Warburton is a remote Aboriginal community in the Gibson Desert of Western Australia. It sits 600km down a dirt road to the nearest small town and 1,500 kilometres from the city of Perth. With a population of 700 indigenous Ngaanyatjarra people, the community has a general store, a swimming pool, a clinic, a roadhouse, a shire office and gallery, and, a few other agency buildings. Most inhabitants speak English as a second or third language.
The Warburton Arts Project (WAP), was formed in the late 1980s by the co-ordinator Gary Proctor, and has supported the community artists for twenty years. From its inception, all significant work produced by Warburton artists has been purchased by the art project to be held in a community collection. This innovative model has generated an irreplaceable and unique asset. Warburton now retains the largest collection of Aboriginal artwork held in Aboriginal hands in Australia, making it an internationally significant collection.
In 2007 while living in Perth, I received a call from the community hoping to develop new methods of working in fibre for the senior women artists. I explored a variety of ideas and then decided felt could be a good option. After learning the techniques required for the felting process, I made samples to send to Warburton for the women to see. Everyone was very excited by this new medium, and we all thought it would suit the style of working that people were familiar with. I ran workshops in the community later that year and the large two dimensional works we developed quickly became known as "warntu" (blanket or skin), and so began the Warntu work in Warburton.
We began by placing large woollen bases on the floor. Then the long, soft tufts of coloured wool were sorted into boxes. Each artist made her selection of colours and sat on the floor with the prepared base ready to begin her work. Because the felting process reduces the size of the finished work by one third, the original piece can measure up to 3 metres square. In order to reach the middle of the work, women would often sit in the centre of the base and work their way out to the edges as they placed the coloured layers to create the surface design. As we began a quietness descended. There was no hesitation. These artists possessed a visual vocabulary that they conveyed with deft immediacy.
Each artist worked on her own Warntu, telling a story she wished to reveal. These stories are known as Tjukurrpa (dreaming) and represent the creation myths held within Ngaanyatjarra culture. Not everyone can speak of these stories and only certain people can tell certain parts of a story, thus making each work not only an individual expression, but also a sacred work depicting cultural truths. These dreaming stories help to define and reinforce the culture of Ngaanyatjarra people and are important documents of their dynamic living culture. Not only do these stories dwell in the world of myth but they also criss-cross the physical landscape from which they are derived. They operate as cultural and geographic maps.
This first collection of large scale Warntu was exhibited in Perth in 2008. Happily, it was purchased by a noted collector to be held together as a group and kept available for loan to future exhibitions.
The women were keen to continue this style of working, and so the next phase began. As 2009 was the International Year of Natural Fibre and the International Year of Reconciliation it seemed the perfect time for a cross-cultural fibre exhibition. I invited three established and well-respected artists from Perth to visit Warburton for an artists exchange program.
The artists, Holly Story, Nalda Searles and Bronwyn Goss, travelled with me to Warburton to meet and spend time with the Warburton artists in a bush camp 40 kilometres north of the community. There, Nalda Searles, who has a long association with Ngaanyatjarra women, initiated a 6.7 metre collaborative drawing using colour from local desert plants prepared by Holly Story. We all sat together along the length of the paper and dipped large brushes, made of grasses bound to sticks, into the coloured waters and painted a ground for the charcoal layers that followed. Without discussion everyone began to draw and what emerged was a beautiful spontaneous document that recorded the significant happenings of the bush camp.
Also as part of this meeting, a 40 metre collaborative 'travelling string work' evolved. Journeying back and forth between Perth and Warburton, it grew through the hands of many women who used traditional twining techniques, felted cord and crochet --often embellished with shells, bottle-tops, sticks, and other found objects. Its vitality came to symbolise the meeting and exchange between artists, women, cultures, and new friends.
These two collaborative pieces now sit together with the latest round of large Warntus by the Warburton artists and the individual works by the Perth artists. Contributing artists in our current exhibition 'PUTURRU PALYALPAYI - STRINGMAKERS' are Tjingapa Davies, Nola Hunt, Walya Mitchell, Elizabeth Holland, Nora Holland, Lalla West, Nalda Searles, Holly Story and Bronwyn Goss.
Sujora Conrad is the Warntu Project Co-ordinator. For more information, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information see: