In the mid 70s when the pastoral lease of Utopia, Central Australia became an Aboriginal freehold property the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr people moved from the surrounding pastoral stations to settle in camps on the north western part of Utopia.
The Aboriginal art movement began on Utopia around this time with the introduction of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. The women were initially taught tie-dying and batiking T-shirts before venturing into the silk medium. This was the beginning of an extraordinary artistic community and the emergence of its star – Emily Kame Kngwarreye who has since been acclaimed as the most important Aboriginal artists of her generation:
An extract from Utopia, Ancient Cultures New Forms:
‘There is genius in every community- people who are attentive to life. This knowledge resonates in their bodies and their minds. Emily Kame Kngwarreye was such a person. Her work reflected such a status. “Whole lot…” was her oft-repeated phrase as she defined in shorthand the great subject of her work – her country (Alhalkere) and all that it contained, all it was and all the forces that had formed it. Through her paintings she educated people across Australia about Alhalkere and conveyed her commitment and passion for this land that had made her.’ Christopher Hodges
The first major community project initiated by Rodney Gooch Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) resulted in an exhibition of 88 batiks, up to three metres in length which was acquired by the Robert Holmes a Court Collection in 1988.
This collection of batiks entitled Utopia – A Picture Story received considerable international exposure and was effective in enriching our understanding of Aboriginal culture.
The second project initiated by CAAMA in 1988-9 was the women’s first experience in painting on canvas. One hundred uniformly sized canvases were stretched, primed and distributed to the artists. Of the eighty artists who were involved in this project, the majority worked in the traditional colours of black, white, ochre and red. They produced an extraordinary body of work entitled – Utopia Women’s Paintings – the First Works on Canvas – A Summer Project 1988-9 which was exhibited at the S.H. Erwin Gallery in Sydney and Orange Grove Regional Gallery, NSW, Australia. Further projects initiated by Rodney Gooch and CAAMA included The Body Paint – Awelye – collection, The Watercolour Collection, 1989, the CAAMA/Utopia Artists-in-Residence Project Louie Pwerle and Emily Kame Kngwarreye 1989-90 and One Dreaming (Yam Story) in 1992.
Thus the artists had made the transition from batik to acrylic on canvas and linen and Utopian art was launched onto the international stage.
The demand for paintings from the artists of Utopia continues and artists have exhibited throughout Europe including France, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, England, Italy, Japan and U.S.A. Many of the artists are represented in public and private collections throughout Australia, Europe, USA and Asia.
Iconography in desert art
A Dreaming name denotes a Dreamtime being, a site associated with that Dreaming and the country surrounding that site. Woodrow W. Denham, Alyawarre Ethnographic Archive
Aboriginal art depicts the Dreaming of their Ancestors. The artist paints the journeys, actions, sacred objects, designs and sites associated with their Ancestors.
The artists use abstract iconography and imagery to depict the sacred ceremony or the site pertaining to that dreaming.
Widely used imagery includes for example, concentric circles usually represent a group of people or site or place, a campsite or a water/rockhole. These are places of great significance. The u-shapes can represent the sitting figure and the indentation they leave with their haunches. Tracks of the Ancestral beings and animals are represented by meandering or straight lines and dots. Arcs can represent boomerangs. Short straight lines represent digging sticks or clapping sticks and spears. A morass of dots can represent the topography of the artist’s country or homeland.
The paintings refer to the sacred sites where the Dreaming occurs and where the power is still all pervasive. The symbols or signs denote places and sites or the tracks and pathways of the Ancestor. The Dreamings, often painted from an aerial perspective are abstract in form and lend themselves to various interpretations – the sacred and the public.
There are several theories on the origination of the dot-style of painting. One theory is that they imitate the markings for the ground ceremonial paintings. These ephemeral works are fashioned out of daubed dots of ochres and bird down and other materials. Spinifex, bushes, shrubs and other clumped grasses form a dot-like pattern across the desert landscape resulting in a dotted landscape when viewed from above. The Aboriginal views his country – his ancestral sites – from this aerial perspective.