Lorraine Connelly-Northey: Cross-cultural Contructs - Art Collector

Issue 66, October - December 2013

Lorraine Connelly-Northey's Aboriginal and Irish heritage are both woven into her works. Timothy Morrell writes about how this distinctive cultural inheritance informs her practice.

Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Narrbong Installation. Ring lock wire fencing, flattened tin and steel rod, in three pieces, various dimensions. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi.

There is a rich history of cross-cultural Indigenous art in Australia, from Biblical bark paintings through Hermannsburg watercolours to the all-conquering Western Desert painting. Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s sculptures are a carefully considered continuation of the Indigenous practice of adapting Western industrial materials to their own needs. These materials were generally found on the scrap heap. It is a cultural heritage that encompasses the replacement of stone with glass for spear tips and the replacement of bark with corrugated iron for building shelters. Connelly-Northey recognises this tradition and treats it with respect.

Practical usage is not the point of the narrbongs (dilly bags), koolimans (bowls) and o’possum skin cloaks she makes from weathered scrap metal, but the shape and proportion are nevertheless guided by what would be appropriate for the real thing. Even when the form is merely sketched with audacious minimalism using a couple of spindly bits of metal, the correct look and functional considerations of the artefact are observed. The intrinsic qualities of the pieces of scrap combined to make her work are likewise properly appreciated. When she selects her materials from the dump she does so with the same knowledgeable eye that other artists use to survey what is available in the art supply shop or, traditionally, what is available in the bush.

Born in Swan Hill Victoria in 1962, Connelly-Northey began to learn basket weaving in 1990, around the time the renowned artist Yvonne Koolmatrie was starting to generate a broad interest in the traditional basketry technique of the Ngarrindjeri people of the Murray River region. She acquired exceptional skill at weaving grasses gathered in the bush (Koolmatrie said Connelly-Northey could weave better than she did herself), but didn’t feel comfortable using materials that were not from her country. (She is Waradgerie, her country is further north of Swan Hill, and she has subsequently moved there to live and work, at Culcairn in NSW.) Helen Kaptein, the director of the Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery encountered her work at an exhibition in a church hall, and showed it in 2001, the first time Connelly-Northey exhibited in a public institution. In 2002 she was included in What’s On: Contemporary Indigenous art in the Murray-Darling Region at the Mildura Arts Centre, after Kaptein drew her to the attention of the exhibition’s curator Carolyn Sanders.

Her deliberate practice of making two traditions live within her work is a reflection of her own heritage. With a white (Irish) father and an Aboriginal (Waradgerie) mother, she, like her work, is the product of two cultures. Following proper cultural protocols is extremely important to her. From her mother she gained an appreciation of what she calls the inner, spiritual aspects of Aboriginal life. She always consults her mother to check that what she is making is appropriate. Surprisingly, it was her white father who taught her about Indigenous material culture. Her mother, whose generation was forced by the missions to suppress their Aboriginal ways, has not been willing to teach her daughter. A strong motivation in Connelly-Northey’s work is the need to remind people that the injustices suffered by Indigenous Australians happened within living memory. She comments that if she happened to be an artist living in Ireland instead of Australia, she would be making art about the injustices suffered by the Irish.

Her father also helped her to see beauty in the European industrial materials that now lie rusting on the land they transformed from Aboriginal homelands to commercial farmland. A farmer turned carpenter, he gave her a strong aesthetic appreciation of functional objects. While driving around the countryside with her, he would point out and pick up abandoned bits and pieces that he admired.

Connelly-Northey is entirely conscious of the irony of making work that incorporates large quantities of fencing wire, which was used to exclude Indigenous people and to restrict their freedom. She uses the phrase “taking hold back on country” to describe the way she uses the materials of repression as a gesture of resistance.

She is almost oblivious to the great elegance of her sculpture, which she says belongs back in the ground rather than on a pristine white wall. Possibly because they are free from preciosity, her small, delicate sculptures of narrbongs were translated with remarkable success into the monumental works that she produced for the 17th Biennale of Sydney in 2010, and the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at QAGOMA in Brisbane in 2012/13.

Timothy Morrell


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