From Ernabella to Sturt, and one pair of hands to another

Artists from Ernabella Arts in north western South Australia, Pantjiti Lewis, Tjariya Stanley, and Niningka Lewis. Photo: Ernabella.

On Thursday, December 7 an Aboriginal woman called Atipalku Intjalki will return to the Southern Highlands for the first time in 46 years.

Her artwork forms part of an Indigenous art exhibition going on display at the Sturt gallery called ‘In These Hands: Mara nyangangka’.

Featuring paintings, weavings, ceramics, batiks and historic items from about 25 artists, the exhibition coincides with the 70th birthday of the art centre that Atipalku hails from – Ernabella Arts.

Located in the Pukatja community in the far north western pocket of South Australia, Ernabella Arts is Australia’s oldest continuously running Indigenous art centre.

It also holds a special place in the history of Sturt, as does Atipalku.

In 1972, Atipalku travelled to the Southern Highlands from Ernabella as 17 year old to do a residency at the craft centre.

She, along with four others from Ernabella, was invited by master weaver Elisabeth Nagel to spend five months in Sturt’s weaving room.

Ernabella artist Elizabeth Dunn's ceramics. Photo: Ernabella Arts.
 Ernabella artist Elizabeth Dunn’s ceramics. Photo: Ernabella Arts.

Although a long way from home and fresh out of high school, Atipalku said she reveled in the experience.

“Was I homesick? Simply put, no,” she said.

“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.”

Now 62, Atipalku is the only surviving artist from the group of five that visited all those years ago.

Elisabeth was prompted to invite the artists after her first visit to Ernabella in the early 1960s.

Armed with a burning curiosity and the desire to share her craft, the German-Australian weaver travelled to the remote Aboriginal community in 1961 to learn and to exchange.

“Nothing was planned,” she said. “ An opening presented itself. I was curious and took the opportunity to see what this could be.”

Ernabella painter, Tjariya Stanley. Photo: Ernabella Arts.
Ernabella painter, Tjariya Stanley. Photo: Ernabella Arts.


What she initiated was a decades-long collaborative relationship between the two craft centres, one that is manifest in this exhibition.

Head of Sturt, Mark Viner, said the skills learned by the Ernabella artists during their residencies in 1971 and 1972 – like the use of commercially coloured wool –  have been passed down to new generations of artists.

“At Ernabella there is a stong sense of generational earning with everything they do,” he said. “It’s interesting that Sturt had a part to play in that.”

The collection’s title, ‘In These Hands: Mara nyangangka’, references this philosophy.

“Some things have changed [at Ernabella] but the passing down of skills, knowledge and Tjukurpa – that’s still the same,” Atipalku said.

In These Hands will open at 6pm on Thursday, December 7 at Sturt Gallery, where Elisabeth, Atipalku, her daughter Lynette, and the other artists from Ernabella will be in attendance.

It will coincide with the centre’s artisan night market, to be held in the garden from 5pm.

As published in the Southern Highland News, November 2017. 

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