A collective of First Nations women from the remote desert regions of central Australia are creating art that expresses their ancient culture. This is the story behind Tjanpi Desert Weavers.
“It’s just ladies who make Tjanpi and we all learn from each other,” says Erica Ikunga Shorty, a Pitjantjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra artist born in Angas Downs, near Imanpa Community in the Northern Territory. Tjanpi (pronounced jarn-pee and meaning “grass” in Pitjantjatjara language) represents more than 400 Aboriginal women artists from 26 remote communities on the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) lands, which cover about 350,000 square kilometres of the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. Building on traditional practice, the collective celebrates Country, culture and community through creative and collaborative weaving of baskets and sculptures.
“The work produced by the women is filled with exuberance and embodies their resilience and joy. It’s usually colourful and consistently highlights their incredible creativity and skill,” says Sasha Titchkosky, co-owner of Koskela. The Sydney-based furniture and design company has collaborated with Tjanpi artists on the Tili Wiru (beautiful light) range of lighting pieces since 2012 and the lampshades now hang in some of Australia’s leading workplaces, including Qantas and Microsoft.
“Making Tjanpi helps me stay calm and relaxed,” says Shorty. “We sit under a big tree in the shade, maybe make a cup of tea over the fire and we make our artworks.” The women collect tjanpi in the bush then weave it with colourful wool and raffia. Shorty’s favourite subject is birds so she uses wipiya (emu feathers), too.
The Tjanpi weavers’ works are now sold Australia-wide, creating income that empowers them to remain on Country and support their families. National Gallery of Australia curator Kelli Cole spent time with women at the Warakurna community in Western Australia, camping, sharing language and witnessing inma (cultural song and dance). “Watching the Tjanpi Desert Weavers develop over time and seeing them in a couple of other exhibitions, I knew they’d always push themselves with innovation,” says Cole. “I think what we ended up [exhibiting in Know My Name] at the NGA is probably one of their most substantial and exciting works.”
Tjanpi Desert Weavers is a social enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council that enables women living in the remote Central and Western desert regions to earn an income from contemporary fibre art.
The collective exhibits at major Australian galleries, such as the National Gallery of Australia.
What the experts say
“By projecting the Tjanpi Desert Weavers as extraordinary artists in the National Gallery of Australia’s Know My Name exhibition [from November 2020 to May 2021] we’re saying that these women artists are at the pinnacle of their art career and are making extraordinary work.” – Kelli Cole, a Warumunga and Luritja woman and curator of Special Projects for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Department at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.