In between stitching I lean back and look at the baskets hanging from the rafters of the weaving shelter and become aware of the possibilities of color, pattern and form. Starting the coil is always the hardest part of weaving a basket. Four generations of Yolŋu weavers here in the Mäpuru homelands patiently teach through showing and I remember to not ask too many questions. We sit cross-legged on woven plastic mats, bright colored strands of pandanas fiber in hand and lap. M passes me the beginnings of my first basket. I am all fingers with no rhythm to my movement until M reaches in and gently guides my hands in a way that makes felt sense.
Before long L, who sits to my other side, takes hold of the slowly expanding coil and adds some more. Sitting and watching never feels as satisfying as doing. Thinking this I realize how much of my life is about busy doing and what I might be missing out on from discounting the practices of sitting and watching as doing. Below the surface a combination of anticipation and impatience give rise to feelings of disappointment; I thought this was going to be my basket. Then I realise that I am existing in this place based on the idea that I can uphold an individual sense of identity.
My notions of individual endeavor are challenged and from here emerges my first insight into collective identity and relationship in being with Yolŋu. Everybody here weaves together and in the process the work of the basket is to weave us together. What emerges is a metaphor for weaving that tells a story about relationships, and a question, do we make the basket or does the basket make us? In hindsight I realize that this is the beginning of the slow unraveling of my individual identity. Colors, patterns, irregularities and textures begin to transform out of material entities and are rendered into a metaphysical world of being with. But what is growing out of this physical and metaphysical collective action of being and doing together?
The work of weaving has a meditative rhythm, a way of being that gives reason for just sitting and being with people and country alike. I relent to questioning and ask R how Yolŋu describe being with. She talks about gurul’yun, the act of visiting and just sitting with people, enjoying each other’s company. I suspect that there is a deeper way of understanding this and that my Western worldview will struggle to comprehend it fully. The question of whether I can take Yolŋu concepts and frame them in Western thought brings up the tricky business of how we, Yolŋu and Balanda women, work together to translate each other’s epistemologies and ontologies. Maybe there is greater merit in letting go of any preconceived ideas of who we are and just watching who we emerge as from being together.
I imagine the disconcertment that must be felt by Yolngu when Balanda come into their world, their universe, a space that Balanda have a questionable place in. How do Yolngu know how to be with us if we do not fit into their complex kinship structures? But it is not long into my weaving foray that I am given a place in this universe. D, a shy young woman, leans forward and in a quiet voice asks me if I am adopted. I tell her no and that is it. I am not sure what preconceived notions I had about being adopted by Yolŋu, but in this moment it feels more like a necessary social tool than a proclamation of love and friendship. Or perhaps I have just underestimated the generosity of Yolŋu. I call D yuku yuku (younger sister), we are both Baŋaḏitjan (mälk/skin) and share the same way of relating to everything and everyone. I feel my identity as ‘Nia’ dissolve at the edges as I process another identity shift; just a little more dismantling of my individual identity in this place where the collective exerts so much power.
Aside from learning to weave, I am in Mäpuru to learn from Yolŋu about their language and culture. Gupapuyŋgu words and kinship stories shared with me by Yolŋu kin make their way into a hard covered notebook I have brought with me to the weaving shelter. The book has all sorts of things written in it: lists, action plans, scrawling from moments of inspiration, budgets, trigonometry problems and other ramblings. In my way of learning it feels natural to write things down, but already the visibility of the book and act of documenting things in it feel uncomfortable in this place. I am acutely aware of the historical and contemporary way in which books are performed amongst people from oral traditions, of how Western they look and feel.
The Yolŋu weavers and I discuss payments for our weaving tuition and I sense a feeling amongst the women that the distribution of income may not have been ‘equitable’ in the past. The idea to keep a timesheet for the week emerges out of this discussion and an agreement to record how many half-days each weaver ‘works’. I agree to help draw up the timesheet and seeing as it is at hand, this very Balanda construct makes a home in my book. The timesheet is a simple table with the names down the left edge and the days of the week divided into half-days across the top. I am not sure that the book attracted much attention from the Yolŋu weavers when it only contained trigonometry and shopping lists. However, the book and its power in this weaving network become apparent all too quickly.
Weavers often ask me, ‘Do you have so-and-so’s name in the book?’ We have a look in the book to confirm, or write it in if it is not. On occasions the book, which often sits on the mat next to where I weave, is carelessly abandoned (by me) and safely tucked between the rafters and the bark roof of the weaving shelter by Yolŋu weavers. During the course of the week I realize that there is a protection ring operating around the book. I may not be too fussed about its whereabouts, but other people are. I felt like the protection of the book was telling a story, but was not sure which one…
In hindsight it was not such a great idea for the timesheets to be in my book. I became implicated in the timesheet, a gatekeeper to important information that weavers wanted to access. Throughout the week I increasingly felt like a supervisor; after all, I was giving power to the timesheet by helping to fill it in. Although we never acknowledged it with one another, I have a sense that J (a Yolŋu weaver who was also maintaining the timesheet) also felt like she was in this prickly role. Whilst I could pretend that there was a balance that we were disrupting, I think that would be naive. There are all kinds of actors that have more power than others when these weaving workshops are being enacted: confidence in speaking English, mothers with babies, bright and abundant piles of dyed pandanas and Balanda confident in speaking Yolŋu Matha to name a few. If the book had the agency to produce me as a supervisor, how did the basket perform? Did it exert its agency by dissolving my identity? And how were the Yolngu being produced by the book? Did the book make the weavers construct each other as individuals whose reality was somehow ensured by having their names in the book?
The Yolŋu weavers worked to subvert my Western idea of equity in the timesheet, that the division of money should be allocated equally based on time worked. After all, they wanted to account for what mattered to their culture, like acknowledging seniority. Slowly, we found ways to turn the timesheet into a more-Yolŋu accounting tool that could accommodate factors like seniority and what constituted ‘work’. Was feeding a baby whilst being with women under the weaving shelter considered ‘work’?
The disconcertment I felt about how I was dismantled by the basket and remade by the book created a space for me to glimpse a Yolŋu metaphysics, in which everything has agency. These material objects that we interacted with, baskets, book, pandanas and weaving shelter, were not inert props that provided a setting for our human collective action. They were key actors that worked to dismantle and remake us in the collective action.