Woven Fish 2013, Image courtesy Boolarng Nangamai Aboriginal Art & Culture Studio.
String Theory: contemporary art with a twist [MCA]

String Theory: contemporary art with a twist
Rachel Robinson, ABC, posted 20 September 2013

In the Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition, String Theory*, objects referencing craft traditions from Aboriginal communities around Australia are exhibited in the sparse manner long associated with contemporary art. It is a curatorial decision that works to highlight an often overlooked aspect of art - the act of creation, writes Rachel Robinson. (*Free exhibition at MCA until 26th October 2013)

I am standing in a gallery space in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) staring at a wall scattered with handmade string from Yirrkala in the Northern Territory. Some of the string is still wrapped tightly around reels, other bundles have been partially unravelled, a few have been completely unstrung and drape above me. I am wondering how this collection of string on a wall, not placed there strategically by an artist but pinned up by a curator, constitutes ‘art’. Standing beside me is Glenn Barkley, the curator of string theory: Focus on Contemporary Australian Art. So I can ask him upfront: why is this art? Barkley’s response is quick and to the point, “Oh, it’s so beautiful, what else is it?”

string theory is an exhibition that provokes questions about what belongs in a contemporary art space. It encompasses handmade dolls, prints, paintings, photographs, woven baskets, short films and shell necklaces – to name just a few of the works on display. All of the objects have been created by Aboriginal artists from across Australia and all display different approaches to working with fibre and textiles. Much of the work is from a craft-based tradition. The division between art (the stuff you hang in galleries) and craft (something more homespun that can often have a practical purpose) is something Barkley is only too conscious of. 

“Well I know it exists but I want to try and ignore it,” he says. “I think this is just great contemporary art. I’ve sort of spoken in the essay in the [exhibition] catalogue about how this is a great thing about indigenous art because it can actually get inside the museum and then it can sort of blow the museum open. I think craft is this maligned sort of term and I think we should see more craft, for want of a better term, in contemporary art museums.”

Barkley argues that not only does work born from a craft tradition connect easily with audiences but it also highlights an often overlooked aspect of art – the act of creation. 

“I think all of the work is really beautiful but it’s also sort of saying ‘look, that process and that collaboration is equally important, social activity is really important.’ Sometimes in art making, or in contemporary art, that’s sort of pushed aside a little, whereas here that’s sort of celebrated I think. And there’s a lot of spirit in things and there’s love in a lot of things as well ... those things contemporary art doesn’t want to talk about. It doesn’t want to talk about people liking things or being amazed.”

As basic as it may look, the handmade string displayed in the exhibition is the purest example of the collaboration, tradition, and spirit that Barkley is talking about. The most arresting of the string works, and one that sits very comfortably in the MCA space, is Frances Djulibing’s Yukuwa (Feather string yam vine), 2013. Made from banyan tree bark, cockatoo feathers and beeswax, the Yukuwa hangs ethereally in a black space. These yam vines symbolise kinship lines and are traditionally used in ceremonies as a form of clan identification. No-one has made one specifically for gallery display since 1984.

“I think this is a key work in the show in that it sort of looks backward to an ongoing tradition that’s thousands of years old but it’s also this incredibly beautiful contemporary piece of art.” says Barkley, “It’s been spoken about in a few different contexts and a few different ideas. One is this whole thing about family, like you are always sort of tied back to that point of origin and I think that’s really important for some of these communities, that you always sort of come back to where you live and family’s so important.”

Barkley recalls visiting Djulibing in the Northern Territory and watching her sit with members of her family and community while she hand-rolled string out of bark pulp. “We were just sitting around talking for hours while the string was being made. That conversation is really part of it as well. I like to think that all of that has been wrapped up inside the string too. Like the words and the conversation sort of get pulled into it.” 

The conversation, sharing and teaching that surrounds the making of the traditional arts in string theory is a central theme to the exhibition. Boolarng Nangamai, an artist collective from the south coast of NSW, creates works that exemplify this. Woven creations such as baskets, dilly bags and fish traps have been chosen to fill the room dedicated to Boolarng Nangamai’s practice. “This [the work] is an outcome of a much sort of richer social structure which is about teaching and training and positive outcomes for Aboriginal people,” says Barkley, adding that Boolarng Nangamai “also travel around NSW quite a lot and elsewhere, working with different artists.”

Born out of a group of nine talented Aboriginal artists that met at the art school in West Wollongong TAFE, Boolarng Nangamai established their own studio space in Gerringong in 2005. Kelli Ryan, a former teacher at the TAFE and founder of the collective, used her small inheritance to build the studio, on land partially chosen for its proximity to a creek that grows reeds traditionally used for weaving. The collective has now grown to over 30 artists that not only practice weaving, canoe making and spear making but also painting, glasswork and filmmaking. The studio runs a variety of workshops and participates in exchanges with indigenous artists nationally and internationally. Their focus is on expanding and sharing skills and promoting Aboriginal cultural awareness.

For Ryan, having Boolarng Nangamai’s works included in the string theory exhibition is affirming because “they’re being acknowledged as equal to a painting done or a digital artwork done by Craig Walsh for example.” But more important in her eyes, “it validates NSW in the Aboriginal space…if you look at the media that string theory has, it’s all about the Western desert people or this notion of, a very romanticised notion of, what an Aboriginal person is... So for us it’s a great even playing field about identity and having a voice, having a visual voice.” 

On the day I meet Ryan she is in Sydney, running a workshop for school teachers on traditional methods of string making. “These old ways of knowing how to make string is vital to life force”, she explains to the group. “It’s not a Woolworth’s aisle 5 kind of material. It’s love.”

“There’s a process around collecting the materials and going to country and walking where ancestors have walked and been. So there’s a very contemplative mode …sometimes people collect by themselves but others will go out 2, 3 or 4 people together and there’s lots of conversation and laughter and sense of community and connection to place when the harvesting happens.”

Understanding the whole production process is helpful to appreciating the value inherent in the woven objects. The reeds need to dry out for three or four weeks after harvesting, then they are split and dyed if that is required. When the reeds are finally ready to weave it can take around five days to make a fairly elaborate object, and that’s for a practised weaver. The communal nature of much of the work and the cultural business that gets done around the activity is also key. Ryan explains, “what gets spoken about is often more important than the making of that object.” 

“For our artists on the south coast it allows them to identify with their culture, with the past, with today and with tomorrow. Because weaving and textile work has that transcending nature.”

I get a glimpse of how transformative the whole process can be when the workshop participants and I actually start to make our own string. Once the technique of twisting and wrapping is mastered, hands go on autopilot and calmness and contentedness descends. The room fills with conversation and laugher. There is something therapeutic about it, something constructive. Many of us subconsciously find ways to keep our hands busy – we smoke, we bite our nails or twirl a strand of hair. Making this string instantly satisfies all of those cravings to be absentmindedly doing something, and so induces a kind of calm, like an itch is being scratched. Ryan talks to the school teachers about how activities like string-making can help children with dyslexia, those learning a second language, and those with attention disorders.

It’s not really until I physically start to make a piece of string myself that I truly begin to appreciate it as art. It takes not only time, but skill; true craftsmanship. As I admire my rudimentary handiwork, Glenn Barkley’s reaction to the string I saw hanging on the wall - ‘it’s so beautiful’ - comes back to me and I really can see it; how this humble everyday object is not only beautiful on an aesthetic level but how it represents so simply and elegantly a myriad of things – human ingenuity, the continuation of tradition, the connection between spirit and nature – all twirled up in hand-rolled strands. Can contemporary art aspire to do much more than that? 

string theory: Focus on Contemporary Art is a free exhibition on at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney until 27 October 2013.

Rachel Robinson
Article reproduced from www.abc.net.au