By KIERAN FINNANE
What really got the weavers going was thinking about the nature of eagles, how they care for their families. They were camped not far from Amata, the home community for several of them, in the APY Lands of South Australia’s far north and were working on a commission from Tandanya, the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide.
Nyurpaya Kaika-Burton’s husband would come along to the camp every day and bring the women meat, including the favoured bush turkey. They ate the flesh and used the feathers in their weaving. Nyurpaya would think her husband was just like an eagle that goes out hunting meat for his whole family.
Hunting is what the eagle does best, he is an expert hunter and great provider – that’s what the women like about eagles, what they admire in them.
“Our good men are just like the good eagles, they bring the meat home.”
Several of the Tjanpi weavers travelled into Alice Springs, to speak at a forum on Monday about experimentation and innovation in desert arts. The presence of a skilled translator, Linda Rive, and the stimulus of a slide show that documented their artists’ camp and the development of the work, allowed them to relate in rich detail their experience of this commission, with the final work currently showing at Tandanya.
What was particularly compelling was to hear about the thinking behind the work: their woven birds are much more than objects to delight the eye. They draw on the strength of their ancient culture and its lessons for everyday living, perhaps never so poignantly relevant as now.
Although weaving is an introduced skill in the desert, it has “spread like wildfire” across the APY Lands since 1995. The women spoke of their realisation that the grasses they were collecting for the activity grew on their sacred country, that working with them allowed them to “weave the country” – weave its sacred stories into new things.
They have long taken inspiration for their fibre sculptures from all sorts of animals, but for this commission, a painting by Ilawanti Ken set them in the right direction for responding to Tandanya’s theme, “Deadly: in-between heaven and hell”. The painting showed a single eagle rising in flight with its talons gripping a small ‘roo. The hills around Amata are home to eagles and the plains are rich with different grasses, making for an ideal artists’ camp. As the women sat and worked on their weaving, they thought a lot about the meaning of Ilawanti’s painting, about the eagle’s hunting prowess, its ancient story and song, about what the land provides, the strength of their culture, and about looking after one another.
Working together made them productive, innovative and able to contend with the challenges thrown at them – wildfires causing their materials to go up in smoke, followed by dust storms and a three day downpour. It was difficult but they were happy – the rain would bring up new grasses.
They expressed their pleasure in younger women watching and learning from them, just as they had learned from older women. It’s hard work, “it kills the hands”, but the only way through is “to keep going”.
This work in its whole process from inception to the forum presentation, is a great illustration of the rewards of putting “art based on stories” at the heart of the art economy. At the forum, Tim Acker, research leader with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Economies project of the CRC for Remote Economic Participation, said that this has been the biggest single emphasis from people right across the industry, surveyed during the first year of the five-year project. There has been an over-emphasis on money and the market and the industry needs to be “recalibrated” to focus on how and why art is produced.
The point is not “how may units you are moving”, he said. The content of work is what drives consumers; they are looking for work that is “genuine, pure, connected, complete”.
Money is nonetheless a day-to-day issue for artists everywhere – it can be the difference between working and not working – and the present downturn is widespread, putting a lot of pressure on art centres and galleries.
But Skye Omeara, manager of the acclaimed Tjala Arts, based at Amata, argued that there are “opportunities in a tight market”, the “doom and gloom can be self-perptuating” and that the job of artists and art centres is to come up with art solutions. She mentioned the frustration of men at Amata with the lack of interest in punu – work in wood, such as spears, boomerangs, shields. Their solution is to develop a multi-media installation featuring the weaponry. It will need some money to produce but she said there’s keen interest.
This in turn was a good illustration of the point made by a number of speakers at the forum, that the values of traditional culture can provide contemporary Aboriginal people with a rich range of opportunities.
Pictured, from top: Tjanpi weavers from Amata with their finished ‘big birds’, from left Nyurpaya Kaika, Yaritji Young, Paniny Mick (obscured), Ilawanti Ken and Naomi Kantjuriny. • An eagle brings home the meat for its young. Painting by Ilawanti Ken. • The weavers’ camp near Amata, in the APY Lands. • Below: The weavers do inma (song and dance) at Tandanya. Photos courtesy Tjanpi Desert Weavers.