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These are four conical pandanus baskets from western Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. All are painted with natural pigments and date from 1912-13. They are between 43 cm and 76 cm high and their diameters range from 14 cm to 24 cm.
Conical baskets such as these are of continuing significance in western Arnhem Land. Images of baskets appear in the oldest rock paintings dated to about 20,000 years ago and baskets are still being made today. For example, the artists of Gunbalanya (formerly Oenpelli), a community to the east of the East Alligator River and Kakadu, and the surrounding outstations, sell unique work at the arts centre at Injalak, including pandanus conical baskets made by Kunwinjku women.
An important image in the rock art on Injalak Hill in western Arnhem Land is of the ancestor Yingarna carrying 15 painted baskets like those shown here. It is the only image of Yingarna, who came from the east and travelled on in a westerly direction before heading southwards. As she travelled Yingarna placed each basket at a specific location across the land and people emerged from the basket to live and own that country. Yingarna gave each group their language and clan name.
Fibre for the baskets is made from long leaves taken from the top of pandanus trees ('Pandanus spiralis'). The younger green leaves are pulled down with a long forked stick and the prickly edges removed. The leaves are split lengthwise down the centre ridge and the layers of fibre are separated out. The thin pandanus strips are hung up to dry before they are used to make baskets.
Painted baskets such as these were made by women using undyed pandanus strips and complex twining techniques to achieve the required shape. Distinctive patterns were then painted onto the finished baskets. Although made and most likely painted by women, the baskets were used by men, mainly to carry personal items, as well as for ceremonial purposes.
The paint used on these baskets comes from natural pigments - mainly charcoal (black), pipe clay (white) and ochres (pale yellow to dark reddish-brown). To make paint, the source material was ground into powder with a pestle-type stone and mixed with a binding fluid. The paint would have been applied with a small stick or a brush made from hair for fine details or for larger coverage by brushing with a stick with a frayed end or direct application with the fingers.
All of these baskets were obtained from unnamed Gagadju people camped at Oenpelli. Three were obtained in 1912 by Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929), who from 1889 to 1928 was responsible for development of the ethnographic collection at the National Museum of Victoria (now Museum Victoria). The fourth basket was obtained in 1913 by Paddy Cahill, the pastoralist at Oenpelli.