Artback NT Arts Trouring presents the major touring exhibition ReCoil: Change & Exchange in Coiled Fibre Art curated by Margie West. West's catalogue essay highlights the history of the coiling technique in Australia, its movement across Australia to the introduction of dyes and its revival in contemporary Indigenous craft practice.
Aboriginal art received its first major boost in the early 1970s with infrastructure funding from the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. It's telling that at the time these community enterprises were called 'art and craft centres'. While this reflected current western classifications, it also acknowledged the equal importance of domestic items like basketry, which was often the mainstay of early Aboriginal enterprises on missions and reserves. Consequently in the 1970s, the Crafts Council of Australia also directed funds into the development of Aboriginal projects in remote communities in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia. Customary practices were supported though the emphasis was more on developing 'adapted' craft enterprises based on new skills in weaving, crochet, pottery, batik and so on.1 From this time onwards the craft movement in Australia with its current trends and skills-base became intricately linked with Indigenous practice. This instigated a series of workshops and exchanges between western artists/craftspeople and Indigenous people that has been the cornerstone of their contemporary arts industries - providing artists with new techniques and ideas for articulating their cultural realities and gaining some economic independence. While many such movements have floundered due to lack of interest, cultural relevance, or simply the absence of infrastructure support to sustain and market the items, the basket economy has continued to effloresce.
In fact what has been occurring around the country, especially over the past fifteen years, is nothing short of revolutionary. Near extinct traditions have been revived and revitalised, existing forms have been re-energised and new forms have been introduced and have proliferated at amazing speed. In this developing scenario, the technique of coiled bundle basketry has been an important catalyst in extending women's existing basketry skills as well as founding completely new movements of fibre art. Along with the artists' agency in reviving or teaching each other skills, new developments have often been generated by workshops between women of quite diverse cultural backgrounds - including remote Indigenous women and non-Indigenous Australian fibre artists. ReCoil highlights this rich tradition of technical exchange and change in coiling around Australia, by profiling the work of twelve Indigenous artists from different regional and cultural backgrounds and three non-Indigenous artists, who have worked in close association with their Aboriginal peers over the years.
Coiling is one of a handful of classic fibre techniques that is found in practically every country around the world. It is probably not well known that coiling is Indigenous to Australia and was used by a number of Aboriginal groups in the south-east, especially those living along the Murray and Yarra Rivers where suitable rushes grow. The manufacture of coiled items by the Yorta Yorta, Ngarrindjeri, Bangerang, Wiradjiri and others, could well date back thousands of years. Despite the impact of colonialisation in the southern regions of Australia, the technique has just survived and is being revived by a handful of practitioners along the Murray. Coiling was also used by European craftspeople who possibly introduced it to Australia during colonial times, though its emergence is clouded by a general lack of any coherent documentation. Domestic weaving was largely an amateur pursuit and as Grace Cochrane notes, it was often practiced competently through the arts and crafts societies but was largely overlooked because it didn't develop into studio practice or commercially based crafts.2
There is generally better documentation about the introduction of coiling to Aboriginal women on some missions around Australia: at Yarrabah in north Queensland in 1902, and Aurukun in Cape York in the 1950s. Though only a few women at these communities still practice coiling today.3 In Western Australia fibre artist Nalda Searles has traced its introduction to the Mount Margaret Aboriginal Mission where the Aboriginal women made coiled prayer baskets from the 1920s to the 1950s.1 The Red Cross also used coiled basketry as rehabilitation and relaxation for hospital patients and for recovering servicemen during World War II. According to former Ernabella teacher Allison Elliot, the Superintendent's wife, June Trudinger, who used to work for the Red Cross, introduced western-style basketry to Ernabella in 1951. For a short while the women there made classic woven cane baskets and coiled raffia baskets, some decorated with seed pods. However, they couldn't compete with other western basketry and the practice died out. This innovation, though short-lived, anticipated the basketry movement that was to occur in the Anangu region nearly half a decade later.5
In the aftermath of the craft revival in the 1970s, the popularity of hand-made textiles generally was in decline. By the 1990s, this trend was rapidly being reversed particularly by Indigenous women who were enthusiastically embracing new skills and sharing them as a matter of course among close kin and other relatives. The recent emergence and proliferation of small Indigenous economies based on collective fibre practice, in many ways mirrors the growing professionalism and skills-sharing within the Australian textiles movement generally reflecting the cross-cultural dynamics that have underpinned a lot of contemporary Indigenous practice over the past forty years or more.
Craft exchanges between non-Indigenous craftspeople and Aboriginal communities have become more formalised in recent years but they are not a recent phenomenon. This dialogue has been an integral part of Indigenous arts production ever since contact, as the Mount Margaret example shows. Another early and highly influential adaptation occurred in Arnhem Land when the women at Goulburn Island (Warruwi) were taught coiling in 1922 via the Methodist mission. It was introduced by Gretta (Margaret) Matthews, a sister of the Women's Auxiliary for Foreign Missions who had originally learnt coiling from Ngarrindjeri women when she was working at various Aboriginal camps outside Adelaide.1 From her previous experience in South Australia, Matthews was obviously aware that this style of basketry was highly marketable. When she arrived at Warruwi she found that the Maung women already had a rich tradition of fibre art, making a variety of twined conical bags, mats, netted bags and fish nets. The Methodists, however, discouraged customary practice of any kind, preferring to inculcate western skills in European-style basketry, sewing and embroidery. These items were also made specifically for sale to raise money for the community's education and housing. The Maung women dutifully started to make items tailored for the southern market in the form of carrying baskets, table mats, flower baskets and the like, as senior Warruwi resident Miriam Kris recounts:
That's the one [Gretta Matthews]. She was a teacher here for the school kids. She used to be my mum's teacher. That was a long time ago. They used to make baskets like that. Even my mum she made flower baskets - strong ones for wedding, you know. She used to put lining underneath. She also made [baskets] with a lid and open ones.7
In her study of the mission period, researcher Carolyn Lovitt regards these superimposed western-style items as problematic, because they were framed within the mission narratives about conversion and assimilation and were therefore divested of any cultural meaning for their makers. They were what Nicholas Thomas describes as converted artefacts - objects that were central to the missionary discourse of conversion.8
There is no doubt that the mission's agenda was one of cultural erasure, it's highly doubtful though, that they achieved this via the medium of coiling. The women's active development and spread of this technique and their positive accounts of its economic benefits, provides an alternative reading about the new basketry; one which stresses cultural assertion and incorporation, rather than capitulation to the mission objectives. As anthropologist Howard Morphy observes, Indigenous people continually acculturate new influences in which outsiders can become insiders by entering into all kinds of exchange relationships.9 Art and material culture have played and continue to play an important mediating role in these exchanges and, in this context, the coiled basketry symbolised the beginning of significant social and economic interactions between the Aboriginal people and the new settlers on their land.
The women quickly incorporated this new technique into their existing basketry repertoire using the familiar medium of pandanus. Because this technique was unencumbered by ancestral association or the traditional dictates of function, it could be argued that coiling provided the women a certain degree of freedom and experimentation, allowing them to develop the practice according to their own creative impulses; in effect 'filling' the baskets with their own value and integrating it into local basketry terms and taxonomies.10
Coiling spread rapidly as the Maung taught it to their relations in other communities: the Iwadja at Croker Island, the Kunibídji of the Maningrida region, and the Kunwinjku at Gunbalanya (Oenpelli). By engaging each other in this valued social activity, the women gradually extended the practice of coiled basketry across Arnhem Land, east to Groote Eylandt, down through the Gulf of Carpentaria and north-westwards to Melville and Bathurst Islands, through to the Wadeye/Daly River region. Across the Top End, making coiled mats and baskets soon become an integral aspect of the women's repertoire, even becoming the dominant form in some places.
A good example is Gunbalanya in western Arnhem Land where the classic methods of twining and looping have almost been totally replaced by pandanus coiling. The women's work here is stylistically distinctive and maintains a direct link back to the original forms taught to them by the Maung via the agency of the mission. These items include the round double-sided 'sister' basket, openwork decorative patterns, baladji milengarrhngarr (or murrkarterte in Maung), usually forming star or zigzag configurations, and the occasional incorporation of a crochet-like stitch to create a decorative lace-like detail between the coils.11 These items and motifs, which are still made alongside other often innovative contemporary basketry today at Gunbalanya, replicate Ngarrindjeri basketry forms that were brought to Goulburn Island initially by Gretta Mathews. Several of these samplers are now in the South Australian Museum collection.
The basketmakers of Gunbalanya were recently profiled in the first major Indigenous fibre publication and touring exhibition, Twined Together, curated by Louise Hamby for Injalak Arts in 2005. One of these artists, Margaret Djogiba, is also profiled in the ReCoil exhibition and is represented by coiled baskets and a mat with open star design that reflects the early origins of coiling in the west Arnhem Land region. Her work also characterises the high level of technical expertise among this community of weavers and her use of vivid colour - in particular the vibrant pink to purple, wirdilk Haemodorum coccineum, typifies the Kunwinjku's predilection for strong, bold colour. The existing parallels between Kunwinjku and Maung basketry indicate their close familial links and ongoing working relationships. Today there is only a handful of practicing weavers at Warruwi and, due to the limited resources of their small island, the women often come to the mainland to obtain their materials, particularly the wirdilk plant that doesn't grow locally. Due to the collapse of the fledgling art centre at Warruwi midway through 2006, coupled with the destruction of pandanus stands by Cyclone Monica in April of that same year, no Maung weaver was able to participate in the ReCoil exhibition. This was regrettable given that they were the first significant link in the chain of coiling that gradually spread across the tropical north. They also appear to have played an equally important role in developing the new dye technology.
The use of natural dyes originated at Warruwi not long after the introduction of coiling. Prior to this, all traditional bags and baskets were plain or rubbed/painted with ochre. The marriage of pandanus coiling with dyeing has allowed the women to really develop their skills as designers and pattern-makers and to enhance the aesthetic appeal of their work. Dyes were used by the Maung sometime in the 1930s or 1940s and their use appears to have been encouraged by the resident Pacific Islander mission staff. A number of islander women from Fiji and one from Tonga were involved in the early basketry classes at Warruwi where they taught their own techniques of warp/weft weaving and coiling which is also indigenous to Tonga. The Pacific Islanders were familiar with the common yellow dye Morinda citrifolia that is endemic to their islands as well as to northern Australia. Not surprisingly, this was the first colour to be used by the Maung. The influence of the Pacific Islanders in introducing dyeing was mentioned to the author by Kunwinjku man Thompson Yulidjirri, who spent his childhood at Goulburn Island in the 1930s and up until 1945:
Those islands somewhere, like Fiji or anywhere there. Them people know this [use of natural dye], they show woman from here. They come up from there [Fiji], they made basket, they made colour and they made basket. Fijian, yes from mission, way back at Goulburn Island.12
When the Maung introduced their basketry skills to the mainland they were using the yellow dye Morinda citrifolia, which they steeped in water for a number of days to also obtain dark brown. This is the main dye plant available on their tiny island and the women continue to produce muted yellow and brown tones in their basketry unless they obtain other dye materials from the mainland. 'Yellow colour, we leave it three, four weeks and get brown colour. Only this one and that one only we used here. Bright colours are from the mainland.'13
The knowledge of dye spread rapidly along the same pathways as coiling and women gradually experimented and expanded their shared and personal repertoire of colours. Out of this, a vast array of patterns has evolved, each woman or small groups of regionally based women developing signature motifs and colour preferences. Banbiyak Mununggurr is a good example of this. She is one of north-east Arnhem Land's master weavers who continually uses two major pattern sets: the chequered design and the 'pie' or triangular design to decorate her distinctive large vessels. These are reasonably common among the many geometric pattern sets used by weavers, however as the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka manager Will Stubbs noted, they replicate the miny'tji or clan designs that are the exclusive property of her mother's and her husband's groups: the Djapu and Wangurri clans, respectively. Banbiyak herself was not aware of this significance it must be said, until this was pointed out to her. However, upon reflection she thought her basket designs might reflect her familiarity with this imagery, so often reproduced in bark paintings by her husband and other close family members.
In contrast, Mavis Ganambarr from Galiwin'ku, Elcho Island, is much more experimental in the decorative details she applies to her basketry, often painting ochre designs and applied decorations like red crab eye seeds Abrus precatorius, small, intricately patterned necklace shells, or colourful feathers to create effect. Part of her aesthetic relies on contrasting textures, also achieved with the unexpected combination of techniques or materials, using pliant string looping along with solid coiling, or making twined baskets with pandanus instead of soft string. Her forms are experimental and, along with a range of delicate jewellery, she makes exquisitely decorated baskets, hats, flower 'vases', and other more sculptural forms including small fibre figures. She even produced a coiled bottle after being shown images of the ones made by Robyn Djunginy. Ramingining artist Djunginy is not the first Arnhem Land artist to experiment with fibre sculpture. In the 1980s several Maningrida weavers made quirky one-off objects like cups, billy cans and even pirate hats. Even before this, Djunginy started making fibre bottles, on the suggestion of the then arts adviser Djon Mundine in 1983. She has since developed these idiosyncratic forms into her own distinctive oeuvre. Originally she made her bottles with the twining technique. Recently she has also made them with coiling because its rigid structure is better suited to shaping as well as making larger works. Her sculptural pieces preceded the pioneering work by the prodigious Lena Yarinkura at Maningrida who extended her basketry into the realm of ancestral narrative sculptures in the early 1990s. Since then a number of other women have started to make fibre sculptures, founding a new and extremely significant school of innovative fibre work in central Arnhem Land. The predominant technique of making these sculptures is still twining, although a few Maningrida artists are also incorporating some coiled details into their figures.
The incorporation of coiling into the strong and dynamic fibre tradition in Arnhem Land is not the only innovation absorbed by the weavers. They also have experimented with different shapes, materials and designs, using their classic twining and netting techniques. These customary forms and techniques are their inheritance from the ancestral past, however this doesn't preclude experimentation. Change is embraced and rationalised within their cosmological framework to reflect current realities. So while coiling may have been introduced, it is now embedded in current practices that have been handed on by mothers to daughters across four generations. Today the Ngarrindjeri origins of coiling are largely unknown or obscure to the Arnhem Land weavers. It was only after the Two Countries, One Weave exhibition and workshop arranged at Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide, in 1991 between Ngarrindjeri and Maningrida weavers, that these groups from opposite ends of the country realised their common connection.
One of the Ngarrindjeri participants in this workshop was Yvonne Koolmatrie, who discusses this remarkable exchange:
I tried weaving with pandanus leaves when I was shown by the women from Maningrida. They came down here from the NT for a workshop with us. It was good when we got together. They did their style and we did Ngarrindjeri style. Someone took the method from the older Ngarrindjeri people to Maningrida in the old days.14
Yvonne herself has played a pivotal role in the revival and proliferation of Ngarrindjeri basketry in the southern regions of Australia over the past two decades. She had never attempted coiling until attending a weaving workshop with other women from Raukkan and Meningie in 1982. Her teacher, 'Aunty' Doreen Kartinyeri was the only known woman at the time keeping her people's skills alive. Along with fellow student Ellen Trevorrow, Yvonne started to explore her Ngarrindjeri heritage, making traditional items like the eel and yabby traps and sister baskets out of a local rush. She also visited her people's collections at the South Australian Museum where she discovered a coiled monoplane and biplane (complete with propeller and turning wheels), made by Janet Watson in the 1940s. Fascinated by the sculptural potential of this innovative work, Yvonne has since produced a number of large figurative weavings: from ordinary items such as biplanes and hot-air balloons, to renditions of mythological beings such as the Rainbow Serpent and the River Bunyip. She is now regarded as the most innovative and high profile Ngarrindjeri fibre artist. At the same time, Yvonne has been a tireless educator, undertaking numerous workshops with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous fibre artists to ensure the technique is kept alive.
One of her recent students was Melbourne-born Yorta Yorta artist Treahna Hamm, who is better known for her intricate and delicately wrought prints. Although from different regions, Yvonne and Treahna are linked by their love of the Murray River that flows across the state boundaries through their respective countries in South Australia,Victoria and New South Wales. Like Koolmatrie, Treahna's recent work draws inspiration from her Yorta Yorta heritage that she has seen in museum collections; such things as delicately etched possum skin cloaks, shields, carrying dishes and coiled basketry. Consequently, much of her recent work is sculptural; re-interpretations of traditional items that often incorporate printmaking, coiling and possum skin work with strikingly beautiful results. Through her artistic creations Treahna proudly asserts her identity and her connection with her ancestors and their Murray-Goulburn river country.
The unique ways in which artists have applied coiling to express themselves and their cultural identities is at the heart of this exhibition. Each artist creates individual and recognisable work. At the same time, it is also possible to discern the emergence of discreet regional styles among Indigenous women who share a common history, cultural background and/or residence. This is even evident in regions where coiling has only been recently introduced such as in the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunyutjatjara or Anangu lands on the boundary region of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. The impact of coiling here has been profound, ever since Thisbe Purich introduced it to the women in 1995. At the time she was employed as an arts worker by the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunyutjatjara (NPY) Women's Council in Alice Springs to set up women's centres and new streams of employment in some of the Western Australian Ngaanyatjarra communities. Thisbe grew up in Darwin and was aware of the coiled basketry made by the Aboriginal women in the Top End. After learning the basics from Nalda Searles while they were both attending a language class at Edith Cowen University, Thisbe showed it to the Blackstone women, using local material. Even before this Nalda Searles recalls that when Pantitji Mary McLean's sister Elaine Lane from Blackstone was visiting them in Kalgoorlie, she saw some of Nalda's coiled baskets and was extremely interested in how they were made. This was around 1992-93.
In contrast to Arnhem Land, there was limited customary use of fibre in this desert region as most domestic utensils were made from wood. Some ornaments and domestic items were made from hair string, the most common one being the doughnut shaped head pad or manguri. So the new basketry was a revelation to the women who took some time to master it technically. Their skills were consolidated through practice and a series of workshops with some gifted textile artists, each of whom imparted their influence upon the women through their differing ideas and expertise. Alice Springs based textile artist Philomena Hali is one of the non-Indigenous ReCoil artists who was involved in the first NPY sponsored workshops at Warakurna and Tjukurla in 1996 and 1997. And it was largely through her technical expertise that the women slowly learnt to start to coil the basket bases successfully. Another seminal influence on the development of the basketry here was master weaver Nalda Searles from Western Australia. Nalda has been coiling since the 1980s and during the course of her many tutorials, workshops and bush camps, has imparted a love of coiling to many textile artists. Nalda encouraged the women to experiment with the form and decoration of their baskets and has been a strong advocate for the use of local and found materials. Her influence combined with the experimental escapades of desert artists like Niningka Lewis and Kantjupayi Benson, consolidated the development of the fibre sculpture that is now synonymous with the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, the marketing arm of the NPY Women's Council. In her Seven Sisters exhibition in 2002, Nalda highlighted her diverse collaborative partnerships with Aboriginal and Australian textile artists, that included Philomena Hali and some of the Tjanpi artists.
The Tjanpi women, who were completely unfamiliar with this new basketry, absorbed these influences while following their own interests and creative leanings. Two of the outstanding artists from this early period as mentioned were Kantjupayi Benson and Niningka Lewis. Both are extremely innovative and Niningka in particular rarely repeats an idea, making baskets with a staggering range of decorative motifs: overstitched wool patterns, colorful designs incorporated into the lids or sides of baskets, attached seeds and painted seed pods, emu feathers and small punu or poker-worked carved animals. She was also the first woman to make a life-sized grass figure for the Manguri Weaving exhibition in 2000 and often creates small fibre animals and inanimate objects like saucepans and motor cars. Niningka also claims to have introduced commercial raffia to the women weavers after bringing some back from Adelaide in 1999. Like Niningka, Kantjupayi Benson is a gifted eccentric and the first woman to experiment with sculpture using local grasses, wool, and emu feathers. She soon started making life-sized figure installations to illustrate ancestral stories and was the prime mover behind the now famous Tjanpi Grass Toyota that won the 22nd Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2005. She made a smaller version of this work specifically for the ReCoil show, after which she announced her well-deserved retirement from textile making at the age of 74.
Since experimenting with wool, jute and local grasses the majority of the weavers now wrap their grass coils with vibrantly dyed commercial raffia that Jo Foster from Tjanpi tirelessly delivers around the Anangu lands, while buying the women's latest creations. There are many communities to visit along the rutted dirt tracks with an estimated four hundred basketmakers currently selling work to Tjanpi Desert Weavers. Tjanpi also services local women in Alice Springs and currently Anne Dixon is emerging as one of their most sought after artists. She began making small, slightly off-balance basketry forms. Within a few years she perfected the coiling technique and now makes her distinctive, quite sculptural baskets that still retain some of her original quirkiness, giving her baskets a special edge.
The unexpected success of the NPY's fibre program has also had ramifications far beyond their own region. Equipped with needles and knowledge of local materials, skilled women continue to transfer the technique, while visiting relatives in far flung communities, or attending ceremonies, meetings or sporting events. In this way coiling has continued to spread across the desert like a grassfire, sparking new fibre movements up through Haasts Bluff, Kintore to Balgo, and across the Kimberley and Pilbara regions in Western Australia. It has also spread south to Coober Pedy in South Australia and south-west to Kalgoorlie where its introduction is largely due to the indefatigable Nalda Searles. Workshops sponsored by arts communities, educators, or other Indigenous organisations have also played a role in extending its influence or at least consolidating the skills already picked up by the women who had themselves attended some of the NPY workshops, or learnt it from someone who had.
In the Northern Territory, the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education (BIITE) in Alice Springs has also been active, since 2001, teaching coiling as part of their outreach course in Visual Art and Contemporary Craft. According to lecturer Jenny Taylor, BIITE shifted its emphasis to working with local grasses, as grass basket-making grew in popularity amongst the NPY communities. In 2001 BIITE lecturer Marina Strocchi invited Thisbe Purich to assist with a campus workshop making grass animals, lizards, and other forms. Numerous classes have been undertaken since then in desert communities to encourage the development of new art forms using recycled or locally found materials. During 2002 and 2003 lecturer Jenny Taylor and tutors Iria Kuen, J-Bird, Sarita Quinlivan, and Suzy Ciavatta offered four sculpture workshops in Walungurru (Kintore) and Nyirrpi. The flat coiled sculptures made at a recent workshop by exhibited Nyirrpi artists Phyllis Thomas and Topsy Fisher illustrate their collaborative relationship with their lecturer Jenny Taylor, who assists the artists to construct the wire armatures in accordance with their original drawings. The women then use the frame as the foundation for their coiling. Their flat sculptures are similar to the ones that are made further south at Titjikala. These were also the result if BIITE workshops, although structurally the latter tend to be randomly stitched together rather than neatly coiled and made without the wire support. It's this more expressive method of construction that Nalda Searles terms 'mongrel' coiling, or 'cobbling' which is also a method used by many of the Tjanpi women to make their recent fibre sculptures of birds, dogs, camels and so on.
At Tennant Creek, Julalikari Arts arranged for artist Alison Clouston to undertake workshops in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Over this period she taught coiling and other skills to a variety of different language groups at the Pink Palace in Tennant Creek and outstations at Manyara, Corella Creek, Burragong, Epenarra, Wogyala, Mungkarta and Karlinjarri. Some interesting basketry and coiled sculptures resulted from these workshops, though very little has been made in the region since. It's worth noting that Alison had previously learnt coiling from Nalda Searles which inspired her to attend one of Yvonne Koolmatrie's workshops held at the Carsula Powerhouse in 1997, reinforcing the significance of these two teachers in the spread of this influential technique. Another of the three non-Indigenous artists in the ReCoil exhibition, Fiona Gavino, has also worked with Nalda Searles. However, as an emerging textile artist she has been the recipient of the skills rather than the teacher. When she moved to Darwin in 1995, Fiona forged a close relationship with a skilled weaver from the Arnhem Land community of Galiwin'ku, and from her Fiona learnt about coiled basketry and bush dyes. She has since consolidated her career as a visual artist using her knowledge of weaving to create often complex three-dimensional works that reflect her interests in cross-culturalism and the environment.
The coiling movement has maintained its dynamism and momentum, penetrating into the Great Sandy Desert and Pilbara regions of Western Australia since the new millennium. When Amanda Campbell undertook workshops for the Western Desert Puntukurnuparna Aboriginal Corporation at Parngurr, Punmu and Kunawarritji, many of the women were already familiar with coiled basketry from relatives who'd learnt it elsewhere. One of the Pilbara artists included in ReCoil, Phyllis Rogers says she was taught how to make baskets by her sisters who had learnt via Eubena Nampitjin and other women at Balgo. Her baskets characterise the work from this region with their neat, tight coiling and vivid patterns, usually developed into riotous multi-coloured stripes with wool of alternating colour, or by mixing two strands of different coloured wool for the wrapping. The Pilbara works resonate with the early works made by the Tjanpi weavers in their energy, range and innovation, though the Tjanpi weavers now prefer brightly dyed raffia while the Pilbara women love the texture and colour of wool for their over-coiling. Here, as in the Central Desert regions, the use of fibre was limited, though some women particularly in the Kimberley had used wool before, knitting multicoloured and patterned wool bags learnt years ago on the missions. These bags were relatively common in the Kimberley region up until the 1980s and were often made by the women for their own use as well as for sale. The people here are also familiar with the vibrant wool patterns of the ilma, men's ceremonial head and dance boards, used in open ceremonies in the north Kimberley and Dampierland regions. The wool ilma are based upon the traditional thread-cross objects that were once made of the most commonly made fibre - hair string.
The vitality of this basketry movement and its proliferation and diversification across vast tracts of Australia is part of the remarkable and little-known story of coiling that started with its transplantation from the Lower Murray to the tropical north. Its recent rapid escalation throughout the desert regions of Central and Western Australia reflects its obvious resonance with Indigenous lifestyles - the collecting and using of local materials reinforces the weaver's relationship to country, plus its sociability and flexibility allows women to make it virtually anywhere. It is also cheap to make. Unlike many of the early craft exchanges, the ones of the 1990s have been brokered by culturally savvy artists like Nalda Searles, Thisbe Purich, Philomena Hali and others, who have deliberately emphasised skills portability, material affordability as well as cultural compatibility. Such factors undoubtedly helped the women to sustain and continually develop their new enterprises.
The increasing number of fibre exhibitions and the growing market interest since the 1990s reverses the general neglect basketry suffered since the 1980s. Kevin Murray attributes its slump in popularity at the time to the backlash against the 'feel-good' culture of the 1960s, when the hand-made was celebrated. He surmises the thriving trade in basketry now is due to the growing appreciation of both 'poor craft' - items made with whatever materials are at hand - and the growing significance of Indigenous art. Remarkably many women still make baskets despite low returns and often-poor market recognition. Some Tjanpi women have turned to acrylic painting as more art centres open across the Anangu lands, while others prefer to make the less labour intensive fibre figure sculptures that attract higher prices. The majority, though, enjoy it as a sociable and culturally confirming way to relax and make some money and if Arnhem Land is any example, it's likely that this art form will be around for decades to come. The story keeps unfolding and ReCoil picks up some of its threads. Through the work of selected practitioners it profiles the diversification and development of this remarkable contemporary movement that links women from opposite ends of the country in a creative dialogue in which coiling has become a powerful lingua franca.