A brief history of Utopia

Utopia is located 270km northeast of Alice Springs on the eastern perimeter of the Western Desert ‘bloc’ next to the traditional land of the Eastern Anmatyarre and Alyawarre people. It was named by the first white settlers in 1927 and occupies 1800 square kilometers of desert country. Today it is home to about 900 mainly indigenous Australians, who live in a series of small outstations.  It has an arid climate with low rainfall and long hot summers with maximum temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius. The winter nights are cold with frost occurring from late May to early September.

The change of seasons, Spring and Autumn are virtually non-existent, and are only marked by the appearance of wildflowers and fruits, amongst the spinifex and bush scrub.

When ‘white man’ first settled in Utopia, the Aboriginal people were forced to move away from their clan lands and ceremonial sites, and instead lived in the vicinity of the various homesteads. Many Aboriginal men worked as stockmen and Aboriginal women as domestic help in exchange for rations of foodstuffs and second hand clothing. They provided a cheap but necessary labor. It wasn’t until 1967, that legislation was passed allowing Aborigines to be paid as much as their white counterparts.

In 1979 a successful land claim hearing resulted in the community gaining permanent legal title to the leasehold, and it was the Utopia women that played a key role. In late 1977, the technique of making batik was introduced to the women of Utopia by Suzie Bryce and Pitjantjatjara woman Yipati Williams, who together conducted a brief workshop. The community embraced the technique and the project was a great success.

In 1978 the women learned more about the process of making batik from the schoolteacher, Toly Sawkeno, initated by the adult educator at Utopia, Jenny Green who helped with the formation and organization of the Utopia Women’s Batik group. The Batik project was to enable the women to establish a source of income in preparation for the land claim hearing. By being able to demonstrate the economic viability of the outstations through their batik, the women were justifying their legal and moral right to their land.

The Utopia batiks were immediately distinct and featured a rawness and vitality that was a product from both the camp conditions and the women’s attitude to the project. They soon captured the eyes of various art dealers, and in 1981 Utopia batiks were shown at the Adelaide Art Festival in a major exhibition entitled Floating Forests of Silk: Utopia Batik from the Desert.

In 1987 CAAMA (The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) took over the running and finances of the Utopia artists and in 1988 commissioned a number of batiks. Eighty-eight batiks were presented which then served as the opening exhibition at the new Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide in October 1988. The exhibition later toured to Ireland, after which it    was purchased by the Robert Holmes à Court Collection.

In the summer of 1988-1989 the medium of acrylic paint on canvas was introduced to the artists of Utopia, by Rodney Gooch, representing the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). An exhibition entitled A Summer Project: Utopia Women’s Paintings: The First Works on Canvas was immediately curated for a public art museums tour. It consisted of one hundred small canvases of all the same size and used the four fundamental ceremonial colours of black, white, and yellow and red ochre. The inaugural exhibition was held at the S.H Ervin Gallery in Sydney and immediately brought
public attention to the inherent artistic talent of the Utopia artists. This special exhibition was received with acclaim for its complete tour and in retrospect is a landmark exhibition in Australian art history.

The introduction and availability of artists’ quality acrylic paint and linen canvas enabled the artists of Utopia to produce works that were even more distinctive than their batiks. This new medium saw the rise of the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who paved the way for a freer, fresher and very vibrant contemporary art form, unique to the women’s paintings of Utopia. Others followed suit, such as Ada Bird Petyarre, Gloria Tamarre Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Nancy Petyarre and Barbara Weir, in particular. They are the visual groundbreaking artists whose contribution to contemporary abstraction in Australian Indigenous art is now published and officially acknowledged.  

In 1999, Utopia once again produced a great artist, Minnie Pwerle (Barbara Weir’s mother, (c. 1922-2006), who like Emily, was able to translate in paint her instinctive and gestural markings of ceremonial body paint designs, campsites and dance tracks with a linear finesse, sublime and simultaneously powerful with its sense of spirituality and cultural connection. In 2004 Minnie’s sisters, Molly Pwerle, Emily Pwerle and Galya Pwerle picked up the brush with encouragement from their niece, Barbara Weir and grand-nephew, Fred Torres, and painted their first works in a family workshop which has subsequently triggered another exciting oeuvre in abstract expressionism, this time in the far northeast corner of Utopia at Irrultja, near the Pwerle sisters ancestral country of Atnwengerrp.

This latest chapter in the Women’s painting movement of Utopia confirms without doubt the unlimited ability and extraordinary artistic originality of
Utopia’s artists. Senior law women in their community, the Pwerle sisters are committed to keeping their culture alive and healthy, by ensuring their future generations understand the importance of going through ceremony and maintaining the Dreamings they inherit, physically and spiritually.  Their paintings continue to amaze art critics, curators and collectors, nationally and internationally

To this date, Utopia paintings are highly recognized and sought after and continue to grow in richness and variety.

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