Elisa Carmichael's regenerative art

Fri, 23/02/2018 - 06:44 -- eyeline

Heritage is on the move, and artists are helping fuel the momentum! Liberated from concepts linked firmly to the past, heritage—and particularly cultural heritage—now has a far more dynamic character, celebrating qualities of presence and transformation. This shift has occurred where engagement with heritage involves more transformation and less preservation. A book published earlier this year captures the momentum perfectly in its title: Heritage in Action, Making the Past in the Present.1 It represents new thinking about the transference of the past into the present, blending concepts of cultural heritage, cultural memory and the cultural imaginary. Making old things new is not exactly a revolutionary idea owned by the contemporary era, but relationships of time are clearly radicalised in this mindset. There is a new order of truth about the past that is fundamentally contingent on who interprets it, and how they do so, and young artists in particular are revelling in shaping a past that makes sense for them.

Elisa Jane Carmichael is a case in point. Her art explores her Quandamooka Indigenous heritage from Queensland’s Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) and Moorgumpin (Moreton Island),2 and is part of the regenerative spirit of a new generation of artists looking to reshape relationships with cultural traditions. Indigenous communities near metropolitan centres like Brisbane are among the most dispossessed and displaced since the onset of colonisation; to the point that for the majority of the non-Indigenous population the Indigenous heritage of these areas is invisible, erased, or fundamentally assimilated. Artists like Carmichael never upheld this perspective, of course, and imbue their art with ideas and images that transform the past and present into a future that begins today. The art is fundamentally about vibrancy and relevance and finding new pathways to find their place in time and space. Carmichael’s latest exhibition, Connecting Waves, a saltwater woman living on desert country,3 is an example. The artist draws inspiration about the cultural heritage of her traditional homeland—by leaving it! A Gilimbaa Artist Residency at Alice Springs provided her with opportunities to appreciate differences between desert and saltwater lifestyles and the diverse conditions that frame art making across the country.4

Artists of this new generation—and here we might also think of the Lockhart River artists who commenced as the Lockhart River Art Mob—are translating their cultural heritage, and this act of translation requires a more personalised idiom of visual language. Issues about coming and going from community are particularly relevant for this generation. Rosella Namok’s screenprint Coming and Going (1998), records the paths of people coming and going into her remote community. It is a painting about people traffic, but is also about the mixed emotions of coming and going from such a remote home. Carmichael’s Connecting Waves similarly taps into sensory qualities of country and psychological expectations that we carry around about being home and away. Carmichael recalls,

The first painting I did (for the residency) was Adder Rock, under the paperbark, pandanus, banksia. I started that painting on Stradbroke when I was thinking about coming out here to the desert, planning my journey: it is a crowded image, and I remember my thoughts and issues not giving each other any space.5

Adder Rock does have a slightly congested dimension. In it Carmichael has created a virtual collage of confusion through the application of textures, understood and translated from her background in working with textiles and fashion. It is the first step in looking back at her heritage from the present, and in this case, from the future of her then forthcoming desert trip.

Regenerative art like Carmichael’s is a fundamentally inspirational genre, and takes the fight for Indigenous rights and recognition in somewhat different directions from those of the vanguard of artists whose work writ large the trauma of invasion, genocide, and injustice. The list here is long, and includes the work of Gordon Bennett, Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee, and before them, HJ Wedge, and Robert Campbell Junior. The latter art is accusatory, confrontational and utterly necessary. Along with this confrontational, almost ‘shock’ strategy, Indigenous art also invokes what Susan Best calls reparative aesthetics—art that seeks to engage audiences with traumatic histories by methods that ‘temper, and at times transform, the feelings of shame that would normally accompany them’.6 Best refers particularly to photographic art that functions as witness to traumatic histories, and is arguably applicable to the work of Leah King Smith and James Tylor. The art poses questions rather than accusations and creates an affect of discomfort where emotions about the past and present are felt on a deeply personal level.

The politics in Carmichael’s art is less obvious than more confrontational work, but maintains the same fighting spirit of her forebears. Oodgeroo Noonuccal, the famous poet and political activist of Quandamooka heritage, incorporated the full range of confrontational, reparative, and regenerative aesthetics in her art and poetry. Oodgeroo created artworks that regenerated memories of saltwater people and their country, but she also wrote provocative poetry that demanded land rights and the cessation of mining on Minjerribah:

But time is running out
And time is close at hand,
For the Dreamtime folk are massing
To defend their timeless land.

Come gentle black man
Show your strength;
Time to take a stand.
Make the violent miner feel
Your violent
Love of land.
    Oodgeroo Noonuccal, ‘Time is Running Out’7

Regenerative art like Carmichael’s is about taking a stand, and should be read so. Connecting Waves seeks to understand Quandamooka cultural heritage today, and find its place in a broader Indigenous community. The exhibition included paintings, sculptural and woven work, and photography. Arguably, it lacked the aesthetic coherence of a more resolved body of work, but this is not the point in something so experimental and fundamentally regenerative. One key painting anchored the spirit that defines the Quandamooka community today. Titled For the women in my life, past, present and future (2017), it depicts a gulayi (traditional Quandamooka women’s dillibag) painted in a two-dimensional quite schematic fashion. This is to show the particular weave and pattern of the bag that is unique to Quandamooka country. Elisa, her mother Sonja Carmichael, and a number of other Quandamooka artists are reviving this technique, since weaving practices ceased during the 20th century. Knowledge of how to weave the unique diagonal designs that provide strength and flexibility is brought back to life through a process of trial and error, consulting with elders, and close observation of gulayi held in museum collections throughout Australia.

Learning to weave is a strong expression of reclaiming a connection to place because gulayi’s fibre is a particular kind of freshwater swamp reed (Yunggaire) found on Minjerribah. Yunggaire must be harvested and prepared at a particular time of the year, and transforming reeds into weaving fibre requires an intimate knowledge of the land and its ecology. The gulayi in Carmichael’s painting is enveloped in a watery bed of yunggaire whose rose-tinted base signals the seasonal time for harvest. Eugarie shells are scattered across the top of the image, where they lie on the shoreline of Carmichael’s saltwater country. Carmichael says that,

Women used to collect eugarie shells and put them in the (gulayi) bag which is shown in the centre that features traditional Quandamooka weave. This work is about describing the way I carry country with me, who I am and the way I make artworks from the past and the present.8

The painting thus links directly to Carmichael’s self-directed portrait titled Carrying Home where the artist stands on the Minjerribah shoreline wearing one of her woven wearable art dresses depicting the Aboriginal flag.

The regenerative affect of Carmichael’s art—the intense sense of making the past active, involved, and present—also carries through from For the women in my life to a woven bowl, titled For Mum, that includes string woven from the combined hair of Carmichael’s mother, her sister Freja, and her own. Carmichael describes the hair as symbolising how the three women are always intrinsically woven together. The work also restores the symbolic significance of human hair in Australian Indigenous cultures, where different communities across the land virtually incorporated their own understanding of the DNA encoded in hair and how it represents a living, growing, signature of where we come from. It is the primary corporeal symbol of regrowth and, when twined together, is a surprisingly strong material that is often passed on for generations.

As mentioned previously, the soft politics of community-building through activating cultural heritage occurs within and beyond one’s own homelands. Emma Waterton makes this point in Heritage in Action when she writes,

…while the heritage of nations and dominant groups may appear static and unwavering in its representational practices, repeating and reinforcing the same discourses, the heritage of communities or places is provisional and fragile, and depends on the capacity of people to organize; to do things; to act, react, and reenact; and to make itself meaningful in moments of encounter and engagement.9

Carmichael’s early career effectively maps a network across Australia and internationally. Residencies, collaborations, mentorships and group exhibitions help to create a fabric of connectivity that ‘takes a stand’ for cultural heritage and that also makes itself meaningful in moments of encounter and engagement, as Waterton suggests. Since graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Art from Queensland College of Art at Griffith University in 2008, and working to complete a Masters of Fine Art in Fashion in 2017 at the Queensland University of Technology, Carmichael’s art has featured in four group exhibitions in the United Kingdom and one solo exhibition at The Cube in London (2012). Her work also appeared in exhibitions in India, Belgium, the United States, and Japan. But it is perhaps her collaboration on Judy Watson’s tow row,10 a public art commission for Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, that makes the most indelible mark on the Queensland landscape, indicating that Quandamooka cultural heritage is active, engaged and part of our future. Watson’s commission paid heed to the freshwater and saltwater people of the local Brisbane region through a bronze sculpture memorialising large woven nets that are towed by two people to enclose and catch fish. Carmichael researched museum collection material to learn how to make the cotton-tree fibre for these nets, and how to make the knots. In her words, she wove ‘kilometres’ of net to help complete the form from which the mould is made.

The significance of Carmichael’s art practice, and those like her, cannot be underestimated because they create space for the affirmation of ongoing Indigenous heritage as a living, continually relevant part of all Australian life. It is impossible to feel entirely external to its celebrated sense of rediscovery and pride, and its holistic embrace of people and place. Carmichael’s most abstract painting in the Connecting Waves exhibition, titled Living on freshwater land, takes its cue from the geographical rhythms of land to express an abstract energy of interconnectivity, and the shifting overlapping patterns of time. It is an intuitive form of Bridget Riley minimalism, but is based on an inherited sense of connection to a real place rather than a metaphysical connection to an abstract space.

The tissue of regenerative practice also occurs in a number of Carmichael’s woven baskets that include sea rope or what is often referred to as Ghost Nets. Discarded or lost fishing nets often float with the currents through our oceans, creating an extremely harmful mass of marine debris. They are called Ghost Nets11 to link them with ghost ships, a floating symbolism of death. Quandamooka artists are part of a national community of Ghost Nets artists who weave marine debris collected from the shoreline of traditional homelands to express a modern day imperative of ‘caring for country’. Traditional and Ghost Nets weaving are part of cultural activities on offer at the annual Quandamooka Festival,12 occurring from July to September. Carmichael’s Connecting Waves exhibition was an integral part of this Festival, helping to celebrate the regeneration and future of Australia’s Indigenous cultural heritage.

Carrying home #1 (saltwater), 2017. Digital print on rag pearl paper (unframed). Photographs Jasper Coleman.


Eugarie shells in my front yard at home, gum leaves in my backyard here, 2017.
Synthetic polymer on canvas, 77 x 105cm. Photographs Mick Richards.


Living on freshwater land, 2017. Synthetic polymer on canvas, 100 x 158cm. Courtesy of the artist and Onespace Gallery. Photograph Mick Richards.


Coolamon #1, 2017. Raffia, 22 x 7cm; Photographs Louis Lim.




1. Helaine Silverman, et.al., (eds.), Heritage in Action, Making the Past in the Present, Springer, Cham, Switzerland, 2017.
2. Quandamooka is the collective name of a Moreton Bay region that includes the Nunukal, Ngughi and Goenpul peoples. Carmichael is a Ngughi women from Minjerribah which is also known as North Stradbroke Island within the Quandamooka region.
3. Elisa Jane Carmichael, Connecting Waves, a saltwater woman living on desert country, Onespace Gallery, Brisbane, 5 July – 5 August 2017.
4. For information about Gilimbaa see www.gilimbaa.com.au
5. Connecting Waves, Room Brochure, artist’s interview with Louise Martin-Chew.
6. Susan Best, Reparative Aesthetics, Witnessing in Contemporary Art Photography, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, New York, 2016, p.2.
7. Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal 1920-1993), ‘Introduction’ by Michael Williamson, The dawn is at hand/selected poems, Rizzoli International Publications, London, New York, 1992 (earlier published as My People 1970).
8. Elisa Jane Carmichael, Connecting Waves, op. cit.
9. Heritage in Action, op. cit., p.4.
10 Judy Watson, tow row, QAGOMATV. See http://tv.qagoma.qld.gov.au/2017/02/17/judy-watson-introduces-tow-row/
11. Ghost Nets Australia, see https://www.ghostnets.com.au/
12. Quandamooka Festival, see www.quandamookafestival.com.au


Associate Professor Sally Butler is a Reader in Art History at The University of Queensland.