Internationally renowned Ngarrindjeri weaver, Yvonne Koolmatrie, was presented with the Australia Council’s prestigious Red Ochre Award for 2016 at the 9th National Indigenous Arts Awards at the Sydney Opera House on Friday, 27 May.
Yvonne Koolmatrie was born in 1944 in Wudinna, a small town in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, and grew up in the state’s Coorong wetlands and Riverland districts.
Yvonne’s remarkable career as a master weaver began in 1982 after attending a one-day workshop in Meningie in South Australia presented by elder and weaver Dorothy Kartinyeri – Aunty Dory – thought to be one of the last people practising the ancient coiled bundle weaving technique.
Aunty Dory taught several participants, some of whom were male, to harvest the sedge grass and river rushes; which plants to choose; how to work the fibres into a form suitable for weaving; and the coiled bundle technique. She passed away not long after the workshop, but had delivered the knowledge of this beautiful art form into safe hands.
“It’s a great honour to receive the Red Ochre Award, to see the response and support from national indigenous arts and to be acknowledged as a master weaver, is overwhelming. I wish Aunty Dory and Dunc could be here to see this. I reckon they’d be very proud.”
Yvonne mastered the traditional weaving technique and began to experiment with her own ‘stitch’. She developed a distinctive style, started to research in museums to look further afield than the forms and objects she had been weaving, and began to infuse her work with Dreaming narratives such as the River Bunyip, or Mulgewanki (moolyawonk) and the Rainbow Serpent.
With her first exhibition in 1987, Yvonne’s art has been widely showcased over four decades around metropolitan and regional Australia including at ‘Beyond The Pale’ (2000 Adelaide Biennale); the ‘Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition’ (Art Gallery of NSW); ‘Tarnanthi’ (2015 Art Gallery of SA); and ‘Off Shore: Onsite’ (Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre), which brought together Indigenous visual artists from around Australia and the world as part of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games’ ‘Festival of the Dreaming’ in 2000.
Yvonne also has works held in collections of the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan; South Australian Museum; National Museum of Australia; Art Gallery of Western Australia; National Gallery of Victoria; and National Gallery of Australia.
In 1997, Yvonne was selected, along with artists Judy Watson and the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale with the exhibition ‘fluent’, an experience she describes as ‘a career highlight’.
Playing a pivotal role in the revival of a near-lost art, Yvonne has worked tirelessly to share her knowledge and has run numerous workshops to teach the rush weaving technique. She is also teaching her four year-old granddaughter, Lurline, determined the keep the practice alive.
“Ngarrindjeri weaving should be passed down to the next generation, to preserve the culture. Weaving is vital to Ngarrindjeri culture, it sustains us. This is very important to me. In 1982, I saw an article that stated that our weaving culture was extinct. It motivated me to prove otherwise as today it is still very much alive,” Yvonne said.
Yvonne’s son Chris Koolmatrie, who learned to weave from his mother said: “She’s a very humble person, but I’m so glad she’s being acknowledged because she has shone the brightest light on this art of weaving and helped people to rediscover it.”
Stephen Gilchrist, Associate Lecturer of Indigenous Art at the University of Sydney, said: “With her inventive and whimsical sculptural forms in fibre, Yvonne Koolmatrie has almost single-handedly rewritten the language of weaving. Her unwavering commitment to honour the spirit of the Ngarrindjeri is echoed in every coiled stitch.”
Yvonne credits the river as her inspiration, a sign of her deep connection to country.
She thought her weaving career was over after the passing in 2012 of her partner of more than 20 years, Duncan Shadrack Daniels, of the Wakka Wakka clan and Murri Peoples of Cherbourg in Queensland.
“Dunc was a wonderful support to me, especially with my weaving. Not just encouraging me, but he helped me in practical ways, like gathering my materials from the river, because I don’t drive. When he passed, I thought that might be the finish of my art,” Yvonne said.
Yvonne said that the kindness and support of friends inspired her to keep weaving, noting that Sydney-based installation artist Jonathan Jones and his partner, art writer and editor Genevieve O’Callaghan, and Gabriella Roy, Director of the Aboriginal & Pacific Art Gallery travelled to South Australia several times to help her collect material from the river.
Modest about her many career accolades, Yvonne said she is honoured to receive Australia’s most esteemed peer-assessed award for an Indigenous artist.