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Asia TOPA: Woven Song

by Heather Leviston

Friday afternoon traffic and inclement weather might have caused some VIPs to arrive late, but it didn’t put a dampener on the Australian launch of Deborah Cheetham’s Woven Song. Part of Asia TOPA, it also involved further collaborations between the Australian Tapestry Workshop (ATW), Short Black Opera and one of Australia’s leading couturiers, Linda Britten. Comprising the first three songs of what was planned as a song cycle of nine, each with an approximate duration of nine minutes, the performance was held in the workroom of the ATW, against a backdrop of an unexpected tenth tapestry destined for the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. The setting could not have been more appropriate.

The Embassy Tapestries contain layers of significance beyond their vibrant beauty and artistic genius; Singapore, New Delhi, Tokyo, Beijing, Washington DC, Paris, Rome, Dublin and The Holy See have all been loaned a work that proclaims a deep connection with how Australia sees itself as a nation. The same could be said of Cheetham’s songs, which have been premiered in the first three embassies. These performances included local artists, and we were privileged to hear a key member for each song on this occasion. Cheetham had woven these significant threads into what she later referred to as “cultural diplomacy”.

It has become customary to acknowledge the original custodians of the land on which an event is being held and elders past, present and emerging, but the opening remarks by the ATW’s Director, Antonia Syme, held special resonance given the nature of the event. She established the focus of the evening with her special welcome to Janet Galpin, who spoke about the land of the Boon Wurrung, (part of the Greater Kulin Nation), and the importance of a Treaty, truth telling and coming together with a purpose. The formal exchange of greetings between Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham and Boon Wurrung woman Janet Galpin as representatives of their people reinforced the ceremonial nature of the occasion as artistic cultures were interwoven.

All three songs involved powerful truth telling, but the first was the most confronting both in terms of the music and the visual image of the same name that inspired it. The impetus for Catching Breath, designed by Brook Andrew and woven at the ATW in 2015, was a black and white photograph from his archive that showed an Aboriginal warrior looking through two small eyeholes in a piece of fabric covering his head. The warrior has been given no name and it was this anonymity, where a person becomes “other”, that Cheetham’s work dramatises in insistent, declamatory repetitions of “My name. My name.”. The warrior demands that his name be spoken via the voices of an SATB quartet, including mezzo-soprano Angela Cortez, who flew from Singapore for the occasion. A piano quintet mirrors the demand; often in canon, it seemed to echo down the ages. Towards the end of this lament for a loss of identity, he is accorded the name Gumbaynggirr Anaiwan, after the clans where the original photograph was taken. The piece ends with a combined exhalation of breath on “Sha”.

The New Delhi tapestry, designed by Nanyuma Napangati and woven at the ATW in 2007, is based on Untitled (detail from Kiwirrkurra women’s painting) and been given the title Article 27 by Cheetham. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the notion that everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefit. The UDHR is the world’s most translated document and it was the translation into Napangati’s Pintupi language that provides the text for Cheetham’s musical response. The words are particularly pertinent as her sale of the painting raised enough money to buy two kidney dialysis machines for Napangati’s community. Scored for flutes, clarinets, percussion, piano and soprano, it featured master tabla player Pandit Ashis Sengupta. Article 27 is a work fusing a musical vocabulary that reflects Cheetham’s passion for operatic masterpieces from the more recent centuries with music from ancient cultures. It is at once intense and melodious while employing subtle textures.

The final song, My Mother’s Country is a response to Daisy Andrews’ splendid Lumpu Lumpu Country tapestry, woven at the ATW in 2004 and now gracing the Australian Embassy in Tokyo. Behind the vibrant colours of an enchanted landscape, however, is a story of dispossession and trauma. As a member of the stolen generations, Cheetham conveys her experience in lyrics that simply and eloquently tell the truth of what it is to lose something fundamental, in conjunction with a longing for reconnection. The music begins with a soft held note from the violin and is gradually joined by shakuhachi, clarinet, piano and soprano. The ebb and flow of yearning and pain was captured in the most extraordinary way by Reison Kuroda’s shakuhachi. To say that he had an uncanny way of mimicking Cheetham’s voice does not do anything like justice to his skill; it is more a case of his being at one with the singer – he becomes an extension of her voice. The considered playing by members of Plexus added to the magic. It was the perfect way to end the evening, a fact that did not escape Cheetham.

Before the final song she spoke about her collaboration with Linda Britten, who created couture gowns inspired by each artwork/tapestry for her to wear. In terms of their sensitivity to the works that inspired them, the ingenuity of the design and the fine detail of their execution, they are exemplary works of art in their own right. Given that the gowns were best displayed in conjunction with true-to-scale prints of the tapestries and elements of the design processes in an adjoining room, rather than necessitating an impractical quick change between items, Britten found the perfect alternative to clothe her singer: a dark skirt and a beautifully sculpted top of midnight blue that glinted as the light caught the pattern of tiny smooth squares. It was an ingenious fusion of concert black and diva glamour within the white-walled multicoloured setting.

Next year we can look forward to all ten works being performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Meanwhile, Cheetham will continue to compose and perform the remaining works around the world. The vital nature of the undertaking combined with the excellence of performance on her part and that of her associate artists of various kinds have resulted in a significant achievement. Just as Cheetham had hoped, this initiative in cultural diplomacy reflects a significant step in the maturity of Australian society.

Image courtesy of the Australian Tapestry Workshop


Heather Leviston attended Woven Song Australian Launch, presented by the Australian Tapestry Workshop and Short Black Opera at the Australian Tapestry Workshop on February 14, 2020.

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