Weaving country

16 Nov 2016   |   Blog   |   Long-term Development   |   Caritas News magazine   |   Australia

 Rene Kulitja with Kuka Irititja at Venice Biennale 2015

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.

Tjanpi Desert Weavers, a social enterprise of the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, Yakunytjatjara (NPY) Women’s Council, has been providing culturally appropriate employment opportunities to women from remote First Australian communities for over 20 years.

Starting in the mid-90s, Tjanpi has been embraced by women across central Australia. The enterprise is Aboriginal governed and directed with over 400 active weavers from 28 communities across NPY Lands (350,000 square kilometres across NT, SA and WA).

The name ‘Tjanpi’ is inspired by tjanpi, the wild-harvested desert grass that the women weave with other materials to produce fibre art. Their contemporary artworks, which celebrate their land, stories and culture are popular in galleries across Australia and around the world.

In 2005, Caritas Australia assisted the enterprise with a small grant and our partnership has continued.

We are driven by an Integral Human Development approach to community development work. This means exploring and valuing outcomes beyond economic growth and income generation, including the social, cultural and spiritual elements that make our projects meaningful for participants.

Evaluating the program

As part of our regular learnings about our programs, an independent evaluation was recently commissioned. As illustrated through the comments from the weavers below, the evaluation identified that there are many benefits for the women involved, including that it:

  • Supports social and cultural obligations
  • Can be undertaken by women of all ages and ability levels
  • Is not resource intensive and offers flexible work conditions
  • Can be performed without access to technology
  • Is environmentally friendly. The artists often recycle clothing by reusing the wool from old jumpers.

The program evaluator, Jo Thompson, said “the partnership between Caritas and Tjanpi is based on trust, reciprocity and mutual respect, and is a relationship which is reinforced by its longevity and commonalities of values."

Tjanpi Desert Weavers from Warakurna with one of their finished works

From the Tjanpi Weavers

“Of course we realised as we were out collecting all that vegetation, all that different grass that, ‘Hang on! All that grass is growing on sacred land in various areas’, and we realised as we were collecting the grasses and making the baskets, that we were in fact weaving the country and weaving stories into the country and each different grass had its own story, and we realised we were working with a very ancient story and tradition, but making new things out of it.” - Nyurpaya Kaika-Burton, Amata SA

“It is good to keep our culture going. Our grandmothers can see that we are working. They can see what work we do. We are all here, working and living and making money for our children.” - Dorothy Richards, Mantamaru WA

“We love doing Tjanpi. We get a little bit of money. Making baskets and dogs and sculptures makes us feel good and happy. It’s lovely being together in a group, where we can tell stories. We go out bush. We like going out bush, we like making things and going hunting. We’re reminded of Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) when we’re on country.” - Group interview with Dorcas Bennett, Anna Porter, Eunice Porter, Polly Jackson, Judith Chambers and Nancy Jackson, Warakurna WA

“We have one lady who had a stroke; she can’t weave with the raffia because of her disability, but she can wind wool. She was so excited because Claire [Tjanpi Field Officer] helped her make a flat sculpture with wool which she wound around.” - Doreen Coughran, Coordinator, Docker River Aged Care

“With Tjanpi, we source our materials by going bush and collecting Tjanpi and this also involves getting bush medicines. Tjanpi involves bush trips which other work doesn’t do. Sometimes we go out for tjarla (honey ants).” - Dorcas Tinnimai Bennett, Warakurna WA

“The difference is that Tjanpi is done in the open – a lot of other work is done in a workshop but Tjanpi work is done outside. It’s lovely to be in fresh air.” - Group interview of fibre artists

“With Tjanpi we always take it anywhere. When we’re travelling we take it and sit down and make Tjanpi anywhere.” - Linda Eddy, Irrunytju WA

“I make papa (dogs) and ngirntaka (perentie lizards) out of my imagination. These are my mum’s and aunties’ stories that they taught us and we’re carrying them on. I also teach the stories to my descendants and to white girls and to people who go to exhibitions. At those exhibitions we do workshops and teach people how to do Tjanpi.” - Mary Pan, Amata SA

“It makes us very happy to collect things from the bush such as ininti beans and gumnuts, and other woods and grasses – to us they are things of great beauty and we make beautiful things out of them and so that makes us really happy. We LOVE doing that.” - Kanytjupai Armstrong, Ernabella SA

You can find out more about the Tjanpi Desert Weavers and purchase Tjanpi sculptures here

Learn more about Caritas Australia's partnership with Tjanpi Desert Weavers

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