A celebration of fifty years of Ernabella Arts Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide August - September 1998
The 50 year anniversary of Ernabella Arts and Crafts was celebrated this year with an important historical exhibition at Tandanya and the production of a substantial catalogue including interviews with Aboriginal women, and essays by art advisers, past and present, as well as anthropologists and curators. It is a time of reflection and assessment as the Ernabella art centre is at present being remodelled and renovated and the way it is organized is being reviewed.
Each of the more than forty Central Australian art centres are different and have evolved differently but Ernabella Arts was the first one. To see rather than merely read about the rugs and shawls made by the women of Ernabella from wool they spun themselves or to look at some of the photographs of the smiling slim girls, such as Nyukana Baker, sitting or standing in the Musgrave Ranges next to their rugs is very poignant and makes you certain that, in spite of all the documentation, there are many unspoken layers to this story.
Some of those stories could perhaps be found in the Ara Irititja Archival Project of the Pitjantjatjara Council, which is an ongoing computerized resource of the visual documentation of the area. At the opening of Warka Irititja Munu Kuwari Kutu the archivist John Dallwitz was present to demonstrate the way databases have been used to make this material available to the people whose history it contains.
Work on show in the exhibition ranges from crayon drawings to greeting cards, from rugs and stoles to punu (woodcarving), prints, ceramics and, above all, batiks. The crayon drawings by children are usually considered to be the origins of the walka, a loose paisley-like form that is the distinguishing feature or recurring pattern of the artwork of the Ernabella women. "Walka refers to all meaningful and deliberate mark making including writing." (catalogue p39) The story goes that in 1940 a schoolteacher said: Kurakura walkatjura which means: "draw badly" or "anything goes" (isn't that the name of a book by Paul Taylor?) and the patterns that the children made were used as designs for the first rugs and weavings. The rest is history. Chris Nobbs, Education Officer at the South Australian Museum, claims in his essay for the recent Tjungu Warkarintja/Working Together exhibition at the Jam Factory Gallery of ceramic plates decorated by Ernabella women, that the earliest reference to such designs is in 1903 when Herbert Basedow recorded some "elaborate drawings" on the walls of a rock shelter.
In the 1940s when Ernabella was a sheep station and mission it was Mary Bennett's idea to use wool for making handcrafts. Aboriginal women were already spinning human hair on cross stick spindles. The reasons for making something with the wool were not to make warm blankets for themselves. The priority was to productively employ Aboriginal women who were staying in one place as they could not do what they had been doing as nomadic people, ie food-foraging. Thus the historical situation in which the women were placed was an important factor in the development of the art and craft movement at Ernabella, the desire or need to earn income, the lack of employment opportunities, the presence of sheep and determined missionaries. The first interview in the catalogue is with Nura Rupert. We do not know how old she is but she remembers the past when she and the others were weaving and making teacosies, kangaroo sole shoes, knee rugs and scarves. Rupert is quite nostalgic and many times she says: " I would like to teach the children."
The art and craft centre is very much a women's centre and the art and craft produced there explicitly display the strength and energy of Ernabella women. Today the art and craft centre is more than a work place it is "a clubhouse, refuge, meeting place, social place and children's area". (catalogue, p57)
An ongoing issue in the marketing of Ernabella designs is that to many people the works do not look 'Aboriginal', they do not tell stories, they do not place identifiable culture on to canvas or silk. Instead the works are essentially decorative and speak strongly of the exuberance and energy, vitality and pleasure in making of their creators. As Frida Kahlo used to say: Vive la vida! The artwork of Emily Kngwarreye also has this looseness and energetic jouissance. When seen in paintings rather than batiks such expression tends to be seen as having moved into a different register, a different tradition, though of course it was with batik that Emily started her career as an artist in the non-Aboriginal world.
Craftwork supervisor Winifred Hilliard wrote about her more than twenty years of experience at Ernabella in a book called The People in Between: The Pitjantjatjara people of Ernabella which was first published in 1968. Hilliard has also written an essay for this exhibition in which she describes the introduction of batik, a traditional Indonesian craft, in 1971. A historic example of an exercise showing batik techniques when Ernabella artists travelled to Yogyakarta in 1975 is a fascinating part of the Ernabella Arts Archive.
James Bennett, Curator of South East Asian Art and Material Culture at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory writes in the catalogue about the relationship between Indonesian and Ernabella batik, and questions if the relationship is one of inspiration or derivation. He concludes that there is an immense gulf between the two approaches but states: "More than any stylistic influences, it was a sense of common purpose rooted in non-European aesthetic values that formed a shared ground with Javanese batik makers. As Australia furthers cultural exchange with regional indigenous artists it is these values, associated with humbleness towards the work in hand and a commitment to ancestral traditions, that perhaps are most relevant for consideration today." (catalogue, p36)
Hilliard's own exuberance comes out in the end of her essay where she writes: "Already we have been enriched. Who knows what riches are still to come!" (catalogue p28)