Exhibition News

Gathering memory - exhibition by Lorraine Connelly-Northey at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, 2005

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Published Saturday, November 12, 2005

From the rubbish tip to the gallery wall, Lorraine Connelly-Northey is an emerging artist whose star is shining brightly.

There is something quite haunting about Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s Gatherer exhibition of narrbong (string bags), kooliman (bowls) and possum skin cloaks at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne. Her artworks (139 in all), are fashioned out of the detritus of abandoned, failed or forgotten rural enterprises – rusted wire mesh, galvanised iron, tin, fencing wire, chicken wire and flywire. Connelly-Northey recycles and reinvents these materials to suggest woven or carved objects in traditional indigenous cultures – cultures largely displaced and disinherited by white settlement.

Narbong by Lorraine Connelly-Northey

Connelly-Northey is a Waradgerie woman from Swan Hill in north-west Victoria. She finds inspiration in the land of her childhood, where the Mallee bush meets the river Murray, and her artwork deliberately fuses two of her genetic strands, her Aboriginal mother and Irish father. She explains that, while she initially thought to use the traditional plants and grasses in nearby bush to weave into fibre objects, she became uncomfortable about taking such material from an area that was not her mother’s. Her father, meanwhile, had instilled in her the idea of being economical with money, and this ultimately led to identifying found metals and objects that she could freely use in her art practice.

Child's Possum Skin Cloak by Lorraine Connelly-Northey
Narbong by Lorraine Connelly-Northey

Connelly-Northey’s possum skins combine wit and melancholy. Wit because the cloaks are fashioned from the broken down leftovers of white domesticity and rural settlement: old bedsprings; a truck radiator panel; pieces of rusting metal wired together to form an irregular cloak-like shape. Melancholy because 'real' possum skin cloaks, traditional items of clothing and shelter for nomadic indigenous people, are extraordinarily rare – the Museum of Victoria has but two examples, from Maiden’s Punt on the Murray River and from the former Lake Condah mission in western Victoria. The delicate feathers that trace the outline of many of Connelly-Northey’s cloaks suggest the soft, fluffy possum fur that traditionally protruded around the edges. 'Possum skin cloaks were popular [in the north-west of Victoria] because of the weather', she says, 'and they used the most pelts – up to 80'.

Feathers are a key element of many of the works: hawk, emu and pink galah feathers, and white pelican and duck down. Connelly-Northey says she employs four other elements to complement the metals: feathers, stone, bone, wood and shell. One of the most delicate works in the exhibition is a narrbong rendered in tyre wire and trimmed with echidna quills. Connelly-Northey is not interested in literal, faithful renditions of objects – more a suggestion, a fleeting idea, a work in progress. Some of the narrbong verge on abstraction, layers of fencing wire suggesting the density and the complexity of traditional weaving, but individual strands of wire simultaneously reminiscent of Paul Klee’s idea of drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’.

There is a smaller group of kooliman and digging sticks on display. 'Dad gave me an axe-head,' Connelly-Northey explains, 'and I started bashing the metal. Then I realised I had made bowl shapes that could be kooliman'. However she is careful not to damage the beauty of rusty patinas, and uses old blankets to cushion the blows against the metal. Even these have a meaning to her. 'I try to find old grey blankets that might be like those that indigenous people used back then.' Oversize bolts and fencing posts serve as the digging sticks that rest in the bowls.

Narbong by Lorraine Connelly-Northey

Lorraine Connelly-Northey is an artist of many ideas and projects. An earlier exhibition/installation titled ‘Hunter Gatherer’ explored other objects and implements of traditional indigenous lifestyle, including hunting spears and woomeras, and she is looking forward to exhibiting new work as part of the cultural program of the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Of her output so far, she comments simply: 'It’s just the beginning'.

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© Helen Bongiorno, November 2005

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