Material Connections to Arnhem Land

10 October
Written by Dr Louise Hamby
ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences


The Alchemists: Weaving Knowledge contains many works from the Top End of Australia and in particular, Arnhem Land. I have had the privilege of being able to work in this part of Australia with Aboriginal people over the past quarter of a century. An appreciation of the Country and the people came through my initial investigations of historic baskets from Arnhem Land in museum collections around the world.

Originally, I fell in love with the detailed, ochred twined baskets and thought of one day doing a comparative study of them with painted works from the Plains Indians in America. In hindsight that was doomed for failure as one would need a couple of lifetimes of study and working with people to achieve any meaningful results. Looking at amazing objects in a museum storeroom with no windows, dust, insects or dogs is a different experience than the reality of making things in the bush with knowledgeable women and experiencing the environment through all of your senses. Yet the museum, the gallery or your own home is often the final stop in the journey a work makes from its beginnings as raw material sourced in Country, and is the place where most Australians get to see these works.

A key identifier of connection to Country in this exhibition is often the material from which an object is made. Many of the techniques are shared across Australia. Usually these are natural materials but the ghost net works are structured from man-made material that has travelled to their Country on ocean currents and then becomes part of everyday life. With the addition of fabric dyed with local, natural dyes; the baskets from Anindilyakwa make quite a statement. For the Arnhem Land works the primary materials for the bodies of works are pandanus, vine, sand palm
and kurrajong. A range of other plants are used for colour such as pogonolubus reticulatus (yellow), heamodorum brevicaule (brown), and petalostigma pubescens (black). In addition, colour is derived from ochres found on country. A massive amount of knowledge about all of the materials is necessary to find them, collect them, prepare them and use them to make the works now seen on the gallery walls.



Image: Rosita Holmes


In The Alchemists, the material that is most desired, used and versatile from the Top End is that of pandanus spiralis. This palm grows luxuriously by or in the water and is at its peak during the growing wet season when the centre crown of leaves is supple. These are the ones that are captured with either a traditional hook made from a tree branch or the more recently available reinforced steel rod bent at the end. The gathering and preparation of the leaves has not changed over time but the treatment of the prepared pandanus, and the forms made from it have developed alongside the continuation of classic forms seen in the rock art from western Arnhem Land.

Also featured in The Alchemists is jungle vine or malaisia scandens, found in forests. Its dominant use is for the making of items that are utilised in the water: fish traps and large working baskets. Bonnie Burangarra from Maningrida made the classic fish trap that has remained the same for as long as people can remember. There have been changes in the way in which some artists have approached the form and concept of the fish trap; making it no longer usable like the one made by Burangarra. The ones made by Mary Dhapalany and Audrey Marrday from Gapuwiyak are constructed primarily from dyed pandanus. This material would not withstand being in the water rendering these works totally art objects but with meaning drawn from long traditions.
The baskets and sculptural pieces from Arnhem Land feature pandanus. The classic twined basket form is exemplified in the work by Doreen Jinggarrabarra Olsen from Maningrida and Mary Dhapalany from Ramingining with no colour other than the natural dried pandanus. Before the advent of missionaries to Arnhem Land colour on baskets was normally applied to the surface with ochres like the one made by Helen Ganalmirriwuy from Milingimbi. This is not a common practice today. One most often sees twined baskets made using pandanus that has been dyed like the ones by Mary Guyula from Gapuwiyak and Evonne Munuyngu from Ramingining. An alchemy occurs in the dyeing: a most transformative instance occurs when the yellow dye from pogonolubus reticulatus instantly turns red with the addition of wood ash. A practice that is now highly popular is the use of baskets that are all made with pandanus that has been dyed black that we see in the works of Mandy Batjula Gaykamungu. She obtains the rights to do this from her aunt Margaret Rarru Garrawurra, who has made them famous.

Elizabeth Rukarriwuy harvesting gultji gultji (blood-root). Photo by Rosita Holmes

Other changes have occurred in the basket domain. The dominance of the coiling technique used to make classic twined basket forms is one evolution. We see this in the range of baskets from Gapuwiyak. Linda Guyula includes gumnuts on the rim of her coiled basket made in a classic form and in the Baby Basket with its multi-technique cover made by Vanessa Daymirringu.

A big change in the art market has been the emergence of sculptural forms spearheaded by women from Maningrida and their kin across Arnhem Land. Forms used for ceremonial purposes have been made using the same materials but these quirky animals like Vera Cameron’s bird and echidnas by Gloreen Campion have been a hit in the marketplace. The concepts for forms like the Yawk Yawks by Jolanda Rostron and Anniebell Marrngamarrnga come from their ancestry. Regardless of whether they are made in a flat form with dyed pandanus like Marrngamarrnga, or the painted three-dimensional ones by Rostron – they have connections to Country.

Echidnas by Gloreen Campion photo by Taryn Hays

This gathering of works from Arnhem Land in The Alchemists gives us a glimpse of the creative activity that is happening currently in the Top End. It gives me pleasure to see the things I fell in love with from museum collections appearing now in baskets like the one made by Galamirriwuy. Equally exciting are the forms that I did not know about when I first came to Australia. They have a common link in Country through their materials which makes them unique.