Published  11/12/2008

Aboriginal Women as Ambassadors of Art and Culture

Aboriginal women as ambassadors of art and culture

Across the Desert: Aboriginal Batik from Central Australia
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
10 October 2008-1 February 2009

The story of the Australian Aboriginal batik projects in five distinct desert communities in the 1970s and 1980s reveals a series of ironies, which enable contemporary indigenous art in Australia to be better understood. The works themselves are superb, as the exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia reveals; indeed, they are breathtaking in their cultural association, their aesthetic power and their technical skill. Curated by Judith Ryan and National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) colleagues Stephen Gilchrist, Katie Somerville and Danielle Whitfield, the exhibition is a scholarly account of the evolution of a pivotal aspect of contemporary Aboriginal art. The design of the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, a superb publication in content and design, endorse the dynamism and profundity of the subject.

'Across the Desert' tells the story of the development of a singular art form - batik - and the genesis of Aboriginal women's art in five distinct communities in central Australia: Ernabella, Fregon, Utopia, Yuendumu and Kintore. This is a complex story. Many individual artists are represented, and numerous art co-ordinators and administrators have worked in a mutually beneficial manner with a large team of curators and scholars. There is a rigour in the scholarship, the acknowledgement of the solemnity of the issues layered with warm, affectionate accounts of the history of the phenomenon which is at the centre of an industry conceived as a uniting force to heal and nurture disparate and damaged communities.

Each community has its own story, relayed in the publication from first-hand accounts by the former art co-ordinators Hilary Furlong, Diana James, Julia Murray, Felicity Wright and Marina Strocchi. The exhibition includes over 60 textiles and garments, collected by the (NGV) over many years; it is the only institution in Australia to have such rich and diverse holdings of batik works. 'Across the Desert' celebrates the early development of Aboriginal women's art through the introduction of the medium of batik. It highlights the diverse aesthetic traditions in five diverse regions. Significantly it is timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the founding of Ernabella Arts, the longest running indigenous art studio and business in Australia, and the first, in 1971, to practice batik. The exhibition reveals the distinct range of iconographic designs from each community, for example, complex iconography from Ernabella and Fregon are in striking contrast to the unrestrained, painterly compositions from Utopia, Yuendumu and later Kintore. Works by artists who later established high profile careers for their acrylic painting on canvas, such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Nyukana Baker, are included alongside collaborative projects with non-indigenous textile artist and designer Linda Jackson. The exhibition is sponsored by Myer.

The introduction of batik enabled Aboriginal women artists to assume their rightful place within Aboriginal society in relation to culture and ceremony. In turn, it enables their position to be seen correctly by the wider world. Up until now, anthropologists and historians had underestimated the role of women in Aboriginal culture. Batik was not commercially viable in itself - indeed, the irony is that only when batik artists, after a decade or so of fastidious work, made the transition to acrylic painting on canvas, did their work achieve recognition. In the case of Emily and others, the success was so staggering that productivity was in turn increased and an industry on a commercial basis was born. 'Across the Desert'examines in great detail the work, over several decades, of non-Aboriginal textile experts and art co-ordinators who invested faith in the artists and their work, encouraging natural pride in their culture through an appropriate but new manifestation of that culture: engaging with new methods and materials. The common ground, which batik provided, enabled a true spiritual connection with the Aboriginal artists' homelands, with their ancient visual culture. Friendships were born and communities nurtured. The art works are only now in the 21st century being adequately recognised and appraised, in Australia and internationally, as art works in their own right.

For the period in which batik flourished, the empowerment of the women in the remote communities and the strengthening of their cultural identity - collectively and individually - was a motivating force. However, the art form itself suffered from the hierarchical nature of art, where fabric and craft were deemed to be of less value than painting on canvas. The very freeing of these communities of women, by individuals committed to the recognition of Aboriginal Australians was fuelled by the feminist movement that addressed issues that existed as a consequence of a deep seated hierarchy in the arts. In fact there seems to have been a time lag in terms of an appropriate recognition of the batik work, even though the establishment of the communities was driven by the desire to address male hegemony. The batik initiatives brought into question patriarchal perceptions of Aboriginal culture. Judith Ryan asserts this issue as central to the subject itself:

During the 1970s and 1980s batik was instrumental in the awakening of central desert women - the hitherto sleeping giants of the Aboriginal art world - as creators and inventors in new materials. Before this revolutionary period, the Australian community, swept up in the patriarchal obsessions of white society, generally believed that Aboriginal art and religion were within the exclusive jurisdiction of men. In much of the writings of male anthropologists, a false dichotomy was set up between what were thought to be the 'secular' or 'profane' pursuits of women as opposed to the 'sacred' rites and designs of men. Women's autonomy in ritual matters and as landowners was not recognised. It was almost as if their social and political integrity was subsumed into digging sticks and coolamons, their food gathering tools, paralleling the male dictum of white Australia, 'a woman's place is in the home'. Conceived of as 'breeders, feeders and follow the leaders', women were generally denied access to introduced art materials, only receiving encouragement to produce craft items of a utilitarian nature or to assist their male relatives with the decorative infilling of paintings on canvas, creative expressions that usually went unacknowledged.1

Female anthropologists made significant contributions to the redress of gender issues. The work of Nancy Munn, Diane Bell and Françoise Dussart with the Walpiri women was reinforced by the work of female art co-ordinators and linguists at Ernabella, Fregon, Utopia, Yuendumu and Haasts Bluff (Ikuntji). The emergence in central Australia of batik, as an art form of great power and beauty, enabled Aboriginal women to begin, 'to assume their rightful place as ambassadors of their art and culture, both in Australia and abroad'.2

The year 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Ernabella craft room, an initiative whereby Aboriginal women were eventually remunerated in cash, food and clothing. They assumed responsibility for quality control and teaching of skills to others. For 32 years, Winifred Hilliard worked hard to establish and maintain the batik industry. She believed passionately that Aboriginal women had the right to express their culture in a contemporary medium; that Anangu art was fundamental to their culture. She ensured that the artists could express their culture without breaking ceremonial rules and that they should sign their works, therefore emphasising their status as artists and refusing to view batik objects as mere craft objects (as ethnographers had always done). Authorship was, therefore, asserted.

The validity of such work resides in its visual potency, independent of the ethnographic record: it dares to be a form of art for art's sake that is non-naturalistic and does not advance an articulable or literal meaning or a direct nexus to customary ritual. Rather, its command belongs to the realm of metaphor. Its energy comes from the land, which is sensed and felt and only then rendered tangible in a new medium.3

The Ernabella project was thus pivotal in the history of the women's art movement in central Australia. From 1940, women were encouraged to make walka (meaningful or intentional marks) with modern materials. Batik was introduced in 1971. Artists were shown how to use the canting, a wax-holder or pen. In technical terms Ernabella is therefore connected to the batik of Indonesia. Each community, however, had its own design and, in turn, each artist within that community had her own design. Nyukana explains, 'I have always made the Ernabella design and my own design has changed only a little bit over the years, and yes, each artist has their own design … Painting a walka is telling a story in your mind. Maybe it's like my drawing when I was little. It just comes and I don't have to think about it.'4

The Ernabella artists were set up with dyes, waxes and cantings. They quickly took over mixing the dyes and working the medium with confidence, increasing the scale dramatically. Layering methods were developed using successive applications of wax and dyes achieving a great range of intricate designs, exquisite range of colour and glorious patterning. The designs are organic and unprescribed, and as Judith Ryan observes, no artist appears to repeat the same design twice. The Ernabella community was so isolated that the working methods in the batik process could be perfected without interruption, to develop their particular batik landscape, 'one of exquisite rhythmical arabesques with a pied beauty'.5 The very joy of creating such work took over from the traditional raison d'être for art which emphasised narrative or the replication or reading of cultural law. The translation of ephemeral sand painting to the delicate wax drawing and final batik paintings on fabric appears to have been seamless.

The Ernabella example inspired other communities to follow. Individuals who went to school at Ernabella moved to other communities, taking their expertise with them. Fregon was the next community to adopt batik as a serious community activity and art form. At Fregon, distinctive differences developed, notably the inclusion of flora and fauna with the abstract curvilinear design which made for many strong, daring images. The Fregon artists employed a method of cracking the wax so that the dye created streaky, individual effects. Where Ernabella was originally a Presbyterian mission, Utopia took in 17 disparate communities. They were united by the Anmatyerr and Alyawarr family groups, who shared cultural connections. Art workers overlapped between Ernabella and Utopia, yet the Utopia Women's Batik Group broke away in terms of their art practice. Unlike the Ernabella women who had had a sound art and craft training, it was a completely new experience at Utopia. It was the women's first attempt to make images with introduced materials. Having no experience of pens, paper, brushes or the concept of individual authorship, they progressed from concept to image in the batik process. Their style was remarkably fluid, incorporating flora and fauna with the stripes from body painting used during ceremonial painting and ritual. The surface was often lengths of fabric, but T-shirts or made up clothing were also used; the final result being a garment decorated as if it were body painting direct. This anarchic freedom distinguishes their work from the first two communities where the rules of the process were dictated by traditional methods passed on by the teachers. Fabulous designs were created, 'An energetic vigour is also evident in batiks by Petyarr sisters, Ada, Violet and Myrtle, whose two-toned linear compositions reveal a rhythmical control of the canting and possess a rare totality of gesture. Their mark-making, which reference arlkeny (body markings) for awely, proclaims the importance of these women's ceremonies performed "to hold and look after country, promoting feelings of happiness, health and well-being in the community"'.6

The Utopia batik method was significantly differently to those at Ernabella. The fabric was not stretched or made flat. It was held loosely as women sat on the ground, holding their work on their laps. They used a brush, as in Indonesian batik, to cover large areas for wax. The canting was too slow a method for the Utopia women, and so the result was more like paintings than wax writing; they have more in common with the acrylic paintings on canvas which were made some years later. The works were also bolder, asymmetric, and vibrant, often 'mistakes' were incorporated by those who had never used a pen or pencil. This introduced an element of chance or accident, quite unlike the perfectly controlled patterning of the Ernabella batiks. In common with the batik works from the different Aboriginal communities is the firm belief that their art forms, regardless of medium, were based on 'a profound belief in the relationship between the present and an ancestral past'.7 At Utopia emphasis is on the 'creation period'. Traditionally expressed in body markings for ceremonies including song and dance, the marks are emblematic of identity and place; they are also 'figurative signs of father's father or sibling country and its associated Dreamings'. Hence, the early works by Emily Kame Kngwarreye use two Dreamings: pencil yam and emu, which belong to her grandfather's country of Alhalkere and the closely related country of Atnangker. Batik methods using wax and dye were fast drying and immediate. Great achievements were made in this medium before the artists were introduced to acrylic paint on canvas in 1988-89. 'Each Utopia batik composition, innocent of the dictates of the market, differs from the next in its irregular fluidities of colour and design.'8 Emily's astounding progress - she is said to have been an artist, using western materials for only eight years - owes its drama and speed to the fact that she worked in batik for the 11-year period prior to the introduction of acrylic paint. Both the choice of materials and method was a tremendously astute one on the part of the first organisers, for in each community the application and productivity was a great success. As the exhibition reveals, the quality of work in aesthetic and technical terms was remarkable, but it was also the impact on the women, individually and collectively, that is so obvious and worthy of celebration. The joy of working together to create works of such unique and remarkable power and beauty, in communities where basic issues of health and survival have been tantamount, is extraordinary.

'Across the Desert' provides a visual feast for newcomer and expert alike. It also provides a public platform from which to acknowledge and celebrate the often thankless work performed by a series of remarkable individuals over the past century. The contribution made by the anthropologist Nancy D. Munn is recognised as underpinning the momentous reappraisal of Aboriginal women's art, which the present exhibition addresses. Munn worked in the field of Warlpiri iconography. She showed that women had their own ritual designs, different in mythological content and visual style from those of the men. Principles of fertility and growth, in a local context, are emphasised; in men's ceremonies the routes taken by ancestors and the manner in which places are therefore linked take priority. Women's art is characterised by curvilinear lines, circles, units and clusters. Men's art is characterised by straight or meandering lines - the 'songlines' or lines of sites. After Nancy Munn's work came that of Diane Bell and Françoise Dussart at Yuendumu, which established clearly that women managed secret ceremonies that were sanctioned by their spiritual ancestors. Women were therefore, recognised as playing a pivotal role as nurturers of their people, the land and of relationships. Previously held notions of their subservience to men in Aboriginal culture, was firmly refuted. At Yuendumu, a further significant development in the recognition of women's position in art and culture took place when Warlpiri men 'gave' women the right to use dots in their acrylic painting. In doing so they legitimised their participation and their role in the artistic expression of their culture.

Following the establishment of the batik industry in Yuendumu, a further project was established at Kintore for senior Pintupi women from Haasts Bluff and Kintore in 1994-95. Seemingly abstract, the batik works of the Pintupi women, who hold autonomy in ritual matters, are grounded in women's ceremonial body painting. They are made up of layers of dots, energetic lines and circles. Their scribbled character endows them with the contemporaneous quality of graffiti. The stronger white lines indicate that stronger mark-making in wax has been employed. The batik works from all five communities are varied and exciting. They represent a momentous shift in the recognition of the pivotal role of women in Aboriginal society. Without the batik projects, the communities would have continued to lack focus and a profound self-worth. There is appropriately a celebratory mood at the NGV where the tireless work over 30 years has until now, not been appropriately recognised. Referring to the batik works from Kintore, as 'miraculous cadenzas in the history of Aboriginal women's art practice', Judith Ryan states emphatically, 'Their batik songs of innocence are invested with an imperative to transmit a deep knowledge of women's law and oneness with country that is inviolable'.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Ryan J. Prelude to canvas: batik cadenzas wax lyrical. In: Across the Desert: Aboriginal Batik from Central Australia. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2008: 17.
2. Ibid: 17.
3. Ibid: 18.
4. Quoted ibid: 18.
5. Ibid: 19.
6. Ibid: 20.
7. James Bennett, quoted ibid: 21.
8. Ibid: 21.

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