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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Weaving identity

by Rebecca Ray, 7 December 2022

Yanyangkari Roma Butler and Yangi Yangi Fox from Irrunyju (Wingellina), Western Australia, 2017 Rhett Hammerton
Yanyangkari Roma Butler and Yangi Yangi Fox from Irrunyju (Wingellina), Western Australia, 2017 Rhett Hammerton. © Tjanpi Desert Weavers, NPY Women’s Council

Growing up, I didn’t know I was Torres Strait Islander. I didn’t know my heritage or my culture because my mum was separated at birth, placed in an orphanage and adopted out. She spent the larger part of her life searching for family, for culture, for belonging and identity. Like her, my sense of belonging and identity was disrupted due to this cultural disconnection. It wasn’t until we moved to Queensland and started going to First Nations art workshops with the local mob that we were reconnected to both culture and family.

I always felt a sense of shame when I was younger, especially through my teenage years and early twenties, because I couldn’t tell you where I was from or who I was. I didn’t know how or have the proper skills to trace my bloodline or history. It was through the help of other First Nations people, especially in the arts sector, that I was able to put the pieces together. This was often through spending countless hours in yarning and weaving circles, talking and making art. These circles are safe spaces, leveraged on trust and mutual respect. I was taught how to make string, to weave and to prepare different types of fibres while learning about who I was, hearing stories and piecing together a fractured sense of self.

Traditional modes of portraiture are often equated with the idea that identity is connected to individuality, expressed through likeness. Alongside this, the desire to represent the character, disposition and inner self appeared within portraiture to further express identity. Indigenous portraiture, however, often does not follow the conventions of western portraiture in depicting the face or physical likeness. Within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, the concept of collaboration is a fundamental feature of identity. Through storytelling and skill sharing, intergenerational knowledge and history is passed from one generation to the next and forms the basis for understanding the world around us, with art often acting as the vehicle. Art objects and practices are inseparable from everyday life and constitute one of the central sites of cultural knowledge embedded in ceremony, daily use and storytelling. Indigenous culture, as a whole, is relational with collective perspectives. The self is understood through our relationships to one another, and to all living and non-living things including the waterways, the mountains and the deep saltwater oceans, through to the vast celestial realms. It is these relationships to the world around us that form the foundation of Indigenous ideology and culture. This movement between the land and each other defines ways of being, ways of doing and ways of knowing ourselves. Therefore, identity is embedded in the nexus between the self, others and the land.

As curator Wally Caruana has noted, based on this idea of cultural connectedness, Indigenous portraiture can encompass clan designs or patterning, spiritual elements and creation ancestors or assigned totems. The specific materials used play a large role in both artmaking and community identification, where the materiality of artform and practice can indicate an expression of identity. As a weaver (and as somebody who found identity through artmaking and materiality) I’m particularly interested in the way different materials speak to the identities of specific communities and, in turn, act as integral elements of Indigenous notions of portraiture. Materiality in this space exists further than just the actual physical material – it embodies significant features of Indigenous epistemology and ontology including collaboration, storytelling, history and spirituality.

Fibre art has been central to First Nations culture since time immemorial. Traditionally used to make items for fishing and hunting such as baskets, bags, nets and traps, contemporary fibre art encompasses myriad forms, from sculpture and installations to fashion and textiles. It manifests as an act of activism and reclamation, a celebration of identity and a tangible embodiment of culture. I remember being on South Stradbroke Island at an Indigenous artist camp, watching, weaving and listening to the stories of my ancestral home, Mer Island. My cultural identity strengthened through my relationships to the other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in the camp, sharing and being on Country. I felt so connected as we wove, experimenting with different natural fibre materials, including pandanus and seedpods, combined with the vivid colours of fabrics and found plastics.

1 2 The collection Ghost Net Totems by Pormpuraaw Arts and Cultural Centre (featuring Simone Arnol designs) shown as part of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair Fashion Performance: Water is Sacred 2020 Both Ebony Doyle. Courtesy of Pormpuraaw Arts and Cultural Centre and Cairns Indigenous Art Fair © Colyn Huber, Lovegreen Photography

Across Indigenous Australia, artists continue to use a diverse range of weaving materials from organic natural fibres such as native grasses through to unexpected, found objects like ghost nets. Abandoned, lost or discarded in the ocean, these fishing nets wash up on the shorelines and beaches and encapsulate the larger problem of unsustainable fishing practices that continue to kill marine wildlife, damage reefs and add thousands of tonnes of plastic into the environment. Saltwater-connected communities such as Erub Arts in the Zenadath Kes (Torres Strait Islands) and Pormpuraaw in Northern Queensland collect these materials and use the reclaimed fibres as a visible expression of culture and identity.

1 The collection Ghost Net Totems by Pormpuraaw Arts and Cultural Centre (featuring Simone Arnol designs) shown as part of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair Fashion Performance: Water is Sacred, 2020. © Colyn Huber, Lovegreen Photography. 2 Kim Norman working underneath a sculpture of a Saratoga for NYC UN show , 2017. Courtesy of Pormpuraaw Arts and Cultural Centre.

Highlighting the Erub artists’ connection to the sea, the installation Au Karem Ira Lamar Lu – Ghost Nets of the Ocean (2018), held by the Australian National Maritime Museum, raises awareness of ocean pollution and recycling, and promotes conservation of the marine environment. Made through a collaborative practice of collecting, weaving and sharing, each individual artwork depicts the story of a person, a family, a community, a land and a culture. Representations of turtles, for example, speak directly to one of the most significant marine species from the natural and cultural landscape of the Zenadath Kes, a totem and spiritual entity that resonates with each community member. The fibre sculptures also take on a political agenda, reinforcing the issue of environmental destruction, excessive waste and overuse of natural resources, leveraged on the Indigenous perspective of caring for Country.

In an assertion of connection to Country and community, Pormpuraaw artists work together to create wearable art using old and new techniques and practices. Their fashion collection Ghost Net Totems was displayed in the CIAF Fashion Performance: Water is Sacred at the 2020 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. Presented as an online, digital art fair due to covid-19, the models swapped the catwalk for an ethereal video performance incorporating contemporary movement and cultural dance. Representing water and sustainability, the fibre artworks demonstrate immense creative innovation and dynamic displays of culture – fusing knowledge, identity and materiality into fashion. The ghost net sculptures draw attention to the threat to endangered marine life in Pormpuraaw, and is the artists’ way of honouring these important totems and connecting to their culture and identity.

1 Syd Bruce ShortJoe working on a giant tiger prawn, 2018. Courtesy of Pormpuraaw Arts and Cultural Centre. 2 Syd Bruce ShortJoe, 2018. Courtesy of Pormpuraaw Arts and Cultural Centre.

A vibrant celebration of culture through textiles is entwined through the works of Anindilyakwa artists on Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory. Natural bush dye has always been used for cultural objects such as pandanus baskets, string bags and other ceremonial regalia. Today, artists use pandanus harvested from the land combined with ghost nets and plant-dyed fabrics to create unique artworks, performing a symbolic reclamation with traditional textiles. Through the process of combining bush dye and weaving with introduced fabrics and discarded fishing nets, Anindilyakwa artists are continually reconnecting with and reinterpreting their cultural identity. The visual language of Groote Eylandt Country is woven throughout each work, with artists particularly gravitating towards the black-coloured dyes made from the leaf of the Merica tree. The landscape of Groote is jet black due to the rich manganese levels, and the black dye represents how Country looks from the air and ground.

1 Anindilyakwa artist Vera Lalara making bush-dyed textiles , 2022. Courtesy Anindilyakwa Arts. 2 Anindilyakwa artist Maicie Lalara weaving baskets with ghost nets and pandanus, 2019. Courtesy Anindilyakwa Arts. 3 Anindilyakwa artist Vera Lalara making bush-dyed textiles, 2022. Courtesy Anindilyakwa Arts.

Fashion is a natural extension of the Anindilyakwa artists’ experiments with natural dying processes, textiles and materials sourced from Country. Translating a deep understanding of culture and the natural environment into innovative fashion pieces, the designs and fabrics blend ancient and modern artforms and all hold a story, layered with culture and community. Several pieces, including dresses made from recycled silk coloured with plant dyes and dilly bags woven from natural fibres and ghost nets, were showcased in the Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery in 2020. Curator Shonae Hobson described Indigenous fashion as ‘sharing culture and passing on knowledge and storytelling through clothing in a really beautiful and elegant way’. This language of stylistic innovation and aesthetic unique to Groote women underlines the way identity is translated through materiality.

Native grass weavers like the Tjanpi Desert Weavers in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) are renowned for their innovative contemporary fibre art. Established in 1995 in response to the need for more sustainable and culturally appropriate ways for women in the remote central and western desert to earn an income, Tjanpi Desert Weavers began by making tjanpi (native grass) baskets and developed into a hybrid of traditional and experimental techniques, inspiring small woven sculptural forms which soon expanded into large-scale installations. The culmination of their collaborative process is their 2021 work, Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters), a major feature of the National Gallery of Australia’s Know My Name exhibition. Artists from 26 remote communities on the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) lands came together to illustrate the ancestral story through life-size woven figures of the Seven Sisters underneath an oversized dome representing the Pleiades star cluster.

Weaving with tjanpi further demonstrates the way that materiality is embedded in Country – linking the landscape to artform to identity. This can be seen in acclaimed senior Tjanpi Desert Weaver artist Tjunkaya Tapaya oam’s self portrait Ngayulu Minyma Tjanpinya, I am a Tjanpi Woman (2018), recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery. Made from layers of tjanpi stitched together, Tapaya’s self portrait weaves together stories about herself, her culture and her Country. As she says of the work, ‘I am weaving animals to be stitched to my self portrait, like they are pouring out of me. That’s how my weaving ideas come. Flowing from my hands and body.’ Underpinning her art practice is the desire to pass on skills and traditions to new generations of makers.

The materiality of these contemporary fibre and textile works encompasses the key ethos of Indigenous identity, oscillating between the self, Country and people. The works connect physically, visually and spiritually to these communities, highlighting the enduring traditions and dynamic transformations that contribute to cultural continuance. Weaving is just one way that cultural identity is translated; other artists across Australia continue to use the materials and techniques of ancestors to link the past with the present, people to place, and the self to others. This relationship is constituted by the interconnection of memory, life and culture, which are embedded in Country.

My identity is based on my connection to my family line, to the Elders who shared stories and culture with me, to saltwater Country and to my art practice. Without identity, portraiture cannot exist in any form.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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