Selling Yarns


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Reclaiming culture in south-eastern Australia

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

August 2006

Lorraine Coutts is the Roving Curator, Indigenous Cultures Department at Museum Victoria and her paper looked at the Museums development of cultural workshops for Indigenous artists and the Roving Curator program that has been instrumental in developing cultural projects and workshops organized specifically to develop art and craft practice for the Victorian Aboriginal community.


Museum Victoria has for several years been involved in developing a range of cultural workshops for indigenous artists from south eastern Australia. The new storage areas, galleries, exhibition and other public spaces at Melbourne Museum and the Immigration Museum have invigorated the way in which the museum and its staff, both indigenous and non-indigenous, can work with Aboriginal people. Aboriginal artists in Victoria are encouraged to utilise temporary exhibition spaces at these campuses of Museum Victoria. Artists can exhibit in either Birrarung or Jumbunna Gallery in Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre, Melbourne Museum or the Community Access Gallery at the Immigration Museum. Exhibitions, demonstrations, artist-in-residencies and workshops all provide opportunities to promote artistic work to a wide audience.

Museum Victoria enacted the Birrarung Art Strategy in 2002, aiming to address the need for the promotion of Victorian Aboriginal art to wider audiences. The Strategy provides four main elements:

  1. Exhibitions
  2. The establishment of a network for Victorian Aboriginal artists to promote cultural and artistic exchange;
  3. A Museum Victoria event program to encourage community involvement in the space; and
  4. A mentorship program offering museum skills and expertise to the community.

Artists seeking a solo show or a group exhibition can approach Museum staff to schedule in an exhibition within Birarrung Gallery. The Bunjilaka Project Officer works with the artists to arrange back-of-house access; assistance with installations and the writing of labels for individual works. Costs associated with installation, label production and exhibition launches are managed and budgeted for by Bunjilaka. Exhibitions are usually displayed for three months, allowing for four different exhibitions each calendar year. The Museum's Aboriginal collection can also be used to enhance an exhibition in Birrarung Gallery.

The Museum's Roving Curator Program has been instrumental in developing workshops, collaborating with curators, collection managers and gallery staff to deliver cultural workshops in Bunjilaka. In operation since 1994, the program was an initiative of the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), who wrote to Museum Victoria in 1993 seeking a submission for the establishment of a program that was to assist Aboriginal organisations with managing their cultural heritage. "The broad goal of the program was to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities to conserve, present (and extend) their collections of significant and other cultural property, including associated information."

The core work of the program is to assist, advise and deliver training for community organisations in exhibition development, collection and conservation management. The program also provides support for Aboriginal artists by working as a conduit between the artist and the museum. Cultural workshops have inspired artists or emerging artists to develop skills in mediums that were not readily available to them before.

Past workshops developed and presented by the Roving Curator Program include: print making, south-eastern jewellery, weaving, possum skin, children drawings, feather flowers and an indigenous men's workshop. The Roving Curator Program provides financial and cultural support for artists participating in these workshops. Financial support has been made possible by grants from the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Services and in-kind Museum Victoria staff contribution. Due to the workshop mediums, they were often perceived as being 'women's business', and were not well attended by Aboriginal men.

The Museum's State Heritage collection plays an integral role in the development and delivery of workshops. The entire Aboriginal collection consists of approximately 34,000 registered objects; with the south being represented by approximately 3,100 objects. These figures exclude the archaeological and ethno history collection. As with other major collecting institutions, collections from Northern and Central Australia dominate the State Heritage collection. This does not mean that the south is not represented. It has culturally significant pieces such as the two possum skin cloaks. The Museum also has a vast and significant collection of photographs which are used to inform artists about the types of cultural objects, how they were worn, how they were made and their cultural uses.

Through the delivery of cultural workshops, the museum has forged links with other arts organisations such as the Australian Print Workshop in Melbourne and regional art centres such as Injalak Arts and Craft Association in Gunbalanya, Northern Territory and East Gippsland Aboriginal Arts Co-Operative in Bairnsdale, Victoria. The print workshops in particular have been instrumental in inspiring confidence within Victorian artists to move on to explore other artistic mediums such as the possum skin cloaks, jewellery work, weaving and painting.

The Roving Curator Program has worked closely with the Australian Print Workshop since 1999 to deliver five workshops for Victorian Aboriginal artists. The artists can be emerging or established artists. Participants at these workshops are shown different techniques utilised in producing prints/etchings, working with master printers in Australian Print Workshop studio. Inspiration is usually drawn from the individual artist's cultural knowledge but also directly from the Museum's collection or the interpretive hands on collections. A tour of the Museum indigenous collection is a major component of cultural workshops.

An exhibition of prints from the 1999 workshop titled Ulambara - 'meeting place' were framed and displayed in Birrarung Gallery, Melbourne Museum. Artists involved in Ulumbara described their experience of viewing objects as old 'friends that had not been visited for a long time. They had previously existed as stories told by others - now they could be held in a person's hand.' This very personal approach is something that the Museum has been trying to foster when communities access their collections.

Museum Victoria Swanston Street collection stores were closed in preparation for the move to the new site in Calton Gardens in 2000. To facilitate a print workshop the same year, a tour was conducted through the Public Program store, which at the time housed objects being prepared for installation in new gallery spaces. The Lake Condah possum skin cloak was one of the objects being prepared for installation. The sight and close proximity of the cloak evoked a feeling of awe and pride within the artists, the majority of whom started to cry at seeing a piece of work that they had only read and heard about over the years. This would result in the growth and raise the profile of indigenous Victorian art and mark the beginning of a wonderful story.

Two of the artists from the 2000 print workshop discussed and submitted an application for funding; the project would be to recreate a replica of the two possum skin cloaks from Lake Condah and Echuca held at Museum Victoria. The Roving Curator Program provided advice and letters of support for the artists' grant application. The grant application was successful and again the Roving Curator Program provided assistance with photographs, technical drawings, articles and information on the two cloaks.

This project culminated in the exhibition Toolayn Koortakay, Squaring Skins for Rugs which opened in Birrarung Gallery, Melbourne Museum in 2002. Toolayn Koortakay was the first exhibition to be launched under the umbrella of the Birrarung Art Strategy. The exhibition displayed the recreated cloaks, photographs, implements used to make the cloaks as well as prints from the 2000 print workshop. The artist's delivered demonstrations during the exhibition for the visiting public.

Since Toolayn Koortakay, the artists have been successful in obtaining a number of commissions. Two of the Toolayn Koortakay artists' submitted designs for Welcome to Country competition in 2002/2003 to produce large scale art works in wool. The winning entry was a piece which drew inspiration from the Lake Condah cloak.

Three of the women have gone on to work on the biggest project of all, coordinating the production of thirty-six possum skin cloaks for the opening ceremony of the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. The artists have also collaborated on an exhibition titled Bigana that features contemporary possum skin cloaks, dance garments and spirit weavings as well as objects from the museum's collection.

The impetus for their achievement came from the artists need to re-connect and rejuvenate their cultural tradition and the Museum's collection has played an integral role throughout their journey.

The Roving Curator Program has also provided opportunities for cultural exchange between Northern Territory and Victorian Aboriginal women fibre artists. Women from Gunbalanya travelled to Victoria in 2003 to conduct research and view the fibre collection held at the Museum. To make the most of their visit the Roving Curator Program organised a weaving workshop. The aim of the workshop was to bring together weavers from different cultural groups who share a bond in the technique of weaving utlising natural plant fibres. As with previous workshops, participants received a tour of the museum collection of fibre works.

The first day of the weaving workshop was dedicated to providing an opportunity for weavers to get acquainted with each other. It also allowed time to see how natural fibres from Victoria and Northern Territory were prepared. Preparation entailed stripping and dying the pandanus. The dying process was conducted in Milarri the outdoor garden in Bunjilaka. On the second day the workshop was opened up to other Aboriginal people, who were allowed to work with weavers from the north and south. The workshop ran for a week and was a huge success not only with Aboriginal participants but the visiting public; who got to interact with the weavers and ask questions. In subsequent years, the Roving Curator Program has provided three cross cultural fibre workshops in Melbourne for Victorian and Northern Territory Indigenous weavers.

The final weaving workshop in 2004 coincided with the opening of Twined Together an exhibition of fibre art from Arnhem Land. Where possible the Museum sought to involve the same weavers from all three previous workshops, strengthening the bond between the two cultural groupings. The Australian Print Workshop was engaged to work with weavers from Arnhem Land and Victoria. The print workshop component provided an opportunity for the weavers to gain experience in the prints/etching medium. To celebrate the opening and to build on previous weaving workshops, the Museum delivered the workshops in conjunction with Injalak Arts and Craft Association and eight Victorian Aboriginal artists. Weaving, prints/etchings, jewellery, possum skin etchings, feather flowers and string games were presented over a three day period.

Due to the popularity and success of all three weaving workshops, the museum sought funding to further strengthen the ties between the north and south. An application for funding was submitted to enable the Victorian artists to visit Arnhem Land and meet senior weavers who couldn't make the journey to Melbourne. Unfortunately, the Museum wasn't successful with this particular grant application.

One of the benefits of these workshops is providing a forum for women of all ages and across Victoria and interstate with an opportunity to talk. The women talk about everyday issues that affect them at that time. This same approach is frequently utilised by Aboriginal health care professionals as it provides an avenue for de-briefing worries they may have with the job while doing something practical and culturally specific. The Roving Curator Program presented a jewellery workshop at one of these Aboriginal Health Care forums at Brambuk Cultural Centre, Halls Gap.

Regional weaving workshops were presented in Warrnambool and Tower Hill in 2004 by the Roving Curator Program. The Warrnambool workshop was held at Gundjitmara Aboriginal Cooperative and was well attended by indigenous women, children and several men.

The Tower Hill workshop was another cross cultural project and involved weavers from the Aboriginal and Sudanese communities and members of the Basket Weavers Association of Australia. In addition to weaving cross cultural activities such as dancing, singing and bush food tasting were also presented.

Ideas for new cultural workshops stem directly from discussions held with participants at previous workshops. One such idea was for the Roving Curator Program to develop a workshop in south-eastern jewellery; which was also conducted in 2004. Once again the Roving Curator Program engaged three Aboriginal jewellers (one from Tasmania and two from Victoria) to deliver and work with interested community people. This workshop was closed to the public, allowing for participants to work in a culturally appropriate setting without feeling like they were on display. Participants got to work with a wide range of natural materials such as shells, seed pods, seeds, reeds, and beads.

The jewellery workshops included a tour of the collection and exhibition spaces and participants got to also see newly acquired necklaces that had been recently purchased on a trip to Arnhem Land by the Senior Curator Northern Australia. Newly acquired collections are generally stored in the Indigenous collection write up room. This room is only accessed by internal indigenous cultures department staff but because the workshop theme was Aboriginal jewellery, the Senior Curator Northern Australia felt this opportunity could not be missed by participants.

At each of the cultural workshops spoken about above, children are encouraged to participate with their parents; imparting, sharing, learning cultural knowledge. Encouragement of the younger generation to participate strengthens cultural ties between parent and child and will ensure the continuation of cultural traditions.

Cultural workshops also address the emotional and spiritual well being of participants at fundamental personal level such as increased knowledge of culture; pride in culture; strengthening of identity and skills in a chosen medium. These all in turn impact upon the health, economic benefit and education of individuals and their families.

Participants take away knowledge that they have acquired, this has a flow on effect back to the Aboriginal community and also to the wider Australian community who see Aboriginal cultural traditions being practised today. The workshops also encourage participant's interest in Aboriginal heritage, history, language and the environment.

Cultural institutions such as Museum Victoria have a role to play in providing opportunities for artists to promote their works within a professional setting, thus raising the profile of the artist which usually entails financial and more importantly cultural benefit for themselves and their community.