Women with Clever Hands

7 February - 16 March 2013

Women with Clever Hands by Dr Louise Hamby

The fibre exhibition, Women with Clever Hands: Gapuwiyak Miyalkurruwurr Gong Djambatjamla is a product of my working over a period of fifteen years with women from the Aboriginal community of Gapuwiyak in eastern Arnhem Land. It has been developed collaboratively with the Yolngu women and the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery. The work exhibited provides a key insight into the community and individual art practice. Expectations and realities of working in two cultural domains brings unexpected but often successful results. The decision to actually produce the exhibition did not occur until 2006 but the relationships necessary for its beginning and completion started in 1995 when I made my first visit there in September.

Getting to Gapuwiyak in some ways was no different than going to another country in which you are not native. To enter you have to have a passport and visa; to enter Gapuwiyak you needed a permit from the Northern Land Council. Then you had to get there. The inland community of Gapuwiyak, sometimes known as Lake Evella is 870 kilometers east of Darwin and 225 kilometers west from Gove or Nhulunbuy. A road off the Central Arnhem Highway dead-ends after 23 kilometers in Gapuwiyak. Other than driving you can get there by small aircraft.

The intention of the original trip in 1995 was to meet people and determine if we wanted to work together. It was a successful visit on all accounts and my PhD research was launched when I was adopted by Ruby Gubiyarriwuy Guyula (dec.). Being adopted into the Aboriginal kinship system was essential. This determined my place in the community and what my relationships would be to other people. Ruby adopted me as her sister, yapa. This meant that whatever she called people I did the same and I also had the same responsibilities.

My objective when I went to Gapuwiyak was to learn everything I could about baskets, their morphology, their meaning, their manufacture and how they functioned in and outside of the community. Being 44 at the time I started my PhD, I felt an urgency to find the answers to my questions. I quickly learned that being there I had to become part of the community and my education consisted of many other things besides talking about baskets. These were some of the things I attempted to learn which became part of everyday life.

Learning a language was an important task. In my case it was Djambarrpuyngu since that was the clan into which I was adopted. It was trial and error process. The Yolngu-matha dictionary went in one direction from Aboriginal language to English making it difficult to look up words. For example the word mel . I thought the word meant eye but I was confused because I was asking for the name of an open space in a twined mat or basket. It is the same word demonstrating the layering and complexities of the language and the culture.

Learning to drive a 4-wheel drive truck was a huge challenge for me. The troop carrier was and still is the vehicle of choice in Arnhem Land. Other than general transport, it was a total necessity for collecting pandanus and other materials for basket production as most materials were a long distance from the community. There were aspects that went with the 4-wheel driving which were not appealing such as the breakdowns, getting stuck in mud and changing flat tires!

Learning to build shades was an important skill for working out in the bush, for funerals in town and generally used to provide protection. We would construct these to provide shade while working on baskets out in the bush. Lucy Wanapuyngu taught me how make these shelters.

Learning how to obtain bush honey was something that everyone had to know about since honey was a traditional favourite food. Finding a tree with honey generally meant following bees around the bush with your eyes constantly scanning the trees. Learning about honey was also complex; there are different types of honey for each moiety. The wax from the honey is used for many practical things from coating baskets to attaching spear points.

Learning to fishing is a skill Yolngu get very young; as soon as they can walk and hold a line. Fresh fish cooked over the fire immediately after being caught contributes the health of the women besides being a contemplative activity. I did not master fishing, always getting my line caught on logs or breaking it. I was relegated to buying the equipment and making the fire to use for cooking.

Of course by doing these things I did learn about making and using baskets. The creation of fibre works is not an activity done in isolation from other day-to-day activities like the ones I just discussed. The women with whom I worked eventually became the makers of the objects that are now in the exhibition. The actual collecting, preparation, dyeing and making of those objects is a powerful story on its own which I will not be discussing here.

My relationship with staff and families of Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) in Arnhem Land and in particular Gapuwiyak assisted in the development of the book and exhibition. The most recent family to assist from Gapuwiyak is the Roth family; pilot Daniel Roth, his wife Silke, daughter Zoe and the many animals looked after by the family. The Roth family moved to Gapuwiyak in 2004 and we quickly became friends and had a shared interest in the welfare of the women in Gapuwiyak and the work they created. This relationship was a strong factor in Silke Roth taking the job as the manager of the new Gapuwiyak Culture and Art Centre which took an active role in the exhibition WCH.

I finished my PhD titled, Containers of power: Fibre Forms from Northeast Arnhem Land Australia in 2001 and graduated in September of that year with much assistance from the women of Gapuwiyak and my supervisory panel. After the PhD I continued to go to Gapuwiyak every year. My first post-doctoral position was on an ARC Linkage grant from 2003 – 2006. Nic Peterson from ANU was the CI on the project and Lindy Allen was the PI from Museum Victoria. We worked together on the Donald Thomson Collection from Arnhem Land which consisted of items of material culture, photographs, fieldnotes and other documents. During the tenure of this grant we made visits to Gapuwiyak to talk to people about the collection. Photographs were very popular and we made some great discoveries about relationships of people at Gapuwiyak in the Thomson photographs. For example the man Minyipirriwuy was an important ceremonial leader for Djambarrpuyngu people during the 1930s. He was known for making ceremonial items like the shark spears. Thomson identified him but we did not know about any existing family in Gapuwiyak. That changed. Three of his daughters lived in Gapuwiyak, all prime fibre makers with works in the exhibition. Unfortunately two of these sisters have passed away; they were Djupuduwuy and Nganigiwuy Guyula. Walinyinawuy Guyula is one of the senior artists still producing work in Gapuwiyak. She has eleven works in the exhibition, eight percent of the show.

The objects from Arnhem Land are the major component of the Donald Thomson collection. In 2005 we were able to take a selection of these objects to Gapuwiyak. Indeed the objects, the photographs and memories from those times proved to be of significance to many of the artists, particularly to Lucy Wanapuyngu who saw the various pubic covers that we brought. On this trip and others we looked at many photographs often in the book Donald Thomson from Arnhem Land. One of these was of Matay, the maternal grandmother of Lucy wearing a pubic cover. In October 2008 I returned to Gapuwiyak and Lucy brought over a pubic cover for me to see and showed how it was tied when rolled for storage. I included this piece by Lucy in Women with Clever Hands, in the section about past times.

The information I have presented so far gives you my background and other’s involvement in the ‘back story’ in Gapuwiyak. I now want to bring you up to the decision making about the exhibition itself. I had always intended to do something about Gapuwiyak to give back to the community. Liz Skinner was working at Gapuwiyak trying to establish an Art Centre in the community. In September of 2006 I had been in Gapuwiyak so the situation there was fresh in my mind. In October of 2006 after a long phone conversation with Liz about the problems for women in Gapuwiyak with no art centre, I made a commitment to do the exhibition in an effort to help establish an art centre at Gapuwiyak.

Work was then on in earnest for the exhibition. I held my first community meeting in February 2007 to discuss the project at the Women and Aged Care Center. I could do much work in Canberra but I needed one of the artists to work with me in Gapuwiyak via phone and on the ground when I was there. My adopted sister was deceased and Lucy Wanapuyngu became my assistant curator for the exhibition. We had worked closely together since I came to Gapuwiyak and she has always been an advocate for the women’s work.

I called the exhibition the Gapuwiyak Project for a long time but realized that it needed a real name for funding and promotion. In April 2008 in Gapuwiyak a name was derived after consultation. Christine Birkinbirkin, then principal of the school inscribed the name in my field notebook. Gapuwiyak Miyalkurruwurr Gong Djambatjamla, this translates to Women with Clever Hands. Obtaining a partner for the project was a major undertaking. Our host for the exhibition was Wagga Wagga Art Gallery. There was two way travel and communication between Gapuwiyak and Wagga in an effort to develop relationships with the local Aboriginal people in Wagga Wagga.


This exhibition contains fibre work including baskets, string bags, mats and sculpture. The content was arrived through consultation and collaboration with the artists. The rationale for developing this project stemmed from the overall neglect of the fibrework from this region. It had not been exhibited, researched or written about in any great detail. The aims of the exhibition were social, cultural and artistic ones. From these aims many dhawu or stories emerged. The themes and the titles in language for the exhibition were ones derived closely with the women.

In April 2010 all of these themes needed to be finalized. I went to Gapuwiyak and worked with several of the women to arrive with the themes emerging from the work selected. Images were spread on the floor of the art centre in various groups with post it notes and writing on them. These were kept in a ring notebook divided by selected stories. Some of the themes became major text panels like the past times story.

From the examination of the development of the exhibition Women with Clever Hands there are key components that can contribute to a better understanding of working collaboratively as a curator and in this case as a curator of an Indigenous exhibition. Collaboration is not just about consultation over a particular issue or piece of work. It involves working with people. There are many variations in what constitutes curation. The type of exhibition I have been describing is not one that can be done in a short amount of time. It is dependent on collaboration that can only come from relationships developed over a long period of time. It demands research that is all expansive. Respect that comes from these associations forms the basis of a true collaboration.