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Judy Baypungala Mindirr (Conical basket) 2006

Judy Baypungala | Wurlaki people NT b.1941 |Mindirr (Conical basket) 2006 | Twined pandanus palm leaf, bark fibre string, with natural dyes | 33 x 17cm (diam.) | Purchased 2008. The Queensland Government's Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © Judy Baypungala 2003, 2006. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2009

String made from natural and synthetic fibres lies at the heart of ‘Floating Life’. String seems such a simple, almost inevitable, invention, and its pervasive presence in ancient Aboriginal narratives and rock paintings attests to its importance in daily life. The discovery that short filaments could be twisted into lengths as long and strong as were needed made monumental changes in the lives of early peoples, and cordage remains vital in the contemporary world. Soft, flexible threads made from animal and plant materials are still the basis for making cloth, both plain and decorative, for the textiles we need and enjoy.

One early and still important source for string is human hair. Aubrey Tigan’s riji (pearlshell pendants) from the west Kimberley coast are still finished with human hair string in the old way, although he also regularly uses coloured commercial wools. Feathered hair strings adorn the banumbirr (morning star) poles in ‘Floating Life’, and felted hair is used to make bush fruits (food for spirit beings), which are attached to headbands and waistbands used in banumbirr rituals.

There are many sources of vegetable fibre for string throughout Australia. Lena Yarinkura in Arnhem Land commonly uses budbud (kurrajong), godburr (cocky apple), jarnhba (banyan), kundayarr (pandanus) and mayhdenge (Chinese burr). Art historian Elina Spilia writes of the layering of practical and cultural knowledge of the Yolngu of eastern Arnhem Land in regard to the kurrajong:

The red-flowering kurrajong (Brachychiton paradoxum), with its luminous buds strung vertically up a dark, woody stem, brings striking colour to north-east Arnhem Land’s dry season sclerophyll. The deciduous tree flowers only after it has shed its leaves and, in the idiom of the Yolngu, the flowers of the dharrangulk herald that stingrays and sharks have a new liver (djukarr), their seasonal birthing is occurring and they are ready to be hunted.7

Historic references, and the many thousands of examples stored in Australian and international museums, give us insights into the ubiquity of string in Aboriginal societies across Australia. For instance, string features in the mysterious toas in the South Australian Museum that were collected between 1890 and 1905. The small wooden sculptures, sharpened at one end to stand in the ground, were waymarkers linked to dreaming tracks, carved and painted to record topographical features of the land and events that took place there. Evocative descriptions include references to string-making and weaving: ‘To the plain where Nurawordubununa camped and made himself some Jadi (spindles)’; ‘To Billimununi Lake, where Noangandrini camped and made a Billi (net bag) with a large mesh from reeds’; ‘To the sandhill where Wittimarkani camped and invented a new style of weaving a Billitjilpi (net). She knotted each mesh separately so that the net would not tear easily’; and ‘To the plain where Wittimarkani once burnt her Billi (net bag) accidentally, by placing it too close to the fire. She named the locality after this occurrence’.8

In an early nineteenth-century painting published in South Australia Illustrated, George Angus depicts an Aboriginal family in their shelter constructed from curved whale bones. A timeless domestic scene shows a woman chewing reeds to soften them, and her husband rolling the prepared fibres into cord on his thigh. A large string fishing net lies rolled on top of their dwelling.9

The anthropologist FD McCarthy brought to public attention a playful use of string. In the course of his travels in 1948 with the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, he became fascinated with the local ‘bush’ string figures and collected and documented 196 of these, now held in the Australian Museum, Sydney. These simple constructions, evocative of daily life and concerns, include a cross-shoulder strap, armbands, string bags, a twined basket, bark containers, fish nets, fish traps, and many other domestic and cultural subjects.10

‘Floating Life’ includes numerous variations on the uses of string: ritual feathered strings, wrapped string yam emblems, banumbirr (morning star) poles, armbands, bags and nets. And there are representations of string as well. Yidinyji artist Michael Boiyool Anning, has depicted a hand-held fishing net design in ochre pigments on the surface of his rainforest shield. Anning’s name connects him to fibre and to string — ‘Boiyool’ is a piece of lawyer cane used to stir a naturally occurring drug in a waterhole to stun fish, which are then easily caught in string nets.

The elderly Yam sisters of Kowanyama in north Queensland now use polypropylene rope — unravelled, respun and looped into stunning bags. At times, they contrast the fine texture and reticent beauty of bark twine with the hardy brilliance of synthetic fibres. As well as being durable in a harsh environment, the women enjoy the colourful element the synthetic fibre provides.

In all of these varied uses across the country, string remains central to fibre art... Next

Visible songs: Captured flight | On weaving | Background | String | Narrative and performance | Body adornment | Environment | Past, present, future | Fibre connections | Endnotes