ABORIGINAL ART & CULTURE

The weavers of Langarra

We meet at the Milingimbi airport at 9am for our charter to the small community of Langarra. This is a very special invitation from community elder Ruth Ngalmakarra to take us back to her homeland. Langarra is an island, home to a small group of Aboriginal people.

"The bags and baskets completed in the proceeding weeks before our visit are brought out and tipped from large plastics sacks onto the matting around us"

These northern Arnhem Land island communities like Langarra have strong artistic and creative cultures. The nearby and larger community of Galiwin'ku, with its population of around two thousand Yolngu people, was the birthplace of now internationally famous musician Gurrumul Yunupingu. However beautiful Gurrumul’s work is, today is not for music, we are on our way to meet the weavers of Langarra.

We have chartered a plane from MAF and our pilot for this trip is Rene Don who is now based in Milingimbi. Andrea and I are accompanied by Ruth and Milingimbi Art Centre manager, Zanette Kahler. Rene weighs each of us and our belongings with great care as the Langarra airstrip is short and has tall trees at one end of the runway. We are of course very polite and don't check to see what the others weigh. It is not getting down to the airstrip, it is taking off again that could be the problem. As it turns out the wind is not in our favour and it looks like we will need to take off towards the trees, rather than over the beach side of the runway, so every gram matters.

Soon our small plane is bobbing down the Milingimbi runway, then lifting lightly into the air and up over the township of Milingimbi and out over the sea. It is possible to see the bush fires below with their wisping smoke stacks rising upwards into the blue sky.

Then out across open water with the occasional tinny (small aluminium boat) below us sparkling in the intense tropical light, local fishermen returning home.

There are the maze-like mangrove lined river systems that make you want to be down there to explore them, with all their small inlets and tributaries, from the air, appearing unspoilt by human hand. Here are the great Saltwater Crocodiles Crocodylus porosus with a stronghold in Northern Australia, there are turtles and a myriad of insect, fish and bird species. Below there are many things that bite.

Here too are the devastating introduced species, the cane toad, the water buffalo and the wild pig, all taking a vast toll on native species. One has to ask, given the remoteness of this place, how these species were allowed to get here in the first place? Take the water buffalo, introduced by early settlers, and we are now in one of its hotspots, populations in the north of Australia reached nearly 250,000 with intense damage being done trampling and grazing around species rich water sources. All of these introduced things with the potential to disrupt traditional ways of life and to destroy yet even more of Australia’s native species. All of which no doubt is a big headache for the Crocodile Island Rangers, now managing the region’s environmental heritage.

The small settlement of Langarra below us. The tree we sit under in the film clip is just beyond the most distant house and close to the tree line

The shadow of our plane dances on the waves below. Flying low is always a joy as the patterns of the seabed and land pass beneath us. Then we sight the small settlement of Langarra ahead, we fly in across the woodland below and circle down back out across the sea and then low over the beach as we touch down on the gravel runway.

Ruth is thrilled to be home and we are all thrilled to be with her on this return journey to homeland.

We unload the plane and we watch Rene roar the engine and take off again. We take the track that leads to the community. We say hello to everyone. There is a small cluster of housing with open areas to sit under and a small school for the young students and their visiting teacher. The settlement is by the sea. The sandy beach stretches in a curve, the occasional Pandanus and Casuarina-like tree giving shade along the sand line. The gentle waves wash on the shore. This is a beautiful place.

We walk on through the settlement and come to a large shade tree. Here we meet the weavers of Langarra sitting in the shade of the tree's branches. The artists are Margaret Rarru (Garrawurra) (winner 24th Telstra award for Bark Painting - a Ngarra body paint design), Helen Ganalmirriwuy (Garrawurra), Mandy Batjula (Gakamangu), Robyn Galitjpirr (Gakamangu) and Elizabeth Rukarriwuy. The children also sit here.

Ruth

Margaret

Helen

There had been a great deal of preparation for our visit, plants and roots had been gathered and a fire is burning and tin cans of water are steaming, all ready so that the artists can show us how they dye their fibres. The Pandanus has been laid out in various stages of preparation so we can see how it is prepared and readied for the dyeing process.

The next exciting thing that happens is that the bags and baskets completed in the proceeding weeks before our visit are brought out and tipped from large black plastics bags onto the matting around us. There are traditional dilly bag shapes and contemporary forms, a sensational commission from a New York buyer recently meant that Margaret found herself making a Madonna bra and Madonna bra basket, a work now of legend.

The weaving is delicate and skilled, the techniques handed down over generations.

 

We spend the next few hours with the weavers, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in laughter and sometimes watching the work going on around us. The time passes quickly and it would be possible to spend days here enjoying the skills and creativity of our newly found friends.

Somewhere in the distance we can hear a faint sound, it is Rene in his plane coming back to get us. It is time to go.

Manifest tin at Langarra airstrip: We have just placed our names in the tin so everyone knows who is on the aircraft

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SUBJECT: Weaving / Basket making / Yolngu / Arnhem Land / Aboriginal art and culture / Natural history