Culture Victoria

From Here & There - developing the collaboration

By Philippa Abbott Posted Under From Here & There

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 entails going out on to Country to collect materials, visiting their homes and families and tracing current cultural identity through understandings of place, of recent family movement, clan lineage and through the weaving technique itself. The process was 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.

In this post, Philippa Abbott reflects on her second trip to Ballarat to meet again with Donna and her Aunty Marie, learn some family history and develop the collaborative weaving project.

Donna sitting on banks of river
Donna sits in the place she holidayed as a kid

On the second trip to Ballarat Donna took Greta and I to meet her Aunty Marie. Aunty Marie had helped support Donna and they were really close; Aunty Marie is also a well-known and respected Elder within the Ballarat community. She lived on the outskirts of Ballarat with her husband.

Aunty Marie had lived in Ballarat since she was a young woman and talked to us of the difficulty of coming to a large foreign town when she had grown up on the flats on the Milloo (the Murray River) . On first arrival she had found many actions, such as taking the bus, very scary, however that slowly, slowly started to understand ways of living in a town. In her stories the contrast between her life was stark; a large regional town in comparison to living on the River where family a and strong community had surrounded her,. Although this was not an easy life, it was with community on Country dealing with hardship together so was better than living in solitude in another place. This a contradiction that persists for many Aboriginal Australians – to gain access to the opportunities and comforts of “western society” demands isolation from their traditional communities and country.

Aunti Mari leaning on cabinet
Aunty Marie telling us stories

She met her husband and was welcomed into his family and found her place, having two girls and developing a very good life in Ballarat. Later on Aunty Marie got a job in the local Aboriginal Services working with children in pre kinder. She explained how she felt very lucky and shared with us her lessons; you need to get on with it and make the best of what you have; to stay strong in spirit, know where you come from and be true to who you are and your story.

Donna leaning on cabinet with family photographs
Donna telling stories at Aunty Marie's home

Donna and Aunty Marie told us of the history of the family and this gave a sense of how strong their identity and their family was. Many of the family had worked in indigenous services, others had become well known artists and most had a skill of craft or art that helped shaped their family identity and connection to Country and culture. We discussed the reasons why their family culture and identity was so strong, the underpinning of respect for the history of their family and their current fight for cultural knowledge, practice and ownership of place. This developed a very tight knit openness in how they looked after each other.

 Donna and Billy with their arms around each other
Donna & Billy in their home

We talked about the current barriers to cultural knowledge such as the loss of many cultural artefacts and techniques in the wave of destruction and dispersal along the Murray, which meant that it was incredibly difficult to learn some cultural practices and to access Elder knowledge – very few people still have the knowledge. A related point was made that now is a really important time to document these learnings as the remaining Elders with this knowledge are moving on and it is really important to pass on the culture.

 Donna sits on a rock and looks over countryside
Donna sits on a rock and looks over countryside

We discussed the connection to Yorta Yorta and Country within this and how often Donna and Aunty Marie got back on to their Country. This was not often enough. Ballarat was also their home, however in a different sense, making its own demands on their time. Weaving became a very clear symbol for the holes in cultural knowledge in the journey to re-understanding self, place and history. Weaving helped to reconstruct cultural understanding and tie together one’s own journey of discovery.

The landscape that Donna took us to was not her own Country however by default had become the place of many memories. She took us to the spots where she fished as a child and told us some local stories of the surrounding land.

Donna and Phillipa draw on large sheet of paper
Donna and Philippa sketching together

Donna and I then went to her house and we discussed the weaving and the future. We mapped out some ideas of what weaving could be used for and we looked at ways that we could collaborate to form some contemporary product. We discussed the utilization of the weave for contemporary products and current functions.

Beyond this project we hope to be able to collaborate to create a series of products that engage with contemporary aesthetics and function using traditional technology and continue to be an avenue to create new stories and share old ones.



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