In the cloudy gray light of early morning, there is a subtle whispering in the air. It sounds like soft women’s voices sharing secrets as they wake. Or is it the wind sighing as it runs through the grasses, bending them gently to its will?
Come and look, hurry up, come and look,
There’s so much grass, so much grass.
Tjanpi Nyawa (Look at the Grass)! is a new documentary directed by Dr. Christiane Keller of the ANU. It features a group of women from Warakurna out bush demonstrating the techniques and skills that go into the creation of the colorful baskets, frisky pups, bright lizards, and astonishing minyma and tjitji (women and children) that have become the hallmarks of the creative enterprise known as the Tjanpi Desert Weavers. The combination of craft and craftiness that goes into the production of these creations has endeared them to audiences across Australia and induced gasps of wonder across the world. This delightful little film (it runs just under thirty minutes) takes us behind the scenes in a most instructive way.
More than a dozen women, including the likes of famous artists Eunice Porter, Carol Golding, and Jean Burke, accompanied by their dogs, take off in a pair of troopies to seek out the good grass for their creations. We see them selecting clumps of appropriate material–gray grass is better than green, they tell us–and digging it up with shovels and crowbars. They settle down to sort and size the stalks, knocking clods of damp earth from them before chopping off the roots with an axe or trimming them neatly with scissors.
When these preparations are completed, the grass is tied with lengths of raffia or yarn into bundles not much thicker than a finger or two. Long strands are created by splicing together stalks end to end, the yarn wound tightly around them to form snaky lengths that will eventually be coiled and sewn together with needles and raffia to form the rudiments of baskets. The raffia comes in the many colors of the desert, the black and gold of honey ants, the pinks and purples of springtime flowers, the browns and oranges of the soil.
The women are clearly enjoying themselves throughout the whole process, racing off to explore a particularly rich field of raw materials, excited (“Even the dogs are running!”), singing the praises of nature’s plenitude, laughing at one another’s jokes, explaining to the camera how they have learned their trade and the delight they take in being out in the country. When the flies get too bad, they light fires whose smoke will clear the buggers off.
Campfires also allow for tea and for cooking the goannas that the women chase down. One woman stands brushing her hair, and then displays what is in her hand: a small thorny devil lizard which she presents proudly to the camera with the one-word explanation, “comb!”
After we come to understand the basic mechanics of the process, the ladies bestow another secret on us. Time-lapse photography shows them seated around piles of grass that slowly transition from chaotic jumbles into structured masses bound with lengths of wool. More grass is added, more splicing takes place, and suddenly arms and legs take shape in a scene that reminded me, the second time I watched it, of something from another country known as Oz, when a scarecrow lies on a table in the Emerald City being refurbished for an audience with a wizard. As time goes on, there’s more definition to the figures as fingers and toes are defined and individually wrapped. It’s fascinating to see how the yarn is used to bind the figures into shape, and great fun to listen to the women bemoan (and rectify) a wobbly head or fret over a tummy that’s too large but soon bent into shape.
At the very end, the women bring out their creations, baskets resting on their heads like piti that were used to carry water, and, lined up in front of them, the figures representing women who were left behind in the Dreaming when the Goanna Man ran away. They burst into song again, calling us to hurry up, come look at the grass!
Tjanpi Nyawa (Look at the Grass)! is available from Artfilms. The film is in Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjatjantara, and English, with English subtitles. I couldn’t activate the subtitles when I played it on my TV, but had no problem when playing it on my laptop. (Of course, I was playing it in a North American “region-free” DVD player; Australians may not experience this difficulty.) The subtitles add nuance, but the message of the film comes through clearly even if you don’t understand a word of Ngaanyatjarra. It’s a delight.