With Her Hands: Fiber Art from Gapuwiyak

Cassie Davies
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With Her Hands: Fiber Art from Gapuwiyak MARGO: This is an art form that has been passed down from one generation to the next. It’s full of deep tradition and also new innovations and that’s what makes it so exciting. MARGO: The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum is the largest collection of Aboriginal art outside of Australia, and our current exhibition, With Her Hands, focuses on fiber art made by women from Gapuwiyak, a small indigenous community in northeast Arnhem Land. HENRY: The kinds of fiber art objects that you see in this exhibition are really a part of everyday life in Yolngu communities, but they also carry this huge amount of cultural significance. The original fiber objects were brought by the ancestral beings themselves. Ceremonial bags are often the most cherished and significant of ceremonial objects. Now, they're not the kinds of objects that we have in this exhibition, but in in recreating these and making them every day and putting them out into the world, the women are keeping that tradition and that meaning alive. I think to even begin to understand how important these objects are, and what they mean to their makers and communities, you have to sit down and watch how they’re made. LUCY: My name is Lucy. I live in Gapuwiyak. I learned the twining by hand. I learned by watching the old ladies and mother doing their work. I kept all that in my head, then when I was a teenager I started using my hands. I was learning so that when I had a daughter, I could pass that knowledge on. ANNA: She taught me when I was 12 years old. I used to sit and watch my mum. I learn from her, then got all the knowledge and put it in my mind. MARGO: Two of the artists featured in the exhibition, Lucy and Anna, were able to come to the museum to work with the students; to help them understand the techniques and processes that go into making fiber objects, and their meaning as well. HENRY: This was really one of the hardest exhibitions that I've ever had to work on. Lucy holds so close to her heart all of the meaning that is in these objects; those ancestral connections are so personal, they're actually a part of who she is. They're not things that she can share with just anyone; they're not things that she can share with strangers; and they're not things that she can share with men. There was a great moment when we were doing the research when Lucy was trying to get across to the other curators the importance of one of the works in the exhibition, and she looked over to me and said, “No, you have to leave the room now,” and I had to go and sit outside the door and wait quietly until she was prepared to let me come back in. What makes this collection so extraordinary is that many of the works were produced specifically for Louise, who was adopted into the community, who lived in the community, who sat and listened and learned with her hands. LOUISE: I’m Louise Hamby, I’m a Research Fellow at Australia National University in Canberra, and I’ve been working as an Anthropologist in Arnhem Land for decades. MARGO: She's built a massive private collection of fiber art… LOUISE: …mats, string bags, baskets, jewelry, hats even… MARGO: …that is really the best contemporary collection in the world. LOUISE: I fell in love with the work when I still lived in America. I think, though, a pivotal point for me was after looking at these beautiful things in museum collections, I realized I'm not really going to know anything about these beautiful objects unless I actually talk to people who make them. CASSIE: For an expert like Lucy, how long would it take her to make a basket? LOUISE: Everyone asks me that question, and I say, that’s a terrible question. When you say, how long does it take to make a basket, you have to take into consideration multiple factors. There’s no shop to go and buy materials. You have to collect all the materials and if you want to have color you have to collect all the dyes. Each of the materials has to be prepared, each of the dyes have to be prepared. You have to dye the fiber and this is before you ever sit down and make a single stitch. You might spend a whole week collecting the material and not making anything. SILKE: Lucy’s quite a pioneer in experimenting with dyes. I always say that if Lucy hadn’t grown up in Gapuwiyak but in maybe Germany she would be an alchemist or a doctor in chemistry. SILKE: Everything for her, when she looks at a new material, is an opportunity to find out how should could use it as a color in her weaving. I think that’s really what sets her apart from other artists in Gapuwiyak. LUCY: The Yolngu ladies walk past and see all the different colors on the clothesline, and they ask: what plant do you use to get that color? MARGO: It’s not hard to understand Louise’s enthusiasm for fiber arts, and her love of Lucy as an artist. She has really established a place for fiber artists among the leading indigenous artists of Australia. LOUISE: No one really thought about these objects as being anything other than domestic items or things that people made to sell. It’s only through working with women for decades, and trying to promote their work and have people look at them with a different set of eyes, that has made the difference. In Gapuwiyak, women are now making things for the art market, rather than for carrying honey or for going fishing. But they’re techniques that have been around for thousands of years. CASSIE: Why is it important that this work continues to be taught? LOUISE: A pivotal point for me was after looking at these beautiful things in museum collections, I realized I’m not really going to know anything about these beautiful objects unless I actually talk to people who make them. LOUISE: I learned from lots of women, including Lucy, in Gapuwiyak. SILKE: Lucy came to my place on the first day we moved into the community and said we will adopt you, you are part of our family now, and a big part of becoming family was to become a student. So Lucy was the teacher, obviously, and she was already quite famous by that point for her works. ANNA: For the future, so that our community can be strong. So that one day, when my mum will be gone, I’ll be there, I will be a teacher for my brother’s kids. Because I know how to collect, and split, collect all the dyes, and dye all the colors.

In the Spring of 2019, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum at the University of Virginia received a donation of a hundred or so fiber objects from Louise Hamby, an anthropologist who has spent many decades researching fiber work in Arnhem Land, located in the northeast corner of Australia’s Northern Territory. From this donation, an exhibition was put together by six undergraduate students, with significant guidance from both Hamby and visiting fiber artists Lucy Malirrimurruwuy Waṉapuyŋu and Anna Ramatha Malibirr. The exhibition, called With Her Hands: Fiber Art from Gapuwiyak, honors the artistic excellence of fiber work, as well as the ingenuity and accomplishment of women makers.

In the EuroAmerican art world, fiber works have traditionally been placed into the categories of “craft” and “women’s work.” Aboriginal bark paintings produced by men, for example, have been given precedence as both artistic masterworks and as indexes of cultural knowledge, and it is only recently that “craft” forms such as those in With Her Hands have gained recognition for their artistry. Yolŋu people, however, do not subscribe to the same western binaries that separate art and craft. Instead, art objects and practices are part of everyday life and constitute one of the central sites of cultural knowledge in the form of ceremony, daily use, and kinship relationships.

Missionaries arrived in Arnhem Land in the early twentieth century, bringing with them the tastes and needs of the European market. They encouraged Yolŋu fiber artists to alter their techniques and materials—eliminating ochre paint, flattening mats, introducing coiling—in order to make their art more desirable for consumers, and also to bring women makers more in line with western Christian standards of production. Arnhem Land fiber artists integrated these new styles into their practice, in order to take part in larger markets and to produce new and innovative forms.

The fiber art that is produced in Gapuwiyak today preserves many of the practices and meanings that existed before the arrival of missionaries; traditions that will continue to be passed down to future generations of artists. Along with these traditional foundations, women also bring new elements—materials, techniques and forms—that draw on the techniques they have learned for market demands. This fusion has resulted in unique functional bathi (container forms) such as string bags and twined and coiled baskets, as well as striking ornamental forms such as the crocodile and dolly-dolly figures.

During a three-week visit to the Kluge-Ruhe, Lucy, Anna and Louise taught everyone first-hand about the production and meaning of the works in the show, some of which were made by Lucy many years ago. Their knowledge and skill has been an invaluable resource to the curators as they studied fiber art from Gapuwiyak and brought the exhibition to life, and also to the creation of this video. Something especially important that I came to understand during this time is how much there is to learn about each individual artwork—each piece tells the story of a person, a family, a community, a land, and a culture.

Additional Reading

Hamby, Louise. 2010. Containers of Power: Women with Clever Hands. Richmond, VIC: Utber and Patullo.

Hamby, Louise. 2001. Art on a String: Threaded Objects from the Central Desert and Arnhem Land. Sydney: Object-Australian Centre for Craft and Design.

Isaacs, Jennifer. 1980. Australian Dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History. Lansdowne Press.

Mason, Otis Tufton. 1976. Aboriginal American Indian Basketry: Studies in Textile Art Without Machinery. Brand: Peregrine Smith, Inc.

Morphy, Howard. 1991. Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Project Contributors

Cassie Davies

Cassie Davies

MFA Candidate, Creative Writing

Cassie Davies is a writer and editor from London. Her writing has appeared in the Telegraph, Financial Times, Literary Review, Spaces, ArtSlant, Times Literary Supplement, Columbia Journal, among others. She is currently a Poe/Faulkner Fellow in Fiction at the University of Virginia. She will graduate in May 2020.

Additional Credits

Louise Hamby (center) with artists Anna Ramatha Malibirr (left) and Lucy Malirrimurruwuy Wanapuŋu (right). Photo: Tom Cogill.

I am so grateful to Louise Hamby for donating this incredible collection of fiber art to the Kluge-Ruhe Museum, and to, Anna Ramatha Malibirr, Lucy Malirrimurruwuy Waṉapuyŋu, and Silke Roth (former manager of the Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts Centre), for their willingness to answer my questions. It has been a gift to spend time with, learn about, and work with these artists.

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