Selling Yarns


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Patterns of practice: Indigenous fibre art and museums

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

August 2006

Lindy Allen is Senior Curator for Northern Australian Collections at Museum Victoria, including the important historical ethnographic, manuscript and image collections of Baldwin Spencer and Donald Thomson. Her paper addressed the potential that museums and galleries in Australia have in the promotion and development of Indigenous fibre practice.


Museums and art galleries in Australia have the potential to play a significant role in the promotion and development of Indigenous fibre practice. This happens already yet goes largely unnoticed, and in this paper I will focus on the way in which museums in particular have had and can make substantial contributions in this arena. Australia's cultural institutions have great potential firstly as a marketplace in themselves; ie. as buyers and retailers. They are collecting institutions, and Indigenous fibre work is being increasingly acquired by galleries and museums; and they all have retail outlets that either already sell or have the potential to sell fibre work produced by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists.

These institutions can also make a significant contribution to the development of the marketplace itself. Most importantly, they have the potential and capacity to raise the profile of the work of Indigenous fibre and other textile practitioners, and thus assist in a real way to grow the capacity of the market. Our public galleries, exhibitions, publications and programs celebrate the vitality of contemporary Aboriginal arts practice, and, in this way, can influence and impact on the broader marketplace in a significant way.

Public art and cultural agencies are constantly under pressure to develop and grow their customer base. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a staggering 31 million people visited around 1300 museums and galleries in Australia during the 2003-2004 financial year. Despite this impressive figure, our industry still seeks to increase the customer base by targeting those who are not the regular museum goers as well as enticing return visitation. Yet ways in which to capitalise on such an impressive audience is markedly absent from any critical appraisals of market potential and discussions about developing the profile of Indigenous fibre artists (or other Indigenous artists as well).

Having said that, essentially there are only a handful of museum curators in the major cultural institutions in Australia with responsibilities for developing the public collections of Indigenous material and using them to develop exhibitions, publications and programs that aim to educate the general public and celebrate the dynamic nature of Indigenous cultures in Australia. Their primary brief is at its very simplest to build collections and to educate. We aim to create an understanding of the dynamic nature of Indigenous cultures in Australia. At Museum Victoria, fibre work is a large component of the Aboriginal collections, and is actively collected as part of the ongoing body of knowledge, skill and artistry central to the cultural fabric of contemporary Aboriginal Australia. Its representation in the collections serves as testimony to the survival, continuation and creative capacity of fibre practice unmatched in many parts of the world today. Certainly this is true for Australia, as the majority of fibre art practitioners in this country are Aboriginal women.

Unfortunately museums are often overlooked in consideration of their role in relation to Indigenous art practice. They suffer from the common perception that they are full of old things with little relevance to the present and are dismissed as ethnographic and anthropological, an image that persists into the present without any acknowledgement of contemporary museum curatorial practice and museum anthropology. Yet Museum Victoria is actively involved in building contemporary collections (significant acquisitions of fibre objects have continued for at least two or more decades1) and engaging and working collaboratively with Indigenous communities.

I will focus briefly on a recent three year collaboration with Injalak Arts and Crafts to produce an exhibition on fibre art from western Arnhem Land.2 The project sought to redress the lack of recognition of the significance of contemporary fibre work by Aboriginal women of that region. Workshops were developed with Museum Victoria's Indigenous Cutlures Department to progress creation of the exhibition. This process included during the development of the exhibition linking and facilitating a cultural exchange between Injalak women and Aboriginal fibre artists from Victoria;3 visits by Injalak artists to access the heritage collections held at Melbourne Museum;4 and another program of workshops and cultural exchanges that coincided with the exhibition's opening in May 2005.

The exhibition called Twined Together: Kunmadj Njalehnjaleken opened in Bunjilaka, the Aboriginal Centre at Melbourne Museum on the 12th May 2005. It showcases the extraordinary fibre work of Kunwinjku speaking Aboriginal women from western Arnhem Land. Melbourne Museum was the first venue for the touring exhibition that goes to four regional galleries in Victoria and six interstate venues. I felt in the current context that it would be interesting to review the reaction to the exhibition over the five months it was showing in Melbourne. Around 325,000 people came to the museum during that time and visitation patterns suggest that over 60,000 of those visitors went to Bunjilaka. Being very conservative with these figures, to suggest that even ten percent of those visitors ie. 6000 people gained an insight into the work and were left with an appreciation of the skill and artistry associated with Indigenous fibre practice is, in itself, a significant achievement.6

During the weekend program of events that coincided with the exhibition opening, a visitor survey was organised by the Museum's Market Research team to assess the level of understanding, engagement and satisfaction with the program. A total of twelve Injalak women artists with three Gunbalanya School students7 and at least twelve Victorian women artists participated in the final program. The results of the survey showed a staggering 91 percent satisfaction rating.8 No figures are available about the impact on sales in the Museum Shop, however baskets and mats and other stock purchased from Injalak for the period of the exhibition reportedly sold well.

However, the biggest surprise, again an outcome that has not been measured, was that a number of people made their way to the Northern Territory and turned up at Injalak Arts Centre directly as a result of having seen the exhibition in Melbourne. This is purely anecdotal, but it would appear that the exhibition raised awareness of the work and consequently individuals sought to visit the community and the arts centre to experience the community first hand and purchase directly from them. Even if there is no clear evidence of an increase in sales as a consequence of the exhibition, there are indications that it certainly raised awareness of the community, the artists and their work and even if only in the short term, there was some sense of a commercial outcome for Injalak Arts. However small this may be it is no doubt welcome. It is not possible to measure the impact of having the artists at the museum over the opening weekend, but this is an opportunity that museums and galleries are well placed to capitalise upon in promoting artists and their work. Visitors engaging directly with the artists must have an impact.

The museum exhibition at the same time showcases the very best of works and by virtue of this can play a significant role in educating the public about quality and cultural value or at least provide a benchmark upon which the public can judge works they wish to acquire. This collaboration on the Twined Together exhibition demonstrates the pivotal role museums can play and the powerful position they can occupy in relation to the development of the market place. I reiterate that this has been ignored to date and not overtly capitalised upon. Museums may not be seen as working at the high end of the market yet, however the work in the exhibition is, and it would be hoped that the exhibition could make a contribution to developing interest in a sector of the public who in time will be willing to pay better prices for such works.

The other potential is that by presenting high quality works an expectation is created that these might offer a proposition to investors and collectors alike. Notwithstanding there is no doubt that the works will likely continue to be attractive to a very restricted market and the volume of works sold would remain limited for some time into the future. However the economics of this given a narrow market for a limited resource implies that quality works should be able to sustain significantly higher prices than is the case currently. It should not be underestimated that museums can play a role in building a profile for these works and how they can influence public perceptions and potentially develop sectors of the marketplace.

The museum-going public unlike those who frequent art galleries as a rule is more interested in cultural aspects of fibre work rather than having a developed appreciation for the aesthetics. So there is still much work to be done. Museums present collection pieces both in a visually and intellectually engaging environment; they highlight the work of contemporary fibre artists and attribute works to individuals and present other information about their cultural connections and their history. This is a deliberate strategy based on knowledge of the type of visitor and their expectations. Seeing the work of contemporary fibre artists in a museum or in a major art gallery no doubt not just raises awareness of the work and the artist, but lends credence to their work and artistic practice. This is important in terms of the potential to impact on the public including those who either buy or are interested in buying Aboriginal art.

In this context, I have noticed over at least the last five years that art galleries have made a shift towards this model in relation to Indigenous artists in that they provide extended labels and often audiovisual or other associated background to assist their visitors to understand the work. The norm in major art galleries in Australia today without exception is for information and explanations to be provided giving context for and insights on the perspectives of the artist/s. This could be considered, dare I say, an ethnographic approach! However I would prefer to suggest it is akin to the museums business of 'storytelling' in relation to objects which don't speak for themselves and are made within a different cultural milieu, and consequently require an additional level of explanation and context to be understood.

From a museum perspective, the acquisition and exhibition of works is as much about people, their personal stories and the histories they wish to share with the wider public as it is about objects. This perhaps sets museums apart from art galleries. Sit and talk to any of the present generation of fibre practitioners and always the stories and the histories will be there. Even when the discussion is about the heritage material in museums, the focus of discussions always returns to the makers and their history - the people behind the object - not the work itself.

To best illustrate this point I will draw upon a statement from the late Aunty Connie Hart (1917-1994).

I could only do it when she wasn't looking. She wanted us to learn white ways. I picked her baskets up when she wasn't looking and put them down when I heard her footsteps coming.

She was talking about her mother, Frances Alberts, who lived at Lake Condah in western Victoria in the early 20th Century. Aunty Connie recounts how she never learned to make an eel trap or 'fish net' even though her mother and the other women at Lake Condah did. The only ones she knew about were those made from chicken wire and used by families at Framlingham. When Aunty Connie's mother passed away in 1983, Connie herself was in her sixties and decided to start making baskets for the first time based on what she remembered from her childhood. From examples on display in the Koorie exhibition in Kershaw Hall in Museum Victoria's old site on Swanston Street, Aunty Connie was able to make her trademark 'pocket' baskets, and 'scone' and 'cake' baskets and the distinctive eel traps, all of which she continued to make right up until her death.

On the way up to Darwin for this conference, I spent just an hour or so with Yvonne Koolmatrie, and despite the very limited time, I came away with even more insight into her famiy's history and how that impacted on her art practice. Similarly the late Aunty Joyce Moate from Healesville east of Melbourne in the Dandenongs explained to me her family connections to the Dandenongs and Coranderrk Aboriginal Station and how this influenced the forms and materials she used of in her fibre practice. Like Aunty Connie, Joyce took up making baskets, mats and eel traps in her sixties. Museum Victoria purchased her first basket and this is a very important work for many reasons, most importantly that, unlike Aunty Connie's work, there was no equivalent in the heritage collections of any museum for Joyce to have used as a template. Joyce did reference images of the distinctive baskets made at Coranderrk which operated near Healesville from the late 1860s through to the first decade of the 20th Century. All of those works thought exhibit the influences of an external market.9 However her works are unlike these, and mostly reflect on more traditional forms.10

Joyce worked at home by herself and tried to sell her work wherever she could. She got a commission from Diane Moon in 1997 for the Campbelltown City Gallery collection at my recommendation. A large sedge mat with a 'flower' pattern was declined by Campbelltown because it was too much like 'craft', and subsequently Joyce very generously donated it to Museum Victoria. The Museum commissioned her to make an eel trap for its Immigration Museum for the opening exhibitions in 1997. Again no heritage examples existed for her to draw upon, and she didn't say why she made the specific shape and form. She very likely drew upon a template based on memories and stories of elders and family.

Similarly, anyone who knows Red Ochre Award Winner, Aunty Dot Peters, also from Healesville, understands the importance of 'yarning' that goes hand in hand with the creation of her distinctive works with pine needles and other materials. She has inspired and encouraged many others in Victoria to learn these skills, including Joyce Moate. And it doesn't take much to prompt a yarn about her grandmother, one of the well known basket makers at Coranderrk.

Unfortunately the work of these women remains largely unknown outside of Victoria. The localisation of the work which is primarily only seen in Melbourne and regional Victoria provides an important context within which to consider such works; however, it is not surprising then that their work and that of Indigenous women from southeastern Australia in general, except for that of Yvonne Koolmatrie, remains relatively invisible. There is no arts centre for them, and yet they do not live in a remote area. So the museum and other bodies like the Koorie Heritage Trust become a key avenue for the promotion of their work. The growing of reputations and the raising of profiles of both emerging and established fibre artists falls to a large extent on museums. Major art galleries will only show the work of recognised artists without thought given to how artists do get known.

The irony remains that the opportunities to produce 'high-end' work that might get the attention of the major art galleries is limited by a lack of a marketplace, respect for the craft and an environment for developing the skills of the artists. Museums can be important players in this as we don't have to discriminate on the basis of reputation or aesthetics. The primary considerations are the significance of a cultural practice and the history and the stories associated with the art and the artists. Museums provide an environment in exhibitions and in their products that seeks to create an understanding in the mind of the public about Aboriginal people and their lives and their work, and, in this instance, the interconnectedness of the contemporary fibre practice with the past and the heritage collections we hold.

It is disappointing that the work of Aboriginal women generally lags behind and even more so fibre artists. Theirs is a practice with a long and specialised history from which the present generation of fibre artists emerges - and this is true of both those from southeastern Australia and western Arnhem Land. The work of contemporary Indigenous fibre artists continues to reference the past generations in both overt and subtle ways.

Skills and the forms created embody and reference 'classic' fibre forms whether through the selection of material, the techniques used or the prompt for these fibre practitioners to do their craft. It is based on knowledge that links several generations of similar practitioners and specialists, because it was always a specialist skill. The connections can be either directly or indirectly used to feed a strong contemporary fibre aesthetic. The Aboriginal fibre artists of today interpret this knowledge in exciting and dynamic ways and are not just 'basket-makers'. As with other artists, they are continuously pushing the boundaries of working with fibre -but the eye needs to be trained to see this - and exhibitions like Twined Together seeks to do this. It is not something new and many examples can be found from across the country and in historical records and museum collections. There is a strong need for more exhibitions that map and document this contemporary practice and the history of fibre work in Australia. There is a vast body of material from current practitioners that can be, like Twined Together, set within a framework of the work of fibre artists in the past. We have to work towards a greater representation amongst the endless exhibitions of acrylic paints on canvas from everywhere.

These exhibitions and projects would bring to the attention of the public a new and exciting set of stories, histories and works. This can only whet their appetite and capture the interest of the marketplace. It may always remain a niche market, but museums remain a vital, important and active link in building that market and encouraging and supporting development of fibre art practice throughout Australia.


Lindy Allen is Senior Curator for Northern Australian Collections at Museum Victoria, including the important historical ethnographic, manuscript and image collections of Baldwin Spencer and Donald Thomson. Allen's career in museums spans 30 years and Aboriginal fibre has been a focus of her research over that time.


  1. For example, in 1994 the Museum purchased the second 'Maningrida Weaving Collection', its predecessor having been placed on permanent loan to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in the1990s. Both collections were curated by Diane Moon in her capacity at that time as Art Advisor at Maningrida Arts and Culture; and works were inspired by cultural material in the Donald Thomson Collection held at Museum Victoria and collected in Arnhem Land between 1935 and 1937 and also in 1942.
  2. Injalak Arts and Crafts is the organisation that serves the artists of Gunbalanya and adjacent outstations in western Arnhem Land; and the collection and subsequent exhibition was curated by Dr. Louise Hamby from the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the ANU.
  3. Australia Council funding was gained to run this workshop and facilitate cross-cultural interaction with Victorian Aboriginal fibre artists. For more detail on the workshop see Hamby, L. and Allen, L., Twined Together. InSite, March-April 2004, p.5.
  4. Injalak received Visions of Australia Exhibition Development grant funding five artists to visit Museum Victoria, South Australian Museum and Australian Museum. Museum Victoria and ANKAAA provided further monies for Jill Nganjmirra to travel separately to Melbourne and Canberra for a few days as part of a professional skills development opportunity as part of the exhibition project.
  5. Myer Foundation provided funding for 5 Injalak fibre artists to travel to Melbourne to participate in workshops and a program of events held over three days to coincide with the exhibition opening. They worked with five established Victorian Aboriginal fibre artists to produce a series of baskets and a set of etched plates inspired by their fibre practice. The Australian Print Workshop collaborated and provided equipment and expertise for the creation of etched plates. The artists had the opportunity to experience printmaking.
  6. At MAGNT 31,966 people visited the exhibition over two months. A Visitor Evaluation Survey showed that the response to the exhibition was 'overwhelmingly positive' (Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory Post Exhibition Report, unpublished, n.d.)
  7. Support for these three teenage girls was provided by the Gunbalanya School and the office of the Minister for Arts and Museums in the NT, Ms Marion Scrymgour, who opened the exhibition at MAGNT in November 2006.
  8. Summary of Market Research Melbourne Museum Foyer, September 2006. Market Research and Evaluation, Museum Victoria. Unpublished, n.d.
  9. Images of baskets collected from Coranderrk and in the collections of Museum Victoria were used for consultation with the Aboriginal community of Healesville in the early 1990s as part of the development of exhibitions in the then newly established cultural centre, Galeena Beek. The centre has subsequently closed and the works returned to Museum Victoria.
  10. See Allen, L., Sedge eel trap and mat, in Treasures of the Museum, Museum Victoria. 2004:p.90.