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Cultural tours 2004


Yolngu Fibre Art

A Mapuru Experience


Welcome to Yolngu Fibre Art – a Mapuru Experience. My name is Jan Lewis and my adopted Aboriginal name is Dabutabu. I am pleased to share my experiences of a Weaving Workshop at Mapuru in North Eastern Anthem Land.

Weaving is a tradition passed on for generations and is entrenched in the daily activities of hunting, fishing, gathering and spiritual life. Participation in the workshop gave me first-hand knowledge of Aboriginal art and culture and it is hoped that through these experiences and as told to me by the Yolngu that I can express, as close as possible, a Yolngu perspective of their art and culture.

Mapuru is a remote Homeland community consisting of approximately 120 Aboriginals. It is 1,000 km east of Darwin and is inaccessible by road in the wet. A small landing strip, however, allows a four-seater to fly in from Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island) to bring food supplies, mail (their local post office is in Darwin) and two teachers who visit the Homeland Learning Centre for two and a half days per week.
It is significant that there is no petrol or alcohol at Mapuru. Nor is there marijuana or any other drug. Petrol sniffing, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and substance abuse have not violated this community. Under shared parental and kinship guidance, children grow in safety and freedom learning about their connection to country and Yolngu tradition. It would not have been possible to conduct this workshop in some of the other larger settlements which do not have such a healthy, cohesive social environment.


Two Elders

Verbal permission given by Marathuwarr to use photo courtesy StringWorld Catalogue.


Two sisters, Linda Marathuwarr and Margaret Bambalarra are Elders of Mapuru and coordinated the Workshop. Although they speak little English, Marathuwarr and Bambalarra are fluent in 20 Indigenous languages and have exhibited and given public presentations at festivals and in galleries and museums throughout Australia. They are seen here carrying yothu (baby) in dhaniya (bark cradles). The use of bark has ancestral significance to which I shall refer later.

These women initiated the weaving workshop for 3 reasons:
The first is to help preserve and strengthen their cultural traditions. There are forty-five children aged four to eighteen who are taught by two Assistant Teachers (parents) every day, and by two qualified teachers who visit the Mapuru Homeland Learning Centre for two and a half days a week. The children tend to hold the visiting teachers in high regard because they earn more money than the Elders. Traditionally, however, Elders are esteemed because they have important responsibilities for passing on knowledge and continuing cultural traditions. In light of this, the workshops are important because seeing Balanda (non-Aboriginal) travel great distances to learn about Yolngu art and culture promotes community pride and cultural renewal of their Indigenous heritage.
The second reason is to create employment opportunities and make their community financially self-sufficient. Weaving is the only art produced for sale at Mapuru and conducting workshops is not only a means of maintaining dignity and preserving culture but of being gainfully employed to achieve financial independence as well. Exacerbating their financial needs, the Yolngu have diminished natural food sources because the cane toad has wiped out snake, goanna and lizard. To supplement regular hunting the community recently organised a food co-op. There are no cars at Mapuru and besides which, the nearest shop is on Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island). The one-way airfare of $155 adds significantly to the cost of food; the cheapest item at the co-op, for example, is $5 for a can of baked beans.
The third reason is to facilitate a reciprocal exchange of indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. Keeping company with the Mapuru women was an inter-cultural exchange and they were keen to explain their culture to the wider community. Not only did the experience inform my understanding of Yolngu culture, it broadened the context of my own social environment as well.
To help the women achieve these objectives John Greatorex facilitated the workshop (the second of its kind) and acted as interpreter.



John Greatorex and Jackie Nguluwidi


  John is well known to the Mapuru community having worked with them for twenty-five years. Until recently, he was Vice Principal of the school on Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island). He is lecturer of Yolngu languages and culture at Charles Darwin University and hopes that future workshops can be facilitated through other bodies such as universities and galleries. John volunteered his time and shared expenses for the workshop. On the left is Jackie Nguluwidi who is employed as an Assistant Teacher and who volunteers his time to organise the food co-op.


  Ali, one of the workshop participants, is a photographer as well as Gallery Director of The Blue Roof in Canberra. Their recent exhibition “Earth” included, along with other media, mats, bilums and bags from Gapuwiyak, Galiwin’ku and Mapuru.  


  Hollie, also a workshop participant, is an Arts – Law student at the Australian National University.  
You will see children in many of these slides. There is a sense that the they belong to the whole community. In terms of learning outside of school, there is no formal structure to their inclusion in daily life - they learn by being part of it and participate freely and willingly. Around the weaving workshop, young ones sit in the laps of women as they weave whilst older ones come and go. The children watch, play or participate directly.


  Akiyo is a Colourist and Interior Designer with Sydney-based architects Urbanscope (Australia) Pty Ltd. She brought large quantities of Japanese food which was shared by all and her participation in the workshop added to the inter-cultural dimension of the Mapuru experience.  


Here is myself and Linda Marathuwarr to whom I was made yapa (sister). Ali, Hollie, Akiyo and I were each given Aboriginal names and adopted into the extended kinship of the Yolngu community. Ali became Marrwuywuy, Hollie Dhurruthurru and Akiyo Bepi. Such naming exemplifies the generous and inclusive nature of the Yolngu culture.
Our adoption occurred on the second day when we were sitting around weaving. There was a lot of talk amongst the women and after a time, with much gesturing and our limited knowledge of Yolngu, we learnt of our relationship with everyone there. Bepi and I became sisters to Marathuwarr and Dhurruthurru and Marrwuywuy became our daughters. During discussions over the ensuing days we gradually learnt of our relationship to various aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.
The Yolngu rarely use yaku (personal names); usually they identify and call each other by their kinship name. For example, Marathuwarr and I would call each other “yapa” (sister). This manner of address provided a structural framework in which everyone was connected and none of us were made to feel like outsiders.
The preceding introductions are made to describe how relationships and networks within and outside the community are maintained. The pertinence of the connection of kin (past and present) to fibre art and country is described later.


Ceremonial Bilum and Garments
Verbal permission given by Marathuwarr to use photo courtesy StringWorld Catalogue.

  Coiled baskets are not the only fibre art produced by the Women of Mapuru. Barrwan (bark) and gunga (pandanus) are used to make ceremonial and non-ceremonial baskets, garments, cradles, mats and string bags. Here Marathuwarr wears a woven and painted sacred dilly bag representing the Ritharrngu clan. It is painted in natural ochres and is more ornamented than non-ceremonial bags. Michelle Banalinydju and Rebecca Gayurrwi wear djerrk (string net) and djirrpa (strips of kurrajong bark) and carry dyed and undyed bilums. Baskets are used for collecting food as well as carrying tools and personal belongings.



Home by Night


  After an exhausting 12 hour drive we arrived on the first night to a lit up camp fueled by a generator. We were met by Marathuwarr and Bambalarra plus numerous others including excited and inquisitive children. In preparation for the workshop the Elders spent weeks gathering and preparing materials for our use; making numerous baskets for show and sale and building shelters for us.  

Home by Day


  There were four separate structures. Two open-ended bark sleeping quarters - one on the ground and the other with a loft; an elevated storage facility for our belongings and a shelter where we spent our time weaving and keeping company with the women and children.
The whole of the first day was spent learning the art of weaving. Weaving is a social activity and much discussion goes on in the workshops. There are no fly-by corridor-type conversations as frequently used in western culture. When Yolngu talk, they sit down and take time to consider, deliberate and discuss.
Each day, before weaving commenced at 8.30am, the ground was prepared; drop sheets removed and the earth raked. We wove in the mornings and the afternoons were spent collecting materials for weaving as well as hunting, fishing and gathering.

Mangrove Camp & Dhunggur’yun (Landcare)


  After weaving on the second day we set up camp on the outskirts of the mangrove area, ten minutes drive from Mapuru. This slide shows dhunggur’yun – a common activity of landcare practiced by Aboriginals to encourage new growth. The men performed this activity whilst the women, students and children sought food from the mangroves.  

Dulngurryun (Harvesting Gunga)

Latjin - Mangrove worm



On our way to the mangroves, we stopped to collect gunga (pandanus). Only the newest growth is harvested. The women are skilled at this as shown here by Carolyn Gulumindiwuy Guyula but we balanda wished we had brought garden gloves because the leaves are lined with thorns. Sometimes the plants are so tall that a hooked wooden or metal implement is used to reach the tops. Gunga is not only used for weaving but is a food source as well. The bottom white section of the leaf is edible and tastes like raw cabbage.

Some of us dug for ragudhu (shellfish) whilst others caught matpuna (bream), lirrmanga (catfish), and nyoka (mudcrab). They were put directly on the fire and shared by all.

Latjin (mangrove worms) are obtained by chopping into old fallen eucalypts to find the burrow holes made by the worms. It is hard work but the women are strong and adept at this. The worm is white, soft and has a delicate flavour; even the fine muddy sediment inside the worm is quite palatable.


My Mother(s’) Country
• Dhuwa Country
• Connection with Ancestors and paper bark traditions
• Understanding art, ontology and the epistemology of

There are no pictures accompanying this text. As you probably know it is necessary to obtain permission before taking photos of Aboriginal people. I learnt there is a sense that something of their spirit is taken away when they are photographed. Not often, but occasionally we were not allowed to take photos and sometimes you just knew not to.
In the afternoon of the third day we visited My Mother(s’) Country. This is where Marathuwarr’s Mother was born and it holds strong memories and stories for her. I haven’t specified a name for this country as there are over 50 Indigenous words equivalent to its name. As John explained: “it’s like trying to name Sydney by its landmarks, individual streets and significant places of activity”. Suffice to say, however, My Mother(s’) Country belongs to the Dhuwa moiety* and it consists of a large floodplain which hosts a wealth of flora and fauna. Lining the perimeter to one side is an extensive grove of paperbark trees; each one representing their Ancestors.
Fourteen of us piled into John’s four-wheel drive and after an hour’s travel the atmosphere inside the vehicle became very excited. Marathuwarr and Bambalarra were pointing to different things in the landscape, talking excitedly and sometimes breaking into song. Upon arrival, everyone scrambled out and took off down the flat to dig up rakay, a sweet-flavoured edible bulb. Meanwhile, Marathuwarr and Bambalarra went up a hill; sat under a tree, and, looking out over the floodplains, shared a pipe. Later they went into the bush and harvested djuptjup, a seed used to create brown dye. I joined Marathuwarr to pull the tall, grass-like plant and after filling a hessian bag we sat down to discard the twigs and leaves so that just the seed head remained. Marathuwarr had already gathered a large sheet of paperbark about a metre long and placed it on the ground. I watched, kneeling silently as she carefully put the seed in the bark and folded it into a large parcel. Using gunga and intoning softly to herself she painstakingly tied three evenly spaced straps with one-sided bows along the bundle. Watching on it dawned on me that the Ancestors were being used to carry the seed back to Mapuru and I was humbled to have witnessed such an event. Even if I had my camera that day, I would not have requested photos because the hushed communing and delicate wrapping of the paperbark was so poignant.
On understanding Indigenous art, ontology and the epistemology of sharing knowledge there is a sense that learning the Yolngu-way is by degrees. Knowledge is not imposed but imparted when appropriate and often it is by perceptual experience where knowledge takes on meaning in situ.
Weaving is a tradition from ancestral times and whilst body, sand and bark painting are also part of life at Mapuru, there is no production of works on canvas simply because it is not a traditional form. Balanda try to understand Aboriginal art by analysing surface cartographic elements and associating them with Indigenous Dreamings. This is judgment at arms length and is always influenced by Western notions of composition and technique. Likewise, it is highly valued for that unique mark which fits the eurocentric prescription for an artist’s signature. Whilst balanda hope to find meaning via semiotics and make comparisons within discursive confines, Aboriginal fibre art is a genre which remains outside conventional Western structures of art analysis because Yolngu values and spiritual meaning are inherent in the processes of its production which is intrinsic to and facilitates Yolngu cultural tradition.
*Society and all aspects of the natural and spiritual worlds in Yolngu culture belong to and are ordered by two moieties - Dhuwa and Yirritja. Affiliation with these equal and complementary halves determine one’s conduct in every aspect of social and religious behaviour.



Buffalo Hunt


  After weaving on the fourth day we went Buffalo hunting and it was an amazing adventure. As no one at Mapuru owns a firearm, John was asked to bring along his rifle so that the hunt could be organised. We had another visitor with transport that day; Harry and his family - so with two four-wheel drives and twenty-eight passengers, we set out to buffalo country.



  On our way out to buffalo country we stopped to dig for djundum, a root used to make a precious yellow dye. The ground is very hard and a long metal rod is used to dig it out. Back at camp the root is scraped, put into large tins with water and boiled up.  

Buffalo Camp


  The buffalo camp was established on a hill and one could sit up there and watch the whole hunt from afar with a running commentary from the women. Buffalo are plentiful and a good source of protein however their large numbers are detrimental to the floodplain. Upon arrival we saw two large herds of about 50 buffalo in each. It was a long but exciting day. Whilst the men and some children and students went hunting, the women collected gunga and sat at camp splitting it, making tea and preparing damper for the party’s return.  

Bulls Eye!


  It took 3 hrs of stalking by foot through swamp to hunt down and kill the buffalo. Only the hind leg was removed – the remainder left for wildlife to scavenge. Six slits were made in the hide around the leg and it took another three hours for six people to carry the heavy burden back through swamp to camp. Small pieces were cut off and cooked over the ready coals giving the hunters enough time to gather their strength after an exhausting day.  

Yirriyunging and use of Minimul


  The processes which encompass weaving contribute towards networks with other communities. For example, “minimul” the stone used here by Bambalarra for yiringaning (crushing red bulb which is used for dye) was given to Marathuwarr’s family during a funeral ceremony by another clan over twenty years ago. It relates to their networks and is connected to black duck ancestry from another region. Bepi uses a hammer here but we were each invited to practise with the minimul.  

Giyalaram (splitting pandanus)


  Giyalaram (splitting pandanus) is very time-consuming and difficult to master although the Elders do it without effort. Often they would sit around the campfire splitting gunga until 10 or 11pm at night. After the thorny edges are removed, the fibres are split, boiled in dyes on the open fire then bundled and hung out to dry after which, they are ready to use.  
A Collaboration
Coiled Basket
Linda Marathuwarr and Jan Lewis
Mapuru, 2004
  Words cannot express my gratitude to the people of Mapuru. The way in which they shared their knowledge, land and culture and the generous, inclusive nature of their community is something I will never forget. As we sat around camp on our last day saying our good-byes Marathuwarr said: “when you go, we go with you”.

I gratefully acknowledge the assistance and support from John Greatorex, Bepi, Marrwuywuy, Dhurruthurru and of course the Mapuru community in preparing this presentation.

Verbal permission for all photography has been given by Linda Marathuwarr.


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