forms, materials and processes form the basis upon which new innovative work emerges. Some artists like Lois Conner from California felt their work should be an accurate representation of previous generations of artists. Other speakers certainly agreed with this premise while many acknowledged their importance but their work went in new directions. Within this discussion the role of museums and archives was pivotal. Rex Greeno from Tasmania detailed how his bark canoe commissioned for the National Museum of Australia was based on archival material since a canoe had not been made for over seventy years. Evelyn Omeenyo from Lockhart River commented how old objects like the ones in the museums were used for ceremony. The importance of archiving and keeping materials became relevant when Uncle Sandy Atkinson and Karen Coote revealed the wealth of fabrics from Ernabella, Injalak and the Tiwi Islands from the 1970s. Daniel Beeron from Queensland reflected on the old messages sticks and how they now had a new form but respecting old ways with his muwago and mindi (message sticks and baskets). From Darnley Island Maryann Bourne and Emma Galia demonstrated to the groups palm frond weaving that has been practiced for hundreds of years in the Torres Strait. Tina Baum from the National Gallery of Australia presented the sculpture of the fish trap modeled after an historic piece in their collection from Maningrida. Awhina Tamarapa from New Zealand talked about the cloaks in Te Papa were 'appreciated as living treasures'. Their recognition and meaning was shown in two ways. Acknowledgement of the artists expertise and aesthetic was shown to the outside world through the museum but inside was the spiritual world.

Collaborations of fibre artists with people outside the community was seen through partners in museums and businesses to produce new products. What is often not acknowledged in these processes is the role of the facilitator who is often a highly trained professional.

The presentation by Sasha Tichkosky from Koskela in Sydney described her collaboration with the women from Elcho Island and Maparu in the exhibition of lampshades Yuta Badayala as two cultures coming together in a path of independence. Their project developed ways of working that would compete in the marketplace. Mavis Ganambarr from Elcho Island, the chief artist from Elcho said it was easy to combine the traditional techniques into a contemporary object. Her comment about the work exemplifies perhaps the this transition. ' Yuta Badayala was the light that shines into the other world.' Euraba paper artist Christine Dumas, a Goomeroi woman and Kim McConville from Beyond Empathy talked about how this social enterprise to make paper brought together members of the community and provided a means of them telling their stories and making an income. Christine Dumas expressed the artists feelings when she said we get 'joy from telling people what we do.' Rose and Angus Cameron of Nomad Art have long been known for their collaborative printmaking projects with Aboriginal people. They brought the excellent advice to the marketing of printed fabrics has to combine the values of the community producers and meet the demands of the buyer who often want items 'made by hand'. Bobbie Ruben's paper showcased the products made by artists at Babbarra and Merrepen Arts emphasizing the potential that lies in making the right contacts. Tim Growcott brought to the fore his work with various screen printing enterprises in Arnhem Land and in particular a new range of fabrics produced by the artists at Injalak. Both Ruben and Growcott are excellent examples of the professional people making 'fabric things' happen in remote communities.

In the theme of old and new ways cross-cultural activities were evident at Selling Yarns 3 from across oceans to other Indigenous people to Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians. This highlights the fact that fibre artists may live in remote areas but they are not isolated from ideas and materials.

The work of Keren Ruki's presentation detailed her incorporation of Maori and Aboriginal culturl values and materials. This was most noticeable in her use of dingo pelts in her Trans-tasman kahu kuri (Maori dog skin cloak). The transfer of cultural materials was brought to focus with the paper by Khadija Carroll detailing her work with Vicki Couzens, Maree Clark and Lee Darroch These artists are using possums in their cloaks that come from New Zealand. They continued this sharing of materials by bringing possum fur for Lucy Wanapuyngu and Mavis Ganambarr.

Nalda Searles experience and dedication to working with Aboriginal people particularly with salvaged or recycled materials was a theme in itself during the conference this was also evident in the fibre activities, making string from fabric and dolls from blankets. The concept of 'making do' worked with the dolls made by the Noongar women in Narrogin in Western Australia. The dolls were made with donated pieces of fabric. Searles explained that the artists ' were telling their own stories with new materials.' The Yarrenyty Arltere Artists from Alice Springs in the Larapinta Valley Town Camp primarily use woolen blankets for their creative figures which are used to tell important cultural stories. This activity is also a great social and soothing activity for women often surrounded by difficulties. As Marlene Rubuntja said ' When we sew it makes us feel good. We don't have to think about anything else.' Other fibre artists from the desert use not only the native tjanpi as detailed by Christiane Keller and Nyurpaya Kaika-Burton and Iluwanti Ken (translated by Diana James) but a variety of man-made materials like raffia, wool and string. James translated that the women use materials at hand and are happy to incorporate materials (including an old rake) in their figures to tell the story. These figures then as Ken said 'They go out into the world and take the stories with them.'

Amongst the many uses of art work discussed in the conference the promotion of issues of concern to the communities was important. Searles worked with the Noongar women to help combat kidney disease by make dolls promoting healthy kidneys. Health was the primary message convened by Lucy Wanapuyngu with her fibre bush foods. These foods are a way of returning health and as Wanapuyngu says 'I feed my family (with these yams).' Saving the coastal environment was brought forward by many artists including ones from Erub who work on the Ghost Nets project. The loss of materials by access, extinction and environmental issues was pointed out by Rex Greeno with his reeds, Lois Conner and the desert women for plant fibres and Keren Ruki with dog skins.

In conclusion the Selling Yarns 3 Conference was one of not only promoting issues and concerns to the artists and the professionals who work with them in their communities and in partnerships but a great social networking event. People from across Australia and overseas are united in purpose to promote Indigenous fibre in as many ways as possible. The identity and pride that comes with fibre practice is part of culture. Lois Connor said 'The driving force in my life is to preserve my culture.' This is echoed by many and working with old and new ways of making and is not just about contemporary people. Keren Ruki's statement is a common theme that Indigenous fibre practice has made a continuing contribution. 'Keeping culture strong is a really, really important thing for our kids and their future.'


Louise Hamby is a Research Fellow in the Digital Humanities Hub. She has been co-granted an ARC Discovery Grant:Contexts of Collection- a dialogic approach to understanding the making of the material record of Yolngu cultures (2008-2011). Her last position was a Postdoctoral Fellow - Industry working with Museum Victoria on the project, Anthropological and Aboriginal perspectives on the Donald Thomson Collection: material culture, collecting and identity. She took up this position at the CCR in 2003. From 2001 she was a Visiting Fellow. She received her PhD in Anthropology from the ANU in 2001. She also holds an MFA in Fabric Design from the University of Georgia.