Yvonne Koolmatrie works at the intersection of past and present. She creates works at the same river where her ancestors once met, using the same traditional rush grasses they harvested. And yet her works speak of revival, innovation and the personal journey of a modern Ngarrindjeri woman, who has lived in constant connection with her homeland and its long, ancient history, writes Louella Hayes.
At the heart of Yvonne Koolmatrie’s work is her homeland: Ngarrindjeri country. Stretching from the lower Murray River to its mouth at the Coorong lagoon is the land of the artist’s mother and her ancestors.
Koolmatrie has lived all of her life in Ngarrindjeri country. She has traversed its landscape since childhood – by car, on horseback and on foot. Through seasonal work, hard times and personal tragedy, her life’s journey has seen her revive a near- extinct Ngarrindjeri artform, and become a master of her craft. Weaving sculptural forms with native grasses, Koolmatrie’s practice entwines ancestral stories with her own personal history in the Riverland.
The river pervades Koolmatrie’s work. Not only in the materials harvested along its shores, but, importantly, in its ability to connect the artist to her culture and past. To begin a work, she goes to the river. Here, Koolmatrie collects her materials and weaves. ‘The river inspires me,’ she says, ‘I’ll start weaving and, as I go, I’ll think, “I’m going to make an aeroplane,” and then I’ll think about how it looks.’ Her subject matter spans from burial baskets to hot air balloons, but Koolmatrie’s works are not planned or sketched out before she begins to weave. She works in a meditative state, allowing the material to guide her decisions on form and scale.
The pleasure Koolmatrie finds in this process lies in its ability to connect her with the past. ‘You go into another world,’ she says, ‘you think how hard it was for these people. There was no breakfast waiting for the children, they had to make baskets and nets to trap the food. When I create, I go back in time. They’re gone, many years ago, but I love going to the river, where they once sat, and weaving.’ Koolmatrie’s deep love of her culture is also realised thematically through her works depicting dreaming stories from Ngarrindjeri country, such as the River Bunyip and the Rainbow Serpent.
Her own life stories are also vital to Koolmatrie’s work. Her love of weaving and dedication to preserving Ngarrindjeri culture has driven the artist forward in moments of doubt and darkness. Growing up, her family were seasonal workers: her mother picking oranges, her father shearing sheep. The children went to work with their parents and kept busy bringing in sheep and killing kangaroos. Together, the family travelled the width and breadth of the Riverland. There were times when they had no car, so Koolmatrie’s father bought a horse to carry their belongings, and they walked. ‘My life wasn’t an easy life,’ Koolmatrie says, ‘but it was a good life, because it taught me knowledge and wisdom.’
When her son died, Koolmatrie relied on weaving to lift her. ‘I came through that,’ she says, ‘because I had the fighting spirit to create.’ Later, the death of her partner stirred doubt that she may not be able to continue her work. But, again, her commitment to her culture kept her going. ‘I thought: I’m not giving up,’ she says, ‘I’m just going to carry on.’
This fighting spirit was present the day Koolmatrie attended a weaving workshop run by Aunty Dory (Dorothy Kartinyeri) in 1982. ‘I wandered down to the workshop while my kids were in school. There were about sixteen students there. Someone told me to just watch and listen, she (Aunty Dory) didn’t have time to work one-on-one. You had to grab what was there.’ Aunty Dory, who was thought to be one of the last people practising the coiled bundle technique that is distinctive to Ngarrindjeri weaving, passed away not long after that workshop, leaving Koolmatrie to continue developing her weaving practice independently. ‘When I left Aunty Dory, I picked all the wrong materials,’ she recalls, ‘But, from making mistakes, this is why I am who I am today.’
Today, Koolmatrie is recognised as a leading Australian artist and a master weaver. She considers exhibiting at the 1997 Venice Biennale to be a highlight of her career, as well as a pivotal moment in her life’s journey, being her first overseas trip. The work she exhibited in Venice, Eel trap, was a modern replica of a traditional object. It spoke of innovation and the ingenuity of culture. Koolmatrie’s eel trap works are now iconic of her incredible career.
From the time she started weaving in the 1980s, her biggest challenge has been to bring the traditions of her ancestors back to life, and to abundance. For Koolmatrie, the near loss of Ngarrindjeri weaving techniques from living memory has impelled her onwards, both to create work and to share her knowledge, so that future generations can carry on the practice.
Working to perpetuate her craft involves a great deal of teaching. Reversing the traditional dynamic of parents passing knowledge on to their children, Koolmatrie first taught her mother to weave.
Now she teaches younger generations, and is a mentor to Sydney based Indigenous artist, Jonathan Jones. Jones, whose practice explores cultural and historical relationships and ideas from Indigenous perspectives, works across a range of mediums, including printmaking, sculpture and film. Koolmatrie shows her pride when she says: ‘Jonathan is a weaver now. He goes around and collects piles of materials. He had this interest for a long time, so when he comes to visit, I teach him.’
In this way, Ngarrindjeri traditions live on, and the stories of the Ngarrindjeri people, both old and new, will continue to be told. Using materials plucked from the very land on which the stories came into being, Koolmatrie’s work embodies the landscape that formed it. While her greatest challenge has been the revival of her culture that, she says, has also been her greatest success. ‘I see the beautiful rush grass, I think of those people years ago, and I say thank you. It’s been a beautiful life.’
This article was first published in Artist Profile magazine and has been republished with their permission.
Image: ‘Riverland: Yvonne Koolmatrie’, 2015, exhibition view, TARNANTHI, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, photograph Saul Steed