Tjanpi Desert Weavers: Weaving Together a Community, Working Side by Side

The Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Lands are vast stretches of the outback, covering desert lands across the tri-state border region of NT, SA, and WA. It is also an area of extreme economic disadvantage and geographical isolation for Indigenous communities with very limited prospects for employment.

“There is great confusion and lack of cohesion in relation to differing state services and delivery,” explains Tjanpi Manager Michelle Young, “these borders are also meaningless to people whose families, languages and culture cross these states.”

In 1995, The NPY Women’s Council responded to the calls from Indigenous women for meaningful and appropriate employment to help them support their families with a small basket weaving workshop in the Papulankutja community in Western Australia.

“Within 2 years artists were making sculptures and baskets, and by 2000, weaving had spread across the NPY Lands as far west as Kalgoorlie, north to the Pilbara and south to Coober Pedy,” says Young.

The basket weaving tapped into traditional natural fibre work the NPY women had long been practicing to create items for daily use and special cultural customs. They embraced the contemporary spin on this traditional practice, creating baskets, vessels and vibrant sculptures using grasses, fibres, feathers and other materials collected from the land.

There are now 400 artists ranging in age from early 30s to women in their 70s, operating in 26 communities across 350,000 square kilometres of the NPY lands. Tjanpi supports these artists so the women are able to stay within their communities, providing trips out to Country to gather materials and paying them upfront for their artworks to provide instant income. The trips to gather materials on land also provides an opportunity for the Tjanpi women to hunt and gather food, performing ‘inma’ (cultural song and dance), visit sacred sites and teach their children about Country.

“Tjanpi is about family and community – walytja.  The Tjanpi walytja is a wide-reaching network of mothers, daughters, aunties, sisters and grandmothers whose shared stories, skills and experiences are the bloodline of the weaving phenomenon that has swept the Western and Central Deserts over the past two decades,” says Young.

This is reflected in the sentiments from the Tjanpi artists themselves, such as Nyurpaya Kaika-Burton from Amata SA - “We are very pumpana, which means ‘lucky’. Where would we be without today if Tjanpi Desert Weavers hadn’t come along? Tjanpi Desert Weavers has been a kind of life-saver’.”

The Tjanpi Desert Weaver basket and sculpture artworks have also received widespread recognition in the art world, with a number of touring exhibitions and artistic collaborations. One such collaboration with Australian artist Fiona Hall saw a number of Tjanpi artworks travel to the 56th International Art Exhibition – the Venice Biennale in 2015 as part of the ‘Wrong Way Time’ exhibition.

Last year Tjanpi celebrated 20 years of making fibre arts and is now working on encouraging the next generation of basket weavers with a new set of skills workshops, held for women under 30 years of age across three communities teaching basket weaving, as well as new hybrid forms such as tjanpi baskets with pottery and tin bases in addition to fibre jewellery.

“Our vision is for Tjanpi Desert Weavers…is to continue to support women to come together on country, to keep culture strong and to develop their fibre art in a malparara way (working side by side), now and for future generations.”

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