It was the early 1970s when five young women from the remote Ernabella community in South Australia travelled from the deep desert to the lush Southern Highlands of New South Wales.
There they undertook a ground-breaking weaving residency at the Sturt Workshop in Mittagong.
Now, nearly 50 years later, a group of Ernabella artists, including one of the original women, has returned to the Sturt Workshop to showcase their vibrant art.
The exhibition, In These Hands, also marks the 70-year anniversary of Ernabella Arts, the oldest Indigenous art centre in Australia.
No time to be homesick
Wandering through the grounds of the Sturt Gallery, Atipalku Intjalku recalls her experience as a wide-eyed teenage girl out of her community for the first time to attend the 1972 residency.
“I’m remembering all the people that helped me, and the good times that we had here at Sturt,” Intjalku said.
“Was I homesick? Simply put, no.
“There was so much to learn, everything was new and exciting, everything was different — the trees, the food, the weather, the people and even what we wore!
“I was here for a long time, a few months, learning to weave on a new kind of loom, and a different kind of coloured wool, not the plain white and grey fleece wool that we used from the shearers in Ernabella.”
The sister relationship between Ernabella and Sturt was forged from a chance meeting at the Spinners and Weavers Association in Sydney in the mid to late 1960s.
Winifred Hilliard, Ernabella’s craft room advisor, and artist Nyukama (Daisy) Baker were in town attending an Association workshop.
Sturt’s master weaver Elisabeth Nagel, who was also present, was intrigued by the pair and by Baker’s art.
Their initial conversations sparked a lifelong friendship between the three women and forged the unique relationship between the two art centres.
In 1968, at Ms Hilliard’s invitation, Nagel travelled by mail plane from Alice Springs to the missionary community of Ernabella, on APY Lands, surrounded by stunning desert country.
Nagel was impressed by the work coming out of the art centre, and by the spirit of the community, and hatched a plan to have some of the young Ernabella women come to the Sturt workshop to extend their knowledge and skills in weaving.
Creativity blossomed with confidence
Slavica Zivkovic, co-curator of the In These Hands exhibition, spoke with a now elderly Nagel to gain an insight into the residencies that took place in 1971 and 1972.
“Elisabeth Nagel recalled that the young Ernabella women were immediately delighted by the great skeins of colourful commercial wool hanging in the studio,” Ms Zivkovic said.
“At first, Nagel’s weaving instructions were purely about technique — such as warping that required accurate counting methods — and the young women needed constant support.
“But as the young artists slowly grew with quiet confidence, their creativity blossomed.
“In the evening, the artists would do their coloured-pencil Walka drawings — patterns based on their surroundings.
“These would be translated into tapestries and floor rugs, incorporating a thread palette selected by the artists.
“The young artists became very much a part of the Sturt family and for Nagel, the residencies were not just about teaching techniques, but encouraging self-development and acceptance of culture.”
Intjalka has her own fond memories of Nagel from the 1972 residency.
“Miss Nagel looked after us the whole time,” she said.
“She taught us weaving and we taught her a little of our own language, Pitjantjara.
“On the weekends, sometimes we travelled by train to Sydney, we went to the harbour and caught a boat to the zoo.”
Australia’s oldest Indigenous arts centre
The skills and life experience the young artists gained at Sturt helped to shape the direction of Ernabella Arts, and continue to have influence as their knowledge is passed onto the next generation.
Original Sturt residency weaver Atipalku Intjalka has been accompanied on her return trip by several Ernabella artists who are visiting their sister arts centre for the first time.
They include ceramicist and exhibition co-curator Alison Milyika Carroll, ceramicist Lynette Lewis, and current chair of Ernabella Arts Tjunkaya Tapaya.
Tapaya is quietly proud of Ernabella Arts’ achievements.
“The Ernabella craft room started in 1948, the year before I was born, and it was the first art centre of its kind in Australia,” she said.
“When it first started it was only for women, and they were spinning sheep wool and making rugs and as I watched on as a little girl, I decided that would be the work I would do when I grew up.
“Then a new craft room was built, and then the young girls, young boys, and men started coming in to learn art and learning from the old people.
“Over the years, Ernabella artists have created work using many different materials and methods, including weaving, fibre arts, ceramics, and now painting as well.”
Art carries stories for next generation
As they move the through the Sturt Gallery, getting a sneak preview of the exhibition, the visiting Ernabella artists reflect on their art works.
Both Intjalka and Tapaya practice Tjanpi weaving, using natural desert grasses, seeds and feathers, together with commercially-bought raffia, string, and wool to create dioramas and large-scale installation sculptures.
“In the missionary time, we’d all go to church so I’m remembering this time from when I was a kid,” Tapaya said of a beautiful little church she has crafted.
Carroll said she feels it is all about the stories contained within the art.
“Telling stories, you know, stories, Tjukurpa,” she said.
“When we paint, and weave, and make art, we talk to the young people about Tjukurpa, dreamtime stories, and the stories are in the canvas and ceramics.
“Now it’s getting big for young people to work and learn about arts.
“When we’re gone, the art centre will be still there for our young people to make beautiful things for our future — the young people.”
In These Hands, Celebrating 70 Years of Ernabella Arts, runs at the Sturt Gallery in Mittagong until February 11, 2018.