Leongatha author and illustrator Pat Dale’s latest book is dedicated to “Australian Aboriginal women basket makers past and present”.
For Pat, these women remain heroic inventors of an ancient craft that has refined and defined humanity.
Her interest in basket weaving began with her local Country Women’s Association in the 1960s. But her interest in Aboriginal culture and design has always been present.
“I’ve been aware of Aboriginal culture for as long as I can remember. When I look back on my school days, I can remember having to draw a design and complete an embroidery. I did Aboriginal motifs for a pocket on a dress,” she said.
“I’ve always been fascinated and sought out chances to connect with Aboriginal people. As we got older my husband, John, and I travelled to the Outback. I had opportunities to seek more information and I gathered as much as I could.”
Two weeks with Mavis, an expert Indigenous weaver from the Aurukun Art Centre in Far North Queensland, was a turning point.
The South Gippsland Fibre and Basketry Group president’s Australian Plants and Fibres as used by First Nations People (2021) is less an instructional guide than a historical work that details how Indigenous peoples used, and continue to use, plants to make fishing nets, baskets, body adornments, tools, canoes, shelters, medicine and a myriad of other essentials.
Filled with stories, watercolour illustrations and snippets of rediscovered history, the book is a tale 60,000 years in the making.
Pat’s first book, Basketry Weaving with Natural Materials (Kangaroo Press, 1998), was a hit with a whole string of basket weaving enthusiasts – locally and across the globe. While basket weaving remains a back-to-basics interest that’s woven through every culture, the artistry has no bounds.
Take a walk through Pat’s house and you see functional baskets and supreme artworks jostling for prominence. Take a wander through her garden and you see Lomandra, Dianella, Kangaroo Grass and all manner of other native basket weaving staples in bloom.
Across Gippsland, many others share the passion – not least of all Boisdale resident Cassie Leatham. For Cassie, basket weaving is part of her everyday existence, stitched into a rich history that stretches back generations.
From the Taungurung people (central Victoria) of the Kulin Nation, Cassie is an Indigenous artist, master weaver, traditional dancer, bush tukka woman and educator. Her work is shown in the National Gallery of Victoria and Melbourne Magistrates Court of Victoria, as well as nationally and internationally. She’s even been featured on Gardening Australia. Her current exhibition of woven silver jewelry – shared with a host of other Indigenous talents (including Hollie Johnson of Deadly Wears) – is at the Koorie Heritage Trust in Federation Square until February 27 2022.
Cassie became acquainted with Australian Plants and Fibres as used by First Nations People while working at Kongwak Primary School this year as an artist in residence.
“I was teaching the kids weaving and how to use natural plants and be mindful of the environment,” she said.
Such was the interest the weaving sessions had generated that one of the students had received Pat’s book as a birthday gift. He showed it to Cassie.
“I flicked through it, admiring the beautiful pictures and the basket weaving. I thought, ‘I’m going to get in contact with this lady because she sounds really interesting’,” she said.
“I’ve always been interested in publishing a book about the native plants all over Australia. I rang Pat and complimented her. Straight away she said, ‘I’m not Indigenous, but this is my journey, this is my path’.”
Cassie believes that those who take “cultural IP” and profit from it are sure to be haunted by “bad ju-ju”.
“Some things are sacred, some things are good to share. Pat’s book is fantastic. I hope everyone gets a copy and has a good read,” she said.