Maningrida

Click to view art by the Maningrida community

Artists showing at Ecosse

Bonny Burarn.garra Lorna Jin Gubarrangunyja Jack Maranbarra Agnes Wilinggirra George Ganyjibala Elizabeth Jinmijil

About the Community

The coastal town of Maningrida has a population of 2600 and lies on the estuary of the Liverpool River, located approximately 400 km east of Darwin in North East Arnhem Land. The Kunibídji people are the traditional landowners of this country. The name Maningrida is an Anglicised version of the Kunibídji name Manayingkarírra, which comes from the phrase ‘Mane djang karirra’, meaning ‘the place where the dreaming changed shape’.

Maningrida Arts & Cultural Centre

Maningrida Arts & Culture is one of Australia’s largest Aboriginal artist’s co-operatives. It concentrates on the marketing of traditional and contemporary arts, including bark paintings, wooden sculpture, fibre craft, prints and items of material culture. Both traditional and non-traditional work from Maningrida has a reputation for quality, innovation, vibrancy and diversity. This is attributed to the cultural diversity of the Aboriginal people of the eight different language groups living in the Maningrida Township and in the 34 outstations.

Given its reputation, interest in and demand for work from Maningrida is high. Artworks are represented in major galleries, museums and other public institutions, nationally and internationally. Private collectors are in regular contact with the centre and currently we deal with some 40 commercial galleries in Australia and overseas.

ARTISTIC PRACTICES AT MANINGRIDA

Carved Sculpture

While wooden objects, both sacred and utilitarian, have always played an integral part in life inArnhem Land, the carving of spirit sculptures is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the early 1960s Crusoe Kuningbal (now deceased) started to carve ethereal mimih spirit figures, which subsequently inspired a whole genre of spirit figure carving. Such figures are now highly sought after.

Bark Painting

The pieces on display in this website highlight the regional and cultural variation which underpins the great variety characteristic of bark painting produced by artists in Maningrida and at its surrounding outstations. For an introduction to this work with comments about the various stylistic differences, refer to ‘Bark painting in Maningrida’, a short essay prepared by Dr. Luke Taylor.

All bark paintings are painted in natural ochres with PVC fixative on stringybark. Prices for bark paintings are assessed on the quality and size of the bark and the reputation of the artist.

Fibre Sculpture

Unusual fibre items such as sculptures and animals are also made occasionally. They are made with pandanus, paperpark and sticks and decorated with ochres. Lena Yarinkura is well known for her fibre sculptures including Yawkyawks and camp dogs. Other well-known artists with working in this genre include Lena Djamarrayku and Carol Liyawanga Campion.

Fibre Weaving

OVERVIEW

Works in fibre from the Maningrida region are recognised nationally and internationally as some of the country’s finest. Objects range from baskets and bags through to fishing traps and mats, which are produced not only for markets in the wider economy but also for seasonal hunting and gathering and for highly specialised ceremonial purposes.

The vibrancy of this work is due in part to the interaction of Aboriginal people of different language groups serviced by the Maningrida township. Production is also enhanced by the availability of resources from different environments existing in the region.

Most fibre objects are made by women, who constitute nearly 60% of the 300 artists registered with Maningrida Arts & Culture. Their works are held in major collections and institutions and are exhibited regularly in Australia and overseas.

Fibre and Dye

The weavers of north central Arnhem Land use their intimate knowledge of plants to source a wide range of dyes for fibre. The same dye bath is often used to dye a number of batches of fibre, with variations in the colours yielded in each batch depending on the time spent in the dye bath and the potency of the bath. The women use salt and woodash as mordants and colour enhancers.

Orange, yellow and red can all be produced from the root of t a certain plant. The root is prepared by peeling off its outer skin and cutting it into small pieces. Pieces of root are boiled in a billy can of saltwater with the raw fibre. After one hour of cooking the first batch of fibre comes out deep orange colour. After removing the first batch, a second batch of raw fibre is placed in the billycan and stirred around for a few minutes. This turns a bright golden yellow colour. Then Eucalyptus wood ash is added to the billy and a the third bundle of raw fibre is placed into the billycan, and stirred around. This yields a rich pink-red colour.

Mats and Baby Shades

People in north central Arnhem Land weave many different kinds of mats for a variety of purposes. Conical mats were traditionally used to shield babies from mosquitoes. Small triangular mat made of pandanus fibre used to be worn by women during ceremonial gatherings, covering them at the front and tied around their back.

Coil Baskets

The technique of coil and stitch basketry was introduced to Arnhem Land by missionaries who learnt it from Aboriginal people in the south-east of Australia. Coil baskets are mostly made from pandanus fibre which is dyed with natural colours.

The basic stitching technique is a close blanket stitch, but often weavers use variations for decorative effects. The coil building technique is also used with other fibres, such as Kurrajong bark and string.

Dilly Bags

Most dillybags made in the region today are those made of fibre from the leaves of the pandanus plant. They have a characteristic domed shape and can be twined so that they are open and let air enter the bag, or more closely so that the bag is leakproof. There are many kinds of pandanus dillybags, including the basic hunting variety and ceremonial dillybags. Other dillybags are made from a tough fibrous grass or monsoon vine.

String Bags

String bags are made from two ply string which is rolled from fibre gleaned from the bark of various trees. They are made by looping the string in a regular pattern so that it forms a flexible netlike weave. There is a basic looping technique used for string bags, but sometimes a weaver will modify it by adding an extra twist in the loop.

Often a weaver will add feathers to string as she rolls the fibre which results in decorative feathered bags. The fibre is dyed with natural dyes from the bush.

Hollow Logs – The Lorrkon

The lorrkon or bone pole coffin ceremony is the final ceremony in a sequence of mortuary rituals undertaken by the people of Arnhem Land. This ceremony involves the placing of the deceased’s bones into a hollow log decorated with painted clan designs and ceremonially placed into the ground where it remained until it slowly decays over many years. Today, the lorrkkon ceremony is seldom performed but similar logs are painted for sale.

Hollow logs are painted in natural ochres with PVC fixative on Kurrajong or Stringybark.

Prints

Artists associated with Maningrida have been at the forefront of printmaking by Aboriginal artists in Australia. In 1979, Johnny Bulunbulun and David Milaybuma produced the first limited edition prints by Aboriginal artists to be marketed widely, at Port Jackson Press. In 1983 Johnny Bulunbulun and England Banggala were among the first Aboriginal artists to experiment with lithography, at the Printmaking Workshop in the Canberra School of Art.

Since then, during the 1990s, a number of women from the region have begun to work in the areas of etching, lithography and screenprinting, in response to a series of projects run by the arts and women’s centres in Maningrida. Since 1997, the staff from Northern Editions at NTU have been instrumental in both the production and promotion of prints by artists from this region. The Maningrida Women’s Centre has now acquired its own printing press, much of the production now takes place entirely in Maningrida.

Regalia

Ceremonial regalia such as dancing belts, armbands, headbands and bark fibre skirts is also made available occasionally. Traditionally made both for ceremony and for trade between clans, regalia is still prized as an important component of ceremonial activity.

MANINGRIDA AT THE NGA NEW INDIGENOUS GALLERIES

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) recently unveiled its new Indigenous Galleries and main entrance to the public which features two unique public works.

Visitors to the gallery are greeted by Eran. The 2.7 metre spherical sculpture by renowned Indigenous artist Dr Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher (Thanakupi), and a 12 metre suspended piece interpreted from a Maningrida fish trap. Both were curated by the NGA and fabricated under the artist and collaborators’ direction at UAP’s Brisbane studio and workshop.

At the entry to a wing devoted entirely to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, the installations recognise the significance of indigenous culture in the context of contemporary architecture.

The fish trap is based on a 1950s Maningrida fish trap and UAP have been able to interpret and enlarge the original woven piece into a stunning 12 metre long intricate metal work. The fish trap is a feature work in the atrium and the shadow pattern it produces is almost as beautiful as the work itself.”

The Maningrida fish trap is an important sculptural commission and presents a contemporary interpretation of a traditional woven fish trap from the Maningrida Aboriginal community in Australia’s Northern Territory. Works of art from Maningrida carry a strong reputation and are represented in collections nationally and internationally.

UAP’s design team travelled to the Northern Territory to work with George Ganyjbala, Maningrida elder and skilled fish trap maker and his family. The knowledge shared in this process allowed a respectful translation of Maningrida’s distinctive weaving methods into stylised elements for casting in aluminium. UAP then consulted with PTW Architects and Robert Bird Group Engineers in order to successfully integrate the artefact within the NGA’s new wing under creative direction of Ron Radford AM.

Jamie Perrow, UAP’s lead designer on the project, said, “It was an honour to work with George Ganyjbala and the Maningrida Aboriginal community to create the Maningrida fish trap sculpture. Our intention for this piece is a reverent and symbolic interpretation of a historic and culturally important indigenous artefact. We hope that visitors from all over Australia and overseas will be inspired by the piece.”

The final installation, which measures 12 metres in length, is suspended inside the atrium of the NGA’s new main entrance. The fish trap is the focal point in the visitor’s entry into the gallery and has multiple vantage points from the ground floor and second storey walkway. Not unlike the humble tool of its origin, the fish trap functions to draw visitors in and guide them through the gallery as they become immersed in the wider collection.

In an interview with ABC’s Artworks, Franchesca Cubillo described the effect, “The beautiful thing about fish traps is that there is movement that flows in and out of the fish traps, and it’s a flow of energy. Once materials enter into the fish trap, they come out changed. For us it was a wonderful way in which we could allow our visitors to come into these wonderful new galleries and flow through this beautiful space and go on a journey, but equally to come out different.”

HISTORY OF MANINGRIDA FIBRE SCULPTURE

Introduction

For thousands of years Aboriginal men and women have produced practical fibre accessories according with the oldest conventions of designs which dictate that form follows function. This all changed in Maningrida in 1994 when Lena Yarinkura produced her first fibre camp dog. Ever since then Maningrida fibre artists have been experimenting with the creation of new forms. Today Maningrida is home to an energetic, hot and funky art movement that encourages artists to give expression to their wild creativity. Maningrida Arts and Culture (MAC) worked hard to develop markets to support this unusual new art form.

In western Arnhem Land, the art of fibre has a long history that goes back tens of thousands of years. Countless depictions in the rich body of rock art from the west-central escarpment plateau show the importance of fibre objects, both for utilitarian and ceremonial purposes.

The art market started in Maningrida when it was recognized that functional items such as dilly bags had commercial value as trade goods. Since then, producers have adapted their skills to make fibre works with greater appeal for the art market.

From utilitarian fish traps to works of art featured in prominent commercial galleries

Lorna Jin-gubarrangunyja was born in 1952. She is a Burarra fibre artist, living at Yilan outstation, who has been regularly producing artworks for Maningrida Arts and Culture since the 1980s. She was often making colourful twined pandanus dilly bags, mats, string bags and baby shade covers. In 1995, she participated in a landmarks touring fibre exhibition Maningirda: the language of weaving which featured two fish traps by Burarra male artist Raymond Walabirr (now deceased). This exhibition aimed at repositioning fibre production into the fine art category.

In 2002, Jin-gubarrangunyja made her first fish trap, learning this technique from her husband George Ganyjibala, as traditionally men were making fish traps. She now uses fish trap forms as the basis for sculptural works of art. Jin-gubarrangunyja innovates with forms and colours, using diverse weaving techniques to make sculptures that have their origin in the traditional fish trap techniques. The utilitarian purpose of the fish trap is no longer the main focus of her production. She re-explores traditional techniques to create contemporary and innovative works of art and works with diverse fibre such as pandanus (pandanus spiralis) that she dyes with natural colours, jungle vine (Malaisia scandens) and grass (cyperus javanicus).

A year after her first attempt at making a fish trap, in 2003, Jin-gubarrangunyja won the Wandjuk Marika Award at the 20th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) with a colourful pandanus fish trap. She is now recognised as a leading fibre artist and participates regularly in group exhibitions in commercial galleries. Interestingly enough, her fish trap production has generated an interest in her dilly bags that are now exhibited along with her fish trap forms.

Through innovation and working on a bigger scale, Jin-gubarrangunyja has established herself as a successful fibre artist, gaining public recognition for her work and a financial income comparable with artists working in other media. She has also inspired other Maningrida artists to make fish traps. Now, more than 20 artists make fish trap forms on a regular basis, including three men who have switched from painting to fibre production in the last two years as they have realised that they were more succesful fibre artists than painters.

The move to fibre sculpture: Lena Yarinkura and the next generation

Throughout the 1990s, artists Lena Yarinkura and her mother Lena Djammarrayku (now deceased) have extended the medium of fibre with their pandanus sculptures or paperbark figures. For example, Lena Yarinkura makes camp dogs from bodies of pandanus twined in the same technique utilised by weavers when making conical baskets. When making such sculptures, Yarinkura then stuffs the twined pandanus forms with paperbark and paints the surface with ochre. In using her weaving skills to make three-dimensional representations, she has adapted a traditional technique to explore new narrative possibilities for expressing mythological themes or illustrating stories from the bush. Lena Yarinkura won the Wandjuk Marika Three-dimensional Award in 1997 with a family of yawkyawks1 made in a similar technique. Until 2002, only Lena Yarinkura and her mother were producing fibre sculptures. In 2002, a new generation of Rembarrnga artists were learning to make camp dogs.

This resulted in a number of exhibitions dedicated to fibre sculptures and now Maningrida has a strong reputation as a centre for innovative fibre art production. Artists have managed to convince collectors that their fibre production is simply a ‘must have’ in any decent contemporary Aboriginal art collection.

New directions and how artists have redefined the art of fibre

In 2003, Kuninjku artist Marina Murdilnga brought to the arts centre a new form of pandanus sculpture: a flat yawkyawk made from knotted pandanus on a jungle vine frame, painted with natural pigments. This was revolutionary and never seen before. She made a second one, this time with dyed pandanus and feathers. This work was entered in the 21st NATSIAA awards. It did not win but was noticed by the public and triggered a huge demand for her work. She too, in turn, inspired six other artists who are using this particular technique to create not only yawkyawks but also different animals. More recently stingrays, butterflies and crocodiles have been produced. It seems that there is no limit, no restraint in the production of fibre sculptural forms.

Artists have confidence in the work they are doing and are constantly pushing boundaries. The response by the public is playing a key role in encouraging artists to keep exploring the medium of fibre.

Fibre Sculpture as public art form

Since the 1980s MAC has striven to promote fibre with notable projects and partnerships with Museums. For example, the Maningrida collection which the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) holds in trust for the community of Maningrida is of great significance. The collection consists of over 600 works in fibre but also includes bark paintings that clearly illustrate the ancestral origins and use of fibre items. The works were collected in the late 1980s with the close involvement of the Maningrida artists. A unique agreement between the MCA and the Maningrida community was set up which allows the Maningrida people to retain the ownership of their cultural property. It also ensured the maintenance of a close relationship between the MCA and the Maningrida community to document and to promote the collection over the years.

Placing the collection in the Museum of Contemporary Art has also contributed in the promotion of these items as contemporary art. In 2003, MAC curated the exhibition ‘Maningrida threads’ at the MCA. Together with the earlier works from the MCA’s Collection, thirty new works made between 2002 and 2003 were included: large fish-trap and drag net forms in fibre, fibre sculptures as well as bark paintings and etchings depicting fibre items and animal forms cast in metal. This exhibition was highly successful and many art lovers started to collect fibre sculptures from the Maningrida region.

MAC has also been involved in public art commissions in recent years involving works by fibre artists. In 1999, Mumeka women made dilly bags and fish net fences that were later translated in metal. They are now in an installation at Sydney International airport. James Lyuna and Melba Gunjarrwanga worked on a commission for the Darwin Entertainment Centre. They created a fibre structure for the ceiling of the veranda that will also be translated in metal. A floating fish trap is also part of the installation.

Excerpts by Apolline Kohen
Former Arts Director, Maningrida Arts and Culture August 2006