Craft Australia     Advocacy·Communication·Research

Print to PDF


Sue Ryan, A Ghost Nets Story

In the Gulf of Carpentaria Indigenous makers collect ghost nets from the ocean to weave into baskets and mats telling stories of their culture and community and performing an important ecological task; clearing the sea of harmful abandoned nets.

Sue Ryan

Tim ThumbTim ThumbTim ThumbTim ThumbTim ThumbTim ThumbTim Thumb

Ghost nets are fishing nets which are accidenally lost, abandoned, or discarded at sea. They travel the oceans carried by currents and tides, fishing continuously as they go. They're called ghost nets because it is as if they fish from unseen hands. They entangle many types of marine life and fish until eventually they are washed up. They can lodge on the reef which kills the coral and other lifeforms. Sometimes when they wash up, a big tide picks them up and carries them back out to sea, and off they go again. Ghost nets are a huge problem across the top end of Australia and in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Not only do they have a devestating affect on marine life but they also affect Indigenous communities. The ocean is intrinsically and directly linked to the lives and culture of these communities; the saltwater people.

In 2008 I was asked to do a scoping study to establish if there may be interest in communities to use ghost net material in creative ways. The idea of the scoping study was to see if it was viable for people to create craft, art or functional items from net which could be sold to help artists and communities financially. It was also hoped that this would create interest from the communities to gather the nets themselves to help reduce the number of ghost nets, thus cleaning up the coastline and creating sustainable small business enterprises in remote communities.

After completing the scoping study for Northern Gulf Resources and Southern Gulf Catchments Ltd., funded by Arts Qld, I went on to become the Art Co-ordinator for the Carpentaria Ghost Nets Programme (CGNP). I had found a lot of interest from the communities I visited in using the material and was excited by the range of creative ideas and uses for the net. It also attracted attention from non-Indigenous artists, curators and gallery directors when I spoke of the project. Our funding was very limited, so progress in going back to communities to conduct workshops was slow. Arts Qld helped us by funding a public display at the Queensland State library for the Idea's Festival in 2009 called Weaving Wisdom. I took two weavers from Yarrabah, Philomena Yeatman and Grace Ludwick down where they worked on a large collaborative fibre mural with the public. This was a good start and a brilliant way of talking to people about the programme. Lots of people and kids joined in and worked with the net creatively.

Our first break came when CSIRO funded a workshop in Aurukun in June 2009. Artist Gina Allain and I visited the community to work with some of the weavers for two weeks, where we worked primarily on an outstation beach camp. CGNP threw in some extra funds for a documentry (created by Wik Media) and the Wik and Kugu Art Centre (managed by Gina's husband Guy Allain) supported the project with a lot of inkind support. The weavers loved the bright colours of the net and beach ropes and the rangers and volunteers came on board and started a depot of net at the dump. People in the community were fascinated by what we were doing and before long people started to collect net and rope on their regular boat trips. The word spread about a bit of red net here, or a bit of blue net on that beach, etc. Gina Allain stayed on at the art centre working with women on a large mermaid piece and encouraged the weavers to continue making baskets. The art centre funded another workshop later on for me to go in again and work with the ladies. Thanks to the art centre the project continued after the workshop and new works in all shapes and forms continue to be created and exhibited.

We were invited to do another display at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair held at the Tanks Art Centre in August last year. Mavis Ngallametta and another beautiful Aurukun weaver (recently deceased) worked with the public demonstrating weaving techniques and we displayed our documentary amongst the chaos of masses of net and rope. We were also able to place Aurukun's giant ghost net mermaid which was suspended in the entertainment tank. A few of the first Ghost Net baskets from Aurukun were displayed at Cooee Gallery's booth. It was great to be able to test the market and we were thrilled how well the baskets were received. Two of the baskets were sold to gallery directors, so we knew we were onto something.

I had also been working as an Arts Consultant with Pormpuraaw Art Centre on the west coast of Cape York. I ran a couple of informal Ghost Net workshops there with some of the weavers. They really liked the idea and are continuing to make beautiful baskets and mats using net, rope and raffia. I think that we have started to create a bit of healthy competition between Aurukun and Pormpuraaw with each community very interested in the other. The baskets seem to be growing bigger and more outrageous! Other baskets are getting smaller and more intricate. The project seems to have a life of its own.

Vivien Anderson attended CIAF and spotted the baskets on display. She offered to include work in her annual Women's Show in Melbourne opening on the 17th March, 2010. I sent Vivien some recent pictures of Cecilia Peter's basket which was unlike anything I'd ever seen. It was lumpy, bumpy, out of control and quite whimsical. "Yes", Vivien told me "please include it and any Ghost Net baskets you can source". A little wave of excitement went through the community when Cecilia's basket was to be exhibited and before long Mary Holroyd had produced two works and Aurukun wanted to put their work in too. CGNP offered to send a couple of us down to the show. Aurukun Art Centre mob said they'd come too. Suddenly we were all going to Melbourne!

Since things were humming down the west coast of Cape York, it seemed timely to focus on other areas such as the Torres Strait and into the top end of the Northern Territory. The Torres Strait will bring with it different influences and a totally different approach to the project. With limited funding from CGNP we have decided to run two workshops in the first part of 2010. One on Moa Island (St.Paul) and the other on Saibai Island, as these two Islands had expressed interest and have strong women's groups. I have called on Gina Allain again for Saibai Island and will welcome fibre artist Marion Gaemers to work at St. Paul Village on Moa. We have identified other fantastic fibre artists to work with us but need to secure longer term funding in order to plan strategically over a longer time period. In the last half of 2010 we will focus on other communities in the Northern Territory, Torres Strait as well as the West Coast of Cape York.

Apart from including works in various exhibitions around Australia we would like to eventually create a Ghost Net travelling exhibition featuring the works from various communities, collaborative works and works by key artists involved in the project. The exhibition would highlight the way people interpret the material, express cultural identities through new artforms while educating the public about the devastating effect ghost net has on the environment.

The Ghost Net project seems to have a magical quality to it. Interest continues to pour in from various sources. Although we have hardly scratched the surface the project grows and grows and seems to create its own momentum. The right way online forum has been a fantastic way to help spread the word and receive helpful and positive feedback from people in the industry. It is a very much the 'right way' to reach people in the Indigenous art and craft industry with ease. I love being able to show new pieces from workshops and have a platform available to keep people up to date. I'd like to use right way to advertise events and keep everyone posted about exhibitions, workshops, articles and public displays we are involved in. right way is a great vehicle for tracking the development of the project and helping us along the way. I know that right way has contributed to the growing enthusiasm for the Ghost Net project just by connecting me with the right people. I will certainly use right way more regularly as the project develops to the travelling exhibition phase.

If you're in Melbourne The Women's Show opens to the public on the 10th March at Vivien Anderson Gallery. Official opening on the 17 March 2010 6pm - 8pm, exhibition runs untils the 10th April. Come to the opening where you can see our Ghost Net baskets and meet artists from Aurukun and Pormpuraaw at the Vivien Anderson Gallery.

Sue Ryan, Art Coordinator for the Carpentaria Ghost Nets Programme

Sue Ryan is a member of the right way network.




Contact us


Updated: 10 February 2016