What are the special problems relating to art making at the community?
Freight is always a major issue for us. It’s a challenge making sure that we actually have access to resources. If we forget to order paint brushes, or something happens to our paint brush order, it’s four weeks until we can get more. People really underestimate what isolation means. If you’re isolated on an island, as beautiful and as wonderful and as captivating as living on a remote tropical island is, there are logistical nightmares that go with that. Things take longer than you would expect them to. When somebody says, “Oh can you do something overnight.” You kind of have to go – no I’m sorry, that just isn’t possible.
You just have to be prepared for all sorts of delays. You have to have Plan B and contingencies for everything. You have to expect that things won’t arrive. What will you do if they don’t arrive? Can your workshop facilitators bring all their materials with them? If their excess baggage doesn’t get on a little flight how do you deal with that? Where do you get your backups from? How do you continue to do a workshop if none of your materials arrive on time? Ensuring that the isolation doesn’t affect the practice is really a big part of the manager’s job.
Why is a women’s textile project special to this community?
Women in Groote Island actually don’t own any arts painting or practice. Men own that practice on Groote Island. In lots of other communities the women have taken over parts of art practice. Sometimes they make certain traditional artwork practice their own. On Groote that really isn’t the case. The men orally own the two dimensional paintings and sculpture in Groote.
As there are very strict cultural protocols for men’s and women’s artistic practice on Groote Eylandt, the art centre had to find away to allow Aboriginal women to still be inspired by their cultural heritage though out their art practice, while not upsetting traditional protocols.
We found the best way to encourage this was through programs that have a natural connection to country such as the Bush Dying. The women use plant dyes for all of the silks and the plants are collected each day from around the Eylandt. The silks are then processed using a combination of techniques that the Anindilyakwa women have used to use to dye traditional cultural artifacts for millennia. These artifacts are items such as pandanus baskets, string bags and other ceremonial regalia. Now this is being extended to include silks and the new practice taught by Aly de Groot during her workshops.
They are still tapping into this ancient craft of womanhood while implementing it in a new and modern way, which traverses that world of male ownership. You can still have this modern platform with very traditional techniques being produced by women so that you’re not stepping on any toes.
What are the ages of the artists?
Artists range in age from 18 to 70.
How many do you have in your textile group?
At this stage I would say women that have worked with us probably over the last four months would be in excess of 50.
Can you describe the process of making something like a silk scarf?
The first step in that process is to go and collect the leaves that you want to actually create an imprint onto the silk. The women will go out and there are certain leaves that make better imprints than others. They will go out and select which leaves or what botanical themes they actually want to have imprinted into their silk. Then they will go and collect all of their dyes that they want those silks to be covered with, as well as rusty objects from the dump. These might be beautiful cogs, and wheels and pieces of wire. That kind of very recycled, earthy, rusty element too, which is at least part of their identity.
From there we take all that back to the Art Centre and we boil up old flour drums full of colour. The women will wrap up the silk with the plant matter that they have selected, and the rusty items from community that they have collected. Then we will boil those silks in that dye for about an hour, and then we will take them out, rinse them all in the sink, and hang them in the sun to dry.
How would you like to see this project develop?
I’d like to quote the words of Bernadette Watt, who’s our Senior Project Officer at the Art Centre. She was asked recently who she would like to see her silks worn by, and she said, “She’d like to see them on the runway with Magnolia Maymuru.” She is a Yolngu woman who become the first Northern Territory woman to make the finals of the Miss World Australia pageant.
What excites you most about the results so far?
For me, it’s about self determination and engagement. When I took over at the Art Centre there were very few artists regularly practising and recently we hit over a hundred people being represented by Anindilyakwa Art and Culture.
I think that’s a real testament to the success of the programme and a testament to the women who have continued to teach their knowledge to younger people and more interested artists. We pay artists by the piece, so every single piece of work that these women make and have dedicated their time to, they are paid for.
That has also given rise to a cottage industry that’s allowed people to make more financial decisions. Eventually we hope to bring people to a much more self sufficient place. This will happen if we can continue to expand the audience that we’ve got.
I think that’s what’s really special about it. The women have been talking about their identity. They talk about how they want their logos to be, how they want their roots to be represented. They decide what the tags should say when we send them to different galleries. They sometimes decide how they want them hung.
I think that this new knowledge base about representation and their identity is becoming much more important for each of the individual communities. They want to be known as Groote Island artists. They also really want to be known for the community and the place that they come from, their Country and the reason why their work is different.
I think that’s a real strength. It gives us a huge amount of diversity. It also means that this programme and others give people an opportunity to be proud and to have a commercially, saleable, beautiful, organic handmade product that is unique to them.