This is a dilly bag, also known as a string bag, an object that has obvious functional attributes. But is that all? Once they were incorporated into art world contexts dilly bags were appreciated for their fine craftsmanship and they have been aestheticized as a works of art. This dillybag was given to me during my fieldwork in 2008 as a present by the woman who made it, my informant and Aboriginal akkali “grandmother,” Molly Yawalminy. She is from Nauiyu community, also called Daly River, located in Fitzmaurice region, Northern Territory, Australia. Born in 1944, Yawalminy is member of the Ngan’gikurrungurr language group, and a Traditional Owner of Ngambu Ngambu Homeland. In her language this bag is called Warrgadi. Fibre work production skills are considered women’s work among the Aborigines and are an important kinship-based part of Nauiyu women’s historic and inherited knowledge; as such, they are integrally bound up with identity and tradition. Taught for unknown generations to daughters by their mothers and grandmothers, the Ngan’gi created multifunctional fibre objects that were used in their everyday life. The women of Nauiyu say with great pride when they make their dilly bags: ”Ma gulwi wanna corrcorr, warrdardi, yerditchemuche,” meaning ”I have this knowledge to make dilly bags, I got it from my older relatives.” Dilly bags are produced in a gradual process that always involves the local women working together in groups. They begin a fibre work by venturing out in the bush to gather the needed leaves, and seeds and bark for colouring. The dilly bags are made from twined fibres from the Sand Palm, (Livistona humilis), named as such because it grows in sand. However, this plant is also known as the Fan Palm due to its characteristic fan shape, called Merrepen in Ngan’gi. The women then sit on the ground in front of their houses where with experienced movements they begin by stripping the fibres from the sand palm leaves. The fibres are dried and then coloured with natural colours from bark and seeds, stirred out in boiling water in tin cans over an open fire. Then the thread is rolled on the thigh creating a two-ply string, and the bag is made with a particular looping technique. A finished dilly bag would be carried on the head so the hands where free to gather food out in the North Australian bush, such as water lily nuts, roots and stems, mussel shells, and goose eggs.
The task of weaving is time consuming and, as former utility objects, the dilly bags have been largely replaced by mass produced plastic products. Today fibre works are produced predominately by the older women of Nauiyu to be sold as craft products, together with other local art works in their art centre gallery, Merrepen Arts. Thus, these bags made a transit by moving from the context of Aboriginal hunting and gathering in the bush to be sold as art in gallery contexts. The status of these objects also made a transition from being characterized as utilitarian artefacts to be produced as a commodity defined as craft, or even art, appreciated for its handmade and aesthetic quality, rather than for its functionality (Svašek 2007). When the fibre works are represented in certain art world contexts and produced in new forms it is also appreciated differently as fine art; judged as visually or aesthetically pleasing. As soon as the dilly bag was defined as art the preferences and appreciations of the art market has also affected the way the artists improvise in their fibre production.
Firstly, they innovated in the use of fibre colouring. In the past, the Sand Palm fibres used for string bags were dyed by grinding red kugarri or white wesi ochre on a flat rock with water, then rubbing the colour on the palm of the hand passing it to the fibres during rolling. As this was time consuming the fibre works were often left uncoloured. Tin cans, once introduced to the Aborigines, created the opportunity for colouring the fibres in boiling water with bark and seed over an open fire. The female Merrepen artists then began experimenting with many forms of natural colouring, finding new bark and seed that create a range of colours that would appeal to the art centre customers buying these fibre works. The Ngan’gi women are now taking their skills and inherited practices to new levels, and producing more sellable bags in vivid red, orange, yellow, green, grey, brown, and purple colours.
The women of Nauiyu also changed the size of their dilly bags from large functional bags to much smaller bags. This transition makes these fibre works more suitable as “suitcase art.” A smaller product increases the chance that travelling customers will make a purchase, and makes the fibre products more affordable. Further, some artists appropriated the fibre medium to create completely new shapes and objects. I observed fibre Toyotas or fibre fallami kurri mermaids, an Ancestral being. These fibre products were in art world contexts and categorized as fine art sculptures. This is an example of how a transition from craft to fine art was facilitated by the artists, when they creatively segregated the fibre medium from its former functional characteristics. The former functionality of these fibre works became an unimportant factor when they are seen as fine art. However, another transition was made when certain customers, especially young women, began using the bags as their purses, an accessory in the creation of an “ethnic fashion” style. Thus, these customers’ appropriation of the dilly bag facilitated a change in use and status so the bags regained their former functional status.