A few weeks after I arrived in Aurukun I heard about a grass weaving workshop being held at the Arts Centre. Three elderly Central Desert women had been brought to Aurukun to share their weaving culture with the local Indigenous women. When I asked if I could watch them on my days off I was told I could join in. I was rapt.
I arrived early at eight, there was brightly coloured raffia lying around on the ground and the three visitors sitting among the tangled strands, gathering up dried grasses into lengths and drinking milky tea out of large enamel mugs. No local women appeared for a few hours. The visitors spoke no English, their soft voices sounded like a light breeze rustling through desert grasses. I’d never heard their gentle syllables before.
I sat down next to them after being handed a darning needle and being told to gather some raffia and grasses. I was disappointed to see the garish colours. The local Aurukun women wove pandanus grasses into intricately designed mats and baskets after they dyed them with various roots turning the grasses into browns/reds/yellows. Their finished products looked more natural than whatever we could make out of the cheap imported raffia.
I wondered just what it was that the visitors could possibly show the locals. A white man videoed the scene on and off throughout the day, as a few locals straggled in and out of the blue tarpaulin shelter. Some began a basket, weaving the dried grasses together with raffia in a blanket stitch, others made themselves tea and biscuits and wandered back up Kang Kang road in the Spring heat.
I sat for two days weaving with the desert women, they guided my hands and nodded approval. I finished my basket at the end of the second day. As I was about to leave a white woman told me that everything made at the workshop had to stay with the Art Centre for an exhibition in Adelaide. No-one had mentioned that and I was the only person to have completed a basket. I told her I wanted to show the other nurses, she agreed to let me but warned me to bring it back the next day.
Now, I don’t know about you, but her attitude made me angry. I’d spent two days making something which would have been at a negligible cost to whoever paid for the raffia and I wanted to keep it as a memory. She approached me at the clinic twice after the workshop demanding my basket. I refused to let her have it on the grounds that I hadn’t been told before the workshop and that the exhibition in Adelaide was for the work of Indigenous women. Did the fact that Aboriginal women collected the grass, guided my hands and inspired me with their voices…make my work Indigenous?
I still ponder this after five years….what makes a creative work genuine? and how, especially with handcrafts does the buyer ever know what they’re actually buying? It’s different nowadays with Aboriginal paintings Art Centres go to lengths to provide proof of the artist. But my weaving experience makes me wonder how anyone can really know if a work is made by the persons name on the accompanying ticket? and if you like it does it really matter?