Encounter lecture series - Weaving an encounter between the Njarrinderjeri, the British and the French
Professor Kay Lawrence
This is a verbatim transcript and may contain grammatical and spelling errors, particularly in the case of Njarrinderjeri and foreign words.
KAY LAWRENCE: As well as acknowledging our presence here on Kaurna land tonight I would also like to acknowledge the assistance that I have received in developing this lecture from my colleagues like Dianna Wood-Conroy and Jillian McCracken but I would also like to acknowledge the generosity of the Njarrinderjeri artists who shared their culture with me but also spoke to me about their work, Ellen and Tanya Trevorrow, Veronica Brodie and Yvonne Kilmatrie.
So when Matthew Flinders and Nicholas Baudin met at Encounter Bay off the coast of the Njarrinderjeri land in 1802 this encounter only involved the British and the French. The Europeans made no contact with the indigenous peoples who lived along the coastline although the smoke from their fires and their empty dwellings betrayed their presence. Flinders and Baudin each mapped the coast of what we now call South Australia, endowing it with names that celebrated their connections and their countries' achievements. So Gulf St Vincent and Cape Jervis was named by Flinders after Admiral John Jervis, the first Earl of St Vincent, and Cape Jaffa was named by Baudin to celebrate Napoleon's victory in Palestine.
Of course, some of the names noted the features of the land or animal or bird life like Kangaroo Island, named by Flinders in gratitude for so seasonable a supply of meat and Cape Rouge that was named by Baudin for the appearance of its reddish granite. A few of the names marked events like the catastrophic loss of six of Flinders' crew at Cape Catastrophe or the memorable meeting of Flinders and Baudin at Encounter Bay. As Greg Denning recently put it in his recent lecture in this series, Flinders stood on the edge of the land, looked at it and put a boundary around it and you can see this in the two maps resulting from these voyages, Flinders' general chart of Terra Australis or Australia which was published in 1814 and the other map by Louis Claude Freycinet which was based on Baudin's voyage.
Both of these maps show the continent as a fringe of names surrounding an empty centre because as they named the features of the coast the Europeans were unaware of the vast web of language that encompassed the continent. In South Australia alone the land supported over 40 independent descent groupings of indigenous people, each with a clearly defined territory recognised and respected by outsiders. These maps have been taken from the one on the other side, from the South Australian Museum book on the Njarrinderjeri and the one on my side from Tyndale's map which was developed in the 1930s.
They both show the area around Encounter Bay which extends north to Murray Bridge and south along the Coorong. This was home to the many clans of Njarrinderjeri people, the Ngurulta, the Warki, the Portalin, the Uruldi, the Rumingerri and the Tangunyi. It was a cultural landscape, intimately known and named for both its physical and its spiritual associations. So names evoked the tangible presence of powerful dreaming stories integral to Njarrinderjeri cultural and spiritual life like the story of Nurrinduri whose present encompassed the whole extent of Njarrinderjeri country and was embodied in names like Longqua which is now called The Bluff at Encounter Bay, where Nurrinduri threw his fighting club to the ground.
Names could also indicate the very rich food and technological resources of the land as marked on this map of the Punkamidden on the far side and another map which was based on information given to Norman Tyndale by Albert Karlowan from Millerum during the 1930s. In the names of places all along the coast whispers of these Njarrinderjeri names still exist in their English variants like Carrickalinga, Goolwa, Waitpinga and Coorong. However, in 1802 without contact with the indigenous people that lived along the coast Flinders and Baudin had no idea or no knowledge of this dense linguistic web of meaning which they overlaid with their own place names.
While the continent was filled with language it was also filled with the manifestations of other symbolic systems like dance, music and art. Only glimpses of these systems seen from the records of the Europeans from their perspective are evident in the drawings and the written records of the Flinders and Baudin voyages and actually none were recorded along the South Australian coast. It is this absence that marks the beginning of my discussion about the meanings embodied in some of the woven artefacts of the three cultural groups involved in this encounter, the British, the French and the Njarrinderjeri.
Woven objects were an important part of the material culture of each of these groups. They were integral to everyday life as clothing, coverings and carriers but they also had a symbolic function. They carried meaning beyond their physical forms. Like language, the processes of making textiles and the objects themselves can be regarded as part of a symbolic system encoded with quote complex meanings so that domestic textile objects made for everyday use have very different meanings than luxury textiles made to symbolise power and authority.
During this talk I am going to discuss weavings by contemporary South Australian artists drawn from two utterly traditions of weaving, the woven artefacts of the Njarrinderjeri and the tradition of woven tapestry in Europe. In Njarrinderjeri culture woven artefacts were fundamental to daily life and the practices of coiled weaving bound the community together in daily and ritual activity. In the European tradition tapestry was a sign of power, made by specialist weavers in professional workshops to demonstrate the wealth and cement the alliances of their patrons. Contemporary artists are able to draw upon these different traditions to re-think the past and as a way of making sense of the present.
In one sense this is an arbitrary juxtaposition of weaving from two very different cultures based on an encounter that didn't take place and yet the contemporary woven artefacts arising from these separate traditions have a symbolic resonance of particular relevance to the story of power, dispossession and loss which unfolded in South Australia over the next two centuries. I am going to look at two different threads, the first one, the tradition of woven tapestry. Woven tapestry has been one of the most powerful visual forms for symbolising wealth, status and power across Europe since the 11th century, based on a very simple woven structure but capable of creating elaborate and complex imagery in a very dense, flexible cloth. Tapestry is highly specialised and a time‑consuming technique used to create expensive luxury textiles.
The time in a specialised skill involved in designing and weaving large tapestries meant that most tapestry was produced in large professional workshops. Sometimes they were run by a professional master weaver who sought commissions and sometimes they were in the service of the court like Les Gobleins in Paris which still exists today or a very short‑lived royal tapestry workshop at Mortlake in Britain that were both founded in the 17th century. Now, these workshops were staffed by very skilled journeymen weavers who frequently changed workshops for professional or economic reasons but also in response to religious and political strife. So from the 15th to the 18th centuries in Europe, French and Flemish tapestry weavers wandered amongst the cities and the provinces using their skills to create tapestries that demonstrated the wealth and power of their patrons, spreading an iconography of imagery drawn from religion and myth that crossed both ethnic and language boundaries.
Between 1520 and 1530 King John III of Portugal commissioned a series of three great woven tapestries called The Spheres from the Brussels workshop of George Evesler to commemorate the 15th century voyage of the discovery begun in the time of his forebears, Prince Henry the Navigator and King Alfonso V and I am showing two here. The far one is called Hercules supporting the celestial sphere. Closer to me is Atlas supporting the armillary sphere. During the 16th century a very flourishing trade relationship had existed between Castille and Flanders where Portugal exported primary products and importation of luxury items came from Flanders, which included tapestries.
During the 16th and 17th centuries when the Netherlands became part of the Spanish kingdom the tapestry workshops of Brussels filled many commissions for the Spanish and Portuguese courts, including this commission of The Spheres which exalt the heroic or exploits of the Portuguese navigators by linking them to Greek and Roman myth. Each of the three tapestries was intricately woven in gold and silver, silk and wool by a team of weavers working for years to translate each cartoon into a sumptuous cloth 3.5 metres high and over 3 metres wide.
The third tapestry of the set shows Earth under the protection of Jupiter and Juno and the crowned figures of Jupiter and Juno extend their protection over the globe, which shows the sights of Portuguese discoveries marked by Portuguese flags in Africa and the East Indies. This actually has prompted speculation that the figures of Jupiter and Juno also represent King John III of Portugal and his wife, Catherine, of Austria. So the symbolic meaning of such a cloth was indicated both by its iconography and its manufacture. The virtuoso technique, the extravagant materials and the human labour dedicated for years to its construction was as much a demonstration of power as a representation of the king and the queen as the supreme deities of Roman mythology with dominion over the earth.
The link between territorial and expansion and the power of the monarch, which is shown so clearly in this tapestry, prefigures the territorial ambitions of the other European powers which led to the voyages of Flinders and Baudin in the service of Britain and France 2½ centuries later. In August 1763 the Englishman, George William, who was the sixth Earl of Coventry was in Paris to pass his time buying glasses and tapestry. He commissioned a set of tapestries from Les Gobleins for his house, Croon Court, in Worcester in England which was being renovated by Robert Adam.
The set of tapestries based on designs by leading French artists at the time, including Francois Buchet, comprised 12 wall coverings and 33 pieces of furniture upholstery to create a veritable tapestry environment. The tapestry woven walls simulating silk damask was set with woven images of gilt-framed medallions of mythological themes on the Roman allegories of the elements. All the panels were garlanded with flowers and birds and musical instruments and the trophies of the hunts and as you can see, the chairs were covered with bunches of flowers held with striped ribbons.
Such decorative schemes were popular amongst the aristocracy of Britain and France in the latter years of the 18th century as a sign of wealth, culture and taste albeit it was rather old-fashioned taste as fashion at this time was beginning to demand wallpaper which looked like tapestry rather than tapestry. Sets of this particular design were commissioned for at least four other stately homes in Britain at the time, while across the channel Louis XVI commissioned sets woven from the same design which were presented as gifts to cement his alliances with Prussia, Austria and Russia.
So these tapestries installed in palaces and stately homes across Europe signified a network of power and privilege and wealth that was going to be torn apart, of course, later at the turn of the century. Tapestry in Australia came from this tradition which eventually made its way to Australia in the mid 20th century. It was carried first by the professional weavers who came to Australia after the second war who taught the skills to local weavers, but tapestries celebrating the creation of important public institutions post war like the National Library in Canberra still had tapestries commissioned from Europe and made in French workshops like those of Orbisonne.
It was only in the buoyant economic climate of the seventies that the first tapestry workshop was set up in Australia, the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, set up in 1976 by the Victorian State Government to translate the works of noted Australian painters into monumental tapestries for public spaces. Now, speculating about why a tapestry workshop was developed in Australia at this particular time, the textiles theorist, Dianna Wood-Conroy has commented:
I suspect the main impulse in establishing a tapestry workshop is essentially conservative in a time of rapid change. To incorporate eminent traditions in a land with few ceremonious artefacts. The archaic technique gives resonance and solidity to the vigorous and questioning image makers of Australia and substantiates a claim to the past.
Of course, the past in this case is represented by European traditions rather than the past of indigenous cultural traditions which I will now turn to. During the 1990s the South Australian Museum staged an exhibition, Nurrinduri, that presented the culture and the beliefs of the Njarrinderjeri people and this is a diorama from the exhibition showing the centrality of woven objects to daily life of the Njarrinderjeri. There is a sitting mat, there is a winnower and gathering and weapon baskets as well as fishing nets. Many of these objects were actually recreated for the exhibition by contemporary Njarrinderjeri people as little of their material culture before the 19th century has survived. The weapon basket, on my side, was made I think in the 1930s.
What is now known about weaving and Njarrinderjeri culture in the late 18th century when Flinders met Baudin at Wunang, which is the Njarrinderjeri word for Encounter Bay, has been passed down from person to person through the oral tradition as well as being pieced together from documents and images in the historical record or surmised from looking at the surviving artefacts. Of course, the other important form of documentation of knowledge is documentation by anthropologists based on the information given by Njarrinderjeri people in the earlier 20th century.
As these drawings by George Fife Angus show, which are all made in about 1840, baskets and mats constructed from plant material were integral to daily Njarrinderjeri life and made as part of a collaborative process by men and women. Men and women are making a fishing net on the far side, chewing the bulrush fibre before making it into string. On my side Pellum Pellum Wolla from the Coorong is shown wearing a basketry cloak as well as carrying a basket over her shoulders.
The rich and fertile environment around the Murray Mouth and along the Coorong lagoon provided a ready source of material for the relatively settled life for the Njarrinderjeri enabling a surplus of food to be collected and stored in baskets and artefacts to be made for trade. In fact baskets and cloaks and nets were traded with clans along the Upper Murray for spears made from the mile tree that didn't grow in the Lower Murray region. Woven artefacts also had ceremonial meaning for the Njarrinderjeri. They were integral to the stories of the dreaming and were used in ritual ceremonies. The string skirt indicated the status of a young girl after her initiation as a woman and baskets were part of the funeral rites where the bones of the deceased were wrapped and placed in mats specially woven by relatives and these show two mortuary baskets in the collection of the South Australian Museum.
While the complex meanings of Njarrinderjeri culture are perhaps most evident in language and kinship systems rather than in material culture, basketry and woven objects were a very important part of ceremonial life, food gathering and other social practices. The making of these objects, of course, depended upon the gathering of materials and the retention of their lands. In 1836 when the British government grasped the opportunity, opened up by Flinders' mapping of the coast, to set up the colony in South Australia, this began a time when the lands of the Njarrinderjeri people and their culture was severely impacted by the colonial period.
While well-intentioned, the colonists had wished to establish a peaceful settlement where Aboriginal people could be Christianised and partake in the benefits of British culture - I think that is from their actual words - this invasion began a process of dispossessing the indigenous inhabitants from their lands, their language and their culture. The processes of basketry and weaving survived during the 19th century when the Njarrinderjeri were moved from their traditional lands and their available materials and forcibly assimilated into the patterns of British life in the colony is due to two reasons. Woven objects still played a central role in daily life and basket-making was accepted, even encouraged, on the Missions where the Njarrinderjeri people were clustered as they were moved off their lands.
Louisa Karpeny and an unidentified woman is shown in the far slide with baskets for sale and this was a scoop that it was still made at Ralcan in 1900 that was used to sieve food. Baskets were useful items to the missions, able to be sold to the colonists and basket-making was seen as a sign of industriousness, a very Christian virtue as opposed to idleness. In addition, the basket-making activities of the women did not compete with the earning activities of white-collarness like the men's farming activities did. It is believed that this is one of the reasons why basket-making was retained by the Njarrinderjeri people.
Even so, the pressures placed on Njarrinderjeri family and community life by the processes of dispossession, forced assimilation and the suppression of their culture and language during the 19th and 20th centuries severed the threads of connection between the generations and as family members were separated elders were not able to pass on the traditional skills to their children and grandchildren and knowledge was sometimes withheld by elders in despair at the destruction of their culture.
Aunty Veronica Brodie, a Njarrinderjeri elder who is living at Largs Bay in Adelaide, was recently interviewed on the Away programme on Radio National about her participation in the 2002 Adelaide Festival Intertwine programme. This was a community event that brought contemporary indigenous and non-indigenous artists together. Aunty Veronica spoke about watching her grandmother weave at Ralcan when she was a child. She said:
We could yarn with her while she wove but I didn't learn from her. By the time I was ready to learn I couldn't because the government was stopping our culture.
In 1994 Tom Trevorrow, a senior Njarrinderjeri man from Camp Coorong, in an interview with Dianna Wood-Conroy discussed why some Njarrinderjeri elders like Aunty Lola had died without passing the culture on. Tom said:
You see, she had seen all the children taught Christian ways at the mission and the land laid waste. In those days you couldn't have two ways. Nobody was interested in Aboriginal culture then. There was strong racism. When I went to Meningie school in the sixties I was punished for talking the Njarrinderjeri language. Aunty Lola thought it was all lost, the culture all gone and useless to pass it on only to be lost.
It was really only in the 1980s when the South Australian Museum organised a weaving workshop with Aunty Dori Kartinyeri who is thought to be one of the last people knowing the craft, weaving has again become central to the rebuilding of Njarrinderjeri cultural and social life. In the last decades of the 20th century these two very different traditions have been gradually drawn together through the development of relationships and inter-cultural exchanges between indigenous and non-indigenous artists and drawing on their very separate traditions these artists have begun to think about how we define ourselves in South Australia as citizens and as a community by addressing questions like: who is excluded or included as citizens with rights to fully participate in democratic processes and how could communities torn apart through dispossession and racist policies rebuild themselves?
The craft theorist, Sue Rowley, has noted that craft objects, stories and performance are integrally bound up with our sense of identity, our understanding of the past and our articulation of the unresolved concerns of the present. The practice of making objects and considering their meanings can enable us to sort of re-think and re-stage the events of the past as a way of making sense of the present. Contemporary artists are using these traditional forms to re-think some of the unresolved issues arising from our particular history in South Australia.
The representation of authority symbolised in the tradition of European tapestry has been restaged to include those excluded from power in the Women's Suffrage Centenary Community Tapestries which symbolically insert women into the seat of power in the South Australian parliament. Contemporary Njarrinderjeri people use weaving practices as a way of mending the ruptures of the past and binding community relationships to the present. I will discuss these re-weavings of the past in turn.
In 1992 the Women's Suffrage Centenary Steering Committee, which is a group of members of parliament plus other women in South Australia, decided to commission a tapestry for South Australia's parliament to celebrate South Australia's unique and distinguished role as a democracy with a sustained record of legislative reform aimed at justice and equal opportunity for women. The choice of tapestry for the medium of this work continues this European tradition of using tapestry as the most appropriate symbolic system to celebrate great events, yet this system was subverted by both the imagery of the work and the way it was made.
The iconography of the two tapestries, as it turned out, was drawn from women's domestic work, from textile objects and processes and the work was woven not by professionals but by ordinary people from the community. Within Australia woven tapestry has actually developed quite distinctive regional variations, so while tapestry in Victoria is focused on the work of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop and the creation of monumental works for public institutions, tapestry in South Australia developed in the context of community based art practices in the eighties, developing as a community-based as well as a professional practice.
It was the community tapestry movement where communities worked with professional weavers to learn the skills of tapestry weaving so they can design and make public works and explore community concerns that provided the model for the Women's Suffrage Centenary Community Tapestries. I was invited to design the two tapestries in 1993 which were based on both 19th and 20th century legislation which had been passed by the South Australian parliament and gave women rights as citizens. These included the right to vote, the right to own property as well as a whole raft of other legislative reform which was designed to make women equal with men before the law.
To enable the people of South Australia both to witness and participate in the project, the tapestries were woven during 1993 and '94 in the foyer of the ANZ Bank in King William Street by the Adelaide Community Weavers, a particular group who had been drawn together and taught the skills of tapestry weaving by Elaine Gardner and her assistant, Lutsi Epicla. Passers-by could come in off the street and be taught the basic weaving process so they could actually weave a pass and participate in the project.
The first tapestry was actually based on the design of paintings in the House of Assembly chamber but it subverts the 19th century conventions of the painted and framed portraits of parliamentarians that hang in this chamber. The woven frame of the tapestry, rather than enclosing a single portrait of an eminent man, opens on to a collective portrait of the three women who spearheaded the Suffrage movement in South Australia, Catherine Helen Spence, Mary Lee and Elizabeth Nicholls, as well as a section of the great petition of 11,600 signatures which was collected supporting the granting of a vote to women.
If you look at the tapestry you can see that the frame has been cut to reveal a coiled Njarrinderjeri rush mat overlaid with images that signify the granting of the vote and rights over property to women in colonial South Australia. This overlaying of the images also recalls how Njarrinderjeri country was overlaid with European language in the maps of Flinders and Baudin. In 1894 which this tapestry speaks about, Aboriginal people had not been specifically excluded from the suffrage and so by default both Aboriginal men and women had voting rights which the Njarrinderjeri exercised during the 1890s before they were systematically disenfranchised with other Aboriginal and non-white groups by the Commonwealth after federation.
The second tapestry focuses on the 20th century legislative reforms that expanded women's personal, parental and employment rights. The design is actually based on women's domestic textile practices like the Depression quilt made by Adolphina Knowle on the far side as well as petit-point embroidery and aprons. The representation of these practices brings the realm of the home into the parliament to disrupt the division between private and public life that has served to keep women in their place. It also disrupts the authority associated with tapestry by the inclusion of everyday textile objects with very feminine and homely associations. I always must admit it gives me great pleasure to see that little badge with "mother" hanging in the South Australian parliament.
One section of the design, as we have here, visualises the way public policy penetrated the home to deny women and indigenous people their parental rights. In a fragment of a letter Nellie Seager on this side pleads with the authorities for news of her children taken from her and put into state institutions, or the image behind the letter shows, is based on a drawing by Nullatjina, a young boy from Ernabella. The drawing was made in the 1940s. These two images are juxtaposed with a pair of newspaper clippings that report on two pieces of legislation, one that removed the rights of Aboriginal parents and one that gave mothers guardianship over their children.
The 1923 headline from The Register newspaper refers to the eloquent protest by a Njarrinderjeri man, Matthew Karpineri, against the provisions of the 1923 Aborigines Training of Children Act which enabled the Protector of Aborigines to remove Aboriginal children from their parents and commit them to state institutions for training. While protests like Karpineri's calls for the administration of this particular Act to be suspended, later legislation endorsed this policy of removal. In front of it, the 1940 clipping from The Advertiser, reports on the passing of the Guardianship of Infants Bill that granted women equal custody rights, authority and responsibility in relation to their children. I think it is a deep irony that while women's parental rights were being recognised, the parental rights of Aboriginal people had been taken away.
As well as celebrating legislative reform, these two tapestries also insert texts and images drawn from the historical record to insert women's voices and concerns into the patriarchal spaces of the parliament and the faint traces of Njarrinderjeri culture and protest included in each tapestry present an underlying sub-text of exclusion and loss. These other voices subvert the power and the authority usually associated with the medium of tapestry and it is not surprising that even today, 8 years after they were made, that they are still seen as an unwelcome intrusion into the space by some members of parliament and schemes are devised to ensure their removal.
In 1982, the same year that the first community tapestry was made in South Australia, Aunty Dori Kartinyeri was teaching the skills of Njarrinderjeri basket-making at her workshop in Meningie and this shows some of the participants gathering rushes from the sand dunes. It was here that Ellen Trevorrow and Yvonne Kilmatrie learned to weave and began their careers as contemporary artists. The basket on the right, the shopping basket made by Aunty Dori in 1982. Both Yvonne and Ellen draw upon Njarrinderjeri weaving traditions to explore the relevance of traditional forms of contemporary life and also to participate in a very important form of cultural renewal for their people.
Ellen Trevorrow, who was brought up in Tailem Bend, has spoken of a sadness about not learning to weave from her grandmother who cared for her until she was 11. Her grandmother made baskets but she also worked as a housemaid to survive and with Ellen going to school, her grandmother did not have the time to teach her to weave. Now Ellen collects the rushes in the same place as her grandmother went to pick. She said:
I loved it, to go back into my grandmother's steps. I still do it today. My main aim is to teach, to share, because she never had that opportunity.
Ellen and her husband, Tom Trevorrow, run the Race Relations Centre Camp Coorong which was set up on Njarrinderjeri land just outside Meningie in 1986 to communicate the cultural traditions of the Njarrinderjeri to both their own people but also to non-indigenous Australians. So while Ellen teaches the traditional basket‑weaving techniques, Tom takes visitors on bush walks, describing how his people used the land while remembering his boyhood in the fringe camps around Meningie in the sixties.
Both Ellen and Tom use weaving and story-telling to communicate their culture to others but also to recreate it for their community. The processes of collecting rushes and weaving baskets are accompanied by yarning where the stories of the past are told as well as the telling of the day's events. The past is linked to the present in an endless cycle of story-telling that is very, very deeply embedded in Njarrinderjeri culture. Ellen has said:
It is beautiful to sit and weave while you yarn together. I like weaving with the old people because they yarn about things, the past, which is the future for their children. Sometimes they tell secrets it's good to share and exchange.
I think it is the circularity of this process of story-telling, the repetition and the gradual release of information which is echoed in the circularity of the weaving of Njarrinderjeri coiled mats and baskets. Ellen remakes the traditional forms of Njarrinderjeri weaving as a way of linking the present to the past and reconnecting the inter-generational ties which were severed during the mid 20th century. Here she is shown teaching basket-making to the children at Ralcan school in the eighties.
Integral to Peter Sellars' vision for the 2002 Adelaide Festival was a focus on weaving as a metaphor for reconciliation developed through the Intertwine programme which was a series of exhibitions and community‑based weaving events based in the city and the western suburbs of Adelaide. A number of Njarrinderjeri participated, teaching weaving and telling stories of community participants. You can see Aunty Veronica Brodie teaching the weaving processes as well as telling stories. She told the Njarrinderjeri story of a bony brim that has a very appropriate moral of always sharing your food with strangers.
Ellen and her daughter, Tanya Trevorrow, exhibited a work called: Mat and Seven Sister Baskets, during the Intertwine Exhibition Weaving Communities which was held at the Charles Sturt Civic Centre in March. This particular work refers to a traditional Njarrinderjeri story about the seven sisters constellation. The story encodes Njarrinderjeri beliefs about the formation of the world which is here expressed in woven form. It also symbolised family relationships. The sister baskets were made by Ellen and the mat was made by her daughter, Tanya, reconnecting the passing on of inter-generational knowledge.
The two cupped forms of the sister basket and the one on the far side was made by Ethel Watson in 1939 make visible a familial relationship which is not confined to blood ties but is able to be extended to a sisterhood which is based on deep affinities and common concerns. In fact, the title of the Festival 2002 Exhibition of Contemporary Maori and Aboriginal Women's work was called: Sisters. The work of Yvonne Kilmatrie was also exhibited during Intertwine in the Sisters Exhibition. Her work also draws on traditional forms but with a different resonance, reflecting both the context of her own life and Njarrinderjeri cultural renewal.
Her work is a burial basket and in many cultures textile objects have been used to sort of mitigate the transition between life and death. In traditional Njarrinderjeri culture the bones of the deceased were carried by family members in these sewn and folded mats and Kilmatrie's burial basket is also made from a folded mat but now reminiscent of a human torso and open to reveal the emptiness within. It is a very potent symbol, I think, of human loss. It is this contemporary re-staging of a past ritual, the burial basket is also a sign of reconnection with Njarrinderjeri cultural tradition.
In the same exhibition was a very extraordinary work made by Yvonne Kilmatrie called: Prupie. In the late nineties, around the same time as a development and the release of the stolen children report, she made this work based on the traditional Njarrinderjeri story of Prupie as told to Yvonne as a child by her mother and her grandmother. I will just read out the text of Prupie as Yvonne wrote it:
In the beginning Prupie lived together with her clan in the camp. Prupie though was not able to have children and she used to try and steal the children of other people in her clan. The others, of course, did not like this so Prupie went to live in a cave nearby. Away from her camp and her people Prupie soon became a wild, slimy creature. Her legs and feet disappeared, became short stumps with web-like flippers on the end. But Prupie kept coming back to the camp to lure the children. When she had lured them away she had turned them into wild, slimy things just like herself. At night the women had to keep their children very quiet because their crying would bring Prupie to the camp and she would try to lure them away. The men in the camp had decided that they had to stop Prupie doing these awful things to the children, so they made a net and laid it across the path which Prupie took from the camp to the cave and Prupie was caught and then killed and to get rid of her evil spirit the clan ate her.
These issues of loss and reparation that engaged contemporary Njarrinderjeri weavers are expressed through both the re-making of traditional forms and the re-telling of traditional stories. So I think the web of meaning that was invisible to Flinders and Baudin in 1802 and which has been torn apart over the last 200 years is being very patiently repaired and re-woven by the Njarrinderjeri people through their reclamation of language, story and weaving and the imperial and powerful fun of tapestry which was also in place when Flinders met Baudin and is still in place in South Australia 200 years later, as the Women's Suffrage Tapestry demonstrates is now very much changed and altered in emphasis.
The meanings of these very different traditions are being now shared across cultures through events like the Intertwine programme but they are also being woven into public discourse by indigenous and non‑indigenous scholars and artists as other histories are inserted into the public domain. As in the recent Centenary of Federation Exhibition, Weaving the Murray, which just came down from the Prospect Gallery yesterday, this work explored the weaving of the Murray for indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and was made collaboratively by artists from both cultures. It was made by indigenous artists, Rhonda Agius, Chrissy Heuston and Nicki Cumpston in collaboration with the non‑indigenous artists, Sandy Elbert, Kirsty Darlaston, Karen Russell and myself.
In this work, Weaving the Murray, these two very different traditions intercept and talk about our different history but also our common concerns for the future of the Murray River. I think both traditions have proved to be very powerful tools for rethinking the past and exploring issues of identity and community as well as for weaving inter‑cultural relationships in the present. Thank you.