In the early morning, near a billabong dotted with pink lilies, sisters Evonne Munuyngu and Mary Dhalapany are collecting pandanus leaves for weaving. It’s a very quiet place called Mungbirri, about 20 minutes’ drive north of the tiny town of Ramingining in eastern Arnhem Land.
The day is already very warm and the humid air is still. Earlier, as the sun came up, we passed a waterhole festooned with bright yellow lilies at Yathalamara. Both places are astonishingly beautiful and, we have been warned, full of crocodiles.
The stereotype of weaving as a sedentary, meditative practice is untrue. This is hard work. The sisters use machetes to cut down the tall, spiky leaves. Then they strip away the sharp outer edge to reach the fibre inside. The third step is to split the fibre in half and gather it in bunches for dyeing.
This is a priceless masterclass. Evonne and Mary, along with Margaret Djarbalarbal, are considered the best weavers at Bula’Bula Arts centre in Ramingining, a small town that has produced more than its fair share of the country’s finest artists. Among Ramingining’s best-known works are the 200 hollow log coffins that grace the entry to the National Gallery in Canberra. “It’s no ordinary place,” the master bark painter David Malangi once said.
Weaving is a big part of that rich cultural tradition. A collaboration with the Yuwaalaraay fashion house MAARA Collective has generated renewed interest in their work. The beautiful but utilitarian pieces have strong appeal in the new world of sustainable, low-impact, ethically sourced fashion.
“And also, they’re the only people that can do this,” says Bula’Bula Arts’ executive director, Mel George. “There’s actually such a small population in Australia that can do this kind of work.
“These amazing weavers who can go out and get the natural resources from their lands, we should be celebrating, because their work is so uniquely Australian.”
Stripping pandanus to make fibre is just phase one of a long and labour-intensive process. Next, we go to find the right plants to make the dyes. Usually, the women would make this trip early in the morning but it’s late afternoon when we drive down a corrugated dirt road past Ramingining airstrip to Wulkabimirri, Margaret’s father’s country, to look for djundom (morinda tree) roots. The aircon barely makes a dent in the soupy heat.
Suddenly, Evonne calls for us to stop and she, Margaret and Mary are out like a flash. They’ve spotted the small plants they need.
Mary strides off into the bush quickly, her slender and elegant figure flitting through the trees, a shovel over her shoulder. She’s the image of her famous twin brother, the late actor David Gulpilil. The sisters are very proud of him, and they speak about him often during our visit. Gulpilil died in November after a long illness, and, while his body was flown back to Arnhem Land in early January and some of the formalities took place, he has remained in the mortuary until now because heavy rains in the wet season have made it impossible to lay him to rest in his homeland at Marwuyu. It saddens them that his sorry business is unfinished but they are hoping it will be soon.
Evonne has already dug up one root – a purple one. Using the trowel and hands to scrape back the soft earth, she finds another, this time yellow. It’s hot, there’s no shade and the women are really working hard. After about an hour they call it quits. They each have a bag’s worth, mostly yellow, to take back to Bula’Bula Arts.
Nothing about this work is easy, yet Evonne says they do some part of it every day.
“It’s amazing that they can come into this jungle and bring out these beautiful objects,” Mel says. “We’re looking around, it looks very green, but underneath there are all these colours, and that’s what they’re finding and extracting. It’s just totally magic.”
Back at Bula’Bula, Mary lays the roots out on a hessian bag, and uses a big smooth granite stone to crack the bark off, exposing the bright orange-yellow flesh underneath. The whole lot – pulverised bark and roots – goes with the pandanus fibres into a big billycan of water.
The longer the billycan boils, the more intense the colour. Finally, when Mary lifts out the leaves they are a brilliant yellow. It’s like the sun coming out.
The fibres are left to dry while Evonne decides what she’ll make next. It depends on the colours and her mood.
“I like to do all the weavings, especially dillybags, mats and fish traps,” Evonne says.
She makes spectacular large mats and helped create woven hats that have featured in several Australian fashion shows.
Mary makes mindirr (dillybags), mats, djerrk (bush string bags) and intricate fish traps.
“I weave because that is part of my culture,” she says. “When I am weaving I am thinking about what to do next, but also thinking about my family and how I can help them.”
A big mat can take several days to complete, a big fish trap more than a week. The weaving looks delicate but it’s durable. These items are made to be used, and made to last.
Another collaboration with MAARA is in the planning. Bula’Bula has also produced work for the interior design company Koskela, which has converted basketry into lampshades. The weavers like that their work has a utilitarian purpose, Mel says.
“Quite often Evonne talks about her work as being like the sun,” she says. “And maybe if it’s in someone’s house, it’s bringing the sun in. It’s a really thoughtful, beautiful intent.”
“But you’re not just getting something beautiful, you’re supporting culture. You’re not supporting just one artist, you’re supporting their family. You’re supporting meaningful income for Aboriginal people that is made in a culturally appropriate way.”
Photographer Isabella Moore’s work in the Northern Territory is being supported by the Judith Neilsen Institute for Journalism and Ideas