Breathing Colours Gallery wishes to acknowledge Mbantua Gallery in Alice Springs for allowing us to use their background information on Utopia, Barbara Weir and Minnie Pwerle. Mbantua’s information is based on sound research and experience and Breathing Colours is grateful for their assistance.
Utopia was named by German settlers in the early 1920’s. Utopia is a region covering approximately 5,000 square kilometres of land north east of Alice Springs. Much of the land lies on aboriginal owned land called Urapuntja. Utopia has several large and several small communities and Utopia is home to around 2,000 aboriginal people. The majority of aboriginal people in Utopia speak very little English. The two main languages spoken in the area are Alyawarr and Anmatyerre.
Although some employment opportunities are available in clinics, schools, CDEP and stations needing stockman the area is generally lacking employment opportunities. The creation of works of art is by far the largest source of employment. Although most of the artists have not had the opportunity to study art, most of the paintings focus on subjects related to their culture; a dreamtime story that is enhanced by a full spectrum of colours and artistic designs, or body paint designs that could be the world’s oldest living art form.
Central Australia is a rich source of coloured ochre which is crushed and mixed with animal fats or blood as a binder for paint. In addition, inspiration is abundant in Utopia, for example, springtime is sensational in Utopia and sunsets are always spectacular.
Sports are very popular and the people love to support their communities although facilities are generally lacking. To support the communities Mbantua Gallery sponsors the Mulga Bore Magpies football team and funds uniforms and equipment.
It was in the late 1980s that the Aboriginal people of Utopia started to put acrylic paint on canvas. This followed a very successful decade of working with batik, which was several years after the Papunya art movement began. It was this period which put Utopia on the map.
Initially the Utopia artists were quite formal in their painting, that is to say that most work was done with fairly large dot or linear work. The style and most of the symbols clearly showed a cultural story, whether in regard to ancestral Dreaming or Bush Tucker. It didn’t take long before the artists became bolder in style, colours and flair. This is what the art of Utopia is renowned for to this day. Utopia women, in particular, are known as the leaders in female aboriginal art. They are recognised for their colourful contemporary appeal. This resulted in an even deeper and broader interest in aboriginal art throughout Australia and the world.
A number of artists, for example, Emily Kame KIngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre and Ada Bird started producing distinctly unique work. Their creativity and genius caught everyone by surprise. The art continued to evolve, more colour was introduced, more abstract work developed and more storylines such as camp scenes emerged. However, the underlying cultural meaning was always retained. Artists such as Barbara Weir, Greeny Purvis, Nancy Kunoth, Angelina Pwerle and Violet Petyarre began to be noticed. Today, there are well over 250 professional artists in the region and all produce significant work.
Aboriginal Culture and Ceremonies
Within traditional Aboriginal Culture, ceremonies are held for many occasions and reasons. These include mythological (Dreamtime) stories outside of initiation and within secret events at sacred sites, gatherings, home comings, births and deaths.
“(Ceremonies) are extremely important, apart from their meaningful significance, because they are always of a highly emotional nature, which are closely entwined with the beliefs, social behaviour and life of the tribes. The contemplation of the heroes and ancestors of the past through the chanting of myths and the handling of sacred symbols such as churinga’s, the frequent self-infliction of bodily pain, the dancing and the tense atmosphere in which the main act occurs, all work on the emotions, and at the same time cause all present to feel themselves as one. They are with and part of the super ancestors of the Dreamtime.” (Professor A.P. Elkin, The Australian Aborigines, 1938)
In Utopia Art, one of the most common subjects is Awelye- (Anmatyerre spelling or Awely- Alyawarr spelling). Awelye is a word that describes everything to do with a women’s ceremony which includes the body paint designs. Women perform Awelye ceremonies to demonstrate respect for their country including Dreamtime stories that belong there and the total well-being and health of their community.
The body paint designs are painted onto the chest, arms and thighs. Powders ground from the ochres (clays), charcoal and ash are used as body paint and applied with a flat stick with soft padding. They call this stick ‘typale’. Within the Aboriginal culture the women sing the songs associated with their awelye as each woman takes her turn to be ‘painted up’. Every Aboriginal woman can paint her designs on canvas and when one imagines that these designs have been applied to women’s bodies for over 40,000 years (the Australian Aboriginal culture has been dated over 40,000 years old and is known as the world’s oldest living culture) then it may very well be the oldest living art form in the world. Awelye still continues to this day.
Aboriginal Culture in Australia, otherwise known as the Aboriginal Dreamtime, is a rich and complex culture and brought about by an intimate knowledge of the environment. There are four links to the Dreamtime: Mythology, Initiation, Ceremonies and Sacred Sites.
The majority of mythology is based on what Aboriginal people believed were true historical acts done by their ancestors. It provides an explanation of the origin of natural phenomena, objects, species, institutions and customs. It can also reveal things that are happening or are about to happen.
Aboriginal Dreamtime stories (or Dreamings) are stories that have been passed down orally or with non-permanent materials that belong to the mythology of the Dreamtime for Aboriginal people. Generally speaking an aboriginal’s language, skin name and country they belong to are heavily dependent on their father’s particulars. So for the majority, the father’s country is now their country too.
There are several different countries (not to be confused with communities) in the greater Utopia area. Some include Ilkawerne, Alhalkere, Atnangkere, and Ahalpere. Dreamtime stories are said to belong to each country. There are many stories, some major and some minor. Some are connected with other countries where different parts of the story belong to different counties—a beginning or an end perhaps… The Dreaming or Mythological stories don’t cover everything but usually those things that affect society for good or bad eg: edible food, fire, wind, rain, material things such as spears and axes and man’s origin, life and death.
Aboriginal artists paint Dreamtime stories that, for many reasons, we may not know about or understand. There may be no more than a brief introduction or in some cases a title.
Dreamtime Story 1 – Anwekety
Anwekety is the Anmatyerre (a-mud-ger-a) word for the conkerberry (or conkleberry), a sweet black berry that is favoured by desert aboriginals. They only grow on the plant, (Carissa Lanceolata) for a few weeks of the year. The orange inner bark from the roots can be soaked in water and the solution can be used as a medicinal wash particularly for skin and eye conditions. The thorns on the bush can be used to cure warts. The fruit looks very similar to a plum, which is why it is sometimes referred to in English as ‘bush plum’
Dreamtime Story 2 –Kame
The seed of the atnwelarr (pencil yam) found in Central Australia is the subject of many Utopia paintings. Its Dreamtime story belongs predominantly to Alhalkere country. The pencil yam plant is a trailing herb or creeper with bright green leaves, yellow flowers and long skinny yams (swollen roots). These are an important food source which can be eaten raw or cooked in hot sand and ashes.
In the Dreamtime there are two parts of the Kame story. Two different seeds were born long ago that are created two different species of pencil yams, one that belongs predominantly to Alhalkere country and is called Atnwelarr, the other that belongs to Arnurmarra country is called Arlatyeye. The Kame story is a very important Dreamtime story for the people of Alhalkere country and ceremonies are performed to ensure its productivity as a food source and life form of the ancestors.
One of the most famous Australian Aboriginal artists is Emily Kame Kingwarreye. Emily’s bush name was ‘Kame’ but later in life she adopted ‘Emily’ as her first name.
Dreamtime Story 3 – Alpar (Rat-tail Plant)
Alpar is the Anmatyerre word for the rat-tail goosefoot or green crumbweed plant. This small, erect herb is sticky to touch and scented heavily of citrus. The story of the Alpar seed is often the subject of Utopia paintings by the women of llkawerne country. In the olden days, the women of llkawerne country would collect these seeds, sometimes soak them in water until swollen, cooked in hot coals, then grind them into a powder that was used for making damper bread. This practice is not as habitual now due to ready-made bread, however the story is continually taught to the younger ones and ceremonies are carried out to ensure its productivity.
Dreamtime Story 4 – Awelye – Women’s Ceremony
Women paint the designs associated with their Dreaming stories onto their chest, breasts, arms and thighs. Powders ground from ochre (clays), charcoal and ash are used as body paint and applied with a flat stick. The women sing the songs of their Dreaming as each one takes her turn to be ‘painted-up’.
Lack of water is rarely a serious problem in the central Desert. Its occurrence is known and understood only by the people who have been born there and can draw on traditional knowledge about the behaviour of soakage and other sources of supply especially under conditions of severe drought. Water soakage is important in Aboriginal mythology. All sources of water are associated with Dreaming stories.
Dreamtime Story 5 – Mountain Devil Lizard – Arnkerrthe
In the Dreamtime this quiet, gentle and unique creature travelled to the north as far as Waramungu country near Tennant Creek. As he travelled, Arnkerrthe formed the wide red sand hills that form part of the desert landscape. The small sac on the back of his neck carried the sacred ochre (clay) for Awelye – women’s ceremony.
Awelye Ceremony – Aboriginal Culture
The Awelye Ceremony has been a part of aboriginal culture for a long time. Utopia artists Queenie Lion Kemarre and Mary Morton Kemarre asked if they could perform an Awelye ceremony in Mbantua Gallery to coincide with an opening of their exhibition of artwork. An inside area of Mbantua Gallery was set up and Mary’s daughter, Lucky Morton Kngwarreye, and Mary’s sister, Katie Kemarre, were assigned the task of painting Mary and Queenie’s bodies. The upper bodies were first covered in vegetable oil to protect the skin from the acrylic paint that was to be used. The white paint was applied first with a paintbrush and the red ochre coloured paint was applied next. For some ceremonies acrylics are used for paint, but for many, particularly the very important ones, natural mediums are still used. As the white paint was applied Mary and Queenie sang a song for the white paint, and the same for the red ochre paint as it was applied. There is much significance in just painting each colour onto their bodies and it puts into perspective the importance of the body paint designs in their artworks.
Queenie belongs to Atnwengerrp country and the red ochre and white are her true colours. Mary’s country is Antarrengeny but she shares in Atnwengerrp country and so is able to perform this ceremony.