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Tjanpi Desert Weavers set for more success as the world marvels at their incredible art

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Martha Protty_and_Nyinku_Kulitja_at_Docker_River_2010_Photo_by_R_HammertonCTjanpi_Desert_Weavers,_NPY_Womens_Council_(2000x1334)[1]Tjanpi Desert Weavers, a social enterprise supporting more than 400 women of the Central and Western Desert region, is again shaping up for another success worthy of recognition after being awarded a Deadly for Outstanding Achievement in Cultural Advancement last September.

The Tjanpi Desert Weavers currently have a big project underway in the NPY Lands working on a commission received from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney, which will be part of an exhibition called “String Theory”.

String Theory: Focus on contemporary Australian art, will be on exhibition from August 16 to October 27 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in George Street at The Rocks, Sydney.

Bringing together Aboriginal and Islander (including the Torres Strait) artists from across Australia working with expanded notions of textile and craft-based traditions, many of the works in the exhibition have string as an integral material in their making.

Others use photography, painting and installation while still being grounded in a textile tradition. Tjanpi (meaning “grass”) began as a series of basket-weaving workshops that the NPY Women’s Council held on the Ngaanyatjarra Lands in 1995.

Women spoke up strongly for meaningful employment opportunities in their homelands, to be able to provide for their families. New found weaving skills were quickly shared with relations on neighbouring communities and weaving spread as Martha Protty, a senior woman from the Northern Territory community of Docker River tells it, “like a bushfire.”

“All the women got really really excited by it,” she said through a translator. “We learned by watching and in a very short time, we all knew how to make baskets.”

Today, more than 400 women are making baskets and sculptures out of grass and other materials and working with fibre in this way is now firmly embedded in Western and Central Desert culture.

At its core Tjanpi is about family and community – walytja. Tjanpi Desert Weavers has met with such phenomenal success because creating Tjanpi work fits so happily alongside the demands, obligations and joys of family.

Not confined by place or purse, Tjanpi work allows the Tjanpi weavers and sculptors to be out bush, at home, or on the road and it can be accomplished with few resources.

It is work that encourages social and cultural obligations; families combine trips out bush to collect grass with gathering bush tucker, hunting, maintaining custodial responsibilities, performing inma (song and dance) and collecting bush medicines.

“Basket making has been really good for us women. We can make them easily in the bush. While you’re digging for (witchety grubs), tjanmarta (bush onion) and tjarla (honey ants), you can collect seeds and grass as well. It also gives us more money,” said Winnie Woods, Papulankutja (Ngaanyatjarra)

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 16 years.

The Tjanpi family extends across 350 000 sq km and takes in 28 NPY member communities, and is growing all the time.

“The objects that can be made from tjanpi from a woman’s country are more or less endless. She can make people, women, ngintaka (goannas), tjulpu (birds), anything,” said Josephine Mick, Pipalyatjara (Pitjantjatjara)

“We can paint our country with paint on canvas and we can also gather tjanpi from our own land and make an object out of tjanpi which depicts that country. This is a really beautiful thing to do. Tjanpi has Tjukurpa too.”

Manager of Tjanpi Desert Weavers, Michelle Young at the time of receiving the Deadly award said: “The Award provides a wonderful recognition of the many economic, cultural, social, artistic and health benefits that Tjanpi brings to the women of this region and demonstrates how much Tjanpi is valued across the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara Lands.”

Amongst the many successes of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers over the years since 1995 have been the commission to create a giant work for the World Expo in Hanover in 2000, a commission to create an oversized goanna for Manchester airport to coincide with the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the grass-woven Toyota Land Cruiser that won the $40,000 National Indigenous Art Award in 2005.

Demand for Tjanpi’s work is strong with several works created for Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute for the 2012 Adelaide Biennale and a separate sculpture of trees being acquired by a high profile public cultural institution.

Tjanpi’s works are in the collections of institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of NSW.

All in all, the art work of the Tjanpi artists is simply stunning to say the least, starting from baskets, the women’s sculptures, often finished with raffia or wool, have increasingly pushed their work into the fine art realm.

“This is what we who love art long for. We long for the art that makes the hair come up on the back of your neck,” Marcia Langton said at the opening of an exhibition in Alice Springs last year which saw the Tjanpi women collaborate with highly regarded Sydney artists, Maria Fernanda Cardoso and Alison Clouston.

Ancient stories continue to be shared with the world through the captivating work of the women of Central and Western Desert region as they share their stories and dreaming through their craft of fine art, with us all and by handing down these traditions to the younger women on the lands we can expect to see great things coming from the Tjanpi Desert Weaver’s well into the future.

“We love working, we’re busy people, we’ve got busy hands,” Nyinku Kulitja, a senior law woman from Docker River, said through a translator.

“We also enjoy seeing young people working. Those young people, they are coming behind us and they’re all weaving as well and that’s good work and income for them.”

Supported by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – Office for the Arts, Westpac Foundation, Caritas Australia, Rio Tinto and Australia Council for the Arts and despite the strong demand for the work, the enterprise relies on philanthropic support to cover the cost of operating over 350,000 square kilometres, an area roughly the size of Germany.

Tjanpi is known as the “happy face” of the women’s council, which delivers services to domestic violence victims, undernourished children, the aged and those with disabilities.

Tjanpi provides income for women in places untouched by the mining boom and where few job opportunities exist.

The Alice Springs event held last year also served as the launch of a book that chronicles the Tjanpi story and features the amazing image of Nyinku Kulitja and her sister Martha Protty from Kaltukatjara (Docker River).

“Tjanpi Desert Weavers” is available through Macmillan Art Publishing and was compiled by Penny Watson for the NPY Women’s Council and is available for sale with the hardcover priced at $110.00 and the softcover at $79.95. There is also a mini book available for just $35.00.

To find out more about the Tjanpi Desert Weavers or to purchase a copy of this wonderful publication visit the website at

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