Women with Clever Hands
BY Annie Waterman | July 28, 2011
A unique fiber exhibition
“Women with Clever Hands” is the first traveling exhibition to feature the stunning fiber works by women of Gapuwikyak from Northeast Arnhem Land. This show comes to Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Center, showcasing 130 finely crafted Aboriginal pieces, providing insight into their lives, community, and culture. Curator, Louise Hamby says, “It looks at how this transmission of knowledge has changed over time from one generation to the next. These featured artisans hope this exhibition will encourage younger indigenous women to continue this traditional art form and see it as a means to economic, artistic, and cultural growth.”
Gapuwiyak fiber art is a labor love, one that mesmerizes in its intricacy, clever hands, and soft shades of yellow, brown, beige, purple, and orange. “Women with Clever Hands is a wonderful illustration of the continuation of a traditional craft in one community,” says Caroline Martin, Manager, Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre. The development of this exhibition began in 1995 when Louise Hamby started to build a relationship with these women while she was doing research for her PhD, studying the multifaceted issues encompassing traditional Gapuwiyak fiber objects. Lucy Malirrimurruwuy Wanapuyngu assisted Louise with the curation of this exhibition, including fifteen years of these women's work, creating a cohesive collection of string bags, baskets, mats, body wear and fiber sculptures. Fine techniques are presented, including looping and knotting to make pliable items like the bags and nets, as well as intricate coiling techniques for the mats and other tubular baskets. Louise adds, “These beautiful works combine simple, functional shapes with intricate design, fine detail and subtle color, all of which reflect the complexities of their land and their culture.”
These basket forms are unique in character, representing each artist’s individual style and expression. The Gapuwiyak convey their cultural identity through these woven objects, embodying one’s ancestors, social relationships, and cultural vitality. Their work not only represents themselves as artists, but as botanists in the way they have a deep understanding for the complexity of plant fibers and natural root dyes. The Gapuwiyak are deeply connected to the land, understanding the multitude of soil types, harvest patterns, and plant anatomy. For example, plant fiber comes from a variety of plant parts such as the stems, leaves, and bark which undergo a lengthy preparation process of extraction and separation.
Dr Louise Hamby adds, “An important part of the creation of these pieces is working together and sharing knowledge of technique and practice to inspire the next generation.” These women hope to inspire their children to continue this ancient craft as a means to financial and cultural gain. When these women show excitement for their craft and prove that is a viable source of income, their children light up and get inspired to follow in their mother's footsteps.
Women with Clever Hands: Gapuwiyak Miyalkurruwurr Gong Djambatjmala, Bunjilaka runs until August 28, 2011 at Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Melbourne Museum, Nicholson Street, Carlton, Australia. For more information, please visit www.museumvictoria.com.au/bunjilaka/whatson/current-exhibitions/women-with-clever-hands/