If you love plants, you’ll know there’s always more to them than meets the eye. For Bardi artist Juanita Mulholland, coming to know native plants and their uses through weaving, sculpting and eco-dyeing, has helped her find herself, and reconnect with her heritage.
Juanita grew up on Yawuru and Bardi/Djawi country in northern Western Australia, with her feet in the red earth and her heart filled with ancestral stories of the land. But after moving to Victoria to be with her father’s family, which she describes gently as ‘a bit of a sad story’, Juanita grew up feeling out of step – as though she didn’t belong in either mainstream or Aboriginal culture, despite the latter being an ever-present reality in her life.
That feeling, followed by the birth of her two children, prompted Juanita to want to reconnect with her heritage. She wanted her kids to engage with their Aboriginality, so Juanita began taking them to an Indigenous playgroup.
Hearing language and making new connections reawakened the early stories planted in Juanita’s heart.
As her kids grew, Juanita found increasing space for her own passions and continued to develop her networks with the local Aboriginal community. She wanted to learn more about local native plants and their role in the landscape, and she applied herself to deepening this knowledge. Living on Bunurong/Boon Wurrung Country in south-eastern Victoria, Juanita was a long way from home. But being in the bush and learning from local Elders helped her connect with a sense of identity.
Beginnings And Tragedies
In 2011, Juanita attended a weaving workshop hosted by N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM. There she learnt how to weave with the native grass species, Lomandra longifolia.
Known more popularly as spiny-headed mat rush or basket grass, lomandra is drought, heat and frost tolerant. With its strappy, pliable leaves, it has been an important fibre plant for Koorie people for generations (see page 20). Juanita says her first attempt at weaving with lomandra ‘looked terrible’ but it was as a starting point worth celebrating.
Six years later, Juanita’s nine-year-old son suffered a massive stroke.
‘It was like being in the middle of a storm,’ she says. ‘We were just holding together, trying to get through.’ Juanita’s son acquired a brain injury, and his recovery is ongoing.
The emotional rollercoaster of those turbulent years took its toll and, with little time to focus on anything other than her son’s rehabilitation, she struggled with regaining stability and a sense of self. But as he progressed, Juanita yearned to rediscover herself on the other side of crisis. It was then that she felt drawn back into the bush and to weaving.
On Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, tucked away in Hastings, is a special place known as Willum Warrain — the local Aboriginal Gathering Place. It was here Juanita continued to develop her weaving skills through a term-long course run by Amelia Seymour.
‘Amelia Seymour’s grandmother was a really, really great weaver,’ says Juanita. ‘She wove with lomandra and all the traditional materials and that knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation.’ The course focused on raffia weaving, and it was here that Juanita refined her technique. And spent hours practising.
Eventually growing bored with raffia, Juanita wanted to weave again with lomandra and began looking for creative ways to incorporate other native plants into her work too. This was where her knowledge of the bush and weaving skills began to intersect.
She began experimenting with other native local plants like Dianella tasmanica, or Tasman flax-lily, and moved on from basic shapes into increasingly complex designs and sculptures. Weaving made space in Juanita’s life for creativity and focus; as she worked each strand of fibre over and under, she was gradually weaving identity and life back together in the process.
As a weaver and artist, Juanita now operates under the banner of ‘Woven Culture’. She is passionate about the plants she works with and the place they hold in the wider landscape. Many of her woven works carry messages, designed to make observers think about the interwoven ethics of caring for country and caring for one another.
Juanita entered her woven sculpture called ‘What’s the cost?’ into the 2022 Victoria Craft Awards and was delighted to be named a finalist.
‘It was the first time I’d ever entered anything, I was in total disbelief,’ Juanita recalls. ‘And I felt that people were able to appreciate and identify with the piece.’
The sculpture, made from woven lomandra and eco- dyed with charcoal, eucalyptus and rusty metal salvaged from the bush, was inspired by local planned burns near Juanita’s home.
‘After the burn, I was walking through the bush and noticed all the little crevices and nooks and crannies; you see the bushland. It’s all burnt and stark and brown and black. And then slowly, over time, little bits of green begin peppering the branches. I really love that transformation,’ she says. ‘In the basket, you can see those nooks and crannies, the hills and the mountains, the water soaks; you can see all those little shapes and hidey holes.
‘We have this idea that everything is for sale and with the right price we can buy whatever we want. We can come and live on someone’s ancestral home and steal their land and buy it as we wish, and then ask them to buy it back from us – to me, it’s disgusting. It’s a lot about consumerism. What is the cost of us inhabiting this place? Aboriginal people have lived here for millennia. They’ve changed the earth and they’ve marked it, but they haven’t left big monuments to themselves; they haven’t left bloody mountains of rubbish everywhere.
‘We’ve been here for 250-odd years and we have destroyed it and changed it so immensely. What is going to be left of this place in another 250 years? I get really worried about it. What are we losing for what we’re apparently gaining?’
More Than A Plant
Juanita is keen to remind people that, for diverse Aboriginal groups, a plant is not an object to be catalogued, much less exploited. Rather, each species has its own place in wider narratives of country and identity, narratives of interconnection that incorporate place, people, animal, law, language and history.
She describes sitting and weaving with a friend underneath an ancient eel smoking tree, where she experienced an overpowering sense that ‘it needed to have smoke there, and it needed women and busy hands.’ The wall hanging that Juanita began weaving there has now been gifted to Willum Warrain and is an exquisite circular design of woven lomandra, with a Hardenbergia frame and eco-dyed centre.
‘That wall hanging for me is about connection; we’re all reliant on each other,’ she says. ‘We need every part of the ecosystem and the ecosystem needs us. I love this piece because it reminds me of sitting there under the tree with such immense feelings, while it also talks about looking after the land and its plants and creatures—we’re not above any of them. We are just as fragile and reliant on them as they are on us.’
Deepening And Expanding
Printing with native foliage is Juanita’s latest project. Using recycled or natural fabrics, she uses eucalypts and other local leaves to dye scarves – wearable art. She also collects rusted metal that has been dumped or discarded in the bush and incorporates this into her dyeing process, upcycling rubbish into something of value while restoring country at the same time. It’s a statement. And Juanita’s artworks are infused with such intentionality. She looks out for people who grow dianella and lomandra in their gardens, harvesting from willing contributors, as collecting native plants from protected bushland without permission is prohibited.
‘It’s been a lovely way of meeting people,’ she adds.
Ethereality informs Juanita’s artistic practice. When something is ethereal, it is fleeting or transient, meaning it will not remain forever.
‘Even though I put a lot of time into my artwork, I want it to go back to the earth. I want it to be safe,’ she says. As part of the oldest living culture in the world, sustainability is central to Juanita’s thinking. Her artworks – as genuinely biodegradable – are therefore transient.
For Juanita, leaving her mark is about more than physical mementos; it is about relationship and legacy.
Juanita is aware that where she lives is not her ancestral home, and yet respectful connection with the resources around her connects her with a wider sense of identity. She has not only developed an artistic presence on the landscape, she has woven her own sense of identity, with a strong ethical orientation in her artistic practice.
Through her weaving, sculpting, printing and dyeing with native flora, Juanita raises questions for observers around connection, environment, interdependence and legacy. Her artistic practice has been a way of fostering connections. Connections with her heritage and her own sense of identity; with fellow Indigenous people in a place far away from her ancestral home; with the bushland that surrounds her and those who have cared for it before her. And now, with those who have the privilege of appreciating, displaying and wearing her artworks.
JUANITA TALKS US THROUGH ONE OF HER IMPRESSIVE ARTWORKS
‘This one (pictured above) is called My Favourite Bunurong Word. It’s not my place to tell you this word, but I hope to spark some curiosity about the local language. The woven sculpture is made from Bluebell Creeper (Billardiera heterophylla), Tasman flax-lily (Dianella tasmanica) and Banksia. Banksia stumps are used for the mushroom stalks, the gills are made with flax-lily and Bluebell Creeper forms the caps. Around the mushrooms, I have planted apple-berries, moss and sundews.
‘We have a big problem with Bluebell Creeper here. Although it is native to Australia, it is not native to Victoria and takes our bushland, killing off local species and taking up spaces where apple-berries will grow. I seriously don’t like Bluebell Creeper and wanted to find a way to create something positive with it. What better way to use Bluebell Creeper than to weave it into a structure where apple-berries can thrive?’
Some quotes are taken from an interview funded by a University of Divinity research grant. The transcript of a full interview will be available in a special edition of the Journal of Intercultural Studies in 2023, edited by Samuel Curkpatrick, Sarah Bacaller and Aaron Corn.