long water: fibre stories

In celebrating the collective rather than the individual, fibre art plays a vital role in maintaining and preserving Indigenous material culture. Many contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists draw on ancestral sites and stories for inspiration in their textile designs, using this versatile art form to extend tradition and produce objects that are both utilitarian and decorative, ceremonial and sculptural.

Fibre art is firmly embedded in the innovative practices of Susan Balbunga, Mandy Batjula, Elisa Jane Carmichael, Sonja Carmichael, Fiona Elisala-Mosby, Janet Fieldhouse, Helen Ganalmirriwuy, Ruth Nalmakarra, Paula Savage, Lucy Simpson, and Delissa Walker; an intergenerational mix of emerging and established women artists from Indigenous communities and art centres in New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory; particularly from Milingimbi Art and Culture Centre and Moa Arts. These artists use the textile medium to share knowledge, culture and skill through one common theme: water, a crucial resource; essential to the structural role of agriculture, transportation and aquatic food supply – overall sustainability.

Susan Balbunga with Bamugora (in development), Yurrwi (Milingimbi Island), November 2019. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton. Courtesy the Institute of Modern Art, Queensland

Curated by Freja Carmichael, a Ngugi woman from Quandamooka country, ‘long water: fibre stories’ at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane, highlights the practice of fibre art informed by the people, places and environments of its creators, the aforementioned artists. Through objects such as mats, baskets, dilly bags, fish traps and even ink drawings depicting plant life, the exhibition provides a spiritual link, and access to, the country’s vast shorelines, land and sea relationships, island waterways and expansive river systems. Each pull of the thread, knotting of string, or the mesh of natural fibres is symbolic of the unbreakable bond each artist shares with the life form; interwoven with all other elements that sustain us: culture, identity and spirituality.

Upon entering the exhibition, we are reminded that ‘to weave is to honour the ways of water, to care for the environment and systems that support important water sites, and to acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures flow from a deep and eternal source – Ancestors and country.’

Ruth Nalmakarra with ochres, Langarra (Howard Island), November 2019. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton. Courtesy the Institute of Modern Art, Queensland

Nalmakarra, Ganalmirriwuy and Batjula; sisters, whose works, fittingly, relate to the birth of a freshwater site at Gärriyak by the Yolŋu creation beings, the Djaŋ’kawu Sisters. Their collection of Giwiḻirr (Garrawurra dilly bags) (2020) continue the actions and stories initiated by their spiritual Ancestors, who travelled across saltwater country, carrying woven bags, baskets and mats, creating life, culture, clan, language, ceremony, landforms and water sites. In addition to pandanus fibre and kurrajong string, the trio use rich ochre – red, white and yellow pigments – to illustrate the fish in the storyline with patterns derived from ceremonial Liyagawumirr/Garrawurra clan designs, also attributed to their weaving style. Pattern and colour are dominant properties in the exhibition. Savage’s basket series, made from raffia, seagrass cord, matchbox tree seeds, reflect her connection to the seas, islands, skies and animals during the time spent travelling with her father by dinghy, as part of his pearl diving and crayfish hunting activities. Her works are vibrant, drawing admirers deep into the sea (malu) of the Torres Strait Islands, swimming in dense woven patterns adorned with seeds and shells from the shoreline.

Carrying Fish Trap 1-2 (2018-19) presents a contemporary interpretation of a traditional woven fish trap by Elisa Jane Carmichael. Using recycled ghost nets, synthetic fibre, raffia, yarn, wool, cane, wire and fish scales, Carmichael creates sculptural representations of ocean waves in motion. Bejewelled with pearly mullet fish scales and revived with colour and movement, these works celebrate the abundance, life and spirituality of Quandamooka saltwater country. While Carmichael’s works praise the skill of her ancestors, Simpson condemns the modern world’s disrespect for our waterways, and our disconnection with our duty for their care. When the freshwater rivers and lakes of Simpson’s Yuwaalaraay country had dried up, the artist discovered a metal fish trap embedded in the dry riverbed; the catalyst for her work Gungandhi (2020). The work reflects on Yuwaalaraay ancestral stories, in particular, the narrative of the first beings who broke Law and were consequently swallowed whole by crocodiles; a severe but, in Simpson’s case, warranted punishment. The cyclical nature of the recycled materials used – found fencing wire and fishing line, to replicate the large semi-aquatic reptile, alludes to the idea of change or transformation, no doubt in response to climate change and our almost maternal role in protecting the earth.

Janet Fieldhouse with Sails (detail), 2020. Photograph: Rhett Hammerton. Courtesy the Institute of Modern Art, Queensland

Budjong dabiyil, or ‘mother water’ in one of the variations of Jandai language from Quandamooka country, is the eponym of the collaborative work by mother and daughter, Sonja Carmichael and Elisa Jane Carmichael. budjong dabiyil (2020) draws a connection between matrilineal ancestors and life-giving waters of the southeastern Queensland area. A visual exploration of the beauty of the natural environment through turquoise greens, blues, and warm oranges – colours provided by ghost net marine debris, natural fibres, and commercial raffia – and weaving techniques – knotting, looping and coiling. Contemporary versions of ancestral forms such as gulayi (Quandamooka women’s bag) known for collecting and gathering along the shorelines are accompanied by a text landscape: ‘budjong’ (mother) and ‘dabiyil’ (water).

The concept of water as origin and provider flows through the exhibition, replenishing cultural traditions and knowledge systems, ancestral narratives and personal experiences, and provides a floating platform for Indigenous women artists to communicate their individual voyages; ‘to tell my stories’, says artist Janet Fieldhouse.

Institute of Modern Art
5 September to 19 December, 2020