2013 May - 'An Artist Exchange' Skills Development Workshop

The long-winded version by Rikki Lovell, Art Centre Manager at the time:

When I first started working at Durrmu Arts in Peppimenarti in September last year, I asked the artists if there were any projects or workshops they might like me to organise for 2013. Their response was a little surprising (I was expecting maybe a print workshop or something along those lines); What the ladies wanted to do was relearn a technique of weaving that had not been passed on from their grandparents, it was used to make the ‘airbell’ used as a fish trap and to carry things –the traditional twinning technique using bush vine.

Harriet Fesq had been doing her PHD on weaving in Peppimenarti, and discovered an old photo from the Northern Territory Library, the only known photo of the ‘air bell’ in this region. Harriet’s studies sparked a renewed interest in the technique.

Regina Wilson has, for a long time, painted ‘syaw’ (fish net), the technique she paints is the twinning style; she remembers it visually but was never taught how to apply it to bush vine because of the missionary contact in the 1940’s.

So, after chatting with ANKAAA an idea was hatched. Chris Durkin (former ANKAAA employee) suggested that we work with Lilly Roy because of her friendship with Regina through the ANKAAA board, and because of Lilly being selected as a Telstra Art Award finalist in 2007 for her traditional fish trap sculpture.

After consulting everyone, and everyone getting very excited at the prospect I then had to put it into action.

My first suggestion to the Peppi artist’s was that we fly to Lilly’s outstation; Yilan in Arnhem Land (130kms NE of Maningrida). Sadly everyone hated the idea of flying. So, a road trip was our next and only option- 875km one-way.

I applied for funding with Australia Council for a Skills & Arts Development grant, and with ANKAAA for the VACS grant, both of which were approved.

Then in mid-May 2013 we hired a troopy and borrowed a trailer from the Peppi School, bundled six female artists; Regina Wilson, Dianne Hodgson, Kathleen Korda, Leaya Smith, Clara Kundu & Maree Jabinee (aged from 17, 35, 60-68), one filmmaker; Cassie de Colling from Natu-Reel Films, and myself in a troopy and started the long trek to Yilan.

Our first day went without a hitch, even managing to leave Peppi on time. We drove from Peppi to Pine Creek, stopping for lunch and fuel, then onto Kakadu only stopping again when we got to Cahills Crossing to wait for the tide to go out and the water level to go down. Which was great, we got to stretch our legs, go for a walk along the East Alligator River and explore Ubirr Rock art site; finally arriving in Gunbalanya, 9 hours since we left home.

In the morning we visited Injalak Arts (my old stomping ground), and received a warm welcome from the Injalak crew, with Liz giving us a lovely tour of the centre, and the Peppi artists being especially interested in their fibre works and the screen-printing.

Then with everyone back in the troopy we head to Maningrida, only 220kms way. It’s beautiful country, so the drive is quite enjoyable despite the road being pretty rough and there being at least a million little rivers crossings.

At Maningrida we visit the Babbarra Designs Womens Centre & the very new and flash Maningrida Arts, where we meet the lovely Lucy Bond and got to see out first bush vine fish trap. It was roughly about this time I got a voice message from Lilly Roy saying that she had had car troubles and was STILL in Darwin (I thought she was already in Yilan!), so I went into a mild state of panic… Still trying to call Lilly but not able to get through, we had to drive to our accommodation at Djinkarr Lodge (20kms outside of town), where we had no phone reception, meaning all efforts to contact Lily were postponed until the morning.

But we had a fantastic night in Djinkarr, the accommodation is wonderful and the view is beautiful, plus Dom, a Djinkarr Ranger, was nice enough to give us 8 delicious mud crabs! So we were happy and content.

Next morning rather than set out for Yilan (130kms/ 3 hour drive away) as planned, we drive back to Maningrida to try and contact Lilly again. Amazingly, as soon as we hit phone reception Lily calls to tell me she caught a bus from Katherine to Darwin (she was actually in Katherine, not Darwin) that morning and had booked a flight from Darwin to Maningrida, and would arrive in Maningrida at 3pm that afternoon- what an amazing woman! So we wait in Maningrida till 3pm to pick her up, everyone does a little shopping.

I’m a little concerned that we’re leaving so late, but everyone says the road is pretty good so we’ll be fine.

We pull into the airport to wait for Lily. It’s a lovely reunion, with a few introductions, and then we’re all back in the car and heading for Yilan (finally).

The one thing people warned us of, when we mentioned where we were going was to watch out for the Blythe River. It’s ‘got a few deep spots, and flows pretty strong’, so instantly everyone’s fairly tense. The ladies hate river crossings as it is, so we were all pretty pumped up when we get there. Fortunately there was a group of men on the other side fishing and suggested we keep to the left; which we did and made it to the other side, safe and sound- except for my hearing from all the screaming coming from the back of the car telling which way to go- ‘speed up’, ‘slow down’, ‘watch out!’. It was a thrill and full of laughter when we made it…Upon reflection, it really wasn’t that bad. No one even battered an eyelid on the way home.

So, with our last hurdle conquered we’re on the home stretch for Yilan- the only warning was from one of the rangers saying the road might be a little sandy… We make it to Jimarrdi outstation, the last one before Yilan, and stop to say hello to Bonnie Roy (Lily’s sister), who is also going to be working with us too. Its getting close to sunset so we push on to Yilan, which is ‘not too far’ away. It turns out there’s a massive billabong/ swap between the two stations, but there’s a pretty clear track around it. There are a few muddy spots, and two deep-water crossings, but the troopy & Terry get through no worries. We’re pretty much out of the swamp, I can see the hard ground, just one more muddy spot to go. It doesn’t even look bad ‘just follow the tracks’. Next thing I know we’re not moving at all. Not forwards, not backwards. We’re just sitting there, mud up to both diffs, three tyres spinning with absolutely zero traction.

“Righto, everyone out of the car.”

We all work like crazy people trying to get us out (everyone that is, but the film maker, who is trying her best to avoid the mud and film it all, bless!) digging the black mud out from under the car, chopping trees down for leverage (Lilly was truly an amazing woman to watch. She’s 61, and put me to shame with her ability of swinging an axe!) We tried for 5 solid hours until we gave up with exhaustion. It was 11pm by then. So it was decided we’d get some sleep and get help in the morning. Lilly and I were sitting on the roof of the troopy with one bar of phone reception and we sent out a few messages to various people asking them to come help us in the morning, so we weren’t too worried, help was on its way. Just as a ‘social’ call we decided to give Chris Durkin call, seeing how this was pretty much his fault we were in this mess in the first place!  Chris is currently in Perth. After having a cheeky chat with him we all tried to settle down for the night, which was easier said than done- the women refused to sleep in tents because of buffalo! Which meant everyone wanted to sleep in the car; it was a really hot night, and THICK with mosquitoes (the poor film maker had juicy Melbourne white skin, so consequently had a pretty hard time with it). So I had to empty out the car, and trailer to try and make enough room for everyone to sleep (I happily set up & laid down in a tent- buffalo or no buffalo, I was too tired to care).

Next thing I know Kathleen comes bounding out of the troopy- topless, yelling ‘There’s a car coming!’. I’m like ‘don’t be crazy Kathleen, who’s silly enough to drive out here at midnight?”. Then sure enough we see headlights on the horizon! Damn, Kathleen was right.

Then there’s a made rush from everyone trying to find where they left their muddy clothes! People end up with other peoples tops, I ended up with a completely new outfit because I couldn’t see my mud camouflaged clothes against the mud which I threw them.

The car gets closer, and we’re all wondering who it could be…

Out jumps Ben & Roy from Bula’Bula Arts in Ramingining! How on earth?? Turns out after we called Chris in Perth, he called, & woke up, Ben in Ramingining telling him he had to come help us. So he then went and woke up Roy, and they drove the hour and a half to come to our rescue.

Roy definitely seemed like he may have been in a bog or two before! He had a meticulous method, and it worked. Pure genius! Still, it was another 4 hours of sweating, digging, chopping and mosquitoes before we were on hard ground; even then we had to get the trailer out and through by using the towrope. Only then could we continue on to Yilan (which turned out to be not even 2kms from where we were!), and poor Ben & Roy could finally go home and go back to sleep.

So the remained of the day, after we set up camp and finally got to bed at maybe 430am, was a restful one. A walk along the beautiful Yilan beach with Bonnie & Lily, collecting shells, longbum and mud crabs: our freshwater people getting to embrace the saltwater

Then we finally got down to business. We went out and collected bush vine (trophies scandens & flagellaria indica), as well as some sedge grass (cyperus eragrostis) in monsoonal forest along the Blythe River. Then back to camp where we officially started the workshop. To begin with, Lilly & Bonnie started to teach the Peppi artists the twinning technique using some pre-prepared pandanus which we had brought with us. Regina Wilson was the first to master it, then Clara Kundu really got the hang of it. It was slightly more difficult than we had anticipated. Bonnie then showed us how to use the sedge grass, which can be stripped, rolled and twinned and is lovely and soft. We have this grass in Peppi, but is has never been used to weave with. In turn the Peppi artists showed the Roy sisters their techniques of weaving with the pandanus as well as plant sources to dye it with (there were some similarities, but also a lot of difference in plants used for dying).

Then the introduction to the bush vine- or as its called in Peppi, pinbin. It’s a much harder fibre to work with than what everyone was use to, and is going to take a little more practice (had we not got bogged and lost a day and a half of workshop time, more may have been accomplished). Although next time I think we’ll fly Bonnie & Lily to Peppimenarti and save ourselves the drive!

Here is the documentary Cassie de Colling from Natu-reel films put together for us. The main purpose for it is as teaching tool for anyone else in Peppi who might like to learn, but also for the Cultural Mentor classes which Regina teaches at Peppimenarti School.