Reknown Australian Curator, Hetti Perkins, recently invited Senior Milingimbi Artists’ Margaret Rarru Garrawurra and Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra to create new works for the National Gallery of Australia’s 4th Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony, now on view at until July 31, 2022. For this years exhibition, Ceremony animates and reveals how ceremony lives at the nexus of Country, of culture and of community. To learn more about the exhibition and events visit the website at https://nga.gov.au/exhibitions/national-indigenous-art-triennial-ceremony.
Rarru ga Ganalmirriwuy – creative collaborators
The fibre art of sisters and creative collaborators Margaret Rarru Garrawurra and Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra has a unique presence within the venerated tradition of weaving from the mainland and outlying islands of Arnhem Land in northern Australia. Their darkly luminous Mol Miṉḏirr 2020–21 (black dillybags), crafted from natural materials harvested from their homelands of Yurrwi/Milingimbi and Laŋarra/Howard Island, embody the confluence of past and present, the old and the new. Sacred objects including traditional miṉḏirr were carried by the ancestral Djaŋ’kawu sisters—vessels from which Dhuwa moiety Country, clans and culture were created during their epic journey.
Rarru and Ganalmirriwuy immerse the gunga (Pandanus spiralis) fibre in local and closely guarded secret sources of natural dyes to create their trademark mol (black) hues; so too their bathi (dillybags) are steeped in Ḻiyagawumirr -and Garrawurra tradition. While other weavers may use the mol in their works, only Rarru and Ganalmirriwuy have the right to create works that exclusively employ natural black dyes. Drawing together the threads of continuity and change, the traditions of their people, their cultural and technical proficiency and bold experimentation with colour and form, Rarru and Ganalmirriwuy express the innovative potential of contemporary fibre art. When asked what draws her to make mol artworks, Rarru replies: ‘because black is beautiful’. (1)
Ganalmirriwuy has created three lorrkun (memorial poles) for Ceremony. Lorrkun are traditionally used as hollow log coffins to inter the bones of members of the community who have passed. The black-and-white banding applied to the surface of the lorrkun represents the Garrawurra clan totem, Gurrumaṯtji (Magpie Goose). While influenced by traditional Garrawurra designs, this black-and-white design is new. Originally developed by Ganalmirriwuy and applied to her fibre works, the thick bands of alternating black and white ochre extend now as a cohesive visual link between two distinct forms. Though a contemporary design, the works are imbued with a deep knowledge of sacred sites and significant moments in the journey of the ancestral beings who travelled across Country, creating the landforms that exist today.
Margaret Rarru Garrawurra
My Country is at Gärriyak. And my mother Country is here, Milingimbi. This place is my mother land.
When I started working, I was using pandanus, and then I was thinking, maybe I’ll make them black. I was thinking of black. Then I started weaving, baskets, dillybags, mats. That was my work. First I painted yiḏaki (didgeridoo). From there I started making mats. Then I was thinking, maybe I’ll make black. I started making black dillybags. And I thought, maybe I’ll make a Macassan sail. That’s what I thought. So I made a Macassan sail, a dhomala. I still make these. Only black. That’s my work.
I also go collecting pandanus.
That was something I thought up. Maybe I’ll weave with three colours—red, black, yellow. Not brown—that belongs to them [another clan], brown. There were only three colours that I was weaving mats with. First I was painting. The work I was doing was only painting. I was selling them. Mats and barks. That’s all I made.
I didn’t do this at Galiwiṉ’ku. I got work here.
When I’m sick, I still do it, for myself. That’s how it is.
These are what I make—barks, yiḏaki, mats, baskets. This is my work. Because I learned, my mother [Mamiyan] taught me and my father taught me this work. I watched how to make dhomala when I was a kid. I watched them work. Then I got it. I grew up, then I started. I painted, I wove, mats and baskets, dillybags, with black, red and yellow colours. That’s what I did.
And the black colour, the black colour is not for everyone. That’s just for me. I thought that up in my head. Then I started weaving, and then Balanda and Yolŋu saw it. They were surprised. That colour just belongs to me. Black just belongs to me.
It was my idea. I’d come from making red, and yellow, and white. I was thinking, maybe I’ll weave with four colours—red, yellow, black, brown. Bäŋgu, that mangrove tree—I got it from there to add to the black I was already using. I thought about it, and then I got to work. Mats and baskets, tablemats and dillybags, I make with black. It’s mine only, black. It doesn’t belong to other people. It’s my idea, just mine. I saw it, I experimented with it, I worked on it. It’s mine.
I’ll tell the Garrawurra and Djaŋ’kawu story from there, coming this way. From over at Yirrkala, but on this [western] side. From that place, Yalaŋbara. That’s where they came out, the two Djaŋ’kawu. They were travelling around by canoe. The two canoes are there.
Then the two started travelling. They travelled, poking waterholes in the ground, water. Big, you know. They went along poking the ground [with their digging sticks], until they arrived at Marapay, Djekurr’s place, near Gärriyak. And they travelled on from Gärriyak. That’s my Country, Gärriyak.
They made waterholes as they went along, poking the ground. They were travelling, and then passing through. Passed through Dhämala. They made a waterhole there. They travelled from there to the place that belongs to the Djinaŋ’—Guṉiṉi. They made that waterhole.
The two kept going. There, at Maningrida, they made a waterhole. They travelled to Croker [Island]. They are there now. They just stopped there. Then they got up and kept going.
And it’s a big waterhole, there at Gärriyak. A big waterhole. That’s where they are. They just passed through there. That’s how it is. Ganalmirriwuy and I were bathing there. The tide was coming in. We were just sitting there, and the tide was coming in. I said, ‘Come on, a Waŋarr is going to spear us!’ So we left. There are many waterholes. Open ones, and sacred ones. That’s how it is.
Then the two kept going, that was it, all the way, those two. That is my Dreaming. The two Djaŋ’kawu. Not a man and woman—it was two women. That’s how the story goes. A short story, not long.
I will weave a Garrawurra dillybag. I have that sacred dillybag there at home. I make them. When there is a Ŋärra ceremony on, I make one. Men and women, we’ll work together, as part of the ceremony.
I saw how it was done, watching the men. They hunted for a bird, a parrot. They plucked the feathers. They were working and they said, ‘Hey, we want you to make a basket’. ‘How am I going to make it?’, I said. ‘We’re going to pull the feathers and give them to you’. Then I started thinking. Nobody taught me how to do it. Just on my own. I thought, I’ll test myself. Then I made one.
I worked, making a basket. A sacred basket. I was making a sacred basket, putting it away each time. I gave it to them. I made it for people. As custodian for my mother’s clan, I made their basket and I gave it to them. And I wove some more and made my own clan basket. My own—I made it. I wove it. And I have it there.
I was twining kurrajong bark, but with feathers. I’d make it, finish and send it. And I’d make more, twine it and send it. I was learning like this. Ŋärra law, and women’s law. Armbands, headstrings, kurrajong skirts. Half of what I made I was sending to the Ŋärra side, to the men.
I was working on two things—one was I was making mats here for the art centre, and the other was I was working on the Ŋärra side for ceremony, for the men. I was handing them over, twining and sending them, twining and sending them.
And I made a basket. A feather basket. A sacred dillybag. I wove it, and I have it. I was making them for the men. For Ŋärra law, according to Ŋärra rules. Men will put it there so that the young men can see it.
They can just look at it when it gets put up in a big museum. They’re not to fish around for the story, no.
Those hollow logs, when you see the designs, those designs belong to the Dhuwa moiety. The Dhuwa, not the Yirritja. The two are different—what belongs to the Yirritja moiety, and what belongs to the Dhuwa.
A Dhuwa person will paint hers. Those are her Waŋarr, from when the Djaŋ’kawu travelled with those things. They were travelling with colours. The story is always there. We don’t tell everybody. Our Waŋarr, they came from there, those are their colours. Men have their own. Dhuwa people have their own. And we women, [my sisters and I] will get ochres, or we’ll paint barks. Dhuwa have their own, and Yirritja have their own. We don’t mix them. That’s how it is for these designs.
We paint barks, or we put them onto miṉḏirr (dillybags), or we make something else. That’s how it is. Those are our designs. They are sacred. But we’re just bringing them out into the open. For you. You will see them.
And those are ours, those that we Dhuwa people paint. We paint barks, yiḏaki. We weave bathi (dillybags) and we put our designs onto them. We put our designs onto yiḏaki, and the conical mats. We make mats with our designs, we put designs onto our dillybags. That is our ceremony.
End note: This artist’s statement has been edited from an interview between the artist and Art Centre manager, Rosita Holmes, recorded in Yurrwi/Milingimbi, Northern Territory, 11 November 2021; translation by Salome Harris.
Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra
I’m Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra. I’m a Garrawurra woman. I’m a pandanus weaver.
I’ll go through the bush, breaking off pandanus fronds. And then I’ll come back, and I’ll strip the pandanus. And then I’ll go for guṉinyi (a root dye). Guṉinyi is yellow. So I get that, and then I’ll boil it. I’ll prepare it, the pandanus. I’ll dye it yellow, and then I’ll get ashes, and turn it red, the guṉinyi.
Then I’ll weave, something like a basket, or a bowl, or a big mat, or one of these, a miṉḏirr (dillybag).
This here is a miṉḏirr. This is my grandmother (mother’s mother). I make these, and my sister makes them—Margaret Rarru. These are called miṉḏirr. These miṉḏirr belong to the Ḻiyagalawumirr and Gamaḻaŋga and Gorryindi clans. These represent those three clans. I call those clans and these designs  Märi (Grandmother).
These colours,  on the other hand, are mine. These are my colours. These represent me, and my Country, and my brother’s children, and my father’s father and my father—these three colours of mine. We paint ourselves with these colours at Ŋärra (Ceremony) time. We paint ourselves with these colours, with this design.
I just put them on this, because they represent me, these colours. That’s how it is. For ceremony, for Gamaḻaŋga and Ḻiyagalawumirr and Gorryindi clans. Yes, they use these for ceremonies.
When they dance the riny’tjaŋu—riny’tjiaŋu is a ceremony they will perform—and they move around putting them into this  [Märi Miṉḏirr]—the wild carrots. They dance using this. It’s also for other foods. And for wild honey—this one here. This is for everything. They’ll go around collecting wild honey with this, and other wild foods, things like long yam, wild carrot.
There are so many foods here. We collect them in these.
The leaves we collected yesterday—we put those into water. This one [mol or black miṉḏirr], this is a new idea. This is a new idea of ours, of mine and my sisters’. What we do is we gather these leaves, then we put them in water with pandanus, and it goes black. The pandanus goes black, inside, in the water. [Everything in] the drum goes black. Then we weave it. And this is the colour. This is a new innovation.
We weave these—these dillybags, and baskets, and big mats, and bowls—these things. We weave them with black pandanus. That’s what we do. That’s how it is.
Dhumumu is what it’s called, that plant. We go for pandanus. We get it all, then strip off the sharp spines. We strip off the spines. When we do this, the spines pierce our fingers. We get rid of those spines and we keep working. We get them and put them aside, and then work, splitting the pandanus. We’re careful with our hands, so as not to get spines into them.
We split the pandanus and dry it, and then we go, we collect yellow. We collect yellow, and at home, we work, pounding it, and then put it in water. We’ll boil it, we’ll put the yellow in with the pandanus. The pandanus that we’ll dye yellow, and we’ll pour ashes into that yellow, and the pandanus will go red. From yellow, it will turn red, because we pour ashes into it. If we don’t need yellow, never mind, we’ll have red. Then we’ll dry it, and then work with it.
These are not whitefella dyes, these are Yolŋu dyes, our dyes. These are what we always use, and we weave these into pieces like this. We dye them.
We learned from our mother, she taught us—how to get yellow, how to dig for it, get it, and come back, and prepare it, boil it, add the pandanus so it will go yellow. From white, it will change, turn yellow. We’ll boil it, and it’ll go yellow. And from yellow, it will go red.
These dillybags that I make, I’m always thinking about teaching my kids, my children and my grandchildren. I’m going to teach them, and make these baskets and mats so that they will know. I’m teaching them so they will know these things very well. About pandanus, for weaving, so that they’ll know. I teach them over at Laŋarra—all my grandchildren and children—so that they will know. I always want to help them. That’s how it is.
My Country is a long way away! It’s a long way away, near Galiwiṉn’ku, over there at Gärriyak, but I live at Laŋarra. Laŋarra is my mother Country. I work at Laŋarra, and I bring all those things here.
I’m a Garrawurra woman. And my maḏayin are the two Djaŋ’kawu. You know, the two sisters, the ancestral beings—they are my maḏayin. The two Djaŋ’kawu, those two that travelled west, north and south. They are my maḏayin. I am a Garrawurra woman. But I live at Laŋarra, my mother Country.
That’s how it is.
End note: This artist’s statement has been edited from an interview with the artist for Tarnanthi 2020: Open Hands, Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), Adelaide, recorded on Rapuma Island, Gorryindi Country, Northern Territory, 13 August 2020; translation by Salome Harris; reproduced courtesy AGSA.