Lisa Hilli has been drawn to different forms of making since she was a teenager in suburban Brisbane. The artist, who was born in Rabaul, has lineages from Papua New Guinea along with heritage that can be traced back to Finland, England and South Africa. She has devoted her career to shifting art-historical narratives. Sisterhood Lifeline, a 2018 show that addressed the erasure of Black women’s bodies from cultural institutions, showed at Queensland’s Institute of Modern Art and the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Birds of a Feather, her most recent installation, is on show at the Ian Potter Museum of Art as part of Collective Unease. It tells the story of Dame Meg Taylor, the first Papua New Guinean woman to graduate from the University of Melbourne Law School, who went on to become the secretary-general to the Pacific Islands Forum. The work spans photography, textile and audio and reconnects Taylor with the kumul, or bird of paradise, a Papua New Guinean symbol that’s often appropriated or exoticised. It continues Hilli’s project of revisiting the archive through a Melanesian female lens.
In 2010, Hilli toured a work called Just Like Home that used her mother Cathy Hilli’s backyard cooking to grapple with identity and cultural translation. Together, they undertook a cultural exchange to Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, off the north-east coast of East Arnhem Land. There she encountered the work of Mavis Warrngilna Ganambarr, a Yolŋu master weaver who collaborates with artists and designers from across the country. Hilli’s time with Ganambarr sparked an obsession with textiles that has animated her work ever since.
Tell me about your first impressions of Mavis Warrngilna Ganambarr. What struck you about her work?
I didn’t know a lot about the textile art of East Arnhem Land and Mavis just shared so much beautiful cultural knowledge connected to that place. We got to go out onto Country with Yolŋu women – and we watched them harvest pandanus, harvest the dyes from guava trees to make yellow. She was so amazing, so generous. In exchange, we shared with them the particular cooking practice that was part of Just Like Home.
We built this really lovely rapport with Mavis and the other artists and it really reinvigorated Mum’s weaving practice. She hadn’t weaved for a long, long time and started making these really quick and easy woven coconut palm baskets. I was like, what is she doing? It transformed Mum and it transformed me.
There was just a real sense of humility around who Mavis was and her position in the community. That was the most admirable thing about her. Once I got back from the exchange and looked up her work, I was like, oh my god! Her work is in all these amazing collections around the world. She is so humble. She was always weaving – it was very much part of her day.
Mavis made me this beautiful necklace. And she also gave me a basket. In the presence of myself and several others at the Elcho Island Arts centre, Mavis told my mother that her husband said that when she died, he would throw the coloured pandanus that she weaves with on her grave. We were in tears because we were like, this is so similar to how it is in Papua New Guinea, in terms of the respect for Elders and knowledge-holders. I got back from Elcho Island and started the Pacific Women’s Weaving Circle. Everything just exploded there in terms of my interest in textiles. I still use textiles in my practice.
You spent years researching the midi, part of a group of body adornments associated with Tolai culture. You also returned a midi that you saw in the Australian Museum back to the Tolai community. How does Ganambarr’s practice make you think about the importance of place in your own work?
I think the most beautiful thing about that cultural exchange with Mavis was the fact that she was making these incredible things with all the materials that were available to her. [The women] would say that when European researchers would come to Elcho Island, they would ask, “Where do you get your materials from?” and they would joke, “We go to the bush shop!”
It gave me an understanding of the connection between weaving, place and materiality and helped me understand artwork from that part of Australia. It made me think of my own cultural practice. Taking the midi back was about seeing it on the bodies of men. It was about recontextualising it in place.
I realised that a lot of the research that I read in the archives was actually confirming things I know through the making of it. I don’t need European men to confirm to me what I inherently know. Knowledge isn’t something that you gain. When you feel it in the muscle, you know.
Our bodies carry so much knowledge…
And we live in a society, Australia, where certain forms of knowledge and knowledge production are valued more than others, like the written word. We remember our ancestors through performance or songs or we carve something. There are different ways of remembering.
The Western art world is often invested in binary understandings of art, craft and adornment – but both Tolai and Yolŋu cultures don’t believe in these divisions. Ganambarr is known for making powerful pieces of wearable art. Do you also deliberately work across disciplines?
I think I do it consciously because Western knowledge systems have categorised cultures that aren’t Western for so long, but we see everything as holistic and interconnected. In terms of my art practice, it makes complete sense to erase those disciplinary boundaries or areas. Mavis makes amazing lamp pendants with her weaving skills and I’m always trying to create a language beyond disciplines. I don’t think I can do it with one particular art form.
I didn’t know what art was until I moved to Melbourne as a young adult. This idea of art is a Western term – it’s not really a term we have in the Papua New Guinean region. But that’s not to say that people from Papua New Guinea are not creative. There is an ingenuity of the skills and the tools that they are using to make these things. Growing up, art was about watching my mum weave bilums, or string bags. It was listening to language or contemporary Tolai rock music. Art is embedded in culture.
In the art world – and I might stir up some feathers for saying this – but it is easy for art collectors and dealers to follow your work if you are in a particular discipline. But I am not necessarily interested in appealing to that world of art. I make art for my community and for myself. I’m not interested in necessarily targeting a specific market. That would be the death of my art practice. My measure of success is very different – and once I figured that out as an artist, I’ve never looked back. I do think about my audience a lot. That is very important. I’m always thinking about the entry point to my work. And what hook I can give for them to access it or understand it, without handing it to them on a platter.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Lisa Hilli".
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