Mäpuru is a small and remote township in East Arnhem Land; 1000 kms from Darwin and 50kms south of Elcho Island as the crow flies. CERES’s (a community environmental park in Brunswick) runs trips each year to Mäpuru as part of their global cultural exchange program.
In August this year 17 of us headed off from Darwin in two vehicles to travel along dusty roads for two days to get to our destination. Once there we set up camp alongside the community in an open bush setting and enjoyed our first night in Mäpuru.
The weaving workshops are run over 5 days. Rather than learn in the western way by asking the teacher ‘101’ questions, participants were encouraged to sit quietly and observe. To begin with there was some anxiety about learning the techniques that these women are so adept at and also the language barrier made communication more difficult. In some ways it forced you to accept a different pace and let go of expectations.
The weavers mostly taught two distinct techniques to our group – a coiled basket form or tall cylindrical form (bag, bowl, basket) using a blanket stitch and a twining (twisting) stitch. You could see by the intricate designs of their own work that there were many variations on these techniques that were far beyond our beginner skill level.
The Arnhem Women Weaver’s group was established in 2003 by two elders as a cultural and economic enterprise passing on traditional textile skills to Balanda (white people) as well as enabling the community to be self-sustainable and remain on their ancestral lands.
I sat next to Joy Garranggar for the week who worked with the blanket stitch and made beautiful bags with hand rolled string handles. She had the most wonderful collection of hand dyed pandanus that she carefully selected for you and generously gave away. Using the same hand dyed pandanus we sat side by side, each making our own basket. No amount of spraying or careful pulling of fibre mimicking Joy’s actions would yield the same result. Joy was producing row after row of glossy and perfectly formed stitches, alongside my ripped, broken and loosely spaced efforts. Quickly I let go of my self reproachment and accepted the process of making and atmosphere under the weaving shelter.
It was endlessly fascinating and entertaining sitting with the women. While teaching with patience and clarity they tended to children who came in and out of view and chatted and laughed with each other. There were four generations of women weaving at times with young girls helping to fix the handle to my bag and laughing with us in efforts to speak Yolgnu language. Sisters, mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers and daughters interacted loudly and enthusiastically. There is a complex, logical kinship and ancestry map that governs family relationships across the Yolgnu language clans. During my time there only a small part of this rich heritage was experienced and understood.
The gathering and preparing of natural materials ready for basket making is a major task. Later in the week we headed off with the women to collect the gunga (pandanus) material that they primarily use for weaving and to watch them prepare it ready for dying. It was not an easy process for the uninitiated. Sometimes the women chop down the pandanus palms with an axe then strip each palm frond into neat strips (while avoiding the spiky rims) and then split each length in half without breaking it. After a few attempts and a realisation that I was wasting carefully harvested materials I retired early to watch with awe. Chopped down pandanus reshoot again for future harvesting.
They also showed us where to find the roots they use for the 7 or 8 variations in coloured dyes they use for the pandanus. Under different types of plants they dug deeply for these roots. The bright yellow root was found under the djundum plant and darker oranges/reds from another place. Once back at the camp the roots were boiled up on the fire with ash, seeds and other plant materials added to get the right mix of colours. The pandanus lengths were then soaked and hung up to dry.
As well as the weaving workshops, the handful of men in our group were able to spend time with the male members of the community making spears, gathering and cooking food in the mangroves and learning about hunting and traditional customs. Many of our group also visited the small community school each morning to work with the children, read stories and soak up the atmosphere. Teachers as well as key members of the community such as John Greatorex and his wife Linda have helped set up two small coops that are used by the children to learn about currency and mathematic equations as well as serving the community. John has lived up there for 35 years and teaches the Yolgnu languages through Charles Darwin University.
Another organization Nature Philosophy runs trips each year. There are many other visitors to the community who are keen to learn the Yolgnu languages and more about Aboriginal land, law and customs. You are also able to organise your own cultural tours and information about this is available on the Arnhem Weavers website as well as video clips on some of the harvesting and weaving processes.
Ceres is again running two trips in July and August next year, which I would highly recommend. The week living in the Mäpuru community has been both a deeply enrichening and personally confronting experience. In contrast to the way I live my life, alone with two cats and family dotted around the country; there families live side by side with deep respect, love and joy.
To find out about upcoming trips visit: ceres.org.au/global/arnhem-land/
You can also see and buy some of the remarkable work from these women through their website listed below.
Story by Fleur Brett