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Striking life-sized Indigenous sculptures on display for the first time

25 May 2019

A series of eight life-sized figures created by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers from the remote Central and Western deserts will go on display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, from 25 May to 4 August 2019.

The specially commissioned dramatic figures, some up to two metres high and made from a variety of traditional and modern materials, have never previously been on display and will be the inspiration for the Museum’s next Studio: Collections Up Close series featuring a rich Indigenous arts and culture program.

Minyma Punu Kungkarangkalpa, sister one, 2018, Mary Pan Katajuku assisted by Maureen Douglas. National Museum of Australia
Minyma Punu Kungkarangkalpa, sister five, 2018, Tjunkaya Tapaya assisted by Julie Anderson. National Museum of Australia

Versions of the sculptures seen at the National Museum’s groundbreaking 2017–18 Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition were on loan from other organisations.

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, which won the nation’s most prestigious award for a museum or gallery show in 2018, was an Aboriginal-led exhibition that took visitors on a journey along the epic Seven Sisters Dreaming tracks, using art, Indigenous voices and innovative multimedia and other immersive displays. The Museum plans to tour the exhibition internationally.

The Seven Sisters songline is the story of an ancestral shape-shifter, Wati Nyiru, and the women he relentlessly pursues across the landscape. In the Museum’s award-winning exhibition, the seven sisters were featured in two groups — seated and transformed into trees.

The newly acquired life-sized figures currently on display are captured at the moment of the women’s magical transformation into trees to deceive their love-sick pursuer. Materials used to create the ‘tree women’ and the sinister Wati Nyiru figure include bird wire, native grass, acrylic yarn, dyed raffia and commercially treated emu feathers.

Senior Indigenous curator and head of the National Museum of Australia’s Centre of Indigenous Knowledges, Margo Neale, said ‘The Museum is proud to have commissioned Tjanpi Desert Weavers to create this major work, which will form a key element of the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters touring exhibition. This is a rare opportunity to get to know these magnificent fibre-art figures before they head overseas.

‘The figures were made in 2018 by 15 senior and emerging women artists on their country near Walinynga (Cave Hill), one of Central Australia's most significant Aboriginal rock art sites’, Ms Neale said.

‘The figures used in the original exhibition were loan objects and by the nature of the type of material (tjanpi — desert grasses) fairly fragile. We wanted to ensure there were versions available for the lengthy touring show which would also become important and valuable acquisitions for the Museum’s permanent collection’, Ms Neale said.

The commission was an important opportunity for cultural knowledge transfer as each senior artist worked with an assistant artist who was learning the craft of creating large figures.

A series of closed-gallery Indigenous arts and culture programs will be held while the ‘tree women’ are on display. They include traditional basket weaving, sun printing, poetry and storytelling, and Ngunawal language workshops.

A full list of workshops can be found on the Museum's website.

  • Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters was at the National Museum of Australia, 5 September 2017 to 28 February 2018.
  • Judged to be the most outstanding exhibition of the year, Songlines received the ‘Best In Show’ award at the annual Museums and Galleries National Awards (MAGNA) ceremony, held in in Melbourne on Tuesday 5 June 2018.

Media contact: Diana Streak, 02 6208 5091 | 0422 536 064 or media@nma.gov.au

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