Weaving together a community and a better future
7 August 2019 at 8:44 am
For nearly 25 years, the Tjanpi Desert Weavers have empowered over 400 women to earn an income through contemporary fibre art in their communities. But their clever designs are also catching the attention of the art community on a national and international scale, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Tjanpi, meaning grass in the Pitjantjatjara language, is an Indigenous governed and directed social enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council (NPYWC), born in response to calls from council members for meaningful and culturally appropriate employment opportunities for women.
The Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Lands cover 350,000 square kilometres of desert lands across the tri-state border region of the Northern Territory, South Australia, and Western Australia.
The region faces extreme economic isolation, and the common reality for women in these remote communities is poor health, a cultural obligation to support large extended families, social isolation and inflated prices for food and basic commodities.
In 1995, a series of small basket weaving workshops were held in the Papulankutja community in Western Australia. While grass weaving is not a traditional pursuit in Central Australia, the women built on their experience of spinning human hair and animal fur and quickly integrated coiled basketry into their repertoire.
Today, over 400 women weave around 3,000 baskets and sculptures across the NPY Lands each year, with Tjanpi field officers travelling to 26 communities to purchase artworks directly from the artists, which are then sold at the NPYWC gallery in Alice Springs, online, or to art retail outlets interstate.
The artwork ranges from simple baskets, to sculptures of quirky animals such as camp dogs.
The money from the artwork is evenly split between the artist, the Tjanpi enterprise and the retail outlet. Prices of the artwork vary depending on size, the complexity of the piece, and the seniority of the artist.
Some Tjanpi artists are able to earn in excess of $10,000 a year from the artwork – a considerable boost to the average household income of $24,000 in the region.
Michelle Young, the Tjanpi manager, tells Pro Bono News that while paying the artist upfront is a risk for the enterprise (because the artwork may not sell after it has left the artist) it is an important part of how they operate.
“It provides that upfront income for women in community and that can obviously have really direct, tangible benefits for them to meet basic necessities they need in the community,” Young says.
But she says because of the enormous distances between communities, field officers are only able to reach communities monthly to buy artwork, something they are hoping to change as the enterprise grows.
“We have just opened a satellite office in Wingellina in WA, a remote office in Warakurna, and we are due to open another satellite office in Jameson,” she says.
“We just know we could have a really big economic impact on women if they could sell more regularly to us.”
An important aspect of the enterprise is the portability of it. Weaving requires little infrastructure and doesn’t interfere with cultural events.
“It’s very portable work by nature…women are able to travel in their normal day to day activities of travelling between communities for ceremonial events or for sorry business and they can take their work with them,” Young says.
“The Tjanpi field officers can then intercept with them wherever they might be and purchase that work upfront.
“We [Tjanpi] were always built on the premise that women wanted to remain in their community and on Country, Tjanpi was really the enterprise born out of a need to be an intermediary between remote communities and the marketplace.”
She says women make the baskets for different reasons. Some do it so they can afford to feed their children, while other artists take the practice further, creatively challenging themselves and developing their skills as artists.
For Tjanpi artist, Cynthia Burke, a Ngaanyatjarra woman, it’s both.
“It means I can pay for fuel to travel out onto Country or I can go to Alice Springs and buy things I want, like a mattress, chainsaw or high-pressure hose for my house,” Burke tells Pro Bono News.
“I also like the opportunity to do new projects and go to exhibitions. I did a project a few years ago to make an animation with Tjanpi. I told the story of my dog Tiny in that animation, which I liked doing because I got to learn something new and how to do Tjanpi in different ways.”
Burke, who has exhibited paintings nationally and overseas, started working for the Tjanpi Desert Weavers in 2016 at the remote office in Warakurna, a community in WA. She has since learned to run the core operations of the office and visits over eight communities regularly to support Tjanpi artists.
She says being able to travel to see her artwork has also given her a taste for life outside Warakurna, and one day she hopes to see her Tjanpi work overseas.
“We only have one little store in Warakurna so it’s great to go to cities and look around at everything when we go to exhibitions,” she explains.
As well as providing employment, travelling out to Country to collect grass for their work is an important part of maintaining connection to culture for the women.
“Going out onto Country to collect grass, often with younger women in tow, is an opportunity for those artists to actually talk about Country and share information about, and maintain their responsibilities to cultural sites,” Young says.
“They can hunt for food while they’re collecting grass, they can collect bush medicines, and all of this is being transmitted to younger members in the group.”
As well as purchasing the baskets, the Tjanpi field officers hold skills development workshops, which Young says isn’t just important for artist development, but to give women living in remote areas a chance to socialise.
“Often communities can be quite isolated, and it’s an opportunity to bring women together for the benefit of their well-being,” she says.
Operating an enterprise so remotely, however, can have its challenges. Young says Tjanpi is still quite reliant on external funding to get them over the line.
“Service delivery costs are really high in remote regions. Most of the roads are unsealed and there is a lack of infrastructure to support what we are doing, which makes it tricky,” she says.
“But I believe we are very good at understanding those challenges and responding to them. We work very hard to make ourselves sustainable by trying to diversify our revenue streams such as running public cultural weaving workshops and public commissions for our work.”
She says the low price point for the baskets is also a challenge, but they are working hard to get the art form better recognised in the fine art market.
Increasingly, the Tjanpi weavers have gone beyond basket weaving, making a name for themselves in the fine art world on both a national and international scale.
Recent exhibitions have included the National Museum of Australia and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
In 2000 they were commissioned to create an oversized goanna for Manchester airport to coincide with the 2002 Commonwealth Games, and their grass-woven Toyota Land Cruiser took out a $40,000 prize for the Telstra Aboriginal Art Award.
“Those big special projects that we do deliver in public institutions are a great source of pride for these remote communities,” Young says.
“It’s an opportunity to share their culture with wider Australia, a sense of recognition of their culture, and a conduit for them to tell their stories for their benefit of their community as well.”
With next year being the enterprise’ 25th year, Young says they are hoping to celebrate with a new gallery in the centre of Alice Springs, and by taking their National Museum exhibition to an international audience.
“We’re going to celebrate 25 years of hanging in there in a big way,” Young says.
Check out the Tjanpi website here to find out more, or to purchase some artwork.