River Dreaming - woven fibre mat by Yvonne Koolmatrie, National Museum of Australia. Photograph by George Serras.
Yvonne Koolmatrie, River Dreaming
I belong to the Ngugi people of Quandamooka, whose beautiful saltwater Country meets the Great Ocean. Across past and present generations, knowledge and memory have been carried in our weaving practices akin to the way the Great Ocean connects people, time, place, and experience. For Issue 1 of The Clam's Kiss | Sogi a le faisua I have selected the earlier fibre work of Ngarrindjeri weaver Yvonne Koolmatrie (b. 1944), which, for me, has illuminated the language of weaving as a conduit for the continuity of connection, community, and knowledge.
Almost three decades ago, Koolmatrie began weaving visually descriptive ‘story mats’ with the aromatic sedge that grows on the riverland region of her Country. Ngarrindjeri Country includes the Coorong, where the Murray River meets the sea and up through the Lower Lakes to the Lower Murray River region in what is currently called South Australia.¹ Koolmatrie’s close connection to the waterway is woven into forms inspired by its life, histories and environment, and the cultural belongings used by her Ancestors. One example of these story mats is river dreaming (1994). Flowing and connecting in ways evocative of the waters that move and come together across Country, river dreaming features a coiled weaving pattern with no signs of a beginning or end. This seamless unity offers a reflection on the continuous relationships existing between people, Country, culture, past and present time. In a broader sense, the interconnecting elements of cultural material, plants, animals, and figures woven into the storymat remind us that land, water, sky, the seasons, and all living beings are inseparable. This understanding echoes oceanic thinking, a bond with the world as a whole.
river dreaming, among other works created by Koolmatrie around this time, relates to the important momentum spurred by the cultural regeneration of weaving practices. In 1982, Koolmatrie attended a community workshop led by Elder Dorothy Kartinyeri, where she learnt how to harvest and prepare sedge, and to coil using the bundle technique.² Since then, Koolmatries’s art and life have been inseparable, devoted to the continuance of Ngarrindjeri culture through weaving. Over the years, she has shared her knowledge in workshops and weaving circles. Alongside her direct sharing, her work as a leading weaver has also inspired many First Peoples to re-establish/restore their unique weaving languages.
Almost thirty years on from Koolmatrie’s earlier story mats, the next generations of weavers continue to carry their inheritance forward with flair. On Quandamooka country, we are again gathering and weaving with the ungaire reed that grows in freshwater swamps on Minjerribah/Terrangeri. The strength of the ungaire habitat is supported by interconnecting peatlands and the freshwater streams that flow out into Quandamooka Bay, supplying ocean currents with nutrients.
Indigenous weaving practices inherently involve processes of sharing, caring, and collaboration. These tethers, grounded in Indigenous ways of working and being, inspire my thinking and approach to curatorial practice. This focus leans into intergenerational and community-responsive practices, to creating sites of sharing and exchange as part of processes of artistic production and of exhibition making. My understanding has also been strengthened by relationships near and far, across many Countries and the Great Ocean. These connections are grown through shared experiences and practices, which are continuing to nurture new and renewed collective ways of knowing and weaving for the way ahead.
We would like to thank Yvonne Koolmatrie for her generous permission in allowing us to present her work in this context.
¹ Kean, John. "The Beautiful Aroma of the Sedge." In Riverland: Yvonne Koolmatrie, edited by Genevieve O’Gallaghan, 123-31. Adelaide, South Australia: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2015.
² Moulton, Kimberley, and Tahjee Moar. "Yvonne Koolmatrie." In Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, edited by National Gallery of Australia, 85-86. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2017.
Freja Carmichael is Ngugi belonging to the Quandamooka People of Moreton Bay. Over the past decade she has worked alongside First Nation artists and communities as an independent curator on exhibitions, programming, collection research and writing. Freja’s work is focused on promoting and documenting First Nations fibre practices and creating sites of sharing and cross-cultural exchange between artists and communities in collaborative curatorial approaches. Recent curatorial projects have included national touring exhibition long water: fibre stories (2020-2022), Institute of Modern Art (IMA), Brisbane; and Weaving the Way (2019), The University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane. Freja has contributed writing to Artlink, National Gallery of Australia, IMA, Tarnathi and Cairns Regional Gallery among others. Freja was an inaugural participant of the National Gallery of Australia’s Wesfarmers Indigenous Arts Leadership Program and is a board member of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection Advisory Council. Freja is currently co-curating The National 4: Australian Art Now at Carriageworks, is undertaking a PhD with The University of Queensland and continues to work collaboratively with her family on Quandamooka weaving practices.