ReInventing the Weave – glass by Jenni Kemarre Martiniello. Canberra Glassworks. Until June 7.
Jenni Kemarre Martiniello began working with glass midway through a very prolific career as an artist and writer. Martiniello, who is originally from Adelaide, graduated from the ANU School of Art with a major in sculpture in 1985. Her art practice for many years encompassed the academic world and the graphic arts.
She has an interesting background – a cultural mix of Celtic, Anglo, Chinese and Portuguese ancestry. It is through her cultural connection with her father and grandmother that her strong links with the Arrernte people of the Central Australia have been forged. She has always endeavoured to encourage Indigenous artists and has been a member of several arts boards that promote Indigenous cultures.
Martiniello has been very active in community art in the Canberra region and in the wider community. In 2006, she established Kemarre Arts, the ACT's first independent Aboriginal-run social enterprise, but it was when she was a member of the ACT Indigenous Textile and Glass Artists Group, founded by Lyndy Delian in 2003, that she showed interest in glass. In 2008, Martiniello and Delian became involved in the Canberra Glassworks program run for Indigenous artists. Since then, she has found a strong voice in this medium.
Martiniello's work is familiar to Canberra audiences, as she has been included in many local exhibitions, notably at the Belconnen Arts Centre in in 2012. GlassWeave was a solo exhibition of glass objects based on the forms of fish traps and baskets woven by Indigenous people. Martiniello's work was remarkable even at this early stage for her inventive translation of these forms into the medium of glass.
In 2012, the artist also had an exhibition with Giles Bettison at the Canberra Glassworks called Open Work that provided stunning works in glass showcasing the Venetian technique of canework. In 2013, Martiniello won the prestigious 30th Telstra Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Art Award with a work called Golden Brown Reeds Fish Trap.
The origin of these works based on traditional woven forms, such as fish traps and baskets, comes from an encounter the artist had as a young girl. In museums she saw wonderful examples of Indigenous weaving and felt they were regarded as relics of a bygone age and devoid of relevance and life. She was, however, lucky enough through her Arrernte grandmother to see women actually weaving baskets.
Weaving is an age-old skill, the artist notes, as is the Venetian technique of canework she uses in her glasswork to reproduce it. By bringing these skills together in glass, based on traditional woven forms, Martiniello is translating them into a contemporary idiom that enhances them in a celebratory way.
The works in ReInventing the Weave are based on the now familiar woven forms of basket fish and eel traps, but the exhibition also includes cylindrical forms such as in the Message Stick series and the single Burial Pole work. Most of the small-scaled message sticks are named after native birds, such as the magpie, lorikeet and galah, and one is named after the Tanami Desert. These are kiln-formed and blown-glass cylindrical forms that are dark in tone but ornamented with splashes of vivid colour. Obviously conceived as individual works, they have their maximum impact when assembled as a group. Despite the small scale, their encrypted messages suggest an affinity with the Aboriginal memorial poles in the National Gallery of Australia and the Pukumani poles from the Tiwi Islands.
The collection of works based on the dilly bag and bicornual basket (a two-horned or cornered basket) are particularly assured. The colours are rich and intense. The shapes are a little exaggerated and fully rounded to emphasise their forms and indicate their fullness that signified they were once used to collect food. Among the basket forms, of particular note are the stunning Bush Flower series, in which the artist uses a combination of canework and murrini techniques. The orchestration of the areas of colour and plain glass is accomplished with sensitivity and assurance and suggests the way bush flowers are massed in the bush. The imagery is not prescriptive or figurative, yet the actual presence of the flowers is artfully and beautifully conveyed.
The eel traps have become a familiar form in Martiniello's work. Once woven in rushes and placed in streams to entice eels into the wide mouth, the eel trap's clever design meant that the eels lured into them could not turn around and so were caught. When the woven structure of these traps is translated into glass, the Venetian canework cleverly suggests the complexity of the original woven patterns.
Sometimes the glass form of the eel trap with its large circular opening can sit a little uneasily on a flat surface, as it was meant to be used in streams and channels, but the suspension of several of these glass eel traps from the roof of the roundhouse gallery space is an inspired idea. The flickering light on their surfaces and their slight movement in the air suggests not only the passage of water, but by extension the movement of the eels themselves.
The artist has got fully into her stride in ReInventing the Weave. It is a beautiful and assured exhibition. The works are mature. Martiniello displays the confidence to make the forms a little exaggerated and enlarged, and make the weave in the glass more colourful and complex. In addition, the inventive assemblage of eel trap forms in the roundhouse space gives an indication of future possibilities.