The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son Ma­te­ri­als: wo­ven sedge Di­men­sions: 152cm x 39cm x 8cm and 235cm x 44cm x 8cm

Yvonne Kool­ma­trie, Eel traps (2008). Col­lec­tion Sam­stag Mu­seum of Art, Univer­sity of South Aus­tralia. On dis­play, Jef­frey Smart Build­ing en­trance, UniSA, City West Cam­pus, Ade­laide.

Yvonne Kool­ma­trie, who has spent much of her life liv­ing along­side the banks of the Mur­ray River, be­came in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned in 1997 when she was se­lected, along with Emily Kame Kng­war­r­eye and Judy Wat­son, to rep­re­sent Aus­tralia at the Venice Bi­en­nale.

For more than 30 years she has been re­viv­ing tra­di­tional fi­bre weav­ing tech­niques to cre­ate evoca­tive eel traps, burial bas­kets and yabby traps, as well as ob­jects such as a hot-air bal­loon and a bi­plane. She is con­sid­ered the “in­dis­putable queen of Ngar­rind­jeri weav­ing”.

Kool­ma­trie is per­haps best known for her fun­nel-like eel traps, which are based on the func­tional de­vice her an­ces­tors used to catch the slimy, rather dan­ger­ous, elongated fish that many con­sider a del­i­cacy. For her weav­ing ma­te­ri­als she uses sedge grass, a cul­tur­ally sig­nif­i­cant plant for the Ngar­rind­jeri peo­ple that grows along the Mur­ray River. She was first in­tro­duced to the art of weav­ing in 1982 at a one-day work­shop held by Dorothy (Aun­tie Dor­rie) Kartiny­eri.

“Weav­ing is linked to the river and its health,” Kool­ma­trie has said. “When the river suf­fers, the sedge grass is harder to find; when it flour­ishes, so do the rushes. Weav­ing is vi­tal to Ngar­rind­jeri cul­ture, it sus­tains us.”

Two of Kool­ma­trie’s eel traps are in the col­lec­tion of the Sam­stag Mu­seum of Art at the Univer­sity of South Aus­tralia. When I visit Ade­laide, the mu­seum’s direc­tor, Erica Green, shows me the works, which are on dis­play to the public in the univer­sity’s Jef­frey Smart Build­ing.

Green says when she first ap­proached the artist in 2008 to un­der­take a com­mis­sion, Kool­ma­trie was ini­tially cau­tious.

“She ad­vised me that the process would be ex­ten­sive, in­volv­ing con­sid­er­able com­plex­ity and time to pro­cure the nec­es­sary sedge grasses along the Mur­ray in Ngar­rind­jeri coun­try, and in such a way that al­lowed for re­gen­er­a­tion,” Green says.

“Once she’d made her de­ci­sion to pro­ceed, it was as much the gath­er­ing and treat­ment of her ma­te­ri­als, and the spirit of that process, that un­der­wrote the mean­ing in the work.

“The end re­sult was ex­tra­or­di­nary. While Yvonne’s eel traps de­rive from their orig­i­nal tra­di­tional pur­pose — and the clever Indige­nous ma­chin­ery for procur­ing food — she has evolved a lovely aes­thetic sen­si­bil­ity that el­e­vates and trans­forms her ob­jects in such a way that they be­come high art.”

Green says Kool­ma­trie’s “two huge and won­der­ful eel traps are prob­a­bly the most al­lur­ing and beau­ti­ful works in the Univer­sity of South Aus­tralia art col­lec­tion. Per­haps sen­sa­tional would be a bet­ter word.

“I loved work­ing with Yvonne, a mod­est, pur­pose­ful and kindly artist, and I’m proud that Sam­stag com­mis­sioned her. When dis­played sideby-side at the Sam­stag Mu­seum in 2009, il­lu­mi­nated dra­mat­i­cally with sub­tle light­ing, the two eel traps spoke pow­er­fully of skill, an­cient com­mu­nal voices, and of ex­cep­tional lives lived ful­fill­ingly in na­ture.”

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