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Colin Martin, Baskets & Belonging - Entwined lives

The exciting eye-opener in the British Museum's Australian season is a novel exhibition of historic and contemporary indigenous Australian baskets. The purity of form and function of indigenous Aboriginal baskets resonate with a spirituality that is beyond mere monetary worth. The London exhibition demonstrates the great variety of techniques used in Aboriginal basketry. Basket making and baskets survived. Recent work is included in an exhibition, tayenebe - Tasmanian Aboriginal women's fibre work. Contemporary makers also experiment in using novel materials, which include 'ghost nets'.

Colin Martin

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Colin Martin, Baskets & Belonging - Entwined lives, Exhibition review

Baskets & Belonging: Indigenous Australian Histories
26 May – 11 September 2011
The British Museum, London

tayenebe - Tasmanian Aboriginal women’s fibre work Tasmanian Museum and Gallery,
31 August–23 October 2011
Koorie Heritage Trust, Melbourne
16 December 2011–19 February 2012
Flinders University City Gallery, Adelaide

Australian season at the British Museum - Australian Indigenous baskets
This European summer, the forecourt of the British Museum in Bloomsbury has been colonised by the Australian Bush.  The severe symmetry of the building’s classical façade has been subverted by the unruly silhouettes of eucalypts and banksias. Inside, an exhibition of Australian prints and drawings featuring the usual suspects, from Sidney Nolan onwards, is worthy but uninteresting

The exciting eye-opener in the British Museum’s Australian season is a novel exhibition of arouind sixty historic and contemporary Australian Indigenous baskets, which puts Aboriginal life and art centre stage. Curated by the expatriate Australian Lissant Bolton, head of the museum’s Oceanic section, Baskets & Belonging provides a long overdue primer on Aboriginal creative diversity, as exemplified by basket-making.

Hermès and Prada bags may lead in the international fashion stakes, but the purity of form and function of indigenous Aboriginal baskets resonate with a spirituality that is beyond mere monetary worth.  Indigenous Aboriginal baskets deserve the attention stimulated by this excellent exhibition and the further studies it will generate.  

Displayed in a windowless room at the museum, the baskets understandably appear isolated from the distant environments in they were made and used; however, Bolton has worked within the constraints of the gallery to reduce any feeling that the works are alienated from their origins.‘The works were made to be seen against certain environments, the ochre colours of the outback or the lush greens of rainforests,’ says Bolton.

Enlarged photographs of the rainforest canopy at Cape Tribulation National Park, Queensland and Bulbbe Djang (Dilly Bag Dreaming), a prominent hill with rock columns on the peak that appear to represent inverted baskets (Kakadu National Park, Arnhem Land), providesa landscape context for many of the baskets displayed. Felicitously, by half-listening to the hum of the room’s air-conditioning system, spectators can imagine the sound of rainfall thrumming on palm fronds.  Other groups of baskets, displayed in wall mounted cabinets against blue-green backgrounds, are completed  by other appropriate landscape photographs and photographs of groups of basket-makers at work.

Bolton’s sensitive arrangement of the exhibits also acknowledges the continuity between historic and contemporary baskets, as well as the latter’s novel aspects. This helps visitors to appreciate the continuity and change in techniques to fit varying functions as well as the development of new basket forms.

A great variety of techniques ... to fit their purpose or the bodies

The London exhibition demonstrates the great variety of techniques used in Aboriginal basketry, including coiling, looping, fixed knot netting, folding, plaiting, twining, cross warp weaving and triple weaving. Method of construction are chosen or modified, so that baskets are tailor-made to fit their purpose or the bodies of those carrying or wearing them.

Open-twining enables seafood gathered in baskets to be rinsed in water, to wash out sand and other debris. Triple twining is used to create raised horizontal bands as decoration, but these bands do not completely encircle the baskets. At the back, under the handle where the basket would rub against the carrier’s body, the surface is kept smooth to minimise chaffing.

Even the decoration of similar baskets can vary with their purpose. Off the coast of Arnhem Land, the Tiwi people of Bathurst and Melville Islands make folded bark baskets to carry food. Usually they are left undecorated, but when they are used to carry gifts of food to funerals they are painted with ceremonial clan designs. When the funeral ceremony ends, the baskets are upended on top of painted mortuary poles and left as memorials to the dead, to be eroded by the weather.

Originally, only twined baskets were made in Arnhem Land; however, the coiling technique was introduced there by a missionary. ‘Unlike twining, coiling is free of sacred and ancestral associations and of traditional rules that govern form and function,’ says Bolton. ‘Because of this, coiling seems to have offered women opportunities for experimentation, enabling the development of new basket forms.’

Contemporary makers

Contemporary makers also experiment in using novel materials, which include ‘ghost nets’, hanks of tangled plastic fishing net, cut free in the ocean by commercial fishermen and other discarded materials washed up on the continent’s reefs and beaches..   The women unravel and weave the ‘ghost nets’ into vibrant, multi-coloured baskets.

In the Queensland rainforest region, men traditionally wove rigid bicornial (two-cornered) baskets from cane. They used small painted baskets to hold their belongings and ceremonial objects. Designs, indicating owners’ kinships or clan identities, were painted using natural clay or earth pigments. Larger unpainted baskets held food and sometimes men carried babies in them. ‘I’m continuing that line, bringing the culture back,’ says the contemporary north-eastern Queensland basket-maker Abe Muriata.

Connection with the land was (and remains) central to Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-identity. When Australia was colonised in the late 1700s, Indigenous peoples were living in rainforests, wetlands, savannah grasslands, mountains and deserts across the breadth and length of the continent. As Indigenous people were pushed off and prevented from having ongoing access to their ancestral lands by settlers and colonial legislation, many aspects of cultural practice were lost. 

In some cases, particular traditional types of baskets, such as those made in South Australia by the Ngarrindjeri people to carry their war clubs, became redundant; however, other types of baskets and bags survived, especially, baskets for carrying food and catching fish. In southern Australia, traditional fibre string handles on baskets were replaced with coiled handles, to suit settlers’ tastes and needs.  Traditionally formed baskets, albeit with handles, were also adapted for different functions by settlers for use such as washing baskets and bassinet baskets for babies.

Missionaries in Victoria supported a trade in basket making as it supported their aims of encouraging trade to generate a modest income for Indigenous people. In recent years, basket making has provided a means for cultural retrieval. Even where basketry skills disappeared, they were ‘not lost, just sleeping,’ says the contemporary Tasmanian basket weaver Verna Nichols.

Women in north Tasmania ‘cut sheets of the large flat kelp and run strings around the margin, thus making simple bags in which they carry water,’ reported the Quaker missionary James Backhouse in 1832. When photographs of a rare 1800s Tasmanian bull kelp water container in the British Museum’s collection were published online in 2008, many contemporary Tasmanian women were inspired to re-make bull kelp water carriers and also fibre baskets.

This cultural revival in bull kelp carriers and baskets built on an earlier fibre project as part of a program run by Palawa Prints at the Karadi Women’s Centre in Hobart and the Aboriginal Elders Council in Launceston, Tamania.  Consequently, a traditional bull kelp carrier ‘glowing a translucent red’, made in the early 1980s and a whole collection of contemporary fibre baskets made in Tasmania in the 1990s, were exhibited in Wollongong, New South Wales and  sold to the Australian National Maritime Museum in 19991.

This connected with a revival of basket making on the south coast of New South Wales amongst Aboriginal women who had sat down with the highly regarded basket makers Thelma Carter and Connie Hart from Lake Tyers in Western Victoria, and Yvonne Koolmatrie from the Coorong in South Australia.  Recent Tasmanian work is included in an exhibition,  tayenebe - Tasmanian Aboriginal women’s fibre work, currently travelling in Australia, is showing in Melbourne and Adelaide in 2011-12. 

‘billielli pankina’ – ‘to make a great fuss about one’s fine dillybag’

In 1901 the Lutheran missionary JG Reuther formulated a German dictionary, subsequently translated into English, which recorded the meaning of many words used by the central Australian Diyari people. A century later, the phrase ‘billielli pankina’ – ‘to make a great fuss about one’s fine dillybag’ – resonates as a worthy response to Baskets & Belonging.


Colin Martin is a London-based Australian writer with an interest in contemporary craft that addresses environmental concerns.


Related Links


Look Listen and Play

  • Tayenebe, Videos: workshop, kelp, Vicki Maikutena Matson-Green, Audrey Frost
  • Tayenebe, Interactive baskets
  • Australian Season at the British Museum, video



1 The collection was shown in the exhibition ‘Crossing the Strait’ at the Wollongong City Gallery, February 1999 and later at the Australian National Maritime Museum in 2011.




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Updated: 10 February 2016