Abe Muriata, Girramay man and master basket weaver from North Queensland, writes on visiting the British Museum for the opening of the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation.
Muriata is renowned for making bicornual baskets, an elegant and structurally complex form that is unique to the region. His most recent basket, commissioned by the British Museum, is on display in the exhibition.
To start with, London, it’s a historical place. To be in a historical place like London would make any artist stop and wonder about how a place like this could possibly connect to me, my art or my culture. But it was in London that the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation was held.
An invitation and visit to this event became the highlight of my more than 15 years of basket weaving, of practising my culture and as an artist. Seeing my own work on display at the British Museum made me as proud as the day my first basket was displayed at the Queensland Art Gallery. It was not only an achievement for me but it was there for everyone to see. I’ve taken my work out of my cultural home, the home of my ancestors, and given it to the world.
In the back of my mind I had to keep telling myself this is London. The city of London itself was so spectacular that I marvelled at the sights, the history, the people and felt the energy. The ever-visible presence of an enduring monarchy fascinated me enough to forget its past dealing with our people and culture and to take in its grandeur. The purpose of my visit coincided with meeting the patron of the exhibition, none other than the royal man himself, HRH Prince Charles.
To have my work included in an exhibition of this calibre, I experienced recognition and respect for me and my culture. When I returned to Australia, wherever I went and whoever I met, people recognised me. I don’t have a Facebook account but people said to me, ‘you are all over Facebook’. I have also had acknowledgement at a Native Title Conference and at other meetings. My involvement in the exhibition has put more spotlight on our rainforest culture and my efforts and those of others to preserve it. This is important, because if you lose a single element of your weaving or of your artefact making or whatever part of your culture you engage with, it is an erosion that gradually washes away at the core of culture. So this spotlight on culture is a way of reminding you and me to help it endure in its fullest and purest form.
In the British Museum I saw my heritage surrounded by long-lost cultures and civilisations from all over the world. To think that my culture has endured so much longer than most can only make me more determined to pass on my culture to the generations following me. My dedication to my culture and the art I create is driven by the loss in the last 20 years or so of tribal elders and leaders whose knowledge may otherwise be lost if it is not celebrated, learned and enjoyed by our next generation.
I am an artist working with the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre and they have taken me from obscurity to the length and breadth of Australia’s galleries and museums, all the while showcasing this unique culture. All I had to do was to practise my culture and create my art as a traditional Girramay person. So being an artist at Girringun along with the Girramay Elders will ensure that a strong continuation is maintained.
Having seen the old objects of 150 years ago in the exhibition and archival collection at the British Museum, and then looking at my works, it really pleases me to see that there is little or no change in traditional object making, although in some areas modernisation brings our culture new ideas and contemporary forms. So, for me, another world has emerged alongside my ancient culture where traditional materials are complemented with contemporary methods and materials.
I am really looking ahead and striving to maintain and improve the status quo in all aspects of my art-making, cultural activities and responsibilities as a Traditional Owner and growing into an Elder role.
The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo
The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online