Art from Utopia fascinates collectors world wide. Utopia is actually a 2000 square kilometre area covering 6 “countries”, Alhalpere, Rreltye, Thelye, Atarrkete and Ingutanka. Each has a distinct language and cultural practices associated with it. The western edge is roughly 250km north-east of Alice Springs. There is a good description and map at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. About 120 artists are painting in the area and deal with independent dealers.
The birth of art on canvas had a very different trajectory in this area than in other communities in the desert. In the early 1970’s there were several projects run in the community, encouraging would be artists to learn the art of batik. The result was a series of work that traveled all over the world with major exhibitions in the US, UK and Europe. The technique requires boiling of cloth and dye, a smelly and heavy process not well suited to the desert conditions.
After the rise to prominence of the western desert artists painting with acrylics on canvas many of the artists felt they could tell their stories in this medium more easily and with a greater range of colours.
Many of the stories now painted on canvas are visual representations of generations of oral history used to communicate knowledge. Sometimes these would be accompanied by a ceremony where dance, inscriptions in the sand or body paint associated with the story would be used. These were and are used as guiding principles for land care and how to live with in the rules of the community.
Artists such as Emily Kngwarreye, Kathleen Petyarre, Ms Petyarre and Minnie Pwerle painted stunning representations of the bush medicine stories and associated body paint. They developed unique, vibrant colour palates that filled the canvas.
Ms Petyarre’s paintings feature the mulga leaf while Minnie Pwerle’s paintings have the bush melon or the designs painted on women’s bodies for the ceremony. Kathleen Petyarre’s mountain devil lizard paintings feature both the tracks that the little lizard makes on the sand and the paths women take while collecting food and supplies for medicine.
Senior male artists such as Lindsay Bird and Greeney Purvis kept to more rigid and geometric designs and a more earthy palate.
The paintings are aerial view of the land and and so are able to be hung in any format on the wall. The subjects of the painting are often painted from the middle of the canvas, working outwards towards the edges, creating paintings that make sense to the viewer no matter which way they are installed.