Why Australia? For almost 65,000 years, the Aboriginal population of Australia lived in complete isolation and conserved a unique culture and ecosystem.
Upon arrival of the Europeans at the end of the 18th century, the Aboriginal community was made up of a number of tribes that shared a worldview where the physical (the earth), the human and the sacred were totally integrated.
The European perspective clashed with the culture of Aboriginal Australians, in which space and time are a continuum, where the population develops in open space as a community, in which there are often no superior figures but rather a people where everyone has their role and connections to the earth are contingent on the spiritual life. This process can be seen in the “Dreaming”, stories that talk about the early times, the creation, in which the tales are timeless, with lessons that are always valid and shown differently in each present. They are a mode of communication and teaching that have been orally transmitted over the years; some of them find outlet in the natural world, and are expressed through songs, dances and ephemeral paintings and textiles. This is the great Aboriginal wealth: the form in which their knowledge is expressed, and not the creation of large monuments, cities or written works. It was only in the 70s that the Aboriginal peoples started to make use of permanent media such as canvases and acrylic paints, where many paintings resemble traditional textiles.
These fundamental differences led to a gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, leaving us with the task of discovering, accepting, transmitting and programming the knowledge of local peoples. In the search for this wealth, and to enable it to be valued by many more, we have sought communities where the traditions and worldview are conserved in their purest form. We had the opportunity to work together to take these paintings and give them back their living form as textiles.
Our very first encounter with the duality of the country where we were going to develop this part of PET Lamp project was while researching different Australian maps. In a night satellite view we could see concentrations of inhabited areas along the coastline, giving the sensation of an empty inland territory.
To our surprise, a second satellite map revealed plenty of lights throughout the inland area, as a sign of the supervised fires the indigenous people manage inside the bush. The two parallel forms of life inspired us to create a sort of imaginary Australian map, where the PET plastic bottles represent the urban cores and the weaving recalls the Aboriginal reality.
Another of our major influences was the moment when we confronted highly sophisticated and expressive Aboriginal paintings found firstly at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and later at the NGV in Melbourne. These were mainly paintings from the Deserts area. The visual approach of many of these paintings is strikingly more similar to weaving techniques than to the brush stroke: crossed overlaid or parallel lines, great concentric circles and spirals, etc.
Impressed by the visual strength of the paintings, we aimed to imprint the woven piece with the very same graphic symbols from which it seemed to have come from.
Aboriginal art originally had ceremonial purposes and a sacred aura, with a great spiritual charge. Nowadays, traditional forms and techniques, such as bark paintings and engravings on rocks are evolving and coexist with the new materials including acrylic and canvas, in order to enhance the artists’ repertory.
The major focus of the indigenous people’s lives is the spiritual approach called the Ancestral Realm, generally referred to as the “Dreaming”, which comprises their life forces, cosmologies and belief systems. The ancestral forces lie in the land itself which is considered the source of physical and spiritual nourishment of each generation, hence the strong connection between the people and their lands.
The Aboriginal culture still preserves numerous languages and dialects that along with the visual literacy inspired by the Dreaming represent another mean of transferring the knowledge from one generation to another. The Aboriginal art takes its major themes from the amazingly rich spiritual realm and it mainly consists of paintings, sculptures and weaving of fibres.
Ramingining is an Indigenous community in the Northern Territory, Australia, 560 km east of Darwin. It belongs to Arnhem Land, one of the regions where the Aboriginal traditions and worldview are conserved in their purest form.
Ramingining is a young community. Before its establishment in the early 1970s, the aborigines used to be nomadic hunters and gatherers with well-defined territories.
At the moment, Ramingining can be reached by car or by plane. We approached it after a one-day car trip crossing Kakadu National Park and the surrounding smoky forests. Despite of the modern things in the village such as the airport terminal, the general store, the school, etc., the indigenous people still preserve old habits and practices. They skillfully keep burning the landscape in order to make easier access through vegetation or to encourage new growth of certain species.
During our six weeks stay, we alternated both workshop time and cultural engagement. We took part into the crab hunting in the mangroves, witnessed kangaroo hunting and shared just cooked snake with the other members of the community. Living together with the Aboriginal people has represented an enriching experience and a great opportunity to approach their spiritual realm.
After having immersed in the Aboriginal people’s day-to-day activities, we started preparing the workshop. The whole process of making a mat is normally completed on the same day: the collection of the raw material, its preparation and the weaving labour are surprisingly close in time steps, imprinting these creations with an immediate nature.
The natural fibre used by the artist weavers in Ramingining is called pandanus. They collect the fresh fibre from the palm trees and then peel off the leaves in order to get them ready for the boiling and colouring process. We used to go into the bush all together with nothing else but a few cutting tools like a machete and come back with the arms full of pandanus leaves and special roots employed as natural pigments.
As they use fresh fibres, the colour palette normally depends on the season of the year. In this case, we obtained yellow, red and black tones, the latter ones being obtained from the mixture with ash of eucalyptus bark.
The colouring consists of boiling the leaves and pigments all together and then the pandanus is left to dry in the sun. It was after the pieces acquired shape, that we realized the colours we seemed to be inspired in the colours of the earth out of which the materials came from.
We arrived at the workshop in Australia as per usual, without a clear idea about the final shape of the piece, but with the aim of making use of the loose fringes of the ends of the traditional rugs and of weaving them together in one single lamp.
We held the workshop together with eight Indigenous artist weavers. From the very beginning, they started working on their own individual lampshades, building round figures based on their traditional mats, which perfectly matched the round shape of the PET bottle. The weavers integrated this strange object with their usual weaving technique in a very natural way. As the single lampshades acquired shape, new criteria of bonding them together started to raise.
Once all the bottles and natural fibres acquired shape, we had nine beautiful circular lampshades, with their characteristic hanging fringes. Nine pieces patiently handcrafted by eight weavers? Mary, one of the weavers, was holding two pieces instead of one. She immediately explained to us that, as twin sister of David Gulpilil, the most famous Aboriginal actor, she has a dual vision of the world and all her creations have a twin piece.
At this very moment, the nature of this family bond turns into a strong reason to connect the two pieces through some sort of umbilical cord. Our idea of this kind of link takes the form of a tightly woven sort of plait. We thought of adding some extra pandanus fibres onto this which allowed us to merge every individual piece together. The dual piece obtained by interweaving the fringes is the clear illustration of Mary’s particular reality and at the same time, of the strong nature of Aboriginal kinship.
Apart from this technical approach, contemplating “Yukuwa” (Feather string yam vine), 1984, an artwork by Frances Djulibing, served us as the conceptual starting point of bonding together the lampshades. Yukuwa suggests a type of family tree, showing kinship lines and the way family groups are tied together. The resulting piece had the aim of revealing these bonds through a co-design creative process.
The decision of linking Mary’s pieces into a single one represented a new source of inspiration for creating new bonds. On this basis, we start to explore the rich and complex universe of Aboriginal relationships that goes beyond the traditional blood tie. Elements such as one’s skin colour, language, territory or the different generations act both as nexus of union and frontiers between communities.
Far from being a homogenous entity, the Aboriginal culture encompasses numerous distinct languages and dialects as one of the main markers of identity. Each of these languages embraces very representative elements such as kinship patterns, traditions, beliefs, laws and art styles and consequently, they have come to act like natural frontiers between clans or communities.
Moreover, as part of their spirituality, the indigenous people are involved in a special relationship with their lands and certain animal species, so each person has an individual totem animal. The link is so strong, that for some time after someone’s death, neither the name of the person nor the name of the linked animal can be depicted or voiced.
Beyond the traditional family and kinship networks, we take a step forward to develop our own interpretation of the wide array of links between the weavers taking part in the workshop. Inspired by the Aboriginal links, we take the decision to bond together the individual pieces into one, as if the coloured fibres represented different kinds of relationships. Thus, the distribution of the lampshades meets the interpersonal ties as well as the imagery of a topographic map.
The larger format of this new approach results in a model of community, collaborative work. It brings together people from the same clan, who share very specific kin relationships and a common spiritual realm and therefore, the same inheritance of images, seen as a traditional form of copyrighting.
In a similar way, the new techniques incorporated into 1970s’ paintings and their public dissemination gave them a larger format which also encouraged collaborative work.
In our case, one of the weaver’s family bonds with her twin brother encouraged us to take a deeper look into the wide array of Aboriginal links and map out an interpretation of the relationships between the participating weavers. They proved a fast understanding of the concept which got materialized thanks to their know-how and a versatile weaving technique. Therefore, the joints in shape of plaits and the merging surfaces meet their interpersonal links as well as graphic symbols used in the indigenous paintings.
Bukmukgu Guyananhawuy (Every family thinking forward) 1:
Bukmukgu Guyananhawuy (Every family thinking forward) 2:
Like a mat with different cores interlinked by using a complex weaving technique, the final lamp reveals an astonishing resemblance to the Aboriginal paintings and topographic map of their lands.
Our proposal to link the individual lampshades is creatively solved by the weavers who depict natural elements rich in associations. Surprisingly, the visual language of the piece is more akin to the one used by the artists in the Deserts (vast central, western and southwestern deserts) than to the local one on the Arnhem Land (Northern Territory), mainly bark paintings.
Once finished, we could contemplate the visual alphabet of the piece including various graphic symbols. The cores in concentric circles, like in nite spirals, usually indicating a camp, a site, may be seen as the different Aboriginal communities; the meandering lines in between circles may refer to lightning, rain or vines and recall the level curves of a topographic map; the U-shapes, usually indicating a person or an ancestral being in human form, remind us of the meandering billabong, an oxbow lake in Australia, an isolated pond left behind after a river changes course; the small interlayer surfaces may represent in turn the numerous water holes found on their land.
There is a certain degree of visual and conceptual similarity between the weaving technique and the aboriginal painting methods. The wide range of natural tones of the fibres compose a balanced colour palette that seems to be inspired in the colours of the earth out of which the materials come.
During our 6 weeks-long living together the Ramingining inhabitants, a whole universe of relationships and ancestral rules unfolded before our eyes. This way, we discovered three types of kinship between the weavers participating into the workshop: the traditional blood ties, the common totems and the territory they belong to.
The weavers shared several totems such as the goose, the rainbow snake, the crow, the crocodile and the Two Djakawu sister’s. They also belong to two different territories: the Billabong and Ramingining ones.
We lived a truly genuine experience of cultural immersion during 45 days, so we also established family bonds with these talented women. Therefore, we were adopted by three of the weavers: Álvaro was adopted by Mary, Enrique by Lynette and Sebastian by Evonne.
The result of the workshop was two unique Bukmukgu Guyananhawuy (Every family thinking forward)lampshades. One of them belongs to the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria and the other to PET Lamp Studio in Madrid.
In order to turn the two pieces in functional lamps, we designed a complex system that fulfills both hanging and lighting purposes. As a sign of respect to the piece, the applied system has a non aggressive and reversible intervention. We aimed to subtly integrate the system and adapt it to the textile visual language of the piece in a way that the lampshade keeps being the protagonist. Therefore, the structure consists of fine cables and strings, skillfully stitched one by one to the natural fibre.
The system we created enables the great surface of the lampshade to float in the air as flat as possible. Every PET bottle is suspended by a steel cable, acting like the centrepiece of each individual radial area. To keep all areas balanced, we developed a tensioning system by using cables which radially come out from the neck of the bottle and distribute the forces as if it were a bridging system.
In turn, the electrification system is conceived to spotlight the masterpiece. The bulbs are encased in aluminium holders hanging from each bottle that point upwards. This way, the lamp is not a conventional light source, but an illuminated object which offers a revealing shadows play on the ceiling and a new perspective of the complexity of the material. We played with the height of the hanging bulbs according to the diameter of each circle area in order to create a similar effect to the family tree from “Yukuwa” (Feather string yam vine), 1984, an artwork by Frances Djulibing.
Thanks to the versatility of the system, we were able to replicate it in the piece exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria. The two masterpieces turn into a complex, harmonious merge between Aboriginal kinships, weaving technique, topographic elements and design. The earliest form, the traditional Aboriginal mat, acquires a new shape and meaning; it lifts off the ground to become an enlightened floating woven surface revealing the complex world of the Aboriginal culture.
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón
Enrique Romero de la Llana
Sponsored in Australia by:
National Gallery of Victoria