Connecting to culture

‘I celebrate our cultural heritage through weaving, and, for me, it’s a way of honouring our ancestors, the hands that made our beautiful baskets that traditionally were central to every aspect of daily life.’

Sonja is a Quandamooka woman and artist who has been working with BCNA on weaving workshops for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Sonja’s cultural weaving practice reflects her family’s spiritual connections with the land and seas of Minjerribah, North Stradbroke Island.

She draws inspirations from the many stories connected to Quandamooka traditional woven bags and explores materials and techniques to continue the making of them today.

When Sonja was having treatment for her breast cancer in 2017, she continued to weave.

‘I felt the need to still be weaving through my chemo, I had baskets I was working on at the time and took them with me everywhere, I found it very healing,’ she says.

Weaving with reclaimed materials that have washed up on the shoreline – pieces of net, rope and other debris – took on a new meaning as Sonja went through chemotherapy. She found that the materials spoke to her of resilience.

‘It was about that importance of survival, the resilience that goes with the materials that I weave,’ Sonja says.

‘A lot of it has come out of the ocean, it has survived tough conditions – and chemo sure is harsh. The same with the materials that wash up on our beaches, it survives and winds up on the beach, marine debris that floats and catches nothing, a bit like cancer just floating around in our bodies until it shows up and we can do something about it.’

BCNA collaborated with Sonja to run a weaving workshop with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander breast cancer survivors as part of the ‘Culture is Healing’ program.

During this workshop, Sonja shared her weaving knowledge with the women and they each wove a ‘ngamu’ (breast) to be incorporated into the installation.

‘We shared so much that day. Our lives coming together – through weaving, through breast cancer, through treatment. And you can see that, our knowledge, sharing our stories, survivors and strong women, in the piece,’ she says.

‘For some it was perhaps their first time weaving and it was very special to have that day together.’

On 22 August, an installation of woven ngamu was gifted to the Mater Hospital Brisbane by the group. It will go in the oncology ward to create a culturally safe and welcoming space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women having cancer treatment.

The women who have contributed to the installation at the Mater hope that it helps others going through cancer reflect on resilience and regeneration.

‘We almost lost [our weaving] to colonisation – but seeing it come alive again, sitting and doing together, it’s always been there,’ Sonja says.

She says connecting to culture and taking the time to share with others who have been through a similar experience is a vital part of the healing process.

‘It makes you really value the importance of taking time out to do the things that matter with the people that matter, and expressing ourselves through our own cultural practices like weaving.

‘Taking it one day – one stitch – at a time.’

This weaving project is a Cancer Australia Supporting Women in Rural Areas Diagnosed With Breast Cancer Program initiative, funded by the Australian Government.

Issue 83
Spring 2018