Aly de Groot is a contemporary fibre artist and multidisciplinary practitioner who lives and works in the Territory. On the journal Aly speaks with us about her bush dyeing practice with the Anindilyakwa women, the recent traumatic loss of her PhD art work and the role of the environment in her practice.
The women on Angurugu speak so highly of your bush dyeing workshops, what was the process of bringing a new artistic medium to this community of artists? Have you worked with other communities in a similar way?
In 2011 I was employed by Ghost Nets Australia to work with the women on Groote Island to experiment with ways to weave with ghost nets found on their beaches to make baskets and sculpture. I was delighted to be invited back to the Island again in 2015 to work with the women at the Art Centre, this time plant dying. We use a combination of processes including traditional plant dyeing techniques used in basketry production on the Island along with plant dying tricks I have picked up from many years of experimentation.
We started off plant dying silk scarves but they have now branched out into home-wares and clothing amongst other things. There seems to be limitless potential in the making of these, because they are sustained by an intricate awareness and love of the flora. Some of the older artists already possess remarkable traditional plant dying knowledge and its exciting seeing this wisdom being shared and taken on by the younger women.
Every few months I return to the Island and there are new dyers, and the way they have interpreted the processes and rapidly created their own distinct style blows my mind. They are producing dark and rich colours that really make it noticeably recognisable that it’s from Groote Island. The same can be said about other communities where I have shared these processes. Like on the Tiwi islands, where they love their bright colours, there are differences in the way these techniques have been interpreted by the artists because of their personalities and the land where they live and source their materials and inspiration from.
How did you come to explore dyeing practice yourself? How does dyeing fit in to your other work? We understand you are dominantly a weaver & create large scale installation works.
My interest and passion for basketry and plant dying was sparked when I first came to the Northern Territory more than 20 years. A trip to the Nauiyu Nambiyu (Daily River) community in 1994 for their Merrepen Arts Centre and cultural festival changed my life. I was shown by the highly skilled and very patient traditional basket makers there how to make fibres from pandanas and dye them with native plants and then weave them into baskets.
After this initial introduction to traditional fibre arts practice, I was hooked. I have continued to experiment with making woven sculpture in a contemporary fibre art context, continuously exploring ways in which to translate many different basketry and plant dying processes along with a variety of mediums, including man-made and up-cycled materials. Participating in textile skill development workshops such as those provided by the Australian Forum of Textiles Association ( TAFTA), since 2004, provides the opportunity to develop my interest in basketry and plant dying and learn from highly skilled and respected textile artists from across Australia and the world. This allows me to develop my ideas to make new work as an independent artist, making commissioned works, as well as share these new skills with others, facilitating fibre arts workshops across Australia in remote communities as well as with schools and at festivals.
Oceanic fibre works from Aly's website.
We were devastated for you to hear of the recent destruction of your art work. Can you share with us a little about the focus of your PhD and what happened while you were away recently on Angurugu?
What was meant to be a quick install of air conditioners at Tactile Arts where I had a studio as their artist in resident, spiralled unexpectedly and horribly out of control when asbestos was disturbed. I wasn’t allowed to go in there until specialized contractors had finished cleaning. Days turned into weeks so I begged to be able to retrieve several works that I needed to send overseas to the Netherlands.
After much negotiating, I received the works, but they were handed to me dripping wet. If it wasn’t so devastating, I could almost find humor in this fact because they are woven from fishing nets and line. Then, several weeks later I received another phone call, whilst work-shopping on Groote Island, informing me that quite a large proportion of my work had to be disposed of due to asbestos contamination. These works are irreplaceable, they take a very long time to make.
They were an essential element of my PhD examination presentation and I am still trying to figure out how to proceed. Mine is not what many would consider a conventional PhD research project, it’s practice-led, which means the artworks made are considered a major part of the research. My personal empathy and love for the sea and sea creatures is the motivating factor behind this research project. I want to weave visual stories that sing for marine life and coastal communities that are drowning from the discarded excess of our addiction to plastics, highlighting the dire need for attention to our extreme ‘rubbishing’ of the ocean.
Can you share with us a little about the role of sustainability & the environment in your artistic practice?
Making do and making shift is a big part of my creative ethos.
That’s one of the many reasons why I love working with artists on remote communities. Belonging to the oldest living culture in the world, collecting and harvesting is not new for them and there is a continuity in how the artists gather their materials. We go driving to get leaves for colour and grab some rusty things from an old car body along the way. This is the nature of the art form to be shared and transformed, with each artist developing her own narrative and approach, drawing on traditional knowledge to express themselves in new ways.
I really am on a mission to take this passion for fibre art into surprising and unexpected domains. I want to engage and inspire as broad and diverse an audience as possible, in as many different platforms as possible, including exhibitions, public art and workshops. Recently local film maker, Tim Parish made a great little film: A Ghost Story the Art of Aly de Groot, that poetically and succinctly shares what I do and why I do it… And I got to weave under water which was a dream come true.
We’d love to know what the remainder of 2017 is looking like for you
2017 has already been a crazy year so far, from the studio debacle to travelling to Europe, to the next minute standing beside a fire by a creek on Groote Island, tending to dye pots. My BIG news is that soon I will be taking up a full time position with Anindiliakwa Arts as their Art Workshop Coordinator. I am honoured and excited to be moving to the Island to work full time with the wonderful women there. I value our relationships and every day is exciting as we teach and learn from each other. One thing that really became apparent to me when my work was destroyed is how sharing skills is just so important to me, if not more significant, than making. I love the magic that happens and the surprises that emerge from exchange and collaboration.
And I’m hoping to finish that PhD at some stage too, hopefully September…
Finally, what do you love most about the Northern Terrritory?
Like many people that weren't born in the Top End but now call it home, I came here to have a look more than 20 years ago and ended up staying. I've left a few times but always come back. Last year I moved to the Sunshine Coast to work on a large woven installation with the (local) Gabi Gabi weavers for the Sunshine Coast University Hospital. It's a beautiful place and I met some wonderful people but I was pretty happy to come home to the Territory. I love the people and land here, and find endless inspiration in this crazy place I call home, there’s nothing like it.
Aly & Anindilyakwa Artists
Interview by Amy Nicholas