Pandanus, Marebu & Dilly bags – Merrill Girrabul Ngalkalkdjam

Merrill has painted a unique story combining her knowledge of Kunwinjku weaving techniques and the cultural significance of artefacts made from pandanus.

The colours in the painting are analogous to the use of natural dyes. Kunwinjku women use their knowledge of local plants and bush medicines, and carry out experimentation to create rich dyes for their fibre art.
The most common dyes include:
Yellow-orange: Mandjurndum (the bright orange roots of the Pognolobus reticulatus bush) Brown: Wirdilwirdil (the red bulb of Haemadorum breviculae grass)
Green: The growing shoot of the pandanus itself (Pandanus spiralis), boiled with the ashes of pandanus leaves.
Purple-pink – Windilk (the seeds of the Haemodorum coccineum plant, related to Kangaroo Paw)
Grey-Black – Manbedde (the leaves of the quinine bush, Petalostigma pubescens)

In the centre of the painting is a Marebu (woven mat). These are traditionally valuable items, used as working surfaces, worn as skirts and used during ceremonial occasions. Merill explains the colours also reflect the Aboriginal flag signalling the importance of fibre art to her cultural identity. In the background are the strands of pandanus, already stripped and dyed in various colours and ready to be used for weaving.

Merrill has also painted Djerrh (Dilly bags). These have been made in Arnhem Land since long before there were collectors for them, and they are featured in rock art throughout the region. More specifically, conical baskets usually made from pandanus are known as bulbbe, while djerrh usually refers to a looped and knotted string bag. These are usually made from the inner bark of manbudbud, the kurrajong tree, manbornde, the banyan, or the leaves of marrabbi, the sand palm. Loosely twined baskets could be used to soak the toxins from cycad nuts or cheeky yams, while tightly twined ones were used to carry things such as bush honey. String bags carried possessions and food. Both these items, in different forms, play important roles in ceremony.

Merrill has also painted Mimih spirits, the original spirit beings taught Kunwinjku people many of the skills they needed to survive in the bush including how to weave. They also taught aspects of ceremony. Mimih spirits are believed to inhabit the rocky escarpments around Gunbalanya but because they are extremely timid, they are rarely seen by humans. They are frequently depicted in the rock art of Arnhem Land as small, dynamic figures, often shown with a range of hunting tools such as spears, spear throwers, dilly bags and fire sticks.