Our hands weave, stitch and paint our histories as a people and the stories of our families. Our grandmothers, aunties, uncles, mothers and fathers taught us how to thread a needle, sew a possum skin cloak, and weave a basket. Descendants of knowledge holders have been creating on this continent for hundreds of thousands of years. Our struggle for survival, and ways of making and connecting, have grown alongside our understanding that our art practice reflects our resistance through joy and love. Our practices are not boiled down to just 'craft' or 'fine art'; our practices exist beyond the fragility of the western art canon. They are rooted in our sovereign spaces, generational love, knowledge and healing practice. My mother, aunties and uncles transferred this to my brother, Indi, my cousins and me, as we continue to honour their legacies through our own ways of creating.
When us mob create, we do so purposefully and with pride. I remember Elders attending workshops at the old Koorie Heritage Trust, the King St building, as a young girl. Their heads bent over as they rhythmically carved emu eggs. Stopping every now and then to sip their cuppa and have a yarn. Memories of sitting underneath my aunty's carport-turned-possum-skin-cloak-making studio and watching as she and my mum punctured the pelts with needle and wax-lathered thread. These memories are precious to me as an Aboriginal woman.
As days passed, the lines and circles flourished before my eyes expanded into a mapping only my family could understand. These moments instilled in me a deep understanding that our collective creativity has always existed in its own continuum. Every mark and every line is an inheritance of knowledge of over sixty thousand years of generations who have been cultural keepers of law, lore, language, waterways and care for Country. My mother's hands bleeding and covered in band-aids, were a reminder of the amount of work funnelled into honing your practice.
Process and almost-ready works underpin the need for slow healing, unrushed and waiting for us when we are ready. When I return home, I love walking into our living room where mum's coolamon is overflowing with quandongs. Half-finished paintings lean against the wall next to the old didgeridoo, and the silver jewellery sits on the shelf, ready for polishing. A sense of comfort sinks deep into my heart and belly. Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman, Dr Paola Balla, speaks of the significance of space that we foster as Aboriginal women. When we gather, we ultimately create safety for ourselves to survive the ongoing violence of colonisation we face every day, especially when living off-Country.1 Growing up, my family's homes were where my brother, cousins, and I would meet to create. During summer, when the quandongs could be spotted bright red from the roadside, we would go with my mum and aunties to collect them along the riverbanks of the millewa (Murray river). They would stretch up on their tippy toes and make sure to collect every single quandong.
In 1987, my family's collective, Kiah Kraft, began as a love project by my aunties and my brother's father, Uncle Peter Clarke.2 My mother later joined them around the table. The jewellery they produced with painted wood, echidna quills, and seeds collected through various travels, was used to set up the enterprise that Gunditjmara Elder Uncle Jim Berg would later collect. As past Assistant Curator at the Koorie Heritage Trust, I remember sliding out a drawer full of Kiah Kraft's painted wooden earrings and pendants on my first day in the collection stall. Pulling that draw out transported me back to my home, to the millewa and the meditative paint strokes of my mother's brush. The women who raised me were the inspiration of my childhood. They taught us, kids, how to appreciate storytelling and craft through their creative practises.
While writing, I have been listening to the documentary concert Wash My Soul in the River's Flow.3 Gunditjmara and Bundjalung Elder Uncle Archie Roach and Ngarrindjeri woman Aunty Ruby Hunter's music swept over me. Aunty Ruby speaks about how, when she was taken away from her family, her kin kept her culture and art for her, which she carried throughout her life through her weaving and the feather flowers she often adorned herself in. Sitting here listening to her, I am reminded how craftsmanship is an anchor for many of our mob who are still healing. The labour of love of Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal women, who breathe into their craft, is felt generationally.
Crafting started my and my mother's journey home to our Island Country, Gununa (Mornington Island). Through a jewellery-making project with Peter Eccles, Aunty Donna Brown and her daughter Aretha Brown. We travelled up to Doomadgee and the Island to teach the mob how to make with silver. Sitting in the local art centre Mirndiyan Gununa Aboriginal Corporation, with our countrymen, shaped me as a Lardil woman and my relationship with arts practice within my family. Observing my uncle, Sandy Hodge, and aunties, Gail Harradine, Kye McGuire and Kim Kruger, create silver jewellery in workshops cultivated an admiration for jewellery-making. In 2006, their artistry became a public outcome in the exhibition Shiny Shiny Blak Bling. The Blak Jewellery Finding Past Linking Present exhibition at the Trust exhibited my uncle's necklaces, earrings and pendants. Seeing the jewellery brought back a deep nostalgia for my childhood. I remember seeing Mum and Uncle Sandy's hands bend silver into shape and buff oxide to reveal the shine underneath. The pull of material created an adornment of celebration and remembrance.
My brother and I continue the legacies gifted to us by our family around our own kitchen tables. As we draw, thread and (occasionally) paint, we do so while standing on the shoulders of our kin. The stories we craft are tied to generations of Aboriginal women. Slow-moving practice is critical to healing and guides us as we continue to teach the next generations the importance of Aboriginal ways of storytelling. Our craftsmanship flourishes within its own sphere. Our practices remain rooted in the land and our stories, protected and connected to the legacies we continue to foster and shape into the future.
This text was commissioned by Craft Victoria for Craft Contemporary 2022.
Dr. Paola Balla. "The Blakyard." Paradise Journal, issue 1 (2022). https://www.paradise-journal.com.au/issues/issue-1-backyard/the-blakyard.
Koorie Heritage Trust, "The past is always embedded in the present," Seen and Unseen, (2021), exhibition catalogue. https://koorieheritagetrust.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/SeenandUnseen_Catalogue.pdf.
Roach, A., Bateman, P., Hodges, K., (Producers) & Bateman, P., (Director). (2021). Wash My Soul in the River's Flow, documentary. Wash My Soul Productions Pty Ltd.
About the Author:
Maya Hodge is a proud Lardil & Yangkaal emerging curator, creative, violinist and writer based on the lands of the Kulin Nation (Melbourne). Her practise explores the power of disrupting colonial narratives through curatorial and editorial project-based work dedicated to uplifting First Nations storytelling, healing and artistic autonomy in our own spaces.
Hodge is a president artist of This Mob Collective’s studio space, based at Collingwood Yards, and a founding member of Ensemble Dutala, Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander chamber ensemble. Her work has been published by Hardie Grant Books, Overland Literary Magazine and Cordite Poetry Review as well as contributed to projects with Short Black Opera, KINGS Artist-Run, Archie Roach Foundation, Arts House, Arts Centre Melbourne, YIRRAMBOI Festival, Blindside, West Space, Footscray Community Arts Centre, La Trobe Art Institute and Monash University Museum of Art.
In 2021, Hodge was awarded joint-Runner Up for the SBS Emerging Writers Competition.