Lisa Hilli | The Saturday newspaper

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 ancestry from Papua New Guinea as well as a heritage that stretches back to Finland, England and South Africa. She has dedicated her career to the evolution of art historical narratives. Brotherhood Lifelinea 2018 exhibition that dealt with the erasure of black women’s bodies from cultural institutions, was shown at the Queensland Institute of Modern Art and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Birds of a featherhis most recent installation, is exhibited at the Ian Potter Museum of Art as part of Collective malaise. It tells the story of Dame Meg Taylor, the first Papua New Guinean to graduate from the University of Melbourne Law School, who later became Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. The work spans photography, textiles and audio and reconnects Taylor with the kumul, or bird of paradise, Papua New Guinean symbol often diverted or exoticized. It continues Hilli’s project of revisiting the archives through a female Melanesian lens.

In 2010, Hilli visited a work called Like at home who used her mother Cathy Hilli’s backyard kitchen to fight identity and cultural translation. Together they embarked on a cultural exchange in Galiwin’ku, on Elcho Island, off the northeast coast of East Arnhem Land. There she encountered the work of Mavis Warrngilna Ganambarr, a Yolŋu master weaver who collaborates with artists and designers across the country. Hilli’s time with Ganambarr sparked an obsession with textiles that has driven her work ever since.

Tell me about your first impressions of Mavis Warrngilna Ganambarr. What impressed you in his work?

I didn’t know much about textile art in East Arnhem Land and Mavis just shared so many great cultural insights related to this place. We went to the countryside with Yolŋu women – and watched them harvest pandanus, harvest dyes from guava trees to make yellow. She was so amazing, so generous. In exchange, we shared with them the particular culinary practice that was part of Like at home.

We’ve built this really lovely rapport with Mavis and the other artists and it’s really invigorated Mom’s weaving practice. She hadn’t woven in a very, very long time and started making these very quick and easy woven coconut palm baskets. I was like, what is she doing? It changed Mom and it changed me.

There was just a real sense of humility around who Mavis was and where she stood in the community. It was her most admirable thing. Once I came back from the exchange and looked at his work, I was like, oh my god! Her work is in all these amazing collections around the world. She is so humble. She was still weaving – it was part and parcel 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 Center, Mavis told my mother that her husband had said that when he died he would lay on his grave the colorful pandanus with which she weaves. We were in tears because we were like, it’s so similar to what happens in Papua New Guinea, in terms of respect for elders and knowledge holders. I came back from Elcho Island and started the Pacific Women’s Weaving Circle. Everything exploded there in terms of my interest in textiles. I always use textiles in my practice.

You’ve spent years searching midday, part of a group of body ornaments associated with the Tolai culture. You also returned a midday that you saw at the Australian Museum to the Tolai community. How does the practice of Ganambar make you think about the importance of place in your own work?

I think the most beautiful thing about this cultural exchange with Mavis was the fact that she was making these amazing things with whatever materials were available to her. [The women] would say that when European researchers came to Elcho Island, they would ask, “Where are you getting your materials from? and they joked, “We’re going to the bush store!”

It helped me understand the connection between weaving, place and materiality and helped me to understand the artworks of this part of Australia. It made me think about my own cultural practice. Taking the midday return was to see it on men’s bodies. It was about recontextualizing it in place.

I realized that a lot of the research I read in the archives actually confirmed things I knew from doing them. I don’t need European men to confirm to me what I know by nature. Knowledge is not something you earn. When you feel it in the muscle, you know.

Our body contains so much knowledge…

And we live in a society, Australia, where certain forms of knowledge and production of knowledge are valued more than others, such as writing. We remember our ancestors through performances or songs or we carve something. There are different ways to remember.

The Western art world is often invested in binary understandings of art, craft and adornment – ​​but the Tolai and Yolŋu cultures do not believe in these divisions. Ganambarr is known for crafting powerful pieces of wearable art. Do you also deliberately work across disciplines?

I think I do this consciously because western knowledge systems have categorized cultures that aren’t western for so long, but we see everything as holistic and interconnected. In terms of my artistic practice, it makes perfect sense to erase these boundaries or disciplinary domains. Mavis makes amazing lamp pendants with her weaving skills and I always try to create a language beyond disciplines. I don’t think I can do that with any 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 Guinea region. But that doesn’t mean the people of Papua New Guinea aren’t creative. There’s an ingenuity of the skills and the tools they use to do these things. Growing up, the art was watching my mother weave bilums or string bags. It was listening to contemporary Tolai language or rock music. Art is rooted in culture.

In the art world – and maybe I’ll wiggle some feathers to say this – but it’s easy for collectors and art dealers to follow your work if you’re in a particular discipline. But I’m not necessarily interested in appealing to that art world. I make art for my community and for myself. I’m not interested in necessarily targeting a specific market. It would be the death of my artistic practice. My measure of success is very different – and once I figured that out as an artist, I never looked back. I think a lot about my audience. Its very important. I always think about the entry point of my work. And what a hook I can give them to access it or understand it, without handing it to them on a plate.

This article first appeared in the Saturday Paper print edition on November 12, 2022 as “Lisa Hilli”.

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