This is the English version of Tamara Burlando article published in Felt Magazine issue.
"My experience in the desert was very enlightening. From the first time I came to this region I felt comfortable, welcome, and privileged to be here. To arrive in Mutitjulu, (an indigenous community beside the Australian monolithic sacred site of Uluru), without any great expectations, and discover the world that was inhabited there, changed my perception of what is possible. My first contact was in a way indirect, as I initially didn’t come to this region to work or do a project. I came to visit my boyfriend and get to know where he was living and working.
Because I was coming from very far away, (my native country of Argentina), I planned a trip of 6 weeks. By the third week I was wondering what I personally could give to this community. As I had begun to work with felt some years before, and on seeing the kind of creative ability and natural ease for working with their hands the women of the region possessed, I didn’t hesitate in trying to set up a FELT workshop.
I did my research and found that in this particular community they had never had any opportunity to work in the field of textiles. (Textiles were not a part of Pitjantjtatjara people’s traditional culture. As recently as 50 years ago they were nomadic and used no clothing other than a belt made of human hair, to assist them to carry various essential tools). They are famous for their wooden sculpture and artefact making, and more recently have become strong painters and basket makers.
Within a short time the local Art Centre Maruku Arts and the organization providing youth services in the region, had both agreed to support the provision of a one-week felting workshop open to everyone; kids and adults. I was lucky as just as the materials had arrived by post, and we had arranged to use the community education centre; by coincidence a regional cultural women’s gathering was to take place nearby this community, so women and children from other communities were arriving. This increased the number of participants of the workshop.
This initial one-week pilot project was a great success; the women and children were very excited about the new technique they had learned and its wide possibilities. Everybody wanted to keep going, and that I stay there to teach them more. The Arts Centre was impressed by the 33 felt artworks that had been generated in such a short time. The colours and designs were beautiful! The retail manager of Maruku Arts was quick to appreciate the commercial potential of such pieces, and the centre’s director proposed applying for a grant to support me returning for a longer period of 10 weeks. Many of the women in the community added their strong support to the application, and significant textile artists of the region (whom I hadn’t even met!) showed interest in the project and didn’t hesitate in supporting me.
Despite everything having gone so well, as I come from a country where government financial support for the arts doesn’t occur very often; I didn’t think it would happen. But to my surprise 6 months later I was arriving back in Mutitjulu to facilitate 10 weeks of Feltmaking, curious to see what direction this creative experiment would take!
The second visit was even richer than the first had been; rewarding myself, and all the women who participated, with an unforgettable shared experience. It was a pleasure to spend significant hours each day side by side with these incredible women; so of the earth; so brimming with their stories and beliefs. The most beautiful part of the experience was to see that, perhaps what these women really enjoyed most about the workshop, was to be sitting all together each day, absorbed in creative work. The hours of the workshop turned into a social space that; whilst making felt; was primarily about just being there; sharing and feeling their sense of belonging; with each other, their land, and their law. Once I understood the centrality of this shared aspect of their work, the workshop deepened its engagement considerably, as we began to make not individual artworks but collaborative pieces. The results were stunning.
During the 10 weeks the workshop produced baskets and sculptural animals; (incorporating the use of the incredibly strong Australian desert grass called Spinifex or tjanpi in Pitjantjatjara, combined with felting techniques), bags, hats, and culminated in 2 carpets measuring 2 metres by 3 metres, which were the delight of all.
The new medium was very well received by the tourist market, and the animals and carpets were exhibited in a prestigious art gallery in nearby Yulara, just days before I was to leave. So I was even able to enjoy being present at this moment accompanying the women as they presented their work.
The project had good repercussions and I received unexpected calls from other organizations to set up felt workshops in other communities. One of these proposals that I was able to carry out was to deliver the workshop at a festival organized by NPY Women Council in Ernabella each year. The gathering is called
Tjilpi Pampa and is focused on bringing together indigenous elders of the region and offering them activities and a chance to camp together for three days. I had the privilege of being able to assist and to be invited again the following year. Both times the workshop was marvellous and the works born from the hands and hearts of these strong spirited elders had a distinct character from those made in Mutitjulu. The fascinating thing about these workshops in particular was the fact that we mounted the workshop and the entire festival in a remote location in the Mulga scrub of the great western desert of northern South Australia. The infrastructure and resources available to set up the workshop with were very limited, and so, -(as is usual for life in the bush), one has to improvise with whatever one has to hand. At the 2009 festival, confronted by the need for more table space due to the number of participants, we employed some spare otto-bins on their sides, to increase the capacity of the workshop. On the third day there was some incredible desert weather; first a dust storm and then afterwards torrential rains, so our resilience and passion for felt making was tested as we all donned our sun glasses to keep the dust out of our eyes and tried to finish our artworks! To have had the pleasure of being again with some of these incredible elders whom we had met when they had participated the previous year was a real joy.
Honestly, in Mutitjulu and in Ernabella, it was so easy and so interesting to work with all these indigenous women and children, as they possess an innate capacity for combining colour and creating their own designs. All their work is based upon their Tjukurpa; their ancestral creation-stories, law and beliefs. To have shared with them a little of this knowledge, that has been spoken from generation to generation through tens of thousands of years, and now more recently to see it expressed through art, leaves me believing there are no words possible to explain these things or to express my gratitude. I feel privileged.
Thanks to these initial experiences today I am living in Papunya, (another indigenous community in the region). My husband and I have been living and working here for the past year, where we are now expecting our first child. Each day we continue to feel as blessed as we did the first day that we trod upon this red earth."
Tamara Burlando. March 2010.
Translated by Be Ward.
(This project gratefully acknowledges the support of Arts NT & Maruku Arts).