Baskets and belonging

Indigenous Australians have always made a striking array of baskets and bags. Elegant and skilfully made, these beautiful objects reveal much about Aboriginal Australia.

Baskets reflect the deep connection between people and place central to Aboriginal identities for at least 55,000 years. Never one people, more than 300 distinct language groups lived across the continent when the first British settlers arrived in the late 1700s.

They made and used few objects: their riches were and still are intellectual, philosophical and religious. The baskets, containers and fibre art shown here shed light on the histories of these people and their communities from earliest times to the present.

Share this page

  • 1

    Two-cornered (bicornual) cane basket from Mulgrave River, Queensland 

    Two-cornered (bicornual) cane basket

    Across Australia, baskets were sometimes made by men or by women only – their design and use varying from group to group. Rigid, twined cane baskets such as this were made by men in the rainforests along the coast of north-eastern Australia.

    This basket would have been used to carry personal belongings and ceremonial items. The designs, painted with ochres – pigments from naturally coloured clay or earth – indicate the owner’s kinship or clan identity.

  • 2

    Ghost net basket by Angela Torenbeek, Moa, Torres Strait Islands, Queensland 

    Ghost nets

    Indigenous Australians often incorporate new materials into their baskets. For some time, women in northern Australia have incorporated fishing twine scoured from the beach into their twined and looped basket-work. From 2004, a project in the Gulf of Carpentaria has encouraged women to make baskets using nylon from ‘ghost nets’. These are commercial fishing nets that have been cut loose and drift randomly in the ocean, catching fish for nobody.

    In 2010 a Ghost Net workshop was held at St Pauls on Moa Island, Torres Strait, which was hosted by Angela Torenbeek. This is a basket she herself made, using fibre from a variety of different ghost nets. Workshops have now been held at a number of places in the Torres Strait, and baskets are increasingly being exhibited in galleries and art shows. 'I used to make dilly bags out of pandanus, but now I’m weaving out of ghost net … it’s amazing for me to weave from a net, a fishing net.' Mavis Ngallametta, Kendle River country, western Cape York, Queensland (born 1944).

    Reproduced by permission of the artist on behalf of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery (2012). H 12cm, D 25cm.

  • 3

    Camp dog by Lena Yarinkura, Maningrida, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory 

    Telling stories with fibre

    People have been making baskets in Arnhem Land, in the very north of Australia, for thousands of years. Traditionally in this area, people work with pandanus leaves, twining them to make conical baskets. Now artists from this region are using similar techniques to produce new forms.

    Camp Dog

    Lena Yarinkura uses the same technique to make fibre sculptures of camp dogs. She stuffs the twined pandanus form with paperbark and paints the surface with ochre, adding wooden legs and ears to the fibre body. The sculptural technique allows artists to explore new narrative possibilities, expressing mythological themes or illustrating stories from the bush.

  • 4

    Plaited basket from Erub, Torres Strait Islands, Queensland 

    Adopting new materials

    Women in the Torres Strait Islands plait baskets from many different kinds of palm leaf, including both pandanus and coconut palms. Today new materials, such as plastic strapping tape, are also used. Some baskets were made to hold precious objects, but most were for food and household goods. Indigenous groups in the islands are closely linked to those in Papua New Guinea. Plaiting is a technique widespread in New Guinea, but uncommon in Indigenous Australia.

    Plaited basket

    The blue colour used to decorate this basket is probably Reckitts Blue, a type of laundry whitener made in Britain and sold in colonial trade stores across Australia and Melanesia from the 1880s. It was quickly adopted and used as paint by Indigenous Australians. The use of Reckitts Blue and the addition of a cloth handle reflect an immediate interest in exploring new materials alongside traditional techniques.

  • 5

    Folded bark basket (tunga) from Tiwi, Northern Territory 

    Memorials to the dead

    Off the coast of Arnhem Land, in what Australians call the Top End, the Tiwi people of Bathurst and Melville Islands make bark baskets to carry food. Mostly the baskets are left plain, but for funerals they are painted with clan designs, similar to ceremonial body designs. Gifts of food are brought to the funeral in the painted baskets, and at the conclusion of the ceremony, they are upended on top of painted poles, a memorial to the dead and their kin. The baskets and poles are then left to be worn away by the wind and weather.

    Folded bark basket (tunga)

    Bark baskets, or tunga, are made by folding a length of tree bark into shape. Here the edges have been lashed together and bound with cane and plant resin, and decorated with seeds. Sometimes the edges were sealed with beeswax, a natural adhesive. The clan images are painted on with ochres.

  • 6

    Twined conical basket from Port Essington, Cobourg Peninsular, Northern Territory 

    Belonging to place and time

    People have been making conical baskets in Arnhem Land, northern Australia, for thousands of years. Baskets were, and still are, made in this region by both men and women. They are often painted, and ancestral knowledge is passed on through the designs and through the significance of the colours used.

    Twined conical basket

    Traditionally different types of basket were made for specific purposes. Some were linked to the sacred, some to the ordinary business of life, such as food gathering. Baskets were also made to hold objects linked to memories and to events. This basket, painted with ochre, was probably made to hold a baby’s umbilical cord, which was often kept by the family of the newborn. The cord would have been bound in a very small basket that was then attached to, or placed in, a larger basket. Such baskets usually have a protruding starting point at the base.

  • 7

    Dyed and twined basket, Kathleen Gedeweir Olsen, Maningrida, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory 

    Introducing dyeing

    In the twentieth century, Pacific Islander missionaries arriving in Australia encouraged the use of natural dyes in basket-making. In northern Australia, people applied these dyes to twined baskets and also to coiled baskets, a technique newly introduced from southern Australia. Both techniques are widely used today.

    Dyed and twined basket

    This basket uses dyed fibre but traditional close twining techniques. It was brought to London as part of an exhibition which focused on bark paintings from Maningrida.

  • 8

    Coiled basket from Melville Island, Northern Territory 

    New technique, new styles

    In 1922 the missionary Gretta Matthews introduced the technique known as coiling to the women of Goulburn Island, Arnhem Land. She probably originally learned it from Indigenous women in southern Australia. From this beginning, coiling spread rapidly across the north, as women taught the technique to their relatives in nearby communities. Coiling now co-exists with the traditional technique of twining.

    Coiled basket

    This small basket was made in 1929, soon after coiling was introduced to northern Australia. Coiling, unlike twining, is free of sacred and ancestral associations and of traditional rules that govern form and function. Because of this, it seems to have offered women opportunities for experimentation, enabling the development of new basket forms.

  • 9

    Coiled bowl by Yikartu Bumba from Western Australia 

    Coiling grass

    Traditionally, people living in the arid region of Central Australia rarely made baskets, but used wooden and bark containers. They did not have access to the wide range of suitable plant fibres found in other parts of the continent, in particular by rivers and along wetter coastal areas. Coiling was first introduced to these communities through workshops in the 1990s. Women use grass to make ‘bundles’ – in which fibres are wrapped and stitched together in an ascending coil using materials such as wool and raffia. The technique led to a creative explosion.

    Coiled bowl

    The grass of this basket can be seen here through the wool binding. Women collect the grass when they travel across their homelands to visit family, attend ceremonies, look after their land and gather bush tucker, or bush food.

  • 10

    Twined basket from Tasmania 

    Destruction and recovery

    Tasmania was once part of mainland Australia, and was cut off by rising sea levels relatively recently, about 8000 years ago. Women there made twined baskets from irises, lilies, rush, sedges and reeds. From around 1803 Europeans began to settle in Tasmania and were extremely hostile to the local population. In less than a generation, and despite vigorous resistance, all Aboriginal people had been displaced from their country. In recent decades Indigenous Tasmanians have begun making traditional baskets again, tenacious in maintaining their identity.

    Twined basket

    This basket might have been used on land or in the sea – women wore them around their necks while diving underwater to harvest the sea’s resources. In 1792 a member of a French expedition to Tasmania observed some baskets ‘filled with shell-fish and lobsters, others with pieces of flint and fragments of the bark of a tree as soft as the best tinder’.

  • 11

    Looped and knotted bag, probably from the Richmond River, New South Wales 

    Working with natural colour

    Looped and knotted bags were made on the east coast of Australia from the Richmond River area north to Moreton Bay. Basket-makers worked with the colour of the rushes – deeper near the stem – to great effect. These baskets are no longer produced, and there is only one known photograph of people with this type of bag.

    Looped and knotted bag

    We no longer know how these baskets were used, but they were probably carried by women. In 1839 James Backhouse, an early European visitor to Stradbroke Island, described how they were created: 'The base of these rushes is of a pale colour, the portion included in the sheaths at the base, or just emerging from them, is of a pinkish hue and the top green. By arranging the knots so as to form diagonal lines across the bag, the colours are brought into tasteful order'.

  • 12

    Unpainted two-cornered (bicornial) basket from Rockingham Bay, Queensland 

    Rainforest baskets

    Rigid open baskets from the Queensland rainforest region are traditionally made by men. Their design and decoration varies according to how they were to be used. Men made smaller painted baskets to hold their belongings and ceremonial objects. Unpainted baskets were used to hold food, and men sometimes used them to carry babies.

    Unpainted two-cornered (bicornial) basket

    Unpainted baskets, such as this, were used by men and women for gathering and processing food. Some nuts, such as a type of black bean, contain toxins. These were placed in baskets and set in running water to leach out the poison. These baskets are made from lawyer cane, which is prepared for weaving by rubbing off the sharp prickles. Next strips of cane are spilt into lengths with a thumbnail or a shell and scraped smooth using shells or stones.

  • 13

    Pituri bag from Western Queensland 

    Trading narcotics

    In western Queensland, distinctively shaped bags were made to hold pituri, a nicotine-containing substance that was highly valued and widely traded. Only senior men in the community could use pituri, chewing it with ashes to obtain a narcotic effect.

    Pituri was made from the cured leaf and stem of the desert plant Duboisia hopwoodii, but only from those plants growing in the Mulligan River area of Queensland. This restriction seems to have been based on the nicotine content of plants growing in this area. Pituri was traded over at least a quarter of a million square kilometres of inland Australia, and was exchanged for boomerangs, spears, shields and ochre.

    Pituri bag

    This bag is rare because it still contains its load of pituri. It is made of two-ply string, partly made of re-twined wool from Government issue blankets, which gives the bag its coloured stripes. Traditionally the string was made from native flax or possum fur and the bags might have human hair woven into them. Blankets, given even as land was being taken, and so representing cultural destruction, are here reused for a local purpose.

  • 14

    Looped netbag from Cooper’s Creek, South Australia 

    Men's netbags

    Diyari men from central Australia, near Lake Eyre, have traditionally made a great variety of different netbags. They used some to carry personal belongings, such as stones, string and ochre. Some were used to carry food, including fat, meat and fish. Others were worn partly as a decoration and partly as special insignia belonging to a clan group.

    Looped netbag

    This bag is looped with a twist. The maker has then threaded strings of hair and coloured wool through the loops, both for decoration and to make the fabric more dense. A bag such as this one could take several months to make. In the late 1800s the missionary J.G. Reuther recorded several phrases about netbags for his Diyari language dictionary. One, billieli pankina, reflects the time and effort men put into making bags like this. It means, ‘to make a great fuss about one’s fine dilly-bag’. Dillybag is an Australian English term used to describe any Indigenous Australian bag or basket.

  • 15

    Skip-stitch coiled basket probably from Victoria 

    The art of the line

    In south-east Australia, women traditionally made bundle coiled baskets, in which bundles of fibre were wrapped and stitched together in an ascending coil. Traditional designs were based on line, on geometric patterns or free-form flowing curves- the stitches themselves form the patterns of lines.

    Skip-stitch coiled basket

    In south-east Australia, as in many areas, designs were not purely decorative, but indicated clan identity, totems and other important information. The specific significance of the designs on this basket is not known. A variety of different plants were used in making baskets in this region, including rushes (Xerotes longifolia) and grass (Poa australis). The species used to make this basket have not yet been identified.

  • 16

    Coiled basket probably from the Lower Murray River, Victoria/South Australia 

    Transformations after contact

    When Europeans arrived in Australia, they brought with them smallpox, a disease that spread quickly across the continent and devastated local populations: in Victoria the population fell from more than 60,000 to less than 2000. Those that survived were forced to live on settlements set up by Europeans, often far from their own lands. Women in south-east Australia continued to make baskets, passing their skill on from generation to generation, and preserving an important aspect of their traditional knowledge. They made baskets to sell to the settlers or to exchange for other goods. Eventually traditional basket forms fell out of use, even while the skills needed to make them continued.

    Coiled basket

    This type of flat coiled basket did not survive the arrival of Europeans, nor did a variety of similar looking round mats, some with pockets on their upper surface. The mats were worn tied on the back to provide protection from the cold and rain.

    Although many details of basket making have been lost, we know that the shape of the opening on this basket is characteristic of the Lower Murray region. The form gave rise to the flat baskets now known as ‘sister baskets’.

  • 17

    Club basket, probably from Ngarrindjeri, Encounter Bay, South Australia 

    Baskets for war and peace

    In the Lake Encounter region of South Australia, Ngarrindjeri men carried fighting clubs in coiled baskets.

    Club basket

    The shape of this club bag is traditional – but from the 1870s Ngarrindjeri men began to make broader and more open bags to suit European taste. The bag was acquired from Jane Moorhouse, wife of Matthew Moorhouse, the first permanent ‘Protector of Aborigines’ in South Australia from 1839.

    ‘Protector’ was a formal position. Ironically, protectors oversaw the subjugation of Aboriginal people and the loss of their knowledge and practices.

  • 18

    Bark water bucket, Worora people, Kimberley region, Western Australia 

    Bark water buckets

    In the arid regions of north-west Australia, people traditionally made bark buckets to carry water. Bark buckets also sometimes appear in rock art in this region, carried by ancestral spirit beings called wandjina. Part of the work of wandjina is to send the rain: as long as the picture of a wandjina exists in a rock shelter, rain will continue to fall there at the proper time of year.

    Bark water bucket

    This water bucket is made of bark, bound with cane grass string and sealed possibly with spinifex wax, and painted with ochre. It has a twined string handle. Water was collected not only for drinking, but also, for example, for grinding stone axe heads.

  • 19

    Wooden water carrier from New South Wales 

    Travelling with water

    A wide coastal band of south-east Australia is covered in mixed temperate forest. It has a warm rainy climate but creeks and waterholes are not spread evenly across the region. Aboriginal people hollowed out large, heavy wooden tubs using fire and stone tools. These water containers were left at regular camping grounds to be used when groups stayed there. The containers displayed here are lighter versions, made for people to carry as they moved through their territories.

    Wooden water carrier

    Portable wooden water containers were always carried by women. They filled them with fresh water when they visited a creek or waterhole, and used them to store water when they camped. This container has been hollowed from a knot or gnarl of a gum tree. It would have been carried with a twined fibre rope made from stringybark bark or another fibre. Gum tree is the popular name for Eucalyptus in Australia, and stringybark is a type of Eucalyptus.

  • 20

    Pair of coconut water bottles from Torres Strait Islands 

    Surrounded by saltwater

    The Torres Strait Islands lie between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Before the sea levels rose about 8000 years ago, this area was a land bridge joining the two regions into one. Now surrounded by saltwater, these islands have few natural sources of fresh water. People stored water in a variety of different containers.

    Pair of coconut water bottles

    In the early days, Torres Strait Islanders made water containers from coconut shells with coconut fibre stoppers. Men travelled long distances across the sea in canoes to trade and do battle with neighbouring groups. A plentiful supply of fresh water was essential for such journeys. The men would join two coconut shells together with rope and string them around their necks while paddling, or tie them to the waist when travelling on land.

  • 21

    A rare seaweed water container from Tasmania 

    Kelp water carriers

    In November 1832, the Quaker missionary James Backhouse visited Woolnorth in northern Tasmania. There he recorded how women ‘cut sheets of the large flat kelp and run strings around the margin, thus making simple bags in which they carry water’. The kelp species from which such containers are made, Durvillaea potatorum, is named after these carriers.

    A rare seaweed water container

    Many Tasmanian women have made new kelp carriers based on a photograph of this object published online in 2008.