Culture Victoria

From Here & There - weaving with Donna

By Philippa Abbott Posted Under From Here & There

“Not lost, just sleeping” Verna Nichols, Tasmania

Introduction 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 collaboration involves developing a new artefact that explores current and future story creation through the newly learned weaving techniques. The process was a collaboration with, and documented by, Greta Costello – a Melbourne based photographic artist working in cross-cultural dialogues.

Donna is Yorta Yorta. She was born in Mount Gambier (Bungandidj region) and moved to Ballarat (Wuthawurung region) when she was a child with her mother. Her Aunty Marie already lived in the area having been resettled there as a young woman. Donna has never lived on her ancestral lands however has some relatives who still live in the local area. Other relatives are now living in nearby Geelong and in Melbourne and she sees much of her extended family on a regular basis. She lives with her three children, brother, and other friends and family that occasionally stay - a family unit that grows and contracts according to circumstance, need and belonging.

Portrait of family at home
Portrait of Donna's family at home

In October 2014 Greta and I went to Ballarat to meet with Donna for a site visit and to discuss the project. Two weeks later we returned to interview Donna, learn and document her weaving and her story, and explore the connections between weaving and current cultural identity.

Creative connection

Donna met us at the Young Indigenous Art Awards at the Ballarat Art Gallery. She told us about some of the work and noted the artists that she was related to. We discussed the sense of strong identity and understanding of place (in terms of family and the elements of the works) and how this was defined through the artworks and the family connections between the artists. We discussed many of the pieces, the understanding of loss of cultural identity by young artists and wider community, and the multiple ways of expressing this. I was struck by the diversity of the artwork and the strength of voice coming through the works; Donna told us how this is growing stronger and stronger – contemporary works that illustrate the wider social movement of discontent with the current situation and calling for wider acknowledgement of past wrongs and mapping out a pathway for future collective growth.

Donna’s brother, Billy Blackall, is a well known artist in the region interpreting his own Yorta Yorta heritage through painting small and larger works. Billy has done large public installations in Ballarat and worked in Yorta Yorta country for many years, using this opportunity to learn many of the local ways and build on his connection to Country and understanding of Yorta Yorta culture.

Billy Blackall painting
Billy Blackall painting

Donna’s mother made collages from found natural materials utilising woven mats as their backing. She would collect leaves, nuts, flowers and grasses – as a child Donna would go out on to Country with her for hours with Aunty Marie and friends to find materials to make these collages. The pieces are extremely intricate and her Aunty still keeps them thirty years on and showed these to us when we visited.

A collage mat created by Donna's mother

Donna’s mother took Donna to a friend's house to teach Donna to weave when she was a teenager but she was not interested at the time “and instead ran up to the shops” - as kids do. Later on in life after her mother had passed her interest in weaving reemerged, doing the honour of her mother. Donna participated in a weaving workshop in Ballarat at the Cultural Centre. The workshop was by Bronwym Razem, a Victorian based Master weaver. Donna is naturally skilled and has an amazing eye for detail so took to the weaving very quickly. She has woven many different traditional objects such as eel traps, baskets and others (that can be seen in the Koori Heritage Trust) and experiments with other objects of cultural significance such as turtles and platypus.

Upon reflection, Donna told us how this process was a key step in exploring her heritage and current identity, and that her capacity as a weaver is developing as an important means of supporting herself and her family and as a creative process exploring new works.

Donna weaving
Donna weaving basket with paintings in background


We went to a local park where Donna collects her selected material, New Zealand Flax, and she showed Greta and I how to harvest the grass and split it to prepare it for weaving.

splitting the flax
Donna showing Philippa the the flax

New Zealand Flax is a strong wide grass that Donna prefers to use - traditionally another native grass would have been used and Donna is keen to relearn the techniques of preparation of these grasses. The New Zealand flax now grows in many places around Ballarat and Daylesford so she regularly goes to collect materials.

We sat on the grass and Donna demonstrated the weave to us, the way in which we could start a weave and how to bend it on itself; utilising the strength of the material and how to loop the weave through itself; feeding in more material to the tail as you want to ensure an even diameter and strong result.

Donna weaving
Donna weaving

“In the old days, the old fellows were sitting around, all the women laughing, joking – so all that conversation had gone into the basket.” Verna Nichols, Tasmania

Beyond this we were given a window into the social experience of weaving - we started listening to stories and asking questions. This allowed us to learn about culture and ways of indigenous life as we sat together in the grass and wove our baskets.

We packed up after awhile, discussed the next steps of our project and drove back to Melbourne. Both Greta and I feel lucky to have established this relationship, learned the weaving technique and about Yorta Yorta culture and Country. It also illustrated the gaps -the gaps within the transmission of knowledge within Donna’s family and the gaps within our knowledge of Victorian history and cultural heritage; the gaps created by white settlement and the gaps created by current ignorance. These large gaps exist for everyone and are slowly being woven back together.



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