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The women work on the crosses in the traditional Ltyentye Apurte style at Santa Teresa, a former Catholic mission 80 kilometres from Alice Springs. Every cross is unique and the colours are bright and eclectic forming circles big and small in the dot style, all over the flat clay crosses.
The women rely on work provided by the Spiritualty Centre, located behind the whitewashed Catholic Church that takes pride of place in the community’s centre.
Over the past seven years the women have hand-painted more than 23,000 original crosses. The project started when the women held a workshop looking at different crosses through the ages.
Parish assistant Liz Wiemers has been involved with the cross project from its inception, and said the popularity of the crosses had taken everyone by surprise, with the latest order being for 170 pieces.
“It’s really due to the ladies. They have a really strong commitment to it,” Sister Wiemers said. “They have a real sense of when their crosses are going, to India or Turkey or wherever. They have real sense of sending that symbol. It’s really important to them.”
Clare Young, one of the artists who has been painting crosses for six years, turns up for work early to avoid the hustle and bustle of community life.
“There’s peace and quiet in here. I’ve got my paint, they’re all in order. I have my water and my paintbrushes ready for the day,” she said.
Ms Young said her original designs came from the heart and sent a message of healing, including one of her crosses that was sent to the Pope in Vatican City.
“It really doesn’t have a story, it’s just a bird’s eye view of things, of the land and the country around us,” she said. “There’s ochre, that’s the colour of the earth. There’s black, that’s the colour of the people, and orange which is the colour of the desert.
“By doing paintings from our hearts, instead of the wider Australia thinking that Aboriginal people are no good, they can see that some good can come out of what we do. “Instead of the negative things seen on the news or seen in the newspapers.”
There is an attention to detail in each individual cross. Ms Young has a stash of utensils to help create symmetry that is synonymous with Ltyentye Apurte artwork. “We use other things like paintbrushes and glue stick [lids], bottle tops, anything that makes a perfect circle,” she said.
There is also a social aspect to why Ms Young enjoys going to work every day. “You’re here with the ladies sitting around the table, you catch up on the gossip from around the community, about what happened on the weekend, what happens day by day,” she said.
“You know what they’ve been doing and how their lives have been during the weekend, during the day or night … sometimes it’s sad. “We sit on the couch and talk and tell each other it’s going to be alright in the end. That’s what I tell the ladies when they want to talk to me.”
Catholicism plays a vital role in the community. “It’s very important to us because we grew up with the Catholic faith … It’s very strong in our community and every time there is sadness or if anybody has a problem, there’s a prayer,” Ms Young said.
Copyright of Indigenous artwork is paramount to protecting the Santa Teresa crosses, according to Sister Wiemers. “We also ensure that people who purchase them know they are original works of art,” she said. “We have had two instances of someone trying to copy the shapes and we contacted them and said ‘Do you realise that these are copyright?’ and they were very apologetic.
“But it’s really important to protect the women’s artwork because the whole issue of copyright is a burning issue, particularly with Aboriginal art.
“I think that people like the art and want to share it with people, but I think they forget because it’s a cross or it’s a small painting or something like that. “I don’t think they appreciate that it’s an original work and that all original works are covered by copyright.”
Sister Wiemers said photographing the crosses and putting the photos on the internet, other than on the women’s Facebook page, was an infringement of copyright. “Things here can’t be photographed and then sold,” she said.
Sister Wiemers said consumers needed to be educated about buying authentic artwork. “I had an experience in Adelaide a few months back. There was a lot of Indigenous art but it was all made overseas,” she said. “I commented to the lady in the shop and said it would be really good if you bought original work.
“I don’t know why it is. I think non-Indigenous people do it out of a good intention because they like the work. But they forget that same principles apply to anything to do with Aboriginal people as they do to everybody else.”
Sister Wiemers said she would like to see Federal Government intervention on the issue. “I think it would be wonderful if the Government would step in and protect [the artwork],” she said. “This is part of our cultural heritage of this country. We’re very proud of this country. We are very proud of what Aboriginal people can produce but we fail to protect it.”
By Emma Haskin
19 Sep 2017