Utopia's history is often referenced in artist biographies and other articles, for instance noting it's early batik-making days. But what do you actually know about it?
Starting with its geography, Utopia is situated some 250km north east of Alice Springs in Central Australia. It is known as a region, today consisting of a dozen outstations and camps spread over approx. 1000 square kilometres of land. Several Aboriginal countries belonging to Alyawarr and Anmatyerre people dissect this land, including Ahalpere, Ngkwarlerlanem & Arnkawenyerr, Irrwelty, Ilkawerne, Alhalkere, Atnangkere and Arawerr.
The vast majority of this land was leased by German settlers in 1927 who set up a station and homestead; calling it Utopia due to the abundance of tame wild rabbits they found and could easily catch by hand. This portion of land is called Urapuntja by the Aboriginal people.
Over the subsequent decades, Aboriginal owners were forced to move away from their countries and closer to the various homesteads that were built. Many Aboriginal men worked as stockmen and Aboriginal women as domestic labour on the stations in exchange for food and clothing. Horses and cattle that were introduced depleted the abundance of natural resources on the land and native wildlife became scarce. Utopia was no longer the lush desert landscape with plentiful food sources for the Aboriginal people it once was.
First Art Program
In 1977 a series of government sponsored workshops, facilitated by Jenny Green, were brought to Utopia to teach the Aboriginal women the art of batik. Batik is traditionally a women's art form in other countries, and is a method of decorating cloth by applying designs in hot wax to the fabric followed by dyes. The process may be repeated several times before removing the wax in boiling water.
These early batik workshops marked the emergence of Aboriginal women artists across the Central Desert. Up to this time women had only been known to assist men in the completion of their paintings but were rarely permitted to paint their own canvas.
The following year the Utopia Women's Batik Group was formed, led by art Julia Murray who helped draw attention to the group through various exhibitions. Museum Victoria was the first cultural institution in Australia to collect the Utopia batiks and in 1980 the first exhibition was held in Alice Springs.
The group consisted of all females except for one male, Lindsay Bird Mpetyane. Some of the original female members include Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Lena Pwerle and the Petyarre Sisters: Kathleen, Violet, Gloria, Nancy, Myrtle and Ada.
From the outset their works reflected the daily interaction with their environment including much flora and fauna such as local leaves, flowers, seeds and grasses; designs that could be translated easily with melted wax.
Returned ownership of land
Enough money was raised through the sale of the early batik artworks to assist with the Anmatyerre and Alyawarr people's successful claim for freehold title of the Utopia Pastoral Lease in 1979; returning ownership to its traditional inhabitants.
The title was won after a series of hearings in which Utopia women presented the greater part of their claim through Awelye (Women's Ceremony) as evidence of their ownership of country; performing dances, displaying ritual objects and painting their body paint designs.
Summer Project 1988/9
In 1988 the Utopia Women's Batik Group was commissioned to produce the opening exhibition for the Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide. Titled Utopia - A Picture Story, it consisted of 88 batiks and toured internationally before the works were purchased by the Holmes à Court Collection in Perth.
Many of the Utopia artist travelled with the exhibition, venturing interstate and across international borders for the very first time.
Not long after this, the Holmes à Court Collection paired with the new art coordinator of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) to begin a project to introduce the Utopia Women's Batik Group to painting. It was called the ‘Summer Project 1988/9’.
Disbandment of management
In 1991 CAAMA ceased its managing and support role, and since then the artists of Utopia have mainly made their own arrangements to sell their work through a network of dealers and representatives. There is no community owned or controlled art centre in the way that there is in many other central and northern Australian communities. That they have forged a strong reputation and maintained continuous work while working primarily as independent artists, without assistance from a permanent art centre, is a testimony to their collective ability to negotiate across a wide range of cultural and artistic relationships.
Utopia’s longstanding status, both nationally and internationally, as a vibrant art making community has rested greatly on the strength and creativity of its women. Re-affirming their Dreaming heritage and consolidating an identity deeply rooted in relationship to their country strengthened the whole community, determining a continuing central role for women in its uniquely autonomous management. This history is reflected in the diversity and dynamism of the Utopia paintings which capture the energy of the land and communicate an underlying and vibrant spirituality.
German settlers name the area Utopia.
Aboriginal land rights are granted in the Northern Territory.
Batik-making is introduced to women in Utopia as part of an extended government-funded education program.
Utopia Women's Batik Group is formed.
Utopia women involved in the Utopia land claim perform an Awelye ceremony before a bush hearing of the Land Claim Tribunal, demonstrating the powerful nature of art as evidence for showing connection to Country. The Anmatyerre and Alyawarr peoples gain freehold title to the Utopia Pastoral Lease under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) with the Utopia Women's Batik Group, called Utopia — A Picture Story. The 88 silk batiks are acquired by the Holmes à Court Collection in Perth.
The CAAMA shop, based in Alice Springs, initiates a project introducing the Utopia Women's Batik Group to painting on canvas with acrylic paints.