Artists of Utopia
Utopia artists from central Australia represent a diverse and innovative group within Aboriginal art with styles that range from expressive to highly detailed dotting.
The large group of artists that work on the Utopia Homelands, located 270 km north-east of Alice Springs in the Eastern Desert, represent a diversity of style and technique, that remains unique in the world of Australian Aboriginal art.
The people at Utopia are the Eastern Anmatyarre and Alyawarre language groups, who had lived and worked on the cattle stations on their lands since white settlement in 1927. The area, occupying 1800 square kilometres of desert country, was the ancestral country of their forebears, where the family clans had occupied for millennia.
One of the founding influences was the preparation done with the women artists at a time when the people were in the process of applying for freehold tenure and control of their traditional lands. In 1978 educators Toly Sawkeno and Jenny Green created the Batik Project, to teach local women craft skills that could provide income for the group and demonstrate commercial initiative that might support the upcoming land claim.
The artists lived in a number of outstations across the Utopia Homelands, based on family clan groups who chose to live in specific locations. They came together in force to support the batik initiative, and soon established a reputation for creating beautiful silk batiks that represented the vital stories of their lands. In 1981 the artists were featured at the Adelaide Art Festival, in an exhibition titled ‘Floating Forests of Silk: Utopia Batik from the Desert’.
The Batik Project produced many skilled artists who shared family group designs and technical skills while developing their own special approach to their art. The next step was to occur in 1988-89 when the artists made their first paintings on canvas and exhibited them in the Sydney exhibition ‘The Summer Project: Utopia Women’s Paintings’ at the S.H. Ervin Gallery. Although smaller scale works and limited to four basic colours – black, white, yellow ochre and red ochre – the exhibition established the artists on a remarkable path to artistic success.
Pre-eminent amongst the group was Emily Kame Kngwarreye who established new possibilities for contemporary Aboriginal painting. By deconstructing the layering technique used in batik, the artists began to use elements of the total designs to create new images and art styles. Others artists established their own styles including Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Nancy Petyarre, Ada Bird, Barbara Weir, Greenie Purvis and Kudditji Kngwarreye.
Their legacy was to create an openness of style and approach that allowed hundreds of other artists from the Utopia clan groups to expand on their artistic work in a multi-generational art movement that has maintained its energy and diversity.
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