As Aunty Jennine Armistead’s Frankston neighbourhood turned inward during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, the Indigenous woman began sharing an ancient craft using only what she could harvest from her own garden.
Using dried grass and a traditional weaving practice, Ms Armistead would carefully shape decorative baskets and offer them as gifts to passersby, along with hundreds of plants she had grown.
During lockdown, Jennine Armistead handwove grass baskets and left them outside her home for people passing by.Credit:Justin McManus
“By weaving a gift and giving a gift and expecting nothing in exchange I was doing my little bit to make people feel a bit better,” she said.
Her baskets have become part of a new Melbourne Museum online exhibition, One year on: Stories of COVID-19 in Melbourne’s Suburbs, recording how people adapted and supported each other in 2020.
The exhibition also features personal protective equipment from the First Peoples’ Health and Wellbeing service in Thomastown, a gratitude journal written by 13-year-old Kofi Aden, a mural in Caulfield North paying homage to healthcare workers and a ukulele an international student taught himself to play.
“Everyone has experienced the pandemic very differently. For one person’s silver lining, another person might be going through an incredible challenge,” exhibition curator Catherine Forge said.
“These seemingly everyday objects … are deeply personal for those who donated them.”
The exhibition, which begins on Tuesday, features 12 stories from hundreds of items that Victorians have donated to the museum since May 2020 for its “collecting the curve” collection.
Ms Forge said the exhibition of living history was a way to ensure contemporary stories were preserved for future generations.
“It allows us to work with the community while the event is still happening to record their experiences, their voices, their emotions,” she said.
One of the woven grass baskets.Credit:Justin McManus
“In some ways it can be cathartic. People can feel their stories matter and their personal lives and experience of isolation and loneliness are important parts of the collective history.”
Ms Armistead said she would stroll Frankston streets, smiling with her eyes to strike up conversations with strangers. She tried to break through vacant looks of despair, but found giving from her garden also made generosity grow.
Irises, nasturtiums, anthuriums and lilies disappeared from a pink wooden bookshelf outside her front fence, but people dropped off sunflowers, indoor palms, succulents and seeds in return.
Ms Armistead, a Yaran woman from the Padthaway region in South Australia, also found weaving to be an act of reflection that drew her closer to the Willum Warrain Aboriginal Association, where she learnt how to make the baskets via Zoom meetings and surprised herself with how easily she picked it up.
“It’s made me think of my roots, it’s reignited things that I used to do that I’d forgotten that I could do,” Ms Armistead said.
“You find it in a lot of Aboriginal people; things from the distance come forward. You are doing something one day and you think, who taught me?
“Nobody taught me but it’s there and I can do it.”
Victorian Suburban Development Minister Shaun Leane, who will launch the exhibition on Tuesday, said it was an opportunity to look back on 2020 and see how far we have come.
“Melburnians are resilient and innovative, and over the past 12 months we have seen local communities unite like never before.”
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