Crushed roots and dyed leaves: Lessons woven across time: The Australian

In Arnhem Land, senior weavers are passing on their ancient skills to a new generation of women.

Published Oct 23, 2023
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Sitting in the shade outside Injalak Arts Centre in West Arnhem Land, Lorraine Namarnyilk is talking about the time a local family encountered a bit of trouble while coming home from a hunting trip. It was the wet season and the lush billabong at the edge of their community of Gunbalanya had swollen. They drove up to Gerk Gerk Crossing, which was inundated.

“The water was getting high and they were crossing the road when a croc jumped on the bonnet,” she says. “They were reversing and some of the people were shouting with the kids and mother in the car.”

Tales of crocs are legendary around Gunbalanya. There was the time the water rose so high in the wet season that a couple of crocs made their way into the local sports and social club at the back of town. Then there was the nasty croc by the billabong that was chasing the children.

It’s not the wet season yet but at the beginning of October there are signs the rain is on the way. The air is soupy, the clouds are brooding and women are lighting fires in the grass by the billabong to hunt for longneck turtles. Burning the grass makes the animals easier to spot – plus the smoke scares away any crocs that might be hiding in the reeds. If you’re lucky enough to find a turtle you can stick it in the shower at home until you’re ready to cook it.

The roots of Pognolobus reticulatus are ground to make a yellow-orange dye.

Fibre artist Priscilla Badari cradling pandanus she collected. Picture: Renae Saxby

Painter Lorraine Namarnyilk grind plant roots at Injalak Arts Centre. Picture: Renae Saxby

With the giant rocks of Injalak Hill presiding over the expedition, we’re reminded that this is Stone Country. As dusk unfolds that evening the egrets wade among the waterlilies at the edge of the billabong and we are treated to an Arnhem Land symphony. The buzz of cicadas; squawking bats in the trees; the high-pitched chatter of a gecko. Smoke hangs thick in the air. The clouds look so bloated they could burst any moment but it’s still too early 

Weaving artist Lynne Nadjowh collecting pandanus leaves. Picture: Renae Saxby

Dilly bags woven by artists at Injalak Arts Centre. Picture: Renae Saxby

Ancient rock painting of Yingana at Injalak Hill. Picture: Renae Saxby

Tarnanthi is showing the first major survey of , which also will travel to Canberra next year. It includes a new painting AGSA is set to acquire, entitled Albert Namatjira, Slim Dusty and Archie Roach on Country, in which the two songmen cradle their acoustic guitars as esteemed Hermannsburg painter and Vincent’s

Priscilla Badari. Picture: Renae Saxby