– MCA Insight: string theory
string theory, showing at the MCA 16 August – 27 October 2013 presents a wide range of artworks by over 30 of Aboriginal artists working with expanded notions of textile and craft traditions.
'String theory’ is a scientific framework that posits a theory of everything. In the context of this exhibition, it implies expansion and connection across time and space, a porous and open-ended embracing of diverse approaches to the idea of ‘fibre’ or craft-based disciplines.
MCA Insight, our free smartphone app, extends the gallery experience of string theory by presenting the artist’s own voice through audio recordings and video.
Hear and see the highlights from the app below:
'When I was around 12 years old, my Aunty introduced me to jawun, a bicornual (two-horn) basket unique to the North Queensland Rainforest. She explained how jawun is used for a variety of purposes, including leaching out toxic substances from bush fruits, carrying food, or for ceremonial and mortuary purposes.
In these ten photographs, my fellow countryman and cousin Ethan Rist wears a jawun made by my Aunty and senior weaver Ninni Murray. Ethan wears the jawun in the traditional manner: on the head and hanging down along the back. In each image the jawun is filled with objects from my daily life. The photographs were then taken at places I visited almost every day, such as the local supermarket. Optimism is simultaneously a self-portrait and a family portrait. For me, jawun is a symbol of positivity, resilience and hope: a reminder of where I come from, my family and my culture'.
Born 1981, Townsville, Queensland.
Lives and works Sydney.
Albert’s work is held in a number of public and private collections within Australia including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Museum of Australia, Canberra; Queensland Art Gallery ǀ Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane; the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth.
Tony Albert, 'Optimism' in string theory (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2013
Tony Albert on traditional culture in contemporary life
Tony Albert responds to string theory
This feathered string represents the Yukuwa, a type of yam vine that is an important totem of the Yirritja moiety. Besides physically representing the yam vine, the Yukuwa suggests a type of family tree, showing kinship lines and the way family groups are tied together. The string maps out the relationships of family, clan and kin. The Yukuwa also symbolizes renewal of people and land, it is expressed in body painting designs, song lines, dance, weaving and various ceremonies.
Yukuwa is often used at large gatherings of different clans. The feathered string is used as part of a dance, brought into ceremony by dancers and displayed as a form of identification. Once the ceremony is complete, the Yukuwa is given to a custodian to keep safe and is only show again at the next ceremony'.
Made especially for string theory, Djulibing's work is a reprisal of an earlier work by Mary Gubriawuy. The work, Yukuwa (Feather string yam vine) (1984) was shown as part of the exhibition Objects and Representations from Ramingining, curated by Djon Mundine for the Power Gallery in 1984. The J W Power Collection, University of Sydney, which is now managed by Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased the entire contents of the exhibition in 1984. It was the first major purchase of Australian art by the Power Collection, a deeply symbolic act that continues to resonate into the present.
Born 1963, Maningrida, Northern Territory.
Lives and works Ngangalala (Reny) Homeland, Northern Territory.
Yolngu people, Yirritja moiety, Daygurrgurr clan, Bangaditjan skin, Gupapuyngu language
While born in Maningrida, Frances Djulibing spent most of her childhood travelling between Elcho Island, Ramingining and Milingimbi. She was taught her artistic skills by her father Johnny Daingangan, and her weaving techniques by her mother Nancy Muwalpindi.
Currently residing about 10 km from Ramingining in North Eastern Arnhem Land, Djulibing is the Chairperson of Bula’bula Arts Aboriginal Corporation, as well as being a mother, grandmother, actor, weaver, linguist, translator, educator and comedian. She is best known for playing the lead female role in 10 Canoes, the 2006 film by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, and was the subject of Darlene Johnson’s documentary River of No Return. Recently, Djulibing worked as associate producer on Charlie’s Country, the film by Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil, and is part of a theatre adaptation of King Lear, titled The Shadow King, for Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in October 2013.
Djulibing is committed to teaching her children and grandchildren the techniques and stories she learned from her parents, noting, ‘These kids are our future and I want them to carry on the tradition’.
Glenn Barkley, 'Hours of doing' in string theory (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2013
Frances Djulibing on reprising Mary Gubriawuy's work
'One of the countless injustices contributing to the damage was the systematic exploitation of young Aboriginal women and girls forced into years of mostly unpaid domestic servitude'.
Harding’s own mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were all ‘in service’, and over the years they have told him their stories and those of their contemporaries. These cultural and familial memories are loaded with the racism of our nation’s histories and our continued silencing of them. These stories have been the single biggest influence on Harding’s work to date.
– Tess Allas
Born 1982, Moranbah, Queensland. Lives and works Brisbane.
Bidjara and Ghungalu people
The artist is currently undertaking his Honours year of study having completed a Bachelor of Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art at the Queensland College of Arts, Griffith University in Brisbane. Throughout his degree the artist has received numerous awards including a Griffith University GAS Award in 2012.
Tess Allas, 'A stitch in time' in string theory (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2013
Dale Harding on the validity of oral history
Born 1953, Roma, Queensland. Lives and works Brisbane.
Trained in graphic art and working across range of mediums including drawing, painting and sculpture, Laurie Nilsen is widely known for his sculptural works using barbed wire which engage with cultural, political and environmental debates and ideas. While much of Nilsen’s work addresses issues that directly impact on the lives of Aboriginal people, he also recognises the universality of such concerns.
In the early 1990s Nilsen became a founding member of the Campfire Group Artists, becoming notable for being one of the first ‘urban’ Aboriginal artists whose work was collected by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Today Nilsen is an active member of the proppaNOW collective in Brisbane that also includes artists Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Richard Bell, Megan Cope, Jennifer Herd and Gordon Hookey.
Nilsen is an important mentor to younger artists through his artwork and as a lecturer in contemporary Australian Indigenous art at Griffith University in Brisbane.
He was the recipient of the 24th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award for sculpture in 2007. His work is held in numerous private and public collections, including the Australian Museum, Sydney, and the National Museum of Australia, Canberra.
Laurie Nilsen introduces Just another Black C (2011)
Listeners are advised that this recording contains explicit language.
'Vicki West is renowned for her work with bull kelp, a natural product that she sources directly from the oceans near her home in Launceston, Tasmania. Bull kelp was traditionally used by Tasmanian Aboriginal people to make water carriers and drinking vessels. It is a practice that has been handed down from generation to generation and West is one of the most active of the current keepers of cultural knowledge for this medium.
Inspired and informed by this knowledge, she creates work that is seemingly contradictory – traditional in form yet contemporary and highly conceptual in nature. In both content and form, the work speaks of the history of Aboriginal occupation in Tasmania, whispering to us of the unspeakable acts of violence committed against her people. Inseparable to this unspoken racism is the issue of environmental exploitation and degradation, and her work contains poignant concern for her country and the daily life of her people past, present, and future'.
– Tess Allas
Born 1960, Launceston, Tasmania. Lives and works Launceston.
An Aboriginal artist of the Trawlwoolway people from the North-East region of Tasmania, Vicki West’s arts practice includes large-scale installations incorporating multiple elements, smaller-scale sculptural works, textiles, painting and new media. She draws on traditional Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural practices and materials to create contemporary artworks that explore and celebrate cultural survival in the face of continuing colonial myths about the extinction of her people, noting ‘we are still here’.
Tess Allas, 'Soundings' in string theory (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2013
Vicki West on working with kelp
String was used for all manner of functional purposes by Aboriginal cultures: for fishing lines, nets and other snares and traps; to make bags for gathering and carrying; for hafting tools, and lashing structures such as watercraft together. It was also the basic ‘stuff’ for making body wear, and items of adornment usually for ceremonial purposes: necklaces, belts, armbands, headbands, pubic covers, chest harnesses. In Yolngu culture in North-Eastern Arnhem Land, string features in myth as an attribute of ancestral beings, attaining a sacred resonance and power. Lengths of decorated string are festooned from poles in ceremony, symbolically linking different clans and their territories together, and linking past, present and future generations.
The string figures of Yirrkala were documented by anthropologist Fred McCarthy, who in 1948 spent nine months in Arnhem Land, studying the construction methods of the string figures and their meanings. McCarthy collaborated with Ngarrawu Mununggurr to create a large collection of 192 mounted string figures, which is now held in the Australian Museum in Sydney.
The series of string figure prints in this exhibition were prompted by the reconnection of the community with this collection. In Yirrkala today there is a popular repertoire of simple figures and tricks that just about everyone knows, but the extensive lexicon of designs that McCarthy recorded is no longer current. These prints were made by older women – some practising artists; the eldest a near contemporary of Ngarrawu – largely recalling a past skill, something they used to do, something they used to be good at. Most had not picked up a string for many years. The women went about remembering how to make designs through a practical interplay of thinking and doing, of hand and mind. If they recalled particular techniques, and took pleasure in the fluidity of these manipulations, they might not necessarily remember the correct order in which movement built on movement in sequence to achieve a particular outcome – the figure they were searching for. Then they might work it out. Having ‘got it’ once, the next time they might ‘fluff it’ – a cause for laughter. The process could be testing, if not painful, shadowed as it was by the knowing sense of a loss that was not merely personal. In the course of things, each of the women recollected a number of designs – interestingly, largely different ones from each other – which became their own personal repertoire.
The making of collections of mounted figures was a way of hedging against the expected imminent loss of Indigenous cultures, by preserving a record. Loss is inherent to their conception and is something we can read in the strange ‘stillness’ of these images. In translating an ephemeral, embodied performance art into a fixed, stable two-dimensional form there is a lot that is left out, taken away. In the making, string figures are never still.
I can’t help but feel these prints have a melancholic beauty like the collections on which they are based. But abstracted from that history, passed through the roller of the printing press, displayed in the white cube of the gallery, they are becoming something else.
- Robyn McKenzie
Robyn McKenzie, 'The String Figure of Yirrkala’ in string theory (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2013
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– Digital Content Producer
Tristan works in the zone where digital interaction touches curatorial, art and institutional practices, creating new and innovative content across the MCA’s digital platforms.
He has a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Hons 1) from Sydney College of the Arts, and studied at the Universität der Künste Berlin. Having come to the MCA from Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney, Tristan is also a practicing artist who has exhibited in both Sydney and Berlin.