The Northern Territory Artists Reimagining Sea Detritus

The women of Anindilyakwa Arts transform what the ocean spits out into sculptures that carry within them traditional storytelling and a strikingly modern vision.

Article by Nannette Holliday

Maicie Lalara and Aly de Groot with Maicie’s – Yilkwa-Monster Fish, 2019. Photography by Ben Ward.

What began ten years ago as simply cleaning up the beaches surrounding Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria has unexpectedly grown into a thriving art and fashion business. Today, the Anindilyakwa female artists’ distinctive creativity is recognised by art dealers, galleries and fashionistas around the globe.

The women from Anindilyakwa Arts, an Indigenous-owned business, use ghost nets (discarded fishing nets), bottles and caps, wire and other sea refuse, pandanus fibres, bush-dyed fabrics and, more recently, digitally-created designs printed onto sustainable fabrics to create sculptures, baskets, jewellery and fashion that incorporate Anindilyakwa stories and culture.

Artists Maicie Lalara and Bernadette Watt with “Ghost Net Baskets”, 2019. Photography by Ben Ward.

The works have gained international acclaim with the Muséum d’histoire naturelle du Havre in France obtaining several ghost net sculptures, including two “Baby Monster Fish” by the artist Maicie Lalara. “The nets and other rubbish comes from overseas and washes up on our beaches,” says Lalara. “It floats for months, killing turtles, fish, crab and sharks — our food source. The Anindilyakwa Rangers collect it and give it to us art ladies to make something good from it.”

An experienced teacher, leader and workshop facilitator, Lalara is the only artist making such distinctive sculptures. Taking her about six weeks to create, “Yilkwa – Monster Fish” (2019), which is currently part of “Groundswell”, an Artback exhibition touring Australia, is made from bush-dyed fabric — which entails boiling certain roots, leaves, bark and berries bound onto fabric — ghost net and fishing line, and then covered in various marine debris including lighters and bottle tops. “I like making Monster Fish so much I work all night,” says Lalara. “I want people to see my culture, even how we still make baskets the new and old ways.”

Artist Maicie Lalara with her work, "Baby Monster Fish" that went to France and marine rubbish collected by the Anindilyakwa Land and Sea Rangers after a Groote Eylandtclean-up day, 2020. Photography by Syd Britten, Courtesy of ALC.

Weaving using both traditional and contemporary techniques is a hallmark of Anindilyakwa artists; master weavers Annabell Amagula and Elsie Bara adapt their traditional skills to incorporate detritus, creating a distinctive style of wearable art that also cares for their sea and Country. “Our jewellery comes from beach shells, seeds, shark and dugong teeth,” says Amagula. “Our bush dye colours come from the old ways. We use rusty stuff from the dump and leaves to make patterns. That little square on each scarf shows the story of the black from the dye pot and the string we wrap around the fabric.”

Learning ghost net weaving five years ago sparked Jeanelle Mamarika’s interest in also learning traditional weaving from her aunty Edith Mamarika. Today, her pandanus baskets are famous in their own right and some even feature on digitally printed dresses on show in the popular “Country to Couture” events in Darwin and Melbourne.

Jewellery from the Anindilyakwa Arts Collection, Country to Couture 2019. Photography by Ben Ward.
“Yirradarringka-langwa Akarwadiwada” - Women’s Work, modelled by Amathea Mamarika and Bernadette Watt, 2020. Photography by Anna Reynolds, Courtesy of ALC.

These dresses are a collaboration with non-Indigenous artists Aly de Groot and Anna Reynolds, which involves digitally printed textiles steeped in customary fibre practices. They earned the collective the Community Collaboration Award at the 2021 National Indigenous Fashion Awards. In 2022, these bush-dyed fashions (as well as the ghost net accessories) will travel to Paris Fashion Week.

Anindilyakwa Arts brings the community together to make and sell their art in one place; it’s something that Amagula says benefits everyone. “They pay us good money and profits stay within the community,” she explains. “If people buy direct from the centre we’re able to teach younger ones how to make art the old ways. The old people left us this for the future.”

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