tayenebe - National Museum of Australia
Tasmanian Aboriginal baskets left to right: Vicki maikutena Matson-Green, Patsy Cameron (also second
from right), Dulcie Greeno, Audrey Frost white flag iris (Diplarrena moraea)
Photograph: Simon Cuthbert, TMAG
Tasmanian Aboriginal women’s fibre work
exchange – in workshops, exhibition and collection
It [weaving] tells me a lot about our early people, about
our mothers and their families and their movements in
the seasons. Audrey Frost, weaver
As I ease up the drive of one of the cottages at larapuna,
in the Mt William National Park in north-eastern Tasmania,
there’s little sign that anyone is here, let alone that there is a
big workshop in progress. The quiet is broken by the tsck,
tsck of someone sweeping in the nearby cottage and the
flapping of a pair of jeans on the washing line, caught by
the stiff breeze coming in off the waters of Bass Strait. The
breeze has a bite to it and, despite the clear skies and the
warm sun, the air is distinctly chilly.
Inside one of the cottages I find a small group of women
sitting in a circle weaving, and in conversation. It is almost
a shorthand version of a conversation – the state of the
grasses, the evenness of the weave, the plans for tomorrow
and the latest stand of grasses to be collected.
This is the last of the series of seven workshops that
form part of the tayenebe project to revive weaving in
the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. It is a collaborative
project involving Arts Tasmania, the Tasmanian Museum
and Gallery, and the National Museum of Australia. The
workshops have been held at different locations, and with
different combinations of more than 30 women and girls.
This workshop is the longest and most ambitious, at over
10 days long; yet it has a very high participation rate.
Everyone is determined to continue their weaving after this
final workshop, but from now on it will be within their circle
of friends and within their families.
There was a powerful atmosphere, partly because this is
the last workshop, and there is a desire to get the very best
out of it, and especially because this was the only workshop
held on the Traditional Country for most of the participants.
But it has also been an emotionally charged time, because
the news arrived of the passing of Auntie Muriel Maynard
during this workshop. An important and respected Elder,
Auntie Muriel’s interest, commitment and love of making was
strong. She was a fine weaver.
Although too unwell to participate fully in tayenebe, Auntie
Muriel supported its aims. As a measure of their respect the
weavers jointly created a basket, each completing two or
three rows with their individual styles and skills.
The purpose of tayenebe, and the success of the final
workshop, builds upon some pioneering work that
commenced in the early 1990s. Around that time, Alan
West, former Curator and now Research Associate at the
Museum of Victoria, had undertaken research on the plants
and weaving techniques employed in some of the baskets
made in the 1800s.
Jennie Gorringe, an arts worker at the Tasmanian Aboriginal
Centre, was involved in one of the first efforts to revive the
weaving tradition, using West’s work. Gorringe arranged a
number of events and camps for women, inspiring them to
become engaged in weaving practice.
In 2005, Moonah Arts Centre held an important exhibition
that involved three skilled weavers, Eva Richardson, Colleen
Mundy and Lennah Newson. Sadly, Lennah Newson passed
away before the tayenebe project began, but perhaps her
passing gave greater impetus to it.
This earlier work was important in reinvigorating the weaving
tradition, but weaving expertise was still not widespread,
and the knowledge of some traditional methods remained
undiscovered. Tayenebe sought to address this. It was
based on a workshop format conceived by Arts Tasmania’s
Lola Greeno that sought to dynamically revive many of the
old ways in changing locations and with a flexible range
of participants. This format led to a depth and variety in
the reinvigoration of the weaving tradition. For example,
variations in plant stocks in the different locations influenced
the weaving works – with the weavers including sea plants
as well as land plants, resulting in a revival of the use of bull
kelp for containers.
Tayenebe is a south-eastern Tasmanian Aboriginal word,
meaning ‘exchange’. This word was very appropriate, as
the success of the project depended on exchanging and
sharing many sources of knowledge and experience. Firstly,
the historical baskets held in museum collections contained
information vital to reproducing the exact style. However, the
baskets contained much more than technical information.
The women who were able to study these precious objects
saw the baskets as a link to the Old People, in a sense a
manifestation of the women who made them in the 1800s.
Only 37 baskets and fibre work from the 1800s survive in
various collections. Of these, only five are by known makers
– two by Trucanini and three by Fanny Cochrane-Smith.
The rest were likely to have been made by some of the
70 women living at Wybalenna or Oyster Cove from 1835
to 1874, having been taken there by George Augustus
Robinson.1 Unlike these earlier women, the women who
took part in the tayenebe will not be unnamed; this is a
Materials are used to illustrate connections to wider culture
than functional objects. For example, the addition of a
strand of fibre in a twisting figure of eight by Vicki maikutena
Matson-Green reflects the flight of the moonbird, or mutton
bird. The moonbird was thought to fly to the moon, only to
return to its nesting grounds next season, having survived
the rigours of the long flight. Another example is the
inclusion of a swirl of maireener shells on the inside of Patsy
Cameron’s basket. This creates a vortex representing the
Milky Way; the materials and the design makes connections
between the land, sea and sky.
Alongside these works, there are displays of Tasmanian
Aboriginal unique kelp containers. These vessels have the
leather-look of the dried sea plant, warm in tone and shiny,
its curved forms belying the firm and brittle nature of the
dried fronds. There is no known kelp container in collections
in Australia, so the shape of the tayenebe containers was
informed by prints from the Baudin voyage of exploration
of 1800–04, and by the recent availability of an image of an
actual container from c.1850 held in the British Museum.
It is interesting to note that these records show differing
versions of the form.
A look at this subtle and elegant exhibition makes it clear
that the works are not merely the product of a set of
weaving tutorials, where techniques have been learnt.
Rather, the works are suffused with ideas, speculations
and connections. The weavers state their strengthened
connection to culture through the act of weaving, in walking
the country in search of fibres, and in the knowledge that
they are pursuing a process that was once part of the
everyday life of their ancestors.
The National Museum is fortunate to have been able to
acquire from tayenebe 33 baskets, containers, samples and
a personal journal of the project. The exhibition, which was
curated by Tasmanian Museum and Gallery Guest Curator
Julie Gough, is on display at the National Museum until 25
July. It is accompanied by a handsome catalogue.
Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program
ough, 2009. The list of 70 women, compiled by Chris Berg,
was taken from the records of G. A. Robinson.
Over 100 baskets were made during the project, 70 of
which are on display in the tayenebe exhibition. Some
have a traditional purity of technique and material and sit
eerily alongside the old baskets, the time between the
making of them seemingly conflated to nothing. Others are
contemporary, with the material often dictating the
final form. And others are experimental in their
combinations of materials or their expressions