Mona Hessing, Songlines (1995). Ararat Regional Art Gallery Collection. Gift of the artist, 1997. On display, Ararat Regional Art Gallery, Victoria.
URING her lifetime, Mona Hessing was described as a superstar of Australian craft, and when she died unexpectedly of a brain haemorrhage in 2001, the craft movement mourned the loss of one of its most innovative practitioners.
Hessing was a pioneering, modernist fibre artist who was renowned for her large-scale wall hangings, which she produced in the 1960s right through to the 80s. She was often commissioned to create works for public foyers to soften the hard lines of modern architecture, such as her colossal, handloomed piece at the University of NSW or at the Australian embassy in Paris and the Sydney Masonic Centre.
Hessing was at the forefront of textile practice and was instrumental in breaking down the barriers between art and craft. She also was influential in introducing ideas from American, Scandinavian and European craftbased design into Australia.
In 1973, she was one of the first craftspeople to exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria in the Clay + Fibre exhibition. At the time, critic Patrick McCaughey (who later become director of the NGV) was the one who described her as a superstar of Australian craft, saying she ‘‘ explodes the familiar perimeters of the crafts’’ and ‘‘ declares a new imaginative status’’.
Hessing was born in 1933 in Kurri Kurri, NSW, and trained at the National Art School in Sydney from 1951 to 1956. She worked as a teacher and design consultant until the mid60s when she decided to become a full-time fibre artist. In 1967 she travelled overseas to study weaving and visited India, where she stayed for a year to design and weave a wallsized tapestry for the editor of Design magazine, Patwant Singh. The vivid colours of Indian textiles became an im- portant influence on her work and she returned to India numerous times.
While Hessing is known for her monumental woven sculptures, she also produced more intimate, domestic work, such as Songlines, on display at Victoria’s Ararat Regional Art Gallery, about 200km west of Melbourne.
Songlines, from 1995, is named after Bruce Chatwin’s controversial but much loved book, The Songlines, about the ‘‘ Dreaming tracks’’ of Aboriginal creation songs and their pathways that crisscross the continent.
When I visit Ararat, the gallery’s director, Anthony Camm, shows me notes written by Hessing about the influence of Chatwin’s book on her work. In these notes, which Hessing provided to the gallery before her death, she writes about how she was ‘‘ touched to the very depths’’. ‘‘ I felt inspired to express my response in tangible terms,’’ she wrote. ‘‘ For me, fibre seemed to be the perfect medium to convey the intricate meandering yet focused habit and quality of these pathways ... the sumptuous cosmic web which connects and merges the energies of all beings, all things.’’
For Hessing, the red-brown raw jute she used in the work symbolises ‘‘ Mother Earth, soft, lush, warm and breathing’’. The concave container shape of the bowl refers to ‘‘ cradling and protecting’’, while the tracks of fibre signify ‘‘ fulfilling our inevitable destiny of endless journeying of the soul’’.
Hessing’s Songlines is a more personal vision than her earlier works, which were ‘‘ grand and public, important cultural statements’’, according to Camm.
‘‘ This connects back to early craft forms, and the bowl as a very ancient cultural object,’’ he says, ‘‘ and I think there is something symbolic and deeply significant in this for Hessing. ‘‘ What I like about Songlines is that you get this tension between the raw material, like the shiny undyed jute, which forms the container, and the various coloured woven strands contained within. It might be a bowl, a vessel, but it seems to be filled with
Unspun raw jute, dyed, glued, shaped, handspun silk, dyed and wrapped; 17.5cm x 52cm x 52cm