A few months ago I posted a review of a documentary film, Tjanpi Nyawa (Look at the Grass)!, directed by the ANU’s Christine Keller, which offered a glimpse into the manner in which women from the NPY Lands collect grass (tjanpi) and fashion it into the baskets and sculptural figures that have seized the imaginations of curators and collectors since the late 1990s. In addition to documenting the process by which these objects are made, the film provided a sense of the delight the women feel as they work out on country at their art.
A much fuller, more encyclopedic exploration of the tjanpi weavers can be found in the large, colorful, exhaustive book, Tjanpi Desert Weavers, compiled and edited by Penny Watson (Macmillan, 2012). It’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive treatment of the subject, covering as it does the history of the project, its growing success both in terms of providing employment and engaging the art market, the varieties of materials and techniques used, the family relations of the women involved, the social and economic environments of the production of weavings, and much more.
The Tjanpi movement began as an offshoot of the NPY Women’s Council in 1995 when Thisbe Purich brought her skills in anthropology and textile art together to offer a workshop in fibre weaving to women at the community of Papulankutja (Blackstone) in Western Australia. The women had experience weaving manguri, the annular pads on which they rested and balanced loads carried upon the head; likewise they had the tradition of carving piti or coolamons, the wooden vessels in which water and food were transported, resting on their heads atop the manguri. The two traditions came together in the weaving of coiled baskets, a new technology to the central deserts (although a thriving tradition in the pandanus-rich northern forests).
Women from half a dozen communities in the Lands took up the challenge of learning to weave, passing their new found skill along to family members and soon expanding the scope of the activity beyond the small circle of communities in Western Australia where it first took root. Funding for Purich’s position ran out after two years and she returned to Darwin, but one of the surprises that she encountered not too long afterwards was how strong and intact the ancient trade routes across the continent remained. Women from Warakurna or Docker River shared their new skills with relatives at Tjukurla, who carried it north to Papunya, whence it spread to Kintore and Kiwirrkura and on to Balgo. Before Purich returned to the NPY Lands, she had discovered a coiled grass basket on a shelf in Wadeye.
One of the reasons that the women took so eagerly to the new activity of coiled grass weaving was the opportunity it afforded them to work and to earn money without having to engage in the business of filling out time sheets or accounting to the CDEP officer according to a schedule. This was work that could be done on country, almost anywhere: out bush, in camps, in communities, on porches, bundled in a swag, or under the boughs of a wiltja. The grass itself was collected out on country, and the string or wool used to bind their early efforts was recycled from materials often too hand–an old jumper unraveled to provide colorful wool, traditional hairstring spun from human hair or rabbit fur also pressed into service. Needles for sewing the coils together were at first fashioned by sharpening the metal keys left over after a tin of meat or sardines was opened. Over time, raffia imported from Adelaide and dyed with bush material like tree bark added different strengths, textures, and colors to the mix.
The baskets sold cheaply—maybe $25 at first—but even this had its advantages. A sum of $1000 for a painting might generate strife or humbugging, but a small amount of money tucked into a pocket could be taken to the community store and spent on an evening’s meal and a few cool drinks for the grandchildren. In time the baskets themselves came to be treated as a form of currency, gifts to be offered, bartered, exchanged.
And more than just being made on country, the baskets and the sculptural forms of women, dogs, or children that were pioneered by the greatest and most creative of the first generation of weavers, Kantjupayi Benson, were made of country. The grasses came from the women’s lands and were imbued in themselves with the stories of the country. Particularly as the creation of sculptural figures flourished, the weavings quite literally embodied tjukurrpa. Women expressed their affection for the camp dogs in papa sculptures that partook of dingo dreamings; sculptures of women with digging sticks in their woven hands represented the Minyma Kutjarra or Seven Sisters Dreaming. And since much weaving was done at women’s Law meetings, it wasn’t long before tjanpi sculptures had not only tjukurrpa, but inma (song, ceremony, dance) associated with them as well. Tjanpi inma were composed spontaneously, crafted, and shared with other women, and became another form of restricted currency in the exchange routes of the desert.
Within a few years, though, the desert weavers were receiving commissions for large-scale works. The “Big Basket” that was made for the 2000 Hanover World Expo must have looked a built like Noah’s Ark during its construction, a boast-sized structure arising in the desert and lacking only water to float it. A giant ngintaka or perentie lizard was suspended from the ceiling of the Manchester, England, airport for the opening of the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
And of course, the Tjanpi Toyota rocked the 2005 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards when it won the grand prize that year. I was in Darwin that night, and I remember the rumors buzzing across the lawns before the awards ceremony that something altogether different, unexpected, and maybe even inappropriate had captured the judges’ hearts that year. And once we were admitted to the halls of the Museum, it was clear that the Tjanpi Weavers, under Mrs Benson’s direction, has indeed broken through conventions with a piece that was stunning in both conception and execution and sure to ignite a controversy as quickly as tjanpi itself catches fire in the desert plains. Purists claimed it was craft, not art; the toffee-noses said it was a gimmick. But there was no doubt that Tjanpi Toyota was pure culture in physical form, tradition and innovation melded together in asserting the integral links between Toyotas and country, between technology and the ability to maintain customary ties to and care for country.
These are some of the major themes that Tjanpi Desert Weavers explores; but in no way does this summary exhaust the richness of this book. The early history and the varied technologies of the Tjanpi Weavers are detailed in the first chapters of the book. Then the focus turns backwards in time as subsequent chapters examine the connections to traditional forms of women’s labor, the links to manguri and piti, and the importance of family and country as they manifest themselves in the weavings.
Another chapter looks at the collections of Tjanpi works now found in the galleries and museums across Australia. If there’s anything disturbing to be found at this point, it is an unspoken suggestion that the work of the weavers has yet to find a significant foothold in gallery collections; perhaps the 2005 win at the Telstra hasn’t yet wiped away the unfortunate impression that this work partakes more of craft than of art.
A final chapter is called “Mrs Bensons School of Basket Making.” It is a visual essay on the multiple techniques of weaving baskets and sculptures that the women employ, delightful and instructive in equal parts.
Indeed, the superb photography that fills this book is one of its chief attractions and pleasures. Every page is replete with color; there must easily be a thousand baskets, dogs, goannas, birds, and human figures illustrated in the book’s 365 pages. Dozens of women weavers and their families grace its pages as well, along with gorgeous shots of landscapes full of grass. Indeed, if I have a small complaint to make, it is that the fulsomeness of what is included means that the task of indexing everything is nearly impossible. As a result, there’s no easy way to find an example of work by Nuniwa Donegan or Elaine Lane; you have to scan the pages and the small print of the numerous captions to do so.
The stories are told largely by the weavers themselves, although the kartiya women like Purich, Nalda Searles, and Jo Foster who have worked with them contribute as well. Chapters are structured thematically, and within each chapter dozens of short statements—a paragraph long, or four—by the weavers make up the narrative mosaic from which the grander story emerges. Linda Rive’s translations of the women’s statements are another major delight of this book. The rhythms of Aboriginal speech remain intact, the repetition and the rootedness in physical description, but the syntax has been adjusted to settler English rather than Aboriginal English with the effect of giving these women voices that are as nuanced and articulate as they no doubt are in their native tongues.
Best of all, Tjanpi Desert Weavers has brought me back to take a closer look at the baskets themselves. There’s one made by Narapayi Giles at Tjukurla that sits within easy reach of my keyboard as I write. Over the years, it’s become filled with the flotsam of my desk: spare earbuds, some DVDs of Tiwi rituals, my pocketknife, a piece of coral someone gave my on a beach in Yirrkala six years ago, a cache of cardboard bookmarks.
I emptied all that out and looked with new eyes at the roughness of the weave and the spaces where the grass slips out of the raffia sewing. I’ve admired once again the tightness of Jean Burke’s weave, the sturdiness of this small basket whose muted colors have often tricked me into thinking of it as carved from some variegated desert stone. I look at Mrs Benson’s goanna, and think of Gilbert and Sullivan’s claim: “There is beauty in the bellow of the beast.” I know that goannas don’t bellow, of course. But that doesn’t stop me from smiling at the personality it displays and appreciating the art it represents.