“Each doll tells a story – a story from my people and country.” Janet Hayden. Noongar Elder (dec)
The making of Noongar dolls has a history that goes way back to the improvised making and play that Elders recall from times living on reserves and on country. Materials were as eclectic as the dolls themselves – bush nuts, pegs and sauce bottles refashioned to fuel the imagination and joy of Noongar children. An old sardine tin and a piece of string could be transformed into a pram with peg baby to be joyfully pulled along.
A contemporary revival of this practice began when artists Pantjiti Mary McLean and Nalda Searles worked alongside women in the south west town of Narrogin in Western Australia in the early 1990’s on a project initiated by the Town of Narrogin. The dolls and the makers from that period spread their influence far and wide. Some of the Noongar dolls were acquired by collections all over Australia and some exhibited overseas, travelling as far abroad as China.
In 2010 Community Arts Network (CAN) was invited to work in Narrogin to deliver a healing project for women and at the community’s request, the art of doll making was revived.
“Grandparents are our hearts, our future and our life.” Cherie Abednego
The fettler and the housewife (aka Pop Ralph and Nan Liz)
“Original doll maker Elizabeth Riley and I gave each other a hug and I said’ Did you ever think this would happen?’ ‘No” she replied, during a 2011 CAN doll making workshop.” Nalda Searles. Textile artist/doll facilitator.
Yarns of the Heart brought Nalda Searles and her colleague Cecile Williams together with new generations of Noongar ladies to stitch and share, each one creating unique dolls that expressed stories of love, loss, strength and joy.
A lot of personal and cultural sharing is wrapped in these dolls and their influence has again been widespread, particularly through Glen Barkley’s inclusion of many in the MCA’s 2013 touring exhibition string theory: Focus on contemporary Australian art.
Many of the dolls in this showing were created by women from Yued/Noongar families who had lived at New Norcia Mission – an Aboriginal institution established by Benedictine Monks in 1846.
The textile workshops held at the Mission produced dolls that are redolent of their connection to country, their memories and stories.
These dolls will continue their journey across Australia for the next three years.
Meanwhile the practice has taken on a life of its own, manifest through CAN projects across Noongar Country and from initiatives led by past participants who have now honed their skills to become independent artists and facilitators.
The travelling dolls have inspired other Aboriginal groups around Australia to revive their doll making traditions. Noongar artists and facilitators Marcelle Riley and Sharyn Egan enjoyed a cultural doll making exchange with the Gomeroi in Tamworth and Walgett in the lead up to the 3rd Tamworth Textile Triennial. This is another fine example of the ‘life’ Noongar dolls embody – rippling out to people and communities far beyond their origins, offering their stories and their makers’ hearts and hands to souls on country everywhere.
“Working with the Gomeroi mob was a learning experience in that we learned a lot about their culture and found lots of similarities and they were interested in travelling to other places to share their knowledge and skills with others.” – Sharyn Egan
“It was my first major trip outside of WA, it was such a great experience for me. Meeting new people and making new friends is an experience of a lifetime 🙂 Was happy to do the workshops with Sharyn, she is so artistic 🙂 The ladies in Tamworth and Walgett made us feel so welcome 🙂 Just like being back home!!” – Marcelle Riley
Since Yarns of the Heart in 2011, the Noongar Dolls have travelled far and wide…
2017 – 2020 – Open House touring exhibition – Noongar Dolls included in the Tamworth Textile Triennial exhibition which will tour works by the nation’s finest textile artist over the next three years. Photography by Natalija Brunovs.
2017 National Self Portrait Prize – Finalist, Marcelle Riley for her work Bibool Yok (Paperbark Girl) the only soft sculpture selected for the $50k prize. Photography by Molly Schmidt.
2017 Tamworth Gallery acquisition – Sharyn Egan’s work Mission Girls purchased by the Tamworth Regional Gallery for its’ nationally acclaimed textile collection.
July 2017 – Rekindling Stories on Country – Noongar dolls from Moora and New Norcia exhibited at Perth Art Space, Northbridge during NAIDOC week. Photo by Jacqueline Warwick City of Perth.
July – August 2016 – Born on Country – Moora, New Norcia, Kellerberrin and Quairading Dolls exhibition at Midland Junction Art Centre and Lancelin Community centre for NAIDOC. Photo by Tash Nannup.
2013 – 2015 – String Theory: Focus of Contemporary Australian Art. – Curated by Glen Barley, the Museum of Contemporary Art bought together 30 Aboriginal textile and fibre artists, including the, from all over Australia, including the Narrogin doll makers, for a 2 year national tour. Photo by Alex Davies Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art
2011 – 2012 – Yarns of the Heart – Noongar dolls from the Southern Wheatbelt. More than 70 handmade dolls representing the lives and stories of their creators.