Baskets and Belonging: Aboriginal Australian Cosmology

There is a wonderful exhibition at the British Museum this summer about Aboriginal basket making in Australia. Truth is, I almost didn’t bother with it as, pushed for time, I couldn’t see how baskets could possibly be that interesting. How wrong I was. The exhibition is a gem and had themes that immediately resonated with the circularity of death and rebirth, revealing much about the Aboriginal view of the world.

Basket making is an ancient activity in Australia. Rock art from 20,000 years ago shows people using baskets that their descendants still made until very recently.

It is usually, although not exclusively, women who create the baskets. Using traditional techniques and long established patterns, they form each basket by plaiting fibres collected from the bush around them. This entails an intimate knowledge of not just the environment but also the best times for collecting, whether it is during the dry season or after heavy rains. It connects people to their land.

Although people birth the baskets and give them life, some have even stronger links with parturition and long thin baskets, often with a tell-tale protuberance at their base, contain dried umbilical cords from a baby’s birth.

These, and other baskets, often have decoration on their sides, mostly geometric shapes or stripes. People leave the rear undecorated, however, so that the paint will not rub off as the baskets hang against the back. The pigments are all earth based and are the same as those used in rock art, linking the two medium together. Both the colour and designs transmit tribal identity and ancestral knowledge of the region. People can read a basket and know about the life of its owner. Baskets become symbols of belonging and carrying a basket is akin to carrying the land.

Some baskets go deeper still and some, woven from fibre and wool pulled from the blankets European missionaries once doled out, hold pituri, a nicotine based hallucinogen that is chewed by senior men. These baskets are small, brightly coloured, and shaped like a well-stuffed banana. The exhibition, uniquely, has several bags still containing their original pituri leaves.

Upon death, people carry provisions to the funeral in baskets. Usually people use these same baskets for hunting or carrying food and they are plain and undecorated. When people take them to funerals, however, they paint each basket, adapting designs used to decorate bodies for ceremonies. It is as if the baskets become surrogates for the deceased and, after the funeral, people hang them upside-down on the top of the poles that mark the mortuary ground. The baskets become a memorial that will slowly disintegrate over time. Occasionally, people will retain some bones from the dead and, inevitably, they store these in baskets.

Basket making is undergoing a renaissance among Aboriginal people, partly due to the introduction of coiling. Due to the restrictions on innovation among traditional basket weaving, this new style allows people to experiment and try new things. Some waste products have been given new life through basket making with plastic strapping tape making colourful and hardwearing baskets. The traditional styles usually last only three years with constant use. Finally, there are those who gather damaged fishing nets washed up on the coast. Known locally as ghost nets, the fibre makes colourful and strong baskets, adding another facet to the history of the region and people’s relationship with the land they inhabit.

The exhibition at the British Museum runs until 11 September and is free to enter. Spend a while absorbing the power of these beautiful objects and let these words of Verna Nichols, an Aboriginal basket maker from Tasmania, roll around your mind. “The baskets are not empty. They are full of makers, their stories, their thoughts while making. The baskets are never empty.”

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