‘Bringing the sun in’: Bula’Bula’s hardworking weavers dig color out of the red soil | native art

lEarly in the morning, at a billabong strewn with pink lilies, sisters Evonne Munuyngu and Mary Dhalapany collect pandanus leaves to weave. It is a very quiet place called Mungbirri, about 20 minutes drive north of the small town of Ramingining in the east of Arnhem Land.

The day is already very warm and the humid air is still there. Earlier, when the sun came up, we passed a waterhole decorated with bright yellow lilies at Yathalamara. Both places are stunningly beautiful and, we have been warned, full of crocodiles.

Margaret Djarbalarbal collects roots of djundom
Margaret Djarbalarbal collects roots of djundom

The stereotype of weaving as a sedentary, meditative practice is not true. This is hard work. The sisters use machetes to chop down the tall, spiky leaves. Then they strip away the sharp outer edge to reach the fiber inside. The third step is to split the fiber in half and collect it into bunches for dyeing.

This is a priceless masterclass. Evonne and Mary, along with Margaret Djarbalarbal, are considered the best weavers at the Bula’Bula Arts Center in Ramingining, a small town that has produced more than a good portion of the country’s finest artists. One of Ramingining’s best-known works are the 200 hollow logs that adorn the entrance to the National Gallery in Canberra. “It’s no ordinary place,” master bark painter David Malangi once said.

Weaving is a big part of that rich cultural tradition. A collaboration with the Yuwaalaraay fashion house MAARA Collective has sparked renewed interest in their work. The beautiful yet utilitarian pieces have a strong appeal in the new world of sustainable, low-impact, ethically produced fashion.

Evonne Munuyngu and Mary Dhalapany search for pandanus leaves in Mungbirri
Mary splits the leaves
Mary splits the leaves

“And besides, they’re the only people who can do this,” said Mel George, executive director of Bula’Bula Arts. “There’s actually such a small population in Australia that can do this kind of work.

“We should celebrate these amazing weavers who can go out and extract the natural resources of their land, because their work is so uniquely Australian.”

Evonne digs up djundom root at Wulkabimirri
Evonne digs up djundom root at Wulkabimirri

Stripping pandanus to make fiber is just the first stage of a long and labor-intensive process. Then we look for the right plants to make the dyes. Usually the women would make this journey early in the morning, but it is late in the afternoon as we drive on a corrugated dirt road along the Ramingining airstrip to Wulkabimirri, the land of Margaret’s father, to explore the roots of the djundom (morinda tree) to search. The air conditioning barely makes a dent in the soupy heat.

Suddenly Evonne yells for us to stop and she, Margaret and Mary are gone in a flash. They’ve seen the little plants they need.

Maria on the hunt for djundom
Maria on the hunt for djundom

Mary steps quickly into the woods, her slender and elegant figure fluttering through the trees, a shovel over her shoulder. She is the image of her famous twin brother, the late actor David Gulpilil. The sisters are very proud of him, and they often talk about him during our visit. Gulpilil died in November after a long illness, and while his body was flown back to Arnhem Land in early January and some formalities took place, he has remained in the morgue until now because heavy rains in the wet season made it impossible for him to rest. in his homeland in Marwuyu. They are saddened that his sad case is not yet over, but they hope it will be soon.

Mary uses a rock to break down the roots to make dye
Mary uses a rock to break down the roots to make dye

Evonne has already dug up one carrot – a purple one. Using the trowel and hands to scrape away the soft soil, she finds another, this time yellow. It is hot, there is no shade and the women work very hard. They stop after about an hour. They are each worth a bag, usually yellow, to take back to Bula’Bula Arts.

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Nothing about this job is easy, yet Evonne says they do some of it every day.

“It’s amazing that they can get into this jungle and bring out these beautiful objects,” Mel says. “We look around us, it looks very green, but underneath are all those colors, and they find and extract that. It’s just totally magical.”

Evonne puts the split pandanus in a pot to cook on the fire with djundom to start the dyeing process
Evonne puts the split pandanus in a pot to cook on the fire with djundom to start the dyeing process

Back at Bula’Bula, Mary places the roots on a burlap sack and uses a large smooth granite stone to break down the bark, revealing the bright orange-yellow flesh beneath. The whole lot – pulverized bark and roots – goes with the pandanus fibers in a large billiard pitcher of water.

The longer the billycan cooks, the more intense the color. Finally, when Mary lifts the leaves, they are a brilliant yellow. It’s like the sun is rising.

The fibers are dried while Evonne decides what to make next. It depends on the colors and her mood.

Mary lifts out the painted yellow pandanus
Mary lifts out the painted yellow pandanus

“I like doing all the weaving, especially dillybags, mats, and traps,” says Evonne.

She makes spectacular large mats and helped make woven hats that have been featured in several Australian fashion shows.

Mary makes to drive (dilly bags), mats, Colt (bush string bags) and intricate traps.

Evonne dries off the freshly painted pandanus
Evonne dries off the freshly painted pandanus

“I weave because it’s part of my culture,” she says. “When I’m weaving, I think about what to do next, but also about my family and how I can help them.”

Evonne weaves a traditional mat at Bula'Bula
Evonne weaves a traditional mat at Bula’Bula

A large mat can take several days, a large fish trap more than a week. The weave looks delicate, but is durable. These items are made to be used and built to last.

Another collaboration with Maara is planned. Bula’Bula has also worked for the interior design company Koskela, which has converted basketry into lampshades. The weavers like that their work has a utilitarian purpose, Mel says.

“Evonne talks about her work like the sun very often,” she says. “And maybe if it’s in someone’s house, it brings the sun in. It’s a very thoughtful, beautiful intention.”

Models show the collaboration between MAARA Collective fashion designer Julie Shaw and Bula'bula artists
Models show the collaboration between MAARA Collective fashion designer Julie Shaw and Bula’bula artists. Photo: Dylan Buckee

“But you don’t just get something beautiful, you support culture. You don’t just support one artist, you support their family. You support meaningful income for Aboriginal people that is earned in a culturally appropriate way.”

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