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Cultural Revitalisation: Dadikwakwa-kwa Project

Cultural Revitalisation: Dadikwakwa-kwa Project

October 2022 – December 2023
Angurugu and Umbakumba Art Centres | Groote Eylandt NT 

During the recent on-Country consultations with the AIATSIS Return of Cultural Heritage team and Manchester Museum staff, a group of collection items captured the attention of the gathered women.  

The collection of ochre painted shells wrapped in strips of faded cotton were not immediately recognised by the women but later identified as Dadikwakwa-kwa, or doll shells. Not made for over fifty years and existing only in the living memory of four senior women, Dadikwakwa-kwa are the opposite of Worsley’s account, which described the doll shells as having “no significance [compared to Wanamembilja, men’s wooden dolls]… used merely as playthings”. 

Dadikwakwa-kwa have, in fact, great significance. 

Doll shells are a wholly unique practice to the Anindilyakwa women of the archipelago.  Keepers of spirits and ancestors, Dadikwakwa-kwa are considered alive by the women who create and care for them. Traditionally used as inter-generational learning aides for literacy, numeracy, kinship systems and women’s health, Dadikwakwa-kwa may also guide you through your dreams, answering your questions and giving advice. They hold sacred knowledge and stories safe for future generations. 

Moved by their elder’s stories of Dadikwakwa-kwa, the women of Anindilyakwa Arts decided to revive the practice that halted during a time of great change on Eylandt following the growth of the Mission and establishment of manganese mining. Lead by senior artist and Lead Art and Culture Officer, Danjibana Noeleen Lalara, artists visited remote beaches on the east of the Eylandt to collect the correct shells and worked with both community elders and contemporary artists to remember and reimagine Dadikwakwa-kwa. 

“Seeing the photos and hearing the old ladies talk about the dolls inspired the doll shell project. We follow the old ways, weaving like the ladies using the string to make clothes for the dolls. We don’t want to lose our culture and we want to share our knowledge to the world.” 

Maicie Lalara, Anindilyakwa Arts Art and Culture Officer, Artist and Emerging Leader 

After some experimentation, artists each settled into their own unique style of Dadikwakwa-kwa. Taking inspiration from traditional and contemporary techniques, every Doll Shell has a unique character and personality.  

By the time 2022 came to a close, ten artists from across the Eylandt had completed a collaborative doll shell installation, created to celebrate the return of Dadikwakwa-kwa 

Curated in a fourteen-by-fourteen grid, to represent the fourteen clans of the Groote Archipelago, the 196 Doll Shells are individually mounted on custom stands, so they appear to be floating of the wall – a reference to their spirit-like characteristics and the Manchester Museum’s Dadikwakwa-kwa’s fifty years spent in a natural history collection where specimens are often pinned for display. 

This initial installation was submitted to the 2023 Telstra Art National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) and a secondary installation was later created and acquired by Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).  

Throughout 2023, Dadikwakwa-kwa creation continued strong, with more and more women sharing the stories and practice among themselves. The art centre’s collection of doll shells grew as unique and varied as the women creating them. Some Dadikwakwa-kwa closely resembled the doll shells in Manchester – patterned with ochre and dressed in strips of bush dyed silk, many more wore cheeky expressions or elaborate skirts and hats, some were woven around with pandanus or bush string, and a handful were adorned with a loving husband’s donation of hair – for extra personality.  

“Now with the doll shells, we are using many ways – we have to use many ways with many women. The art ladies made doll shells and painted them with ochre; some gave them faces, dressing them up with bark, leaves, maybe pandanus or new-way with bush dye.” 

Danjibana Noeleen Lalara, Anindilyakwa Arts Lead Art and Culture Officer, Artist and Elder 

The impact of Dadikwakwa-kwa is significant and on-going; they are a living example of culture, their meaning and symbolism particular to each individual artist. Within Anindilyakwa Arts, it has opened up important discussions on the importance of maintaining intergenerational teaching practices and how traditional cultural items can influence contemporary art practices and vice-versa. Dadikwakwa-kwa has also drawn attention to the importance of (accurately) capturing women’s stories, which have historically had their significance miss-recorded or not been recorded at all. 

The success of the women’s revitalisation of Dadikwakwa-kwa has inspired the men of Anindilyakwa Arts to embark on their own revitalisation journey – most notably around hook spears and ceremonial weapons, which ceased being regularly created around the same time as Dadikwakwa-kwa. 

Dadikwakwa-kwa is for everyone. They speak to us all and are a sacred part of culture that Anindilyakwa women would like to share with the world. 

Dadikwakwa-kwa are currently available for purchase in small, curated sets from the art centre.

Doll Shell Stories | Edith Mamarika from Anindilyakwa Media on Vimeo.


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