From Here & There is a cultural exchange and story telling project through making. The project connects contemporary art and design practice with traditional Indigenous cultures and artefacts to tell a story that explores the past and the present; dislocation and home; community and identity. Designer & artist, Philippa Abbott engages with two Victorian indigenous weavers – Master weaver Aunty Marilyne Nicholls & Journey woman Donna Blackall - to learn their process of weaving. The process is a collaboration with, and documented by, Greta Costello – a Melbourne based photographic artist working in cross-cultural dialogues. All images are by Greta unless otherwise attributed.
The second Weaver Greta and I went to visit was Aunty Marilyne Nicholls. We travelled up to the Milloo (Murray) to meet with her and to learn from her. The next two articles focus on various dimensions of this experience. This article ‘Cultural Seasons of Acknowledging’ concentrates on the lessons of the project as a whole, incorporating the wisdom of Aunty Marilyne.
My first engagement with Aunty Marilyne Nicholls was a conversation a years before this project started when I contacted her on a fact-finding mission of Victorian weaving. It was the beginning of summer season in 2013. We had a chat about the cultural importance of weaving and discussed how this could be very valuable as a storytelling narrative. Aunty Marilyne invited me to stay at her house, I expressed how much I would like to come meet her and learn the weaving from her - to understand it on Country and think about design as both a storytelling and collaborative process. This project is the outcome.
Aunty Marilyne described this as the “Cultural seasons of acknowledging”. I first came to talk in summer, this is the season for weaving, when you can harvest plants before they die off – we then started the project at the start of the season a year later. Aunty Marilyne taught Greta and I that with weaving and storytelling you must follow the seasons and listen to the transitions - taking the time you need to take. The grasses are not a commercial blueprint you can just take when you want; we need to understand the base philosophy of working with nature.
Donna and Aunty Marilyne's stories are stories of strength and an inspiring commitment to social justice, family, community development and continual path of growth – whilst also just trying to get by. Aunty Marilyne and Donna's storylines are unique however also common in their journey to strengthen their culture; a story of loss and relearning and teaching. This project is about acknowledgement, learning and healing through working together. This was a very meaningful learning experience for me and I feel blessed to be able to share and collaborate with these truly amazing women. Our land and Our home are important to negotiate for any Australian.
Aunty Marilyne is an open and learned woman, her energy anchored in deep wisdom illustrates a knowledge that is outside of current social understandings of place and of culture and the interconnectedness of meaning making, ritual, land and people. Her story is one of looking wider, travelling to many places to discuss with others the interconnectedness between many different cultures, and participating by invitation in spiritual and cultural ceremonies.
Aunty Marilyne left her birth town at 17 to train as a nurse, living in a nurses home at the Fairfield Infections Diseases Unit and Preston & Northcote Community Hospital to receive her training. She then met her husband and had two children and continued to live and work in Melbourne for many years. However Country was calling her back home and so she returned. To live and be anchored at her birthplace on the Milloo (Murray) River, Swan Hill.
She returned to Swan Hill in her late 20s and worked in the local hospital for twenty years. Whether its Aboriginal Health or Mainstream health, Aunty Marilyne has been an indigenous health care provider her whole life. After returning home to Country Aunty Marilyne has been actively involved in her community, and in protecting important cultural and environmental sites of the area where she resides.
When Greta and I drove up to meet Aunty Marilyne for the first time we had a great sense of the disparity of regional Victoria - as we drove through rural towns and cities our Melbourne-centric perspective easily identified the cracks that were becoming deeper in regional Victoria – displacement, lack of work and varying levels of social inequity and abuse and dwindling opportunities. These social determinants are felt a lot more deeply by Aboriginal people who are still the most marginalized within these rural areas.
This context is of absolute importance to the ways in which our storyline process unfolded – we all became very aware that without opportunity to live in modern ‘Australia’ whilst living on Country there was a large risk and conflict between the two storylines. Aboriginal people still had to choose between modern opportunities such as education and employment and living in culture on Country. According to Aunty Marilyne, this was very hard to integrate and was becoming more so with generational change.
When we arrived at Aunty Marilyne’s immediately we felt a sense of welcome. She lives across the road from the Miloo (Murray) River and the Red Gum Forest where the ancestors are buried and their spirits rest. Her house is a converted schoolhouse with three different weatherboard buildings, a 6m medicine wheel marked out with stone pebbles and pieces of wood at the entrance and the earth is a bright orange, some how lit from within. The blue wrens flew in, this is now a familiar welcome to places of importance and cultural sharing, a sign for opportunity, shared learning and meaning making.
Every artifact, object, book and decorative feature within Aunty Marilyne’s house holds meaning and stories. It is a cultural centre of learning. I could spend hours sitting and sifting through the books and understandings intertwined in each item. Her place for me gave a glimpse of the future; of how it could be possible to live deeply in culture however integrate into modern life and day to day. That this is a cross cultural approach that needs to be built on as time goes on through continued knowledge sharing and immersive experiences.