Words by Stephanie Eslake, 2022
Have you ever experienced a work of art that ‘immediately commands your attention and demands a response’? These are the words Deborah Cheetham AO uses to describes Catching Breath – a tapestry based on the work of Wiradjuri artist Brook Andrew. It depicts an ‘Aboriginal warrior standing proud and erect, the scarification of his initiation visible on his chest, but his face masked in a sheet of cloth punctuated by two eyeholes’ she says.
Deborah feels this is the most engrossing piece in Embassy Tapestries – an Australian Tapestry Workshop collection that inspired the Yorta Yorta woman and composer to write a new chamber music suite.
“My composition is built on the repetition of a single theme demanding that we reject the practice of the undifferentiated other, and speak the Warrior’s name,” Deborah says of her Catching Breath-inspired piece.
“In the absence of his actual name, the work ends with a chorale celebrating the lands from which he most likely descended, the Gumbaynggirr and Anaiwan people of the Armadale region of New South Wales.
“In this way, I can pay my respects to this unknown Warrior who continues to leave an indelible impression upon all who dare to meet his gaze.”
It’s just one story from Woven Song – Deborah’s cross-culture collaboration translating the tapestries into music. It will be performed at Melbourne Recital Centre, highlighting solo musicians Deborah (soprano), Mindy Meng Wang (guzheng), and Reison Kuroda (shakuhachi), alongside a group of Victoria’s foremost orchestral and chamber artists.
Deborah was first moved by the Australian Tapestry Workshop’s visual art in 2017 after attending its 40-year celebrations.
“I was instantly drawn to the remarkable practices and artistry of the weavers, the tapestries themselves, and the way in which these three-dimensional works are able to amplify culture and art,” Deborah recalls. When she later observed the Embassy Tapestry collection, she formed a deep personal connection to each hand-woven work.
“There is narrative and song embedded in each tapestry,” Deborah says.
“In the Woven Song series, I am representing the cultures and languages of nine Indigenous nations, and so there is a true multicultural dimension to this work from the perspective of Indigenous cultures, art, language, and ways of knowing and being.”
Alongside Catching Breath, Deborah believes one of the most resonant First Nations stories in the Embassy Collection is about dislocation.
“My Mother’s Country is a response to the tapestry based on the Daisy Andrews (Walmajarri) painting Lumpu Lumpu country. She has painted her ancestral home from dreams and stories told her by her mother, having been dispossessed of this land, and her grandparents’ generation murdered.
“The painting is full of beauty and loving memory. Not instantly recognisable is this brutal history of dispossession and dislocation. This juxtaposition of emotions runs deep in my compositional response.”
The tapestry that depicts Daisy Andrews’ painting currently resides in the Australian Embassy in Tokyo; each piece from the collection is loaned to Australian Diplomatic Missions across the world. Featured in the Melbourne Recital Centre event will be musicians local to these countries, including India, France, China, Singapore, Ireland, and Japan.
“Music is a universal language and the process of collaboration with musicians from other countries is a richly rewarding one.
“The Woven Song experience is steeped in the language, story, and art of some of our most celebrated Indigenous artists accompanied by 20 of Victoria’s finest musicians from Plexus Collective, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Rubiks Collective, Orchestra Victoria, Ensemble Dutala, and Short Black Opera.”
Short Black Opera – Woven Song will take place at 7.30pm November 2 in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre.