I was fortunate to visit Utopia on a recent trip up to Alice Springs. It was an absolutely gorgeous winter day; a bright blue sky and a breeze cool enough to soften the heat of the afternoon sun. I was excited to see all the old familiar faces I had worked with for many years.
Tim Jennings, owner of Mbantua Gallery, and I kicked the day off with a mid morning departure from Alice Springs and headed straight up to Arnkawenyerr, the northern most camp at Utopia that we would be visiting today - some 280km North East of Alice Springs. We discussed many things along the way - and more than once I expressed my nervousness that the artists might not remember me. It had been four years since I last visited Utopia after spending almost 10 years working for Mbantua Gallery. My fears were laid to rest after arriving at Arnkawenyerr (or Rocket Range Outstation) when the ladies waved and smiled at me and we shared many big long hugs.
Arriving into the camp, we pulled up to a shady central area between three houses. A large group of happy children of all ages were playing on the hill by the water tank - the one that looks like a rocket which the camp is nicknamed after. Curious to see us, they stopped playing and some came over to watch us with big smiles on their faces. Some others disappeared inside one of the houses, alerting the artists to our arrival. Tim is a regular out here and they know his car and what he's visiting for.
About ten minutes passed before Lucky Morton Kngwarrey and her sisters Sarah, Audrey and Hazel ambled over to us with their collection of newly finished paintings. Before long Katie Kemarre, Lily Lion, Michelle Lion and Janice Clarke Kngwarrey joined them. They're all one big family here.
The last time Tim was out here was over a month ago, meaning the ladies had a few paintings waiting for his collection - although sometimes artists bring in artworks in to the gallery in Alice Springs if they finish before his monthly visit. Today they had many smaller works and a few large pieces, particularly from Lily and Janice. Lily had a fantastic large Alhepalh painting (right) - Alhepalh is the Alyawarr word for one of the many acacia plants growing in this area. The ladies pointed one out in the distance. Women belonging to this country (Arnkawenyerr) own the Dreaming story of Alhepalh and so many paintings depict or feature this sacred plant in some way. Similarly, they own the story of Ilyarn another type of acacia which is hard for my eye to tell the difference - both in their paintings and the plant itself.
Lucky's mother Mary Morton showed up as I helped Tim give out new canvas and supplies and she sat on the ground on her own. She gave me by far the biggest reception and pulled me in for a big hug. She spoke excitedly in Alyawarr, and I didn't understand a word she said to me, but was thrilled to be seeing her again. After Tim finished purchasing the new artworks, we were told to see Kylie Kemarre in the house about 100 metres north. Daughter of Janice, and one of Mbantua's nurtured young artists, Kylie is a phenomenal dot painter but one whose work you seldom see - taking sometimes years to complete a large canvas. Her work is featured on some of the Utopia Giftware products which is possibly the closest way many of us can 'own' some of her art.
We walked along the concrete patio outside Kylie's home, through a gathering of fresh new faces, and into a dim living area that was empty except for a large unfinished painting rolled out onto the paint splattered tiles. It was incredible and in the style iconic to Kylie, looking almost exactly like the piece replicated on the giftware - fine dots in different colours fanning out from central points all over the canvas. It depicts the seed of Lyaw, a type of grass seed or pigsweed that was once collected and used for making damper (bread). It is mostly famously depicted in Barbara Weir's Grass Seed paintings, who shares the same Dreaming story.
Tim studied the painting for some time, as if he were visualising the journey this painting has been on. I was told it has been over 12 months since she embarked on this painting and Tim comes to see it's progress every time he is out here. Kylie stood to the side watching on expectantly, her hands covering her mouth trying to hide a proud but humble smile.
I decided to give them some space and went outside to introduce myself to the others. I was very excited to see Sabina Club, a girl I first gave canvas to when she was 13 years old - and she was now standing before me with her very own baby. I have since found a little article I wrote for the Mbantua Gallery newsletter in 2005 which recorded that very day I met Sabina (extract below). Today, she told me she has painted a little bit here and there over the years but now has her family keeping her busy. She lives with a great supportive group of artists here and no doubt we will see paintings from her in the future.
"At the end of the night, after the ladies had re-stocked their food supplies from the truck, Sabina, the young girl, came up to me again and asked me if I had any tiny (6”x6”) canvas left. I looked in my almost empty box and saw that I had one parcel left. I have no doubt that it was meant to be for her. I asked her a couple of questions. She told me she was 13 (has to be our youngest artist).
She was so sweet I couldn’t resist. I encouraged her to take her time with it and that I’d be out in two weeks to see what exciting things she had painted and to sit down with her and talk. The older ladies were standing next to her for support beaming huge smiles of pride for this young one. I cannot wait to see what she does."
Tim and Kylie emerged from the house bringing the painting with them so we could get some photos of Kylie with her painting, documenting the course of its creation. Pictured below, standing next to Kylie is Sabina Club and her baby.
We said our goodbyes and headed south to Arawerr, a bigger community with a dozen or so homes. We saw Loretta Jones Petyarr and a few other artists there and picked up a few beautiful paintings. Then onto Kurrajong camp, which I have rarely been too, to catch up with the 'Payne Mob'. Tim was particularly wanting to see Violet Payne Ngale there who he has been working closely with over the past year or more to develop her style and technique. She is a truly lovely natured woman, and one of the first things she said to me was 'I remember you' and gave me a big hug. Sometimes I still don't know if hugging is an appropriate greeting custom out here, but today was full of them. We got talking about her teaching - she has been involved in teaching at Utopia for many many years and told me about some of the excursions they have had with the kids. There was a gorgeous large piece we picked up from her (below). In the picture on the right is Violet's mother Doreen Payne Petyarr, daughter of Lena Pwerle who we were off to see next.
I was happy to know that the centre of Utopia - area surrounding Arlparra Store - now has 3G coverage and I admit to posting pics to social media from my phone just because I could! I even had artist Maggie Bird like my pics while out there. In the past the only method of contacting anyone on the outstations has been in person or by calling the local payphones hoping someone would make the walk over to the booth to answer. It still is like this with some of the camps further out but never the less it seems like it would be welcome technology for those who choose to use it.
Behind the Store, along a winding dirt track, is a very small camp with no housing. There is one long humpy made of brush, canvas and tin with some fridges and washing machines hooked up to extension cables extending all the way from the Store. Boss woman Lena Pwerle lives here and has done so for several years after moving from Mosquito Bore. She lives with fellow artist Jeannie Mills Pwerl who I was told was out hunting today. I am so fond of Lena Pwerle and it was my greatest desire to see her today. Lena has been instrumental over the years in helping us get women involved in gallery events and ceremonies for exhibitions. And we have spent many long days together; me helping her shop, watching her paint and listening to her singing and telling stories. The most vivid story I remember her telling me is of giving birth to one of her 7 children, out in the riverbed with no medicines - just nature. When a baby was born in the bush, it was custom for women to pour sand warmed by the fire over the mother's belly to ease the pain.
Lena also lives with her sister Rosie Pwerle, daughter Nora Petyarre, and Connie Petyarre whom were all there today too and happy to pose for a photo with me! Rosie also showed us some carvings and necklaces she had been working on which she had made because she 'had no canvas to work on' she said. Pictured are a pair of her music sticks.
Lena told us her brother Don Onion had been making a whole lot of boomerangs recently. He is living at Mosquito Bore up north and Tim was keen to see what he had been making, so we headed back the way we came and across to Mosquito Bore, one of the main communities on Ahalpere country. Unfortunately when we got there 20 minutes later Don Onion told us he had not in fact been making any 'because it's been a cold winter'. Alas, we headed back empty handed.
Our last stop of the day was Camel Camp where Angelina Ngale (Pwerle), Glady Kemarre, Polly Ngale and Kathleen Ngale, a few well known artists, reside. Angelina had one small painting finished and that was it. Tim spoke with Elizabeth Mpetyane to discuss a large painting by her he wanted to commission and then we said goodbye and were homeward bound, back just on sunset - a safe and successful trip.