Partnering with remote Indigenous Art Centres to deliver a landmark digital project that empowers Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to create and share unique arts and cultural experiences with the world.
Sitting in the shade at Angurugu Women’s Art Centre, a group of Anindilyakwa women listen to visitors who have travelled far to meet with them on Groote Eylandt, located in the Gulf of Carpentaria in remote northern Australia. While meeting requests from visiting Wurramangkadirra (non-indigenous people) are common, it is rare that visitors have travelled from as far as Manchester UK, or that they have such exciting news.
Supported by the AIATSIS Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) team, staff from Manchester Museum shared that they were in possession of 174 cultural items from Groote Eylandt, currently part of their museum collection, and that they were here, on Country, to begin discussions about bringing them home.
Donated by Prof. Peter Worsley, an anthropologist who conducted his PhD field work in Umbakumba between 1952 and ’53, the collection is varied and includes both everyday and ceremonial items. As screens were passed around and collection images were flicked through, there were 80 items that captured the attention of the gathered women most. The collection of ochre painted shells wrapped in strips of faded cotton were not immediately recognised by the women but later identified as Dadikwakwa-kwa, or doll shells. Not made for over fifty years and existing only in the living memory of four senior women, Dadikwakwa-kwa are the opposite of Worsley’s account, which described the doll shells as having “no significance [compared to Wanamembilja, men’s wooden dolls]… used merely as playthings”.
Dadikwakwa-kwa have, in fact, great significance.
Doll shells are a wholly unique practice to the Anindilyakwa women of the archipelago. Keepers of spirits and ancestors, Dadikwakwa-kwa are considered alive by the women who create and care for them. Traditionally used as inter-generational learning aides for literacy, numeracy, kinship systems and women’s health, Dadikwakwa-kwa may also guide you through your dreams, answering your questions and giving advice. They hold sacred knowledge and stories safe for future generations.
Moved by their elder’s stories of Dadikwakwa-kwa, the women of Anindilyakwa Arts decided to revive the practice that halted during a time of great change on Eylandt following the growth of the Mission and establishment of manganese mining. Artists visited remote beaches on the east of the Eylandt to collect the correct materials and worked with both community elders and contemporary artists to remember and reimagine Dadikwakwa-kwa.
“Seeing the photos and hearing the old ladies talk about the dolls inspired the doll shell project. We follow the old ways, weaving like the ladies using the string to make clothes for the dolls. We don’t want to lose our culture and we want to share our knowledge to the world.”Maicie Lalara, Anindilyakwa Arts Art and Culture Officer, Artist and Emerging Leader
By the time 2022 came to a close, ten artists from across the Eylandt had completed a collaborative doll shell installation, created to celebrate the return of Dadikwakwa-kwa. Arranged in a grid of fourteen by fourteen, the 196 dolls shells represent the fourteen clans of the Groote Archipelago. Each individual doll shell is installed on a pin that is reminiscent of both floating spirits and a natural history museum display, referencing the original Dadikwakwa-kwa’s cultural context and the fifty years spent in the Manchester Museum collection. The resulting artwork was entered into the 2023 Telstra NATSIAA award, and for the first time in the art centre’s history, Anindilyakwa Arts was not only selected as a finalist but had a contemporary artwork acquired by a public institution.
In 2023, Dadikwakwa-kwa creation continued strong, with more and more women sharing the stories and practice among themselves. The art centre’s collection of doll shells grew as unique and varied as the women creating them. Some Dadikwakwa-kwa closely resembled the doll shells in Manchester – patterned with ochre and dressed in strips of bush dyed silk, many more wore cheeky expressions or elaborate skirts, some were woven around with pandanus or bush string, and a handful were adorned with a loving husband’s donation of hair – for extra personality. Dadikwakwa-kwa’s significance continues to evolve and develop as they are created, a living example of culture, their meaning and symbolism particular to each individual artist.
“Now with the doll shells, we are using many ways – we have to use many ways with many women. The art ladies made doll shells and painted them with ochre; some gave them faces, dressing them up with bark, leaves, maybe pandanus or new-way with bush dye.”
– Danjibana Noeleen Lalara, Anindilyakwa Arts Lead Art and Culture Officer, Artist and Elder
A focus on inter-generational teaching remained paramount to the women at the art centre, and Dadikwakwa-kwa workshops were soon incorporated into Learning on Country sessions; the greatest success occurring during the annual Women’s Business Camp. Held in tandem with young women’s health teachings, Dadikwakwa-kwa was able to be used again as a tangible tool for senior women to impart important knowledge to young girls on Country.
The story of Dadikwakwa-kwa spread quickly beyond our small Eylandt. The art centre presented with the RoCH team at the 2023 AIATSIS conference in Perth WA, which led to an invitation to present at a UNESCO round table in Paris, July 2023. Represented by AIATSIS, Dadikwakwa-kwa was held up as a key case study that demonstrated the value of returning cultural items to Indigenous communities globally.
In September 2023, the time had come to travel to Manchester UK to oversee the first steps of returning the 174 collection items home. In recognition of the women’s relationship with Dadikwakwa-kwa, the official Anindilyakwa delegation became a women’s delegation comprised of Lead Art and Culture Officer and Elder, Danjibana Noeleen Lalara, Art and Culture Officer and Emerging Leader, Maicie Lalara, Radio Station Lead and Emerging Leader, Amethea Mamarika, and accompanied by Art Centre Manager, Samantha Moody.
The incredibly moving handover ceremony, held at Manchester Museum, was a significant – and emotional, moment for all who attended and Wanindilyakwa family back on Groote Eylandt. Captured by the international media, the story of Dadikwakwa-kwa and accompanying objects reached more than 1.9 billion people, almost a quarter of the global population. The formal return officially signified the end of a process that bought so much pride and strength to Anindilyakwa Arts and the wider community. In recognition of Manchester Museum’s support, the art centre gifted a suite of twelve new-ways Dadikwakwa-kwa to the Museum. Smoked and given whispered directions by the women before leaving Australian shores, these doll shells will take the place of the returning items, keeping our connection strong with our friends in Manchester.
“Emotionally, [this is] hurting me now… [but] I am so proud that we are taking them back home … it’s been a long journey… I’m happy and proud for my people.”
– Danjibana Noeleen Lalara, Anindilyakwa Arts Lead Art and Culture Officer, Artist and Elder
The return of the 174 cultural items will be finalized in November 2023 with the arrival of the freighted material from the UK. Greeted in Darwin by senior Anindilyakwa men, the community will welcome home the items with an on-Country celebration a few weeks later. The majority of the items (unrestricted) will be cared for by Anindilyakwa Arts as custodian of the Groote Eylandt Community Collection.
Dadikwakwa-kwa is for everyone. They speak to us all and are a sacred part of culture that Anindilyakwa women would like to share with the world.
The impact of Dadikwakwa-kwa is significant and on-going. Within Anindilyakwa Arts, it has opened up important discussions on the importance of maintaining intergenerational teaching practices and how traditional cultural items can influence contemporary art practices and vice-versa. Dadikwakwa-kwa has also drawn attention to the importance of (accurately) capturing women’s stories, which have historically had their significance mis-recorded or not been recorded at all.
The success of the women’s revitalisation of Dadikwakwa-kwa has inspired the men of Anindilyakwa Arts to embark on their own revitalisation journey – most notably around hook spears and ceremonial weapons, which ceased being regularly created around the same time as Dadikwakwa-kwa.
Under the continued guidance of Dadikwakwa-kwa – “shells that are not just shells” (Danjibana Noeleen Lalara, Anindilyakwa Arts Lead Art and Culture Officer, Artist and Elder), Anindilyakwa Arts is excited to see where this journey takes us next.
Lead Image: Revitalisation of the Doll Shells, courtesy Anindilyakwa Arts.
UPLANDS is an immersive digital project that has been designed to celebrate Indigenous Art Centres and share Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artistic and cultural practices with the world.
This large scale immersive digital mapping project features over twenty remote Indigenous Art Centres, and interviews with over 150 Indigenous artists and arts workers from across the country.
UPLANDS is a project by Agency and has been funded by the Australian Government through the Restart to Invest, Sustain and Expand (RISE) program and the Indigenous Visual Art Industry Support (IVAIS) program.
We acknowledge the Traditional Owners and Sovereign Custodians of the land on which we live and work. We extend our respects to their Ancestors and all First Nations peoples and Elders past, present, and future.