Honouring Her Ancestors

June 12, 2013 | Cultural Fund

Her work encloses the secret whereabouts of an ochre mine in Chinkapook country, on the banks of the Murray River near Swan Hill. “It’s in someone’s paddock, so you have to sneak through fences but it’s always been known to my family,” says the artist Glenda Nicholls.

Imbued with history, the sacred ochre was carried back to Melbourne and used to dye metres of no-frills jute from a local hardware store an earthy red, adding the final touches to the exquisite Ochre Net, winner of the 2012 Copyright Agency Cultural Fund’s Victorian Indigenous Art Award for three-dimensional works and the inspiration for a new exhibition Ganagan (Deep Water) at Melbourne’s Koorie Heritage Trust until September.

During business hours, Nicholls is a public servant for the Department of Primary Industries. She weaves in the evening during Home and Away and the news, or whenever she gets the chance. “The net took months to make but it’s like meditating,” she says.

Her $5,000 winnings – and another $5,000 she received by taking out the Koorie Heritage Trust Acquisition Award – will fund her next artistic creations, but equally important are the opportunities created by the awards’ prestige to foster her very personal cultural mission. “This direction for me is a big part of my life so it’s not really about the money; it’s a feeling of acknowledging my ancestors and what they did.”

Works of art today, weavings were once essential tools, and the genesis of Nicholls’s prize-winning fishing net is no mystery. Her people have always lived on the banks of the Murray. “I come from a long line of river people on both sides,” she says. Her father is from Yorta Yorta country near Barmah in Victoria, and her mother from Bordertown, South Australia. Her grandparents were the Aboriginal rights and reconciliation pioneers, Pastor Sir Douglas and Gladys Nicholls.  “When my mother was little, the state nurses were taking half-caste children away to place them in homes, so my great-grandmother got all her grandchildren and put them in a horse and cart following the Murray all the way to Swan Hill. That’s where my mum met my dad.”

Her choice of jute speaks volumes about the loss of land. “There’s a lot involved in harvesting the grasses to make fibre,” she says. “First, you have to know where to get the grasses. You have to compete with farmers who have their properties all fenced off, and the cattle and sheep, and tourism, and the chemicals in the waterways that get into the grasses.”

Nicholls has always believed in the responsibility of passing on the stories and traditions of her ancestors. In Queensland, where she moved to raise her three children in her husband’s country near Mackay, she wrote her life story, River Girl, “so my kids would know where I came from”.

She is “relearning” techniques she watched her mother and grandmother use as a child, aware that craftwork has adapted to changes brought about by forced relocations and the influence of white people. “When the missionaries came along they taught the Aboriginal ladies how to make flowers out of feathers to sell for hats. So my daughter is the sixth generation feather-flower maker in the family,” says Nicholls. “When the kids came along and I needed the pocket money, I made some and sold them.”

Ochre Net stopped crowds at the awards show at Melbourne’s landmark fortyfivedownstairs gallery, and Nicholls would love to be a full-time artist. “But work gets in my way,” she says. Her weavings, however, made of available rather than traditional materials, will always mark her place in time. She recently completed another net, green “like a eucalyptus leaf, and I had to use synthetic colour dye”.

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