Yvonne Koolmatrie: Practicing Culture

By: Nicole Poole

Department of Art History, The University of Texas at San Antonio

A deep-rooted tradition of weaving is present in nearly all cultures across the world.  Utilitarian in origin, the weaving of various materials has been used for centuries to create functional objects meant to enhance the lives of their makers.  Materials and ways of making differ across time and location, but the overall essence of the craft is shared between all.  The act of weaving involves most of the senses: sight, sound, touch, and smell.  The feel of the material as it is manipulated with the hand, smelling bursts of scent as it is gathered, shaped, tugged and pulled into place.  The careful attention that goes into keeping each piece in line with the next.  A repeated, almost hypnotic motion which becomes so innate that the maker no longer needs to look at their hands to continue with the stitching.  They let their minds wander.  When weaving is performed with others, stories are shared, and lives are lived in the midst of the action.  The processes and traditions of weaving within the Ngarrindjeri culture is predominately female.  I intend through my research to set a new frame around the art objects that have emerged from the indigenous women of Australia.  These women, and Yvonne Koolmatrie in particular, have not only reinvigorated aspects of their cultural heritage, but are forging a new future for their art form that is owned and interpreted by the female.

The Ngarrindjeri Weavers

The act of sharing and storytelling are two of the dominating aspects of why the weaving tradition of the Ngarrindjeri people of South Eastern Australia is so vital to their way of life.  The Ngarrindjeri are the indigenous people of the Murray River Region in South Eastern Australia; the name Ngarrindjeri translates to ‘South East’ in English.  More specifically, this region of Australia encompasses lakes Alexandrina and Albert, the Coorong and the lower Murray River.  The Ngarrindjeri use the resources given to them from the lands on which they live; sedge grasses, referred to as Bilbili, are the dominant material in their woven objects.  Bilbili is gathered in small open-ended bundles, about a quarter of an inch in diameter.  The bundles always remain open on one end, allowing the weaver to seamlessly join more and more bundles as the weaving progresses.  These bundles are bound together by wrapping them with a single strand of either Bilbili or Kayi, a long river grass that is resilient enough to endure the wrapping and pulling of the coil technique.  The natural material that they use is provided by the land and in turn the land plays a major role in the construction of their cultural identity; “in Ngarrindjeri hands, weaving has a special significance, for it is a tangible means by which living practitioners maintain their connection with an invisible, but ever-present, community of ‘old people’ – the ancestors.”[1]  By working with these fibers, each individual weaver creates their own personal link to the land and thus a connection to their cultural heritage.  Aboriginal artist Ellen Trevorrow explained these concepts during an interview she gave to Diane Bell in 2007.  She explained that weaving was a community ritual where young and old come together to not only transform materials, but to also share time and conversation.  It is a time, Trevorrow explains, that their stories are told.

It is the Stories which sustain and structure the Ngarrindjeri social world; explain the mysterious; provide a secure haven in an otherwise hostile world; bring order to and confer significance on relationships amongst the living; hold hope for future generations; and open up communication with those who have passed on.  Stories of cultural life recall the creation of the land, of the seas, rivers, lakes and lagoons.  They tell of the differentiation of species and of languages.  They spell out the proper uses of flora and fauna.  These are stories of human frailty and triumph, of deception and duty, of rights, responsibilities, and obligations, of magical beings, creative heroes and destructive forces.  Everything has a story, but not everyone knows every story.  Nor does everyone have the right to hear every story, or having heard it, to repeat the words.[2]

The culture of the Aboriginal people is deep and complex, and has its nuances depending on the area of the country in which the people live.  The representation of Aboriginal artwork in contemporary art circles is dominated by the work of male artists.  In the case of the Ngarrindjeri weavers, however, it is the female who owns the skill, its traditional history and its future.  Weaving utilitarian objects was a part of everyday life of the people of the Murray River Region.  Objects such as fish traps, shrimp scoops and weapon baskets were all made from the bundled coil technique.  But with the arrival of European colonizers, weaving traditions in this area began to change.  Not only were weaving practices and cultural knowledge passed down from the elder aboriginal females to their daughters and nieces, but further female influence also started to contribute to the spread and evolution of weaving in and around Australia.

Mission History and Influence

The Murray River region was one of the first areas of Australia to be colonized with the earliest British settlers arriving in 1788 in the area of New South Wales which is located in the Southeastern part of the Earth’s smallest continent.[3]  Religious missions were established along the coast and one of these early independent and non-denominational Protestant missionary laborers was Janet Matthews.  She worked to open three missions named Maloga, Metco and Manunka which were all located on the banks of Murray River.  Manunka was established in 1901 where Matthews was the sole director.[4]  It was here that Matthews began a craft practice as a means of supporting the residents on the mission and the populations inhabiting surrounding areas.  During this time the traditional, utilitarian forms of the Ngarrindjeri people began to be altered, conforming to more saleable objects that were based on European style vessels.  The commercialization of weaving encouraged Indigenous women to create products that conformed to western designs and preferences that featured lids, flat bases, and filigreed details.  Janet’s daughter, Margaret ‘Gretta’ Matthews, carried on this practice at Manunka where she was employed as a missionary worker.[5]  She had, like her mother, learned the coiling technique from Ngarrindjeri women.  In 1922, she relocated to the Goulburn Islands which are located in the Arafura Sea off the coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia.  With this move, she took the technique with her and introduced it to the Indigenous people who were living there.  Matthews continued her mother’s legacy in spreading the technique to even more areas of Australia and in that established an enterprise in which products were produced and sold to travelers.  The proceeds of these sales were used to fund community initiatives.[6]  Since then the technique has thrived in and around Arnhem Land and has spread even further around the country.  This new fiber art played a significant role in the lives of indigenous women both before and after Matthews’ and the missionary’s influence.  It was not long before more and more women would take up this skill and reinterpret it once again.

Aboriginal Fiber Art and the Female Relationship

Aboriginal fiber arts are intrinsically linked to values of community and the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next.  Unlike the western European view of exclusive ownership of artistic practice and the individual genius, the practices of these women weavers and the artwork that they create does not hold true to these constructed standards, not only in materials and forms, but also in social value and inclusiveness.  The Indigenous Australian artists who create fiber sculpture view their practice as one of stewardship, not direct ownership.  Weaving techniques have traditionally been passed on from female to female within specific regional communities.  Mother to daughter, aunt to niece, these are the most common forms of the female mentor/apprentice relationship.  In the past several decades, a resurgence of this practice has taken place within the indigenous populations throughout Australia.  One of the founding ideals of artistic practice has been that of the master/apprentice relationship and the Indigenous weavers of Australia are bringing their version of this relationship into the forefront.

Yvonne Koolmatrie

Since cultural heritage is passed on from one generation to the next, primarily through the oral tradition, many indigenous people found themselves disconnected from their past.  The ravages of time, colonialism, and urbanization had taken their toll.  Yvonne Koolmatrie is one of those affected.  She was born in 1944 in Wudinna, located in the Eyre Peninsula in South Central Australia, a city located west of the Murray River Region .[7]  She later moved to the Meningie and Coorong regions, eventually settling in the Riverland town of Berri.[8]  In recalling her upbringing, Koolmatrie states that her father, Joseph Roberts was a Kokatha man, and her mother Margaret was a Ngarrindjeri/Ramindjeri woman from the Coorong.[9]  It is in fact her mother’s culture, she claims, that took hold of her and became an obsession. Growing up, Koolmatrie was separated from her mother’s traditions and culture because of the gripping and long-lasting effects of colonialism and urbanization.  It was not until tragedy struck her in her adult life that she found her way to weaving.  Koolmatrie’s career as a weaver began as a mode of healing after the tragic loss of her eldest son. It has since evolved to encompass not only her own healing, but the revitalization and healing of her people.  In fact, weaving has reinforced community and brought women across Australia closer together. 

When the Missions were formed, the traditional ways of Aboriginal life that had existed in and around the Murray River Region for centuries had begun to severely fade.  So much so that Dorothy Kartinyeri, known affectionately as Auntie Dory, was thought to be one of the last people practicing the ancient coiled bundle weaving technique.[10]  Koolmatrie said that she heard  this cultural skill was dying out, so she decided to attend a two day workshop at the Meningie Area School in South Australia in 1982.  Auntie Dory was there and in those two days, Koolmatrie, along with several women from the Ngarrindjeri community, including Ellen Trevorrow, learned the coiling technique and how to harvest and prepare suitable native plant fibers.[11]  Koolmatrie explained in an interview that Dorothy Kartinyeri was the last traditional person that knew about all the weaving, about the material, where to find it, how and when to harvest it, how to prepare it and also about the basic stitch.[12]  The technique is one that had evolved since the 1940s, and involves the binding up of a coiled bundle of rushes of the sedge plant with a ‘button-hole’ loop stitch.[13]  Koolmatrie was there to learn her mother’s culture.  She wanted to reclaim the cultural heritage and rituals of her ancestors, not knowing at the time that she would play a major role in their reinterpretation and resurgence.  Koolmatrie had the goal of keeping her mother’s traditions alive, but also, with her own ingenuity and reinterpretations, has created a new frame in which to view aboriginal art and indeed created a new aboriginal art form.  Within this supportive community, women are able to more fully own their identities, their histories, their materials and use them to fuel their aesthetic creations. 

Koolmatrie’s artistic career began after the workshop with Kartinyeri.  Her early work concentrated on the historic and traditional forms that were made by the people of the Riverland region.  She felt strongly that her indigenous culture needed to be continued, therefore she researched these forms by viewing the historic fiber collections of the Ngarrindjeri people that are housed at the Sydney Art Museum as well as collections held by other institutions.[14]  Some of the forms that Koolmatrie helped to re-establish were that of burial baskets, eel and yabby traps, shrimp scoops, egg spoons, work mats and handled baskets; most of which had not been constructed by the people of the region for almost a century.[15] (Fig. 1)  These objects served a practical function in everyday life; tools to use in order to fulfill a physical need.  Koolmatrie understands the importance of recreating such objects and is proud that a great number of her creations are now housed in museum collections, thus allowing future generations to view and consider them.  

Apart from these historical reproductions, she has also explored forms that serve internal, more personal needs.  She has produced several large dreaming mats in which she tells the history of her people while also employing some of the techniques acquired from the missionary days (Fig. 11).  Because the southeast of Australia was one of the first areas to be colonized, Aboriginal culture suffered colonization’s most severe and lasting effects.  In an interview, Koolmatrie explained that once the missionaries came, “the more traditional objects were not needed,” and instead the people of the region would create small, dainty items for the tourists to buy during their travels to missions and along trade routes.[16]  The scalloped designs that appear in some of Koolmatrie’s dreaming mats have their origins in missionary influence and the artist acknowledges this influence as part of her people’s history.  She is taking charge of her past cultural heritage and associating it with the events and histories that are closer to her own lived experiences.

Koolmatrie’s work concentrates not only on keeping the weaving technique alive, but also to bring awareness of the plight of the Murray River and the disappearance of natural resources.  One series that Koolmatrie created was inspired by the non-human inhabitants that rely on the Murray River as habitat.  Many species of wildlife call the Murray River home, and over the years Koolmatrie has explored the forms of turtles, echidna and the Pondi, or Murray cod (Fig. 2 & 3).  The Pondi, now an endangered species, served as a major food source for the people of the region as well as serving as an important ancestral figure.[17]  In Aboriginal Stories, the Pondi is considered the creator of the rivers and creeks.  Koolmatrie focuses on this form to raise awareness of the species in hopes of preserving its natural habitat so that it can one day thrive as it used to.  Woven sculptures incorporate not only the traditional weaving techniques, but also bring to light current issues facing the indigenous people.  The threat of losing the Pondi would be a devastating blow. Koolmatrie has said “we don’t just want sculptures of the fish, we want to keep seeing the real thing.”[18] 

Further experimentation with her weaving began to happen after one of her research trips to The South Australian Museum.  It was there that Koolmatrie saw Model of Aeroplane (1930s) by Jane Watson which was acquired by the institution in 1942.  Watson’s sculpture was constructed by using a wire frame with celluloid window inserts that support the main body of the plane.  The rest of the sculpture was constructed with woven rushes; each component of the plane woven separately, and then stitched together.  Seeing this work gave Koolmatrie the confidence and freedom to develop her own sculptural forms.  This work by the ‘Old People’ sparked Koolmatrie’s interest in exploring the creative potential of her craft.[19]  It is here that a shift began in Koolmatrie’s work where she allowed her own creative expression to inform her sculptures.  She extended her work into new areas and in doing so strengthened her grip on her own history.  She created a series of airplanes and hot air balloons as she was interested in the forms of aerial transportation (Figs. 4-6).  Instead of using a wire substructure as Watson had done, Koolmatrie used a continuous coil for as much of the structure as possible, giving her forms strength without adding foreign materials.  Koolmatrie also engages in a deep exploration of Ngarrindjeri lore represented through the River Bunyip, the Rainbow Serpent and Prupi the Child Stealer.[20]  The artwork created because of these inspirations are quite different from the airplanes in that they show Koolmatrie taking full ownership of her cultural stories to represent them in this sculptural way.  All of these works use the technique of traditional weaving, however, stray from functional forms.  They let the artist consider more aspects of her culture other than the utilitarian and the anthropological.  With these kinds of pieces, she lets her practice enter the realm of the psychological.  However, whichever physical form her weaving takes, all her work is firmly grounded in the deep roots of Ngarrindjeri tradition.  Indeed, creatively interpreting the act of weaving and what forms it could produce, Koolmatrie brings power to her people.  The free play and exploration of conceptual possibilities outside of the normal social structure is when social change happens, and art becomes important.[21]  

Exhibition of Aboriginal Fiber Sculpture, The Beginning of The Shift

Koolmatrie’s work was first exhibited in 1987 and since then has been widely showcased over the past four decades around metropolitan and regional Australia.  Exhibitions include: ‘Two Countries, One Weave’ (1991) an exhibition featuring artists from South Australia and Maningrida, ‘Beyond The Pale’ (2000 Adelaide Biennale), the ‘Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition’ (Art Gallery of NSW), ‘Tarnanthi’ (2015 Art Gallery of SA), and ‘Off Shore: Onsite’ (Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre), which brought together Indigenous visual artists from around Australia and the world as part of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games’ ‘Festival of the Dreaming’ in 2000.[22] 

Koolmatrie’s work has also reached international audiences via exhibition and purchases from international institutions and private collectors.  Perhaps the most career defining international exhibition was fluent, the Australian contribution to the 1997 Venice Biennale, in Venice, Italy.  The Biennale in Venice is easily considered one of the most prestigious art exhibitions in the world.  Koolmatrie’s pair of uncommonly long, cylindrical eel traps were chosen to be part of the Aboriginal art exhibition within the Biennale  (Fig. 7).  The show named fluent, was co-curated by Hetti Perkins.  Perkins saw in the eel traps a dynamic reinterpretation of utilitarian forms.  They would still be functional as eel traps, yes, but in Koolmatrie’s able hands, they were manipulated in a way that emphasized their unique aesthetic qualities.   

The three curators of  fluent also included the work of an two additional well-known aboriginal artists, Emily Kam Ngwarray and Judy Watson.  The work presented by Ngwarray and Watson were mainly large scale paintings, aside from Watson’s Bronze Stones.  These two artists, like Koolmatrie, were beginning to be recognized for their own unique styles within the broader framework of aboriginal art.  The curator’s decision to group woven, tactile pieces with these paintings helped to elevate Koolmatrie’s sculptures in the minds of critics and casual art connoisseurs.  The unique way in which the eel traps were displayed, spotlighted in a dark gallery, invited onlookers to come close, to have an immersive experience with them.  Indeed, this innovative way to display art within the gallery setting was not only unique to fluent, but was a new concept within exhibition design in general.  The two woven eel traps were suspended from the ceiling, allowing the viewer to walk all the way around to view them at any angle.  Historically, artifacts that these eel traps give reference to would be placed under glass cases in an ethnographic museum.  Instead, these objects were hung quite creatively in a large, shared space, giving viewers a chance to consider them more directly.  It has been documented that many people, especially children, wanted to have their picture taken with these works.  Additionally, the weather in Venice at the time was rainy and cool, thus activating the aroma of the sedge fibers in which the eel traps were created with.  Viewers could not only see these objects in a new and more intimate way, but they could also smell them.[23]  Thus, the experience activated multiple senses and the work became more than a specimen of a time gone by.  It was an innovative display, unique for the time and contributed to the overall success of the exhibition.   

In the exhibition catalogue, Hetti Perkins writes that Koolmatrie’s eel traps have an inherent gracefulness and balance which markedly distinguishes them from other versions.[24]  She also states that the eel traps are a result of Koolmatrie’s intuitive process that allows the sculptural potential of the eel trap to be realized.[25]  This framing distinguished Koolmatrie’s Eel traps as art instead of strict historical reproductions.  Marketing techniques as well as positive critical reviews lead to this acceptance of Indigenous Australian art being seen as contemporary practice rather than an ethnographic survey based on history and geographic location.  Art critics, such as John McDonald of Australia and William Packer of Great Britain, identified connections with the art they saw in fluent with that of international modernism.  McDonald observed that “the Spiritual or political messages could be extracted at will, but the all-important first impression was a vision of bold Minimalist stripes, fields of shimmering color, and two floating sculptural forms that could have been designed by Russian constructivists as agitprop loudspeakers.”27 Indeed, at least five years before fluent, formalism and modernism in art history were beginning to be rejected.  Formalism focused on the visual properties of an artwork with little reference to how the object might have been used in its original cultural setting.[26] A new school of thought was developing among art historians, which placed art in ritual context, thus allowing it to be considered within its original cultural contexts.  Undeniably, McDonald shows evidence of this emerging shift with his description of the artwork presented as he noted that “the work is exotic in origins, but suggests many comforting family ties with International Modernism.”[27]  By art critics placing the work of Aboriginal Women artists in conversation with male European artists, they created a larger pathway for consideration and acceptance. This comparison to Modernism was important for the time, allowing the work to be more widely accepted in contemporary art circles, but I argue that this work should not be limited by the frame of western artistic standards.  Indeed, this work is important in that it lies outside of that construct and should be considered for its unique female lead traditions, skills, and interpretations as well as its ritualistic value.  But it must be emphasized that the inclusion in fluent is not only a highlight in Koolmatrie’s national and international career as an Aboriginal fiber artist but also greatly contributed to the repositioning of Aboriginal fiber art within the international art domain as fine art.[28]

Continuing the Female Apprenticeship

Koolmatrie and Ellen Trevorrow have had great success in preserving their cultural heritage as well as adding their own interpretations allowing it to evolve it to new and broader contexts.  They had both learned techniques and practices from their elders and in turn have also committed themselves to sharing that knowledge throughout Australia and beyond.   They see themselves as stewards of their craft or cultural custodians.  Their mission is to protect and enhance what is there, leaving it better for future generations.  Their teaching gives license to the younger generations to affirm their own identities in their aesthetic pursuits.  

Koolmatrie has worked as an arts educator presenting workshops focusing on passing on traditional Ngarrindjeri weaving techniques as well as cultural and spiritual knowledge for the Nalta Ruwe Aboriginal Corporation in Glossop, South Australia as well as conducting workshops in arts and community centers across Australia; including Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, where she has also advised on the planting of a ‘Weaving Garden’.[29]  She is also active in teaching her granddaughter how to weave.  This in essence is the traditional way that weaving was passed down, from one female family member to another. Koolmatrie is considered a master weaver and steward of her cultural heritage.  In the capable hands of Koolmatrie and others, traditional weaving has not only survived, but it has flourished.

Koolmatrie’s workshops have reached people all across Australia and have also attracted pupils from around the world.[30]  The strength of interest from outside Aboriginal communities shows the intense interest for people to be reconnected to the work of their mothers.  Although sedge grass coil weaving is unique to the people of the Murray River Region, the main idea and labor behind it is more universal.  As a result of these workshops, women from around the world are seeing the true value of their mothers’ work.  There is the basic utilitarian purpose behind woven objects of the past, but in those same objects that have evolved from them, there lies the evidence of thoughtful design and creativity.  These objects and the artists who create them have shown that the female is at the helm of this cultural resurgence. 

Community and Sharing is at the Center

The strong philosophy of sharing that exists within the Indigenous Australian sisterhood of makers is inspiring.  As mentioned previously, this attitude of sharing is different from the traditional view of artistic practice in which great artwork was deemed to be the result of a singular creative genius.  Whereas some would report that specific forms have been copied, this attitude does not seem to live in the communities of indigenous fiber sculpture makers, quite the contrary.  Yvonne Koolmatrie and other female Australian Aboriginal artists are challenging us to see that communal based practice creates new and exciting opportunities for innovative art forms as well as a more inclusive artistic community.  Janet Watson’s Model of Aeroplane that she created in the 1930s serves as the first object for this example, and as stated, served as inspiration for Koolmatrie throughout her own artistic practice.  Watson came from a prominent Aboriginal family from the lower Murray region of South Australia and learned the specific techniques and style of weaving unique to her familial territory from her older female relatives.[31]  She created Model of Aeroplane after seeing her brother depart from home in one, flying off to become a shearer.[32]  She had used her knowledge and skill in weaving to create a unique aesthetic object, bringing together her Aboriginal past and her contemporary existence in the world of aeronautical transportation.  This exploration brought her weaving practice out of purely utilitarian purpose and into the realm of artistic expression.  And indeed, years later, Koolmatrie would see this work and be inspired to create her own versions.  Koolmatrie had been practicing the technique for nearly a decade when she was commissioned by the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute Inc. in 1991-2 to create Mono-plane, which was meant to be a reproduction of Watson’s original (Fig. 4).  The work was intended to celebrate the innovation of the Ngarrindjeri culture.[33]  Soon after creating Mono-plane, Koolmatrie continued to explore aerial transportation forms and over the years created several more aircraft sculptures as well as hot air balloons (Figs. 5-6).  Continuing to re-explore these unique forms allows the artist to let her past to influence her present practice.     

The cycle of sharing continues and has been expanding to more and more areas of Australia.  Ivy Hopkins is a Ngaanyatjarra woman from Irrunytju (Wingellina) in Western Australia.  Western Australian art is dominated by brightly colored acrylic paintings based on ancestral knowledge called dreaming.  Hopkins though was inspired to take an alternate approach.  In the late 90s and early 2000s Hopkins ran a satellite Tjanpi office in Irrunytju, supporting artists in the early days of Tjanpi Desert Weavers development.  She is an expert weaver in the Tjanpi tradition as well as in hand dying raffia with bush dyes.[34]  Hopkins created her aeronautical fiber sculpture, Wingellina Mail Plane in 2005 (Fig. 8).  Hopkins’ work diverts from Koolmatrie and Watson’s material and coil technique to take advantage of the knowledge and materials that are specific to her people and geographic location.  The sharing of ideas, the acceptance and nurturing of future artists is an enormous strength, each artist learning from elders and taking the knowledge that they learn and applying it to their own practice in a unique way. 

The maternal tradition and cultural ownership continue through Treahna Hamm of the Yorta people of the Murray River region in Victoria located in southeastern Australia.  Hamm first became reconnected with her cultural roots through her contact with the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative LTD in Sydney.  After her time spent with the cooperative, she started incorporating Yorta stories into her work.[35]  Hamm further explored her cultural heritage when she took part in a 2002 workshop facilitated by Yvonne Koolmatrie and local respected weavers “Aunty” Dot Peters and “Aunty” Pat Harrison.[36]  As a result of the workshop, Hamm was inspired to create works in fiber that take the form of animals and other objects such as Turtle (Fig. 9), which was made in 2002 and Yabby (Fig 10) in 2006.  This new inspiration gained from Koolmatrie and the others opened up the possibility of telling the histories of the Yorta people through these new fiber sculptures.[37]  Through the female perspective and materials, these objects are free from the deep constraints that are set upon the practice of Aboriginal painting.  Fiber sculpture allows its makers to freely express their cultural identities and interpret them in ever expanding ways.

Artistic Enterprise

Aboriginal women artists have taken ownership of their own histories, identities, and art forms in order to create a self-sustaining creative enterprise.  Since the 1970s when government funding was provided for the establishment of art centers and cooperatives that serve to train artists and promote artistic and cultural exchange, Indigenous Art Centers such as the Tjanpi Desert Weavers have thrived.  Regular marketing outlets and feedback from the art market helped Aboriginal artists to “adapt their skills to make more marketable products.”[38]  Fiber exclusive exhibitions with accompanying exhibition catalogs also helped to establish this art in the wider art market.  It is also important to note that the purchasing of fiber works by major institutions and private collectors has also played a significant role in the acceptance by the greater arts community of woven objects as fine art.  This is important to acknowledge because it signals an important shift in the standards of fine art away from a strictly western perspective.  This enabled a revolution to take place in the hearts and minds of Aboriginal women, that their histories, materials, techniques were indeed something to take notice of. 

This shift in having Aboriginal woven objects presented in museums and galleries as fine art has as much to do with the creative efforts of the artists as it does with curators, art critics and art historians. Along with the important work of Hetti Perkins for the 1997 Venice Biennale, other curators were actively marketing woven sculptural forms as fine art.  Badtjala artist Fiona Foley with traditional links to Fraser Island started to visit Maningrida in 1986 and helped the arts advisor Diane Moon to organize and exchange of fiber artists from Fraser Island and Maningrida with collaborative fiber workshops in Sydney.[39]  Diane Moon also serves as art advisor to Lena Yarinkura.  Because of their own efforts and the efforts of other art world professionals, the indigenous women of Australia are empowered to pass down their knowledge once again to the younger generations in order to preserve and expand on their cultural heritage.  As seen in the physical example of the coiled bundle technique, the woven creations made by the Ngarrindjeri start at the center and from there spiral outwards, its influence touching more and more as it grows. 


As evident by the developments in Aboriginal fiber arts over the past several decades, the women of Aboriginal Australia are owning their cultural heritage and interpreting it in unique ways.  Still strong are their traditions of the female-to-female transfer of knowledge.  These cultural custodians are also fiercely focused on creating art objects that not only reflect an important part of their past, but also directly affect their future.  Yvonne Koolmatrie’s work in particular fully illustrates these points.  Over her career she has created an evolving body of work that speaks to not only to the importance of continuing cultural traditions, bringing awareness to social and political issues of today, but also has framed those discussions from the female perspective.    

Figure 1.  Yvonne Koolmatrie, Eel Trap, 1992, bilbili, (sedge rushes, Lepidosperma canescens), 44.0 × 46.0 x 87.0 cm
Figure 2.  Yvonne Koolmatrie, Echidna 2010, sedge rushes (Lepidosperma canescens) and echidna quills, 25.0 x 50.0 x 11.0 cm

Figure 3.  Yvonne Koolmatrie, Pondi (Murray River Cod), 2009, Sedge grass, river rushes. 59 x 44 x 116cm.

Figure 4.  Yvonne Koolmatrie, Mono-plane, 1991-2, sedge rushes
Figure 5.  Yvonne Koolmatrie, Bi-plane, 1994, Sedge rushes, 50 x 113 x 135 cm
Figure 6. Yvonne Koolmatrie, Bi-plane, 2006, Sedge rushes, 65 x 92 x 112 cm

Figure 7.  Yvonne Koolmatrie, Eel Trap, Sedge Rushes, 1997

Item removed due to copyright restrictions.

Figure 8.  Ivy Hopkins, Wingellina Mail Plane, 2005, native grasses, raffia, string, wool, wood, wire, plastic, 134 x 133.5 x 47 cm

Item removed due to copyright restrictions.

Figure 9.  Treahna Hamm, Turtle, 2002, natural fiber, 44.5 x 38 x 6cm

Item removed due to copyright restrictions.

Figure 10.  Treahna Hamm, Yabby, 2006, Grass and gumnuts, 76h x 70w cm, 84 cm diameter

Figure 11.  Yvonne Koolmatrie, River Dreaming, 2007, woven fibre mat, 142.5 cm x H 101.5 cm x D 5.9 cm

[1] John Kean, “The Beautiful Aroma of the Sedge,” in Riverland, (Adelaide, South Australia: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2015), 133

[2] Diane Bell, Kungun Ngarrindjeri Miminar Yunnan (Listen to the Ngarrindjeri Women Speaking) (Lancaster: Gazelle, 2008).

[3] “The Rise of the British Empire in Australia,” UK government web archive, accessed October 10, 2020, https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ukgwa/20220201192758/https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/empire/g1/cs4/background.htm.

[4] Hetti Perkins, “Circle of Light,” in Riverland, (Adelaide, South Australia: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2015), 133.

[5] Perkins, “Circle of Light,” 133.

[6] Christiane Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies: Innovation within Aboriginal Fibre Practice,” Craft + Design Enquiry, no. 02 (2012), https://doi.org/10.22459/cde.02.2010.02.

[7] “Yvonne Koolmatrie,” Australia Council for the Arts, May 15, 2019, https://australiacouncil.gov.au/news/stories/yvonne-koolmatrie/.

[8] Yvonne Koolmatrie, Riverland (Adelaide, South Australia: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2015).

[9] Koolmatrie, Riverland,  2015.

[10] “Yvonne Koolmatrie,” Australia Council for the Arts, May 15, 2019, https://australiacouncil.gov.au/news/stories/yvonne-koolmatrie/.

[11] Christiane Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies: Innovation within Aboriginal Fibre Practice,” Craft + Design Enquiry, no. 02 (2012), https://doi.org/10.22459/cde.02.2010.02.

[12] Perkins, “Circle of Light,” 134.

[13] “Yvonne Koolmatrie,” Australia Council for the Arts, May 15, 2019, https://australiacouncil.gov.au/news/stories/yvonne-koolmatrie/.

[14] Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies,” 2012

[15] Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies,” 2012

[16] Art Gallery of South Australia, “Tarnanthi 2015 Focus Exhibition – Yvonne Koolmatrie,” YouTube (YouTube, July 17, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKHg_HCmpug.

[17] Perkins, “Circle of Light,”139-40.

[18] Perkins, “Circle of Light,”139-40.

[19] Perkins, “Circle of Light,” 135.

[20] Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies,” 2012

[21] Kathleen Ashley, “Art in Ritual Context: Introduction.” Journal of Ritual Studies 6, no. 1 (1992): 2. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44398524.

[22] Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies,” 2012.

[23] Sibyl Fisher, “Fluent in Venice: Curating Australian Aboriginal Art Beyond the ‘Urban/Desert’ Paradigm,” Interventions 17, no. 6 (2015): pp. 802-813, https://doi.org/10.1080/1369801x.2014.999816.

[24] Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies,” 2012.

[25] Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies,” 2012.

[26] Kathleen Ashley, “Art in Ritual Context.” 1992.

[27] J McDonald, “The Dream Weavers, The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum Arts, January 10, 1998, 14S.

[28] Tony Barrass, “Rapper, Weaver, Teacher,” nit.com.au, May 26, 2016, https://www.nit.com.au/rapper-weaver-teacher-clean-oz-council-art-awards/nma.gov.au/painting-on-country.

[29] Olivia Bolton, “Yvonne Koolmatrie,” Design and Art Australia Online, January 22, 2013, https://www.daao.org.au/bio/yvonne-koolmatrie/events/.

[30] Janis Koolmatrie, Kaltja Now: Indigenous Arts Australia, The Ngarrindjeri Weaver. (Wakefield Press, 2000), 99-103.

[31] Ran He, “Janet Watson,” Design and Art Australia Online, January 1, 1995, https://www.daao.org.au/bio/janet-watson/personal_details/.

[32] Ran He, “Janet Watson,” 1995.

[33] Collectionsearch.nma.gov.au (National Museum of Australia), accessed August 30, 2022, http://collectionsearch.nma.gov.au/object/53035.

[34] “Tjanpi Desert Weavers,” Tjanpi Desert Weavers, 10AD, https://tjanpi.com.au/.

[35] Marina Tyquiengco, “Defying Empire: The Third National Indigenous Art Triennial: National Gallery of Australia, May 26 – September 10, 2017,” Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture 6 (2017): pp. 113-119, https://doi.org/10.5195/contemp.2017.232.

[36] Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies,” 2012.

[37] Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies,” 2012.

[38] Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies,” 2012.

[39] Keller, “From Baskets to Bodies,” 2012.


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