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.”