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Cultural tours 2005 - August | October






























































































































































Mapuru 2005 Report by Diane Moon

There were six participants in the weaving workshops held at Mapuru, northeast Arnhem Land,  in August 2005.


Is a highly-successful Japanese, Sydney-based, interior designer, with a self-confessed passion for Aboriginal basketry. She also attended the Mapuru weaving workshop in 2004 and this experience, together with her involvement with the Garma Festival, have given her a thirst to increase her knowledge of Australian Aboriginal culture and language. With a little less pressure from her own professional demands she is now committed to introducing Arnhem Land women’s work to a Japanese audience through exhibiting it with a supporting publication.


‘I am a descendant of the Birri-gubba and Wakka Wakka peoples. I am a Project Officer in the Exhibitions section at the Queensland Art Gallery and a practising artist and member of the (Brisbane-based) artists collective ‘proppaNOW’.  I found the Mapuru experience very inspiring.  The people of Mapuru have so much to teach, and from my own time learning I have evoked feelings and thoughts of how my own people would have once lived in their ancestral land.  I know that it, too, would have been as rich in culture and lore.  My Mapuru experience has also inspired me to expand on my own art practice.  I feel grateful to have shared such an experience and I would like to thank the homeland for their generosity.’

Diane MOON

I took great joy in accompanying two young Indigenous Australian women on their initial visit to Arnhem Land, Krystle Sutherland and Andrea Fisher.  I was filled with pride at their gracious responses to all the joys and challenges that such a trip can bring and sharing with them everlasting memories of their time at Mapuru. The effect this will have on their personal and professional lives is profound.  As Curator of Indigenous Fibre Art at the Queensland Art Gallery I was pleased to renew my experience of weaving processes and practices through the tireless generosity of the Mapuru women. For me, experiencing the space, light and texture of my Ngulurr (peaked roof bush shelter) was the ultimate in comfort and pleasure.


‘My visit to Mapuru, at the invitation and on the terms of the Mapuru women, will always be remembered with fondness.  Our time together was relaxed and fruitful; the enlightening trips gathering materials and food, then the pleasure of witnessing the women’s feel for the fibre and the rhythm of their weaving.  They converted their skills into simple steps for us to follow, and through their warm, caring and constant encouragement we were able to produce some (basic) pieces.  Thankyou to the women of Mapuru for the wonderful experience.’


‘I am an artist interested in natural fibres and dyes, found objects and sculpture.  I also enjoy collaborating with artists using other media.  I have a strong connection with the natural environment, which greatly influences my work.  I enjoy looking at how I/we relate to such environments.  The experience of going to Mapuru leaves me lost for words.  The generosity of the women to allow us to come to their country and create was incredible.  The workshop provided not only knowledge of techniques, but much more in the way of culture, community and a sense of belonging.  I miss the women, the sharing, and know that this experience has profoundly changed me.’


‘I am an undergraduate student at the University of Queensland, undertaking a double major in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.  Increasingly, as I move along in my studies, I feel that I get more enjoyment and stimulation in learning through direct participation.  Mapuru was one of those experiences.  Being involved in every aspect of basket-making, from the collecting to the dyeing and weaving was exciting.  When I think about what I treasured most, I would have to say it was the friendship of the women and the privilege of being accepted onto Ritharrngu country.  The women were gracious hosts and are expert teachers in many fields.’                                                

Gradually, during the week, students were assigned a Yolngu language, name and malk (sub-section classification).













Diane MOON
(dating from 1982)































Krystle Sutherland, Documentation Assistant, Registration, became aware of the Arnhem Weavers project at Mapuru through contacts at University of Queensland.  She saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for anyone interested in furthering their knowledge of Aboriginal culture and fibre arts and of particular significance for Indigenous Australians.  After discussion and consideration by QAG Indigenous Australian staff members, Tony Albert, Exhibitions Project Officer & Indigenous Trainee Coordinator, approached  QAG senior management on their behalf seeking Gallery support for several of their group to join the trip to Mapuru.  It was decided that Krystle Sutherland and Andrea Fisher, Exhibitions Project Officer, would participate in 2005, accompanied by Diane Moon, Curator, Indigenous Fibre Art. This is the third year these workshops have been held and to date have only been offered to female participants.

Description of project

John Greatorex was the contact person based in Darwin.  He has lived over twenty-five years in Arnhem Land, much of that time spent in the north eastern region where Mapuru is situated and currently teaches in the Yolngu language linguistic and culture program at Charles Darwin University.  He offers his time and energy voluntarily to ensure the success of the workshops both for the participants and the Aboriginal weavers of Mapuru.  The workshops were held from 15 to 19 August (plus travel days), timed to follow on from the 22nd Telstra NATSIA Awards in Darwin.

Mapuru residents and John Greatorex have collaborated to evolve the concept of the fibre workshops. This follows the success of the community coop, which was running very successfully during our visit.  It is believed that the workshops can:

• offer the Yolngu of Mapuru homeland an opportunity to be meaningfully and gainfully employed

• assist Mapuru residents to earn an income by their own expertise and effort

• increase access to western culture and knowledge and thereby foster independence

• offer to participants personal, meaningful access to an Indigenous Australian culture

QAG participants prepared a budget which included essentials for bush travel such as mosquito-proof dome tent, multi-purpose plastic tarpaulins, knives and weaving needles, course costs, 4WD hire and fuel and these were approved.

QAG participation

On this occasion there were six participants:  Akiyo Tanaka; Dianne Johnson; Susan Shade; and from the Queensland Art Gallery: Krystle Sutherland; Andrea Fisher and Diane Moon.  This is felt to be the optimum number that can be accommodated.  They were people of varying interests and backgrounds, mostly involved professionally with art and design. On Saturday 13 August participants met in a class room at Charles Darwin University where John Greatorex introduced the group to the locality, history and culture of Mapuru and its residents.  Each was presented with a word list (by long- time linguist Michael Christie), of Gupapuyngu language which is widely used and understood in North Eastern Arnhem Land.

The teaching and discussions by John on the Yolngu kinship system were an important aspect of the Mapuru experience. (Yolngu is the term used by North east Aboriginal people when referring to themselves.)  This began on a theoretical level and was continued to become more real as participants were given their malk (skin), language groups and Yolngu names and learned to use these in relating to each other and people of Mapuru.  Thus they were absorbed into the Yolngu world view and found their place along with everything there. 

The group then gathered at the home of John to discuss food needs, finances, utensils and equipment to be shared. This was followed by a food shopping excursion to the supermarket at Casuarina leaving the group free in the afternoon to explore the many Indigenous art exhibitions and events held in Darwin at that time.  John would pick up the hired 4WD troop carrier.

The journey

6.30 am start on Sunday, helping to pack the vehicle with food and equipment and making secure an additional trailer-load of food which we would deliver to Mapuru for their community store. With many visitors attending a funeral taking place there extra supplies would be needed.  The vehicle comfortably seated three in front and four in the back (sitting on long benches opposite each other), with the air-conditioning being used during dusty conditions. John had arranged all necessary permits for travelling through Arnhem Land, camping in transit (if necessary) and staying at Mapuru. 

We drove south down the Stuart Highway and then turned east toward Arnhem Land through Kakadu National Park.  First stop was at South Alligator for refuelling and refreshments.  First crocodile was spotted camouflaged in the brown East Alligator River.  We travelled further east through dramatic escarpment country into Arnhem Land, passed the turnoff into Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), crossed major rivers Liverpool and Mann which were predominantly dry. We drove through Yawkyawk (fresh-water mermaid), Mimih and Ngalyod sites and the country of important Maningrida artists Ivan Namirrkki, Owen Yalandja, John Mawurndjul and James Iyuna.  We kept driving to the crossroads and, rather than turning towards Maningrida, took the right hand turn towards Ramingining.  We stop to assist a family group who had run out of fuel at Nimirrili crossing on the Blyth River and managed to squeeze several extra people into the back of the truck. They enjoyed looking at a book of Donald Thomson (anthropologist) photographs from the 1930s and identifying family members. We stopped in the late afternoon at Ramingining for refreshments and to refuel with the assistance of the school principal.  We then detoured to avoid the Goyder River and the Arafura swamp, which meant taking a rough track south past Mulgurrum and Murwangi turnoff, with Ngalyindi and Mirrngatja further on to the left.  Further to the south we turned east onto the Arnhem Highway and crossed the Goyder River.  Donydji and Ngilipidji lie to the south east. We then took a left turn, again on a rough bush track, north toward Mapuru where we arrived late at night after a 16 hour trip.  We travelled through (to name a few) the country of Kuninjku, Kune, Rembarrnga, Djinang, Wurlaki, Djardawitjibi, Djinba, Ganalbingu and Ritharrngu people.


On arrival at Mapuru we were greeted warmly by the women, who had prepared four traditional shelters and cleared and raked the area where we are to stay and work.  Each of the participants selected accommodation suitable to their needs and set up camp. 

In Ritharrngu language the shelters are called:

Ngulurr  (with a peaked roof)

Gathawudu  (elevated) and

Liya-damala (a mosquito-proof dome which would be built later)

The main teachers were two elderly, very experienced, women weavers, sisters Margaret Bambalarra and Linda Marathuwarr of the Ritharrngu people.  They were assisted by their daughter, Roslyn Malngumba of the Liya-dhalinymirr people, Clara Wubugwubuk and other family members.  The women are experienced in using a variety of seasonal materials and techniques and have travelled and exhibited widely over many years.

Gathering and processing materials

On the first day we travelled by truck to country about 15 minutes drive from Mapuru to gather essential weaving materials, the women carrying sacks, axes and hooked iron sticks.  After locating suitable gunga (Pandanus spiralis) trees, they first hooked down the central bunch of about six young leaves.  As gunga leaves are edged with lethal prickles, the women gripped firmly the less prickly tips and these were released from the tree with one or two sharp pulls and then fell to the ground.  It is recommended that students wear gloves for this process.  For very high trees the women used an axe to fell the whole tree to make the leaves more accessible.  Leaves (with prickles attached) were stashed in vegetable sacks of hessian and synthetic materials (with improvised rope handle attached) which the women slung over their shoulders as they selected the next likely tree. They collected relentlessly, taking advantage of having the truck available, and only stopped to sit and start processing the leaves preparatory to weaving.  They quickly removed the edges and spines with strong thumbnails and then discarded the unusable material so that the heavy sacks were less unwieldy to carry.  A couple of large bunches of mature leaves and the hearts of pandanus palms were put aside and loaded onto the trailer to bring back to camp.  The fleshy leaf bases and palm heart will later be chopped and boiled, with ashes added from the burnt discarded material, to colour dried and processed gunga leaves a green colour.  Andrea and Krystle both learned the daunting process of grasping and removing the gunga leaves.  At this late dry season the brilliant orange pandanus fruits were ripe and we were able to taste them in small amounts.

For weavers, a trip to the bush always includes the search for dye stuffs.  One of the most important dyes in Arnhem Land is the strong yellow obtained from djundum (Pogonolobus reticulatus).  Djundum is a small, straggly, tree which to around a meter and has coarse, slightly rough leaves.  We went to a site where dry-season fires had recently cleared the land of leaf litter.  The fires have the effect of turning the normally green leaves a bright yellow, so that the bushes are easily identifiable; the yellow in the leaves reflecting the rich colour of the inner bark of the shallow roots.  To harvest the roots, the soft, sandy soil around the base of the tree was loosened with a crowbar and it was then inserted in and under the small roots to prise them out.  They were shaken free of sand and put aside and the larger, more deeply-embedded root attacked until it, too, was freed.  Extraneous material was trimmed off the roots and they were then cut into sections ready to transport back to camp.  Djundum is prized for its strong, fast colour and versatility.  By a chemical process discovered by Aboriginal people yellow can be changed to shades of orange and rich tan by the addition of ashes from a number of eucalypt trees to the dye bath or rubbing the ashes into dampened bark fibres already coloured yellow.  Roslyn Malngumba commented that these women don’t normally use the guninyi (Morinda citrifolia) which yields a much paler yellow colour and is not so frequently found here as in other parts of Arnhem Land.

Another important dye source is yiringaning (Haemodorum coccineum) the small, tuberous roots of which yield a brown/purple colour.  Because of the dry-season fires only a small, green shoot of the grass-like plant was showing close to the ground to announce its presence.  The root clusters were loosened carefully to keep them intact, shaken free of sand and stashed in the trailer for processing later.

On the way back to Mapuru our group stopped at a source of fresh running springwater, where the women cooled off after they had first and stroked each of the visitors with the precious water, and called to their ancestors and the spirits of that place so that the women we felt welcomed and visitors would be recognised and welcomed by their country and no harm would come to us.

In the afternoon, back at the weaving camp, all the gunga was processed. The spine and the prickles were stripped off by inserting the right thumbnail through the leaf and slicing through to the end and this material was then tied and discarded to distinguish it from leaves waiting for further processing. The leaves to be used were then split in half by bending them over at the tip, firmly pressing thumb and index finger together and gently sliding them so that the leaves separated.  Then taking a leaf section in each hand they were gently but firmly divided, laid out to dry, then bundled and hung up out of the dust.

Students had at that stage learned to collect, leaves, strip them of their prickles and spine, separate (split) each leaf into two halves and bundle them and lay them out in the sun to dry ready for weaving or dyeing.

Mapuru community

We saw the community shop in action which is going from strength to strength.  Since the advent of the shop Mapuru is able to conduct major ceremonies there, such as funerals, with the ability to provide food for hundreds of singers, dancers and visitors.  This has certainly been the case with the assistance of the trailer-load we were able to deliver.  Jackie Nguluwidi and his family have developed numeracy, literacy, financial, banking and planning skills through their involvement with the community co-operative store, as well as positively affecting the health of their homeland people. Luckily John Greatorex was able to assist with a minor problem with the paper in the Eftpos machine.

In the evening the group was invited to attend the public dancing for the funeral ceremony of a young man from Gapuwiyak, to the south east, who had died suddenly. It would take about a week in all and would finish during the time of our visit. The sound of the ceremonial singing and dancing could be heard from our camp well into the night.

Processing weaving materials

The focus on day two (Tuesday) was on colouring the prepared pandanus with bush dyes.  The root pieces of djundum (Pogonolobus reticulatus) were laid out on cloth on the ground.  Students helped to scrape the residual surface dirt and outer layer of bark off the roots with discarded food cans which had been cleaned out by fire and become rusted.  After scraping, the yellow roots were broken and chopped ready for boiling.  Yellow chips were placed in a clean (not rusty) food drum with cold water.  Prepared pandanus leaves were added and weighted down with pieces of dharpa (wood), which were the larger, cleaned roots of djundum.  This was done to ensure that, as the liquid comes to the boil, the leaves stay at the bottom of the vessel where there is a concentration of colour so that they are able to absorb as much as possible of the available pigment. The whole was then boiled for around half an hour, the timing depending on the intensity of colour desired.  The richly coloured gunga (pandanus) leaves were then hung on the roof supports of the studio/kitchen shelter to dry.

A soft, paler yellow colour was achieved from djundum using the exhaust dye bath which was cooled before adding prepared gunga leaves.  The mix was again brought to the boil and simmered for around 10 minutes.

The red, tuberous roots of yiringaning (Haemodorum coccineum) were pounded between two stones and the resulting mash placed in a clean food drum of cold water with the prepared pandanus leaves. We also observed the dried pandanus leaves rubbed together with the mashed root material before being immersed in cool water.  The liquid was brought to the boil and simmered for 30 minutes then left to stand and cool and the purple/brown strands of dyed pandanus removed from the dye pot and hung to dry.

To make a rich orange/red the exhaust pot of yellow dye was removed from the fire and let rest to cool for approximately an hour.  A handful of white ashes from a burnt gudirri, (Eucalyptus concertifolia) tree were stirred in and the previously yellow-dyed material added.  The mix was brought to the boil and simmered until the desired colour was reached.  This process is effective on both pandanus and bark fibre.

To make a green colour the fleshy leaf base of gunga (pandanus) leaves was chopped and placed in cool water and a handful of white eucalyptus tree ashes added. The mixture was brought to the boil, simmered for around thirty minutes and steeped.  This mix coloured the leaves a bright green when a rusty container was used.

 To make dark olive green to black the small, shiny green leaves of the dhumumu, quinine tree, (Petalostigma pubescens) and their berries were placed in a rusty container with fresh water and prepared pandanus leaves. The mix was slowly brought to the boil and simmered, then moved to a hotter fire when it was boiled rapidly and cooled in the dye pot.  A solid black colour can be obtained by steeping this mix for up to 2 weeks.

A colour experiment involved boiling prepared pandanus leaves with chopped yiringaning roots and later adding the exhaust bath of the dhumumu (quinine), white ashes and charcoal.  This mix yielded a subtle brown/green colour very useful for the weavers to contrast with brighter, clearer colours.

All participants were involved in the dyeing process, scraping, chopping, overseeing the fire and pots and removing and drying the dyed material.

Weaving instruction begins

In the afternoon, instruction in coil bundle weaving was begun. This is a technique which was introduced into northern Australia through missionary influence, but has now been embraced by many Aboriginal women as their technique of choice.  It allows for building up bold patterns in strongly contrasting colours and lends itself to forming innovative shapes and structures. We had brought with us a number of packets of wool stitching needles (obtained from a Spotlight haberdashery store) with both rounded and pointed ends.

For this technique five or so strands of dyed and dried leaves are taken, around which a buttonhole stitch is commenced.  After a few stitches this is then turned back on itself to form the basis of the weaving.  Strands of pandanus are added in as needed to maintain the bulk of the bundle and the stitching continues with extra rows being added by inserting the needle into an appropriate stitch of the previous row.  When necessary a new pandanus stitching ‘thread’ is inserted by drawing it backwards through the latest stitch.

In the evening, participants joined in dancing and entertainment for a dhapi (circumcision ceremony). They saw the two boys prepared for the ritual with Warramirri clan designs painted on their torsos signifying their entitlement to land. The presence of visitors enlivened proceedings and was appreciated by all.

Day three: weaving continues

By day three most participants had been assigned their malk (skin group) according to earlier relationships and new friendships with the women they were working with.  They were becoming accustomed to using the correct terms in addressing their kin and determining their relationship with people as they were  introduced to. They also learned common greetings and Yolngu matha  words for objects.  John Greatorex constantly reinforced teaching malk and kinship relationships and commented on the songs and dances of particular language groups involved in the funeral ceremony, making the proceedings more accessible and memorable for the group.

All participants continued with coil-weaving projects with very little instruction now required.  Some students began to learn the more difficult weft-face, twining process to make mindirr (conical baskets).  The twining technique is the traditional method used for ceremonial and personal baskets, woven fish traps and drag nets, etc.

There were also demonstrations and participation in spinning and plying prepared balgurr, kurrajong (Brachychiton paradoxum), bark fibre. Balgurr is easily identified in the bush at this season by its distinctive waxy red flower. It is one of the most versatile and easily available of the various tree barks used to make string for all manner of purposes such as weaving, tying, trussing and making handles. Gay’wu is the local term for looped string bags and students were able to learn the technique by adding onto works in progress.  Collecting balgurr for processing was to be observed later in the bush where bark was stripped from the branches of immature trees and softened by beating with a smooth implement in preparation for spinning and plying.

In the afternoon the entire group and some of the Mapuru women took the truck to the mangroves and salt plains for hunting.  A small group was left at a suitable point to walk through the mangroves to collect milka (teredo sp), the succulent wood-eating mangrove worm, a prized delicacy for many Aboriginal people.  The women cut through the rotted wood of a suitable log with an axe to expose and collect the worms inside.  These same worms notoriously eat away wooden boats and jetties.  The rest of the group went fishing in a typically inviting, pale, milky-green creek, keenly focussed on the log floating near the opposite bank which developed two eyes and a nasty attitude in the heat haze.  One of the older women chanted softly to introduce us to country and bring us luck in hunting as we stood in the sticky soft grey mud with our lines.  A few matpuna (bream), wedu (catfish) and a blue swimmer crab were caught before the tide turned and it was time to go, mourning the loss of a large mud crab that took the line and then had a change of mind.  The younger, more limber members of the group rode on top of the truck across the salt plains where we rejoined the happy milka (worm) hunters.

On the return journey we stopped in woodland to collect more supplies of gunga (pandanus) leaves and extra djundum (yellow root).  However, the priority was to gather warraga’, cycad (Cycas angulata), a locally occurring species which was in fruit and ready for harvesting.  Warraga’ (cycad nuts) are poisonous when raw, but prized by older Aboriginal people as a ceremonial and staple food after thorough preparation through prolonged leaching and cooking into a flat bread. We were honoured to be with some of the last aficionados who have the knowledge to process and prepare this food. Though it had been a demanding trip, weaving materials were processed immediately on return to camp whilst fresh, with now ‘expert’ assistance from participants who had learned much already.

Day four

On day four the Mapuru women were divided in their duties, as they were integral to the conduct of the funeral and were closely involved both through ceremonial dancing and their ritual responses to the sadness of their loss.  However, there were plenty of individual projects to continue with and Mapuru women assisted when they were free, wearing a protective layer of gamununggu (white clay) splashed over their bodies. 

At a certain point in the funeral proceedings, the group was called to attend the finale of the funeral and we sat in shade at a distance on the schoolhouse steps.  We were close to the special enclosure where the body was housed which was a large, rectangular cage-like structure, which was entirely covered in a thick layer of fresh paper-bark. After the previous all-night vigil, the singing and dancing were now intensified preparatory to bringing the body out of the enclosure to transport by truck to the burial ground.  Certain female relatives of the deceased hit themselves, threw up clouds of dust and fell heavily to the ground in a dramatic expression of their grief as the body was brought out of the shelter and placed on the back of the funeral truck. Multi-coloured synthetic flower arrangements were placed in the vehicle and relatives followed closely by foot as it proceeded to the nearby burial ground. 

A mokuy (spirit of the land) dance was then performed by Gumatj people from the Yirrkala region to the east to clear away any negative residue from events that surrounded the death and funeral ceremony.  The dancers were heavily painted in white clay, having the effect of transforming them into likenesses of mokuy.  A spear was thrown with such force that it travelled through the shelter and pierced its back wall, then some of the dancers took paper-bark torches and set fire to the structure.  We had previously been intrigued by an exodus of tents and belongings being dragged along the ground away from the immediate environs of the funeral shelter and now understood why when the whole quickly caught fire and a huge column of flames and jet black smoke rose into the air, singeing the top leaves of a nearby mango tree.  The structure soon burned to the ground with just a few pieces of metal remaining as a reminder of the event and the camp then felt clear.  The next day, people attending the funeral who had been closely-involved with proceedings would be ritually cleansed with running water as older men chanted over them, washing away the spiritual residue from the deceased, which would eventually find its way into the clan waterhole.

In the afternoon, participants continued mastering the twining technique with the assistance of the Mapuru women.  Susan Shade completed a small, conical basket with a string handle attached, suitable for hanging around her neck.  Large amounts of raw materials were also processed, including bark fibre for string, and the Mapuru women made up generous sample bundles of dyed pandanus fibres for participants to take home.  During the week the weavers had gradually decorated our shelters with brilliant examples of their works which were offered for sale to the participants.  Prices were negotiated during discussions and several treasured pieces were acquired as a memento of the Mapuru experience.

Taking our leave and the return journey

On day five we had to leave by mid-afternoon in order to reach a mid-way point to camp overnight. By returning the truck on Saturday we avoided an extra day’s hire charge. Some participated in a final bush trip to collect more materials and also additional warraga’ (cycad nuts) whilst others continued their projects, prepared food for a final meal together and packed.  When all was ready for our departure we sat quietly together as each individual shared experiences and said their goodbyes.  Andrea and Krystle spoke very movingly about what they had learned and the friendships they had made.  We left, amidst tears and hugs, for the long journey back to Darwin.

Our overnight camp was very basic set on the edge of a spectacular escarpment with the full moon overhead.  It was a wonderful way to take a breath and reflect on our time at Mapuru.


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