Memories of Country

Photos by  Kara Riley

Photos by Kara Riley

As I enter Barometer Gallery, the soothing camphor smell of eucalyptus wafts over the space. Indigenous music pulses through the speakers and workshop organiser Kirsten Smith welcomes me with a warm cup of herbal tea. “This is how we welcome people” she says with a smile. “We have a cuppa, have a yarn. We don’t get straight into business”. Today I’ve signed up for an Aboriginal shibori dyeing class, where I’ll learn how to use different native plants to dye silks. It’s being led by Indigenous master dyer Eva Nargoodah, a Walmajarri artist who has travelled to Sydney from the tiny community of Jimbalagudnj, near Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley.

Today is part of a week long series of workshops and events educating people on indigenous art and craft techniques from around the world. It’s being sponsored by Global Sisters, an organisation which provides a platform for women to skill share and make an income from traditional arts and crafts such as jewellery making, toys and homewares.

As I sip my tea and get settled in, I notice the source of the fresh smell wafting about the room. Eucalyptus branches with young leaves are poking out of a pot of water on a gentle boil. Kirsten explains they are creating a dye bath from some lemon scented gum leaves that were gathered not far from the gallery space that morning. Already, an inky black colour has escaped the leaves and is swirling about the pot.

“We call it bush vicks” Kirsten says with a smile, and gives the pot a stir. Eva has joined us by this stage together with her daughter Ivy and further elaborates. The liquid concoction can be drunk to alleviate symptoms of cold and flu and the young leaves can be chewed for this purpose as well. In fact, most of the plants we are using in the workshop have medicinal properties and Eva explains this is how her interest in natural dyeing was first piqued.

Back in their community, Eva and Ivy practice bush medicine. They explain that women are the custodians of bush medicine and lore. Many plants that are used in bush medicine produce tannin-rich concoctions which both women started experimenting with, learning different techniques along the way. Kirsten is also a textile artist and encouraged both Eva and Ivy to make use of their bush medicine brews. “Kirsten came and taught us how to do bush medicine on silk” Eva says. The many silks hanging around the gallery space are not just wearable pieces of art but are also steeped with the healing traditions of a desert culture. The textiles capture the colours of their country; the barks, the leaves, the rusty metals strewn about. These colours and patterns speak of bushlore and memories which when combined with other ancient dyeing techniques create completely unique fabrics of ethereal beauty.

On the back wall of the gallery, dozens of silk and cotton scarves and wraps hang in a multi-hued wave. As the workshop kicks off, Eva elaborates on some of the plants, fungi and minerals she has incorporated into her work on display. All of the silks have incorporated healing plants, save for one pale yellowish-pink item that has been dyed using puff mushroom, which was traditionally bush tucker. “Majala” in Walmajarri, or freshwater mangroves are a common material, with different parts of the plant producing varied results. Today we are using mangrove bark and Eva explains that a dried bark will produce a green dye, whereas the bark used fresh will produce an orange hue. Medicinally, the leaves are chewed and applied on cat-fish stings, having an analgesic effect.

As we get stuck into preparing our bundles to dye, it becomes apparent this is a free-form means of expression. There are a few basics tenets of dyeing to follow; mordant your fabric (in this case silk) with some vinegar beforehand, as this helps the dye to soak into the fabric - and the rest is up to you. Eva and Ivy both incorporate rust, folding and eco-dyeing into their works and some of these techniques are shared. I relish in the opportunity to switch off my mind and let my hands do the work - a little bit of rusty metal here, a gum leaf there, some string around these parts and into the dye pot we go. Ivy mentions that it is sometimes a good idea to record your process in some way, in case you want to recreate the same effect. However she delights in the spontaneity of the process and the unpredictability of the results produced.

It can take up to a few weeks for a bundle to finish processing, so that moment when it’s unwrapped is truly special. Both women recall how they see certain images within the dye work; sometimes it’s snappy gums, other times animal shapes such as a rhino beetle or scorpion pattern will emerge completely on it’s own. Another time a family member had passed, only to reappear in a scene depicting a man on horseback, riding away into the horizon on one of the silks. There certainly feels as though there is a spiritual element to the work, a medium for messages to come through via the plants themselves.

We make two bundles in the workshop and one goes into a eucalyptus bath and the other into some mangrove. Today our time is limited, however usually these bundles would stay out in their dye baths, gently heated by the sun, anywhere from a few days up to a few weeks.

Eva and Ivy incorporate a vast range of local plants including nuts, seeds and flowers, which they freeze and then bruise onto the cloth. The women offer a gentle reminder to gather only what you need to ensure there is plenty left behind for the proliferation of the species.

Eva is a well known painter, coming from a family of influential Aboriginal artists. She explains that she relishes in this free-form expression and utilisation of healing materials in art. “It’s a process of experimentation” she says, explaining that it has given her a chance to find and work with different plants.

I take my bundles home, eagerly waiting to see the results. What forms will speak to me? What messages will these healing plants bring?

To see more of Eva’s work or to purchase some of her naturally dyed scarves, head to // // or contact Kirsten Smith at