Culture Victoria

From Here & There - Learning the Harvest

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 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.

This article ‘Learning the Harvest” concentrates on learning the weaving and harvesting.

Looking down to the lake
Landscape heading to the lake

Aunty Marilyne has a wealth of weaving materials, books, documentation of process and instruction. Aunty Marilyne is a known Masterweaver and has weaving works in state and national galleries as well as a number of smaller shows. She has researched and rekindled traditional techniques and use of materials of her Country. Through this she has been actively involved in environmental issues related to where she harvests her weaving materials from the land.

Two women looking at books and weavings
Aunty Marilyne and Philippa looking at weaving materials

Aunty Marilyne is a generational weaver from her family line, learned from her Teacher the Mother. Like Donna, deciding to weave was a key point on building on her personal cultural knowledge to fill in the cultural gaps that exist. Aunty Marilyne explained to us how important cultural knowledge was put aside because of other things that were happening in lives that were dividing Aboriginal families and therefore traditions. For Aunty Marilyne weaving was an opportunity to access knowledge and recreate experiences and restructure cultural learning to retrieve a larger cultural fabric.

The dilly bag technique Aunty Marilyne uses is very complex and she is one of the few Aboriginal people in Victoria who knows and uses the technique – reviving a traditional Victorian practice.

After a cup of tea and a chat Aunty Marilyne took us out to the lake to look at the grasses we would be using and explain the process of harvesting. We drove through the farmlands and over into New South Wales, the land was stark and golden with wheat, and the sky expansive. A quintessential lone gum standing on the horizon pointed to the former natural ecology. Aunty Marilyne told us more about her history and that of her family.

The grasses we were harvesting grew down by a lake that Aunty Marilyne and her family had come to collect materials throughout generations; her family visits and camps here and she has many memories of this place.

This grass is a basket weaving grass that is used for various types of weaving patterns and twine for dilly bags. The grass is good to use as is available in certain seasons, its plentiful (if there is no sheep or cattle eating it). It has length and is continuous, and its strong – it will last years once woven into an article. It grows by a rhizome root system in most wetland areas along the Murray through to the salt water. It can self seed meaning it is even more resilient. As such it is used by a lot of different language speaking Indigenous groups. It dies off and grows brown, or you can harvest it and store it for use later. This knowledge of the harvest depends on the land and the waterways and the environmental system. These factors have changed now so people need to check on it regularly to see when it is growing and when it is useful.  The grasses are common throughout Victoria – I noticed them the other day in Collingwood.

Aunty Marilyne demonstrating the weaving

Aunty Marilyne taught us the basics of how to create twine and knot as in a dilly bag, this was going to take a lot of ‘homework’ and an appropriate timeframe was learning for years as opposed to the brief days we had with Aunty Marilyne.  Learning the basics of the weaving technique was a really insightful entry point into the culture and creation of place.

two women sitting on a rug outside
Aunty Marilyne and Philippa weaving together

The piece that Aunty Marilyne and I discussed making is a large collage piece that is a visual narrative of our conversations and shared understanding – a piece that reflects the nature of the process of relearning culture and the gaps that are in between. This process will take time though and so we will look to do this as the next step of a continued collaboration to create a work that illustrates both our learning and creating a shared future. In our most recent conversations this is still our next step, the next in a new journey of shared understanding through creative practice.

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