The Tjanpi Desert Weavers are working on a major commission for the National Gallery of Australia

Roma Butler and Yangi Yangi Fox from Irrunytju (WA) with their sculptures, 2017. Picture: Rhett Hammerton
Roma Butler and Yangi Yangi Fox from Irrunytju (WA) with their sculptures, 2017. Picture: Rhett Hammerton

In March this year, Warumungu/Luritja woman Kelli Cole, a curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Special Projects at the National Gallery of Australia, joined the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, an award winning, Indigenous governed and directed social enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women's Council (NPYWC). The women artists were working on a commission for the Know My Name project, an initiative of the National Gallery of Australia to celebrate the significant contributions of Australian women artists. Next year, the Tjanpi Desert Weavers commission will become part of the national collection, which includes the largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world.

As the sun sets and the heat abates, the Tjanpi Desert Weavers are still working, the campground alive with laughter.

Being on Country gives the woman the energy to continue the flow of weaving, replaced by inma (cultural song and dance) once night falls. Having spent numerous weeks working side by side collecting, gathering and hunting, the women draw on their experience and cultural knowledge as they work on the large Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) installation.

I watch as their hands move without much thought, as if they retain the muscle memory embedded in the past.

Tjanpi Desert Weavers (Tjanpi meaning 'wild grass' in Pitjantjatjara language) was first conceived in 1995 when a passionate NPYWC employee, Thisbe Purich, decided to introduce a basket weaving workshop in Papulankutja (Blackstone), Western Australia.

The NPYWC had been formed during land rights struggles of the 1970s when Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara women felt their voices were not being heard and the Tjanpi Desert Weavers was a response to NPYWC members advocating for cultural appropriate ways for women to earn an income.

Anangu women had always worked with natural fibres to make manguri, a traditional head accessory composed of a circular ring to carry their carved piti, wirra, mirtulpa or karnilypa (wooden bowls).

For 25 years, the women artists of Tjanpi Desert Weavers have developed and mastered their skills, weaving beautiful baskets and creating ambitious collaborative fibre art installations using the desert grasses that have sustained them for thousands of years.

Displaying "endless creativity and inventiveness", these whimsical works generate awareness and insight into culture and Country alongside their focus of creating income and employment for women on their homelands so they can provide for their families and community.

Now representing over 400 women artists, the Tjanpi Desert Weavers' remit is vast, covering approximately 350,000 square kilometres and encompassing 26 remote communities across the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia.

Cynthia Burke with her dog Tiny from Warakurna (WA) out collecting Minarri grass, 2017. Picture: Rhett Hammerton

Cynthia Burke with her dog Tiny from Warakurna (WA) out collecting Minarri grass, 2017. Picture: Rhett Hammerton

Aboriginal people in Australia have had a continuous connection to their land for over 65,000 years. The relationship between Anangu and Country is vital to their wellbeing and centred upon respect and care for the land.

A key part of caring for Country is the continuation of cultural practices, visiting significant sites and performing inma. By doing so, people believe that the land will continue to sustain them. Life on Country revolves around the Tjukurpa, stories that are passed down from one generation to the next.

To understand the humble beginnings of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, you must meet the women who have shaped it and understand the history which has influenced contemporary practices.

Due to many government policies of the time, the 1950s and 1960s represented a period of displacement and relocation for many Aboriginal people as they were moved off their ceremonial lands.

The first church-run Mission was set up at Mt Margaret Mission in 1921, where Yarnangu women were first taught craft. By 1937 the Presbyterian Board of Missions established a mission at Pukatja (Ernabella), South Australia, and by 1948 it had grown into a settlement with thousands of sheep roaming the country.

Anangu women were taught to spin the sheep's wool on large spinning wheels and to weave with it. Having used human hair to make string for millennia, the new medium of wool was easily integrated into cultural practice by the women.

During March, as the heat rose and the wind rolled across the Rawlinson Ranges, fibre artists from the Tjanpi Desert Weavers came together to create their most ambitious collaborative work to date, Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters).

The Seven Sisters is an epic ancestral story that has an important underlying teaching element. It follows the journey of seven sisters as they are pursued across Country by Wati Nyiru/Yurla, the male ancestral being, who is chasing the eldest sister.

The sisters constantly try to evade their pursuer leaving traces of their journey in the landscape. In an attempt to escape, they eventually launch themselves into the sky, transforming into the stars that form the Pleiades.

Wati Nyiru follows and becomes the Orion constellation.

The retelling and depiction of this story relays the impact of transgressive behaviour and water resources necessary for survival in the desert.

Drawing on this story, Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) is a large-scale ceiling and floor installation with seven woven figures representing the sisters placed on the floor of the gallery.

Floating above from the ceiling is a large woven form with small lights blinking from within, referencing the Pleiades star cluster.

  • The Tjanpi Desert Weavers commission is a Know My Name project supported by Wesfarmers Arts.
This story Dreams of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers first appeared on The Canberra Times.