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HomeIssue 47For the worlds she stitches together, Marlene Rubuntja wins the Lofty

For the worlds she stitches together, Marlene Rubuntja wins the Lofty


“Committed to art as a way of life, as a way to bring people together and as a way to rise people up so that the future in in their hands”, artist Marlene Rubuntja, stalwart of the Yarrenyty Arltere art centre, president of the town camp by that name in Larapinta, has been proclaimed winner of this year’s Lofty.

The award, recognising high endeavour in the arts in Central Australia and now in its 10th year, was announced by last year’s recipient, Beth Sometimes, in front of an exuberant crowd gathered on Saturday evening at Watch This Space (41 degrees as the sun set notwithstanding)

At first Rubuntja was almost speechless: “I thought I came to see another person but it was me … I can’t believe it!”

Then she spoke of growing up, watching her father, the late and great W. Rubuntja, painting landscapes, of many people “painting down the Todd River everywhere.” This was in the days before town camps, before the town-based art centres.

It took her a long time to take up an art practice herself and when she did she found it through sewing, becoming one of the acclaimed creators of the Yarrenyty Arltere soft sculptures, the hallmark of that art centre.

Marlene Rubuntja, middle, in this scene from the film, The Worlds We Stitch Together.

“Others do dot painting, we sew at Larapinta,” she said, and that practice is “getting more stronger and stronger.”

She has recently branched out into works on paper and over the years has collaborated on a great collection of films, about everyday life in the camp and in town, remarkable for their honesty and insights as well as for their warmth and imaginative story-telling.

Her nomination for the Lofty hailed Rubuntja’s practice “embedded in humour, story, generosity and place.”

The foray by her and others into sewing and soft sculpture was initially relegated to the craft category. The artists’ persistence and the evolution of their practice changed “preconceived ideas of what is Aboriginal art”, with the nomination crediting Rubuntja with much of the drive in this direction.

She and the art centre have been rewarded, with a full exhibition schedule every year, and their work snapped up by major public and private collections across Australia and internationally.

With her work, My future is in my hands, winner of the inaugural Vincent Lingiari art award in 2016.

Rubuntja’s mark-making was described as “immediate and empowered, bound not by expectations but by the need to express and transform and participate.”

Like painters use a brush and paint, she and her fellow sewers use their needles and wool, forming their sculptures from recycled bush-dyed woollen blankets and embellishing them with colourful stitching to tell stories – about land rights, family, the olden days.

And sometimes it’s simply about “the calming process” of stitching in company –  which leads to “the reaching out and holding up of others”: “With the art making comes the community and the sharing, the laughing and the crying.”

Like her father, Rubuntja has become both artist and activist, fighting for people to have “the opportunities they deserve.”  She is also a mother, aunty, grandmother, wife and friend and inspiration to many, who proudly calls Yarrenyty Arltere town camp “her beautiful home”.

As she digested all this acclaim on Saturday, and held the award in her arms, Rubuntja’s thoughts turned to the camp and her family – she wanted to tell them the news – but she also looked around the crowd, still shocked to have been singled out among them.

She hoped, she said, that when they might see her around the streets in Alice Springs – “I love this town, I was born and raised here” – that they will stop and talk together.

Below: Marlene Rubuntja speaking after the announcement of the award. Photo courtesy Fiona Walsh.

Note: The Lofty is named after the founder of Watch This Space, the late Pamela Lofts. It was inaugurated in 2011, the year before her death in 2012. Its purse (now $1500) comes courtesy of an ever-generous patron of the arts in Central Australia, Brian Tucker.

Photo at top courtesy Yarrenyty Arltere. 

Below: Before the award announcement the crowed was treated to a wonderfully upbeat Alice Springs Pop Choir in their first public performance since the pandemic broke. Under the enthusiastic direction of Edward Gould and accompanied for two numbers by the energetic Alice Springs World Chamber Orchestra (off the back of their early morning Morricone concert in Todd Mall), they were loved by the crowd.

Last updated 1 December 2020, 9.57am.


  1. “Committed to art as a way of life, as a way to bring people together and as a way to rise people up so that the future in in their hands.” Wise words from Marlene Rubuntja, given to her by her father, the late and great W. Rubuntja.
    Marlene grew up in Plew st. Gillen where she shared with my children the wisdom of her father. Learning the two ways and living by them made her the great lady she is today.

  2. Fantastic to see this recognition of the work, leadership and art activism of this intense but still humorous local Arrernte elder.
    Congratulations with bells on, Lali!


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