Weaving the Murray: mapping connection and loss
‘Craft objects, stories and performance are integrally bound up in our sense of identity, our understanding of the past and our articulation of the unresolved concerns of the present.’ (Rowley 2001 p84)
This paper outlines the use of Indigenous and non-Indigenous stories and textile traditions as strategies for recalling past history in South Australia in the official Centenary of Federation project, Weaving the Murray. The project brought seven Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists (including myself) together to weave a narrative based on the social and cultural history of the Murray River, the driest continent’s largest watercourse. A crucial issue for the artists was the negotiation of difficulties inherent in commemorating, through intercultural art practice, an event that forged national identity through the exclusion of Indigenous Australians.
When I began writing this paper I was untroubled by Rowley’s use of the pronoun ‘our’ in her proposition about the relation of craft objects and stories to identity, to history. But when I’d written a draft I was asking myself ‘whose identity, whose past and whose concerns’? Do the incommensurable differences between the experience of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians require this ‘our’ to be differentiated?
This paper traces my own journey as I sought to answer this question, and is written from my perspective as a white, middleclass woman of Anglo Welsh descent. I was of that generation of white girls able to complete her secondary education. I then went to art school before embarking on a long career as an artist and art educator, with extensive experience working in community tapestry. I’m now Professor and Head of the South Australian School of Art.
While I was born in Australia, I spent my childhood in Papua New Guinea in the 1950s, at that time a territory under Australian colonial rule, where the hierarchies of white power and Papuan dependence were strictly observed in public and private spheres. Schools were segregated and while we had Papuan servants we never had Papuan friends. Back in Adelaide, it was thirty years before I made contact with Indigenous Australians through my interest in their textile practices.
In writing this paper I have drawn on my own experience and notes, referencing official publications from the Centenary of Federation, the catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, and the meeting notes kept by the Weaving the Murray team. The paper re-examines the premises on which the project was based and the collaborative process of its making to better understand some of the tensions that arose in the process of making the work, tensions subsumed by the work’s success, as the project was, finally, a great public success.
The installation of Weaving the Murray, accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue, was shown in two prestigious events, first at the Art Gallery of South Australia in January 2002 as a culmination of the Centenary of Federation celebrations, and later that year in March during the biannual Adelaide Festival of Arts at the Prospect Gallery. The work was accepted into the collection of the South Australian Museum and is currently on display in the offices of the Minister of Tourism of the South Australian Government.