I spent my birthday this year retracing my old bush trip tracks to Utopia, visiting the artists there. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day.
It had been 2 years since I visited Utopia, but this time I was doing the driving without a navigator. I was given a hand sketched road map by someone who knew the roads well. The last time I had done the driving without a navigator here was when I lived in Alice Springs 6 years ago [read about the trip].
There are a lot of roads and tracks in this region; some leading nowhere or to abandoned camps, others to homesteads, camps, sacred sites or far out to other regions. My little map detailed how many approx kilometers between turn offs to remind me, and I needed it!
The map also penciled out road conditions from the previous month which was helpful. Overall; poor conditions.
The main road we were on is called the Sandover Highway. Perhaps aptly named – being a long, dirt highway - it is named after the Sandover River, a dry river bed which winds its way north through the eastern deserts.
The highway provides access to a dozen remote Aboriginal outstations in Utopia that flank a 100km plus stretch of the river.
Distracted by road works on a large stretch of highway in the south, I missed the turn off to Camel Camp which was supposed to be our first stop. Angelina Ngale lives there and had been calling non stop the week prior inquiring on our next visit and urging us out.
I decided to continue north for thirty minutes before taking a sharp turn south east, crossing the Sandover River, and heading toward Tomahawk Camp, one of Utopia's smallest camps first.
Tomahawk Camp consists of just two houses - both of which lay abandoned for the past several years, inhabited only by those passing by and needing temporary accommodation.
One of my personal missions today was to check in on ‘the Dixon mob’ who I heard had recently returned home to live here. They moved away to a neighbouring region almost 7 years ago.
The Dixon's are a large family who painted regularly when they lived here. Their paintings mostly consist of fine dot work painted with bright colours, tracing symbols and plants pertinent to several Dreaming stories in the area.
On arrival we were told the artists had gone to Arlparra Store and would be back soon.
This road also accessed Camel Camp via another route - that I did remember - so we continued on and left a message that we would pop back in again on our return.
As we drove into Camel Camp (one of Utopia's larger communities), two people came over to greet us. They had been waiting our arrival; Elizabeth Mpetyane and a man named Motorbike Paddy Ngale. We were told Angelina Ngale had left earlier for Arlparra Store. She brought her paintings with her and would wait for us there.
I hadn't met Motorbike Paddy before but I had always known of him. He was married to Kathleen Ngale, a well known artist from Utopia. I sheepishly asked what I should call him for short. He said 'Motorbike'.
Motorbike was very friendly and open, and spoke English well which is atypical for a remote man of his generation. I try my best to use native words in conversation out here, but it is always pleasant, for both I'm sure, when we can communicate a little easier.
He told me he used to work as a Stockman in the area many years ago rounding up horses and bullocks and drove them into Alice Springs. The thought later occurred to me he may have picked up his English way back then.
Motorbike recently started painting and had some little paintings for us. They consisted of a superimposed dot style familiar to this community and represented elements of the Anwekety (Conkerberry) Dreaming.
I fell in love with them immediately, due in part to the colours he had used: varying earthy shades of umbers, ochres and taupes. Some were mixed with rosy pink and blended with plenty of white.
Motorbike also had some small paintings by his son Matthew Mpetyane who wasn't around and had left it with him in case he missed us.[Read our recent article on Matthew Mpetyane's paintings].
I was told Kathleen Ngale, aged 83, was in the house near to where we parked. I had heard she had been in and out of aged care this year and wasn't doing so well, so I was hoping to see how she was going. The family said 'she’s alright' and I could go and see her.
Elizabeth led me through the gate and up onto the porch where Kathleen was laying on a mattress by an electric heater and an ashy fire pit.
Kathleen started talking to me as soon as she saw me, just as she always did, but this time it took me by surprise.
I asked how she was going and she gestured repeatedly toward her belly.
‘Kala mara, kala mara’, she kept saying. “Good one”.
It seemed she gets asked this a lot.
Kathleen said she missed walking, apparently unable to do so - the only thing she said to me with a hint of disappointment.
[Not long after my trip to Utopia there was an article published in the ABC on aged care facilities in Utopia and showed a picture of Kathleen just as I saw her.
The article raised concerns about the conditions at Utopia, especially for the elderly, and I have had a few questions by people reaching out wanting to know how Kathleen and others can live in what appears to be squalor even though their paintings fetch such high prices. I will write an article on this in the future but please do get in touch if you have questions about this].
Elizabeth, who had disappeared inside the concrete home, had now reappeared at the door with a large painting she had half completed, wanting to show me her progress.
Her eyes beamed at me after she unrolled it; watching me intently as my eyes lit up and I began to fawn all over it.
Up close it was clear that Elizabeth had blacked out an initial layer of dots. Elizabeth doesn't speak English so I couldn't ask what happened, but I know she does this from time to time if she isn't happy with it. I also know that wind can be a problem for artists out here who often paint outdoors, carrying up all sorts of things that can smudge the artist's work. Whoever will be the fortunate owner of this piece will be getting two paintings...
We spent some time talking to a couple of young women who had come over, before heading back to Tomahawk Camp.
We pulled up beneath the shade of the largest tree, situated equally between the two houses that make up this camp.
As I milled about by the car, waving at people poking their heads up over a fence shielding one porch, I caught site of a man approaching us fast. He was carrying a snake and it looked like he was going to throw it at us. It scared me.
But then I saw the grin on George Petyarre’s face and I pulled out my phone to take this pic [below]. He slowed down and laughed.
The site of us must have been pretty funny; huddled close to the car, eyes popping out of our heads, not sure weather to scream or laugh.
Despite having grown up in Central Australia, I didn't know what type of snake it was, and I thought it best to presume its venom was one of the most potent in the world. I thought George was very brave, carrying it around his neck like he was, holding its head between his fingers so it wouldn’t bite.
But George told us not to worry, it was ‘a quiet one’. As opposed to ‘a cheeky one’.
This is not a reference to the snake's personality - as I initially thought. George meant the snake was non-venomous. It was a Woma Python as I later found out. A ‘cheeky one’ would have meant it was a deadly Brown snake.
George found the large snake creeping toward the entrance to the camp. His intentions were to scare the women (lucky for us we arrived in time) before putting it in a large wheelie bin and carrying it further out bush to let it go away from the road. As harmless as these pythons are, they actually hunt and kill the ‘cheeky ones’, and people out here know they’re good to have around.
I hope I didn’t lose you at the word ‘snake’. Or the pictures.
By the time I had calmed down, a group of women had emerged by the car holding their paintings. I noticed they too were keeping their distance from George.
It was time to accomplish our mission and check in on the art - I was getting excited now.
Many years ago, these artists painted exceptional dot paintings, never wavering in their quality. They often incorporate symbols and body paint designs, and had a keen eye for mixing bright colours.
About ten years ago, for whatever reason we started to see a decline in their output. Soon after, they moved away and now - I am personally excited to see what artworks start to come in from them.
[There is a bit of a back story about this in an article by travel writer Rolf Potts, who accompanied me out to Utopia ten years ago. Read Going Native in the Australian Outback,published in Slate Magazine, March 7 2007]
Nikita's skin name, Inkamala, is from Ntaria (Hermannsburg) in the Western Desert. She told us her dad was from Ntaria, but her mother was from Amperlatawaty which is just north of Utopia, here in the Eastern Desert.
She had painted some landscape paintings in dots, which took my breath away, depicting land out in Ntaria, as well as some other dot paintings symbolic of her father's country.
I spent considerable time here talking with the artists about their paintings, mostly small pieces. And they were beyond any hopes I had; fine dot pieces, many different combinations of colours, some with symbols, illustrations of ntyemeny (Ruby Saltbush), bush tucker, and body paint designs. Dot work was meticulous. It’s a good sign, a good start for the Dixon’s in their re-emergence in art.
Thelma and Shirley both own the Dreaming story of Ntyemeny, and Thelma was telling me that they perform ceremony for this throughout the year - not just once a year like they do for some Dreamings.
Elsie is approximately 70 years old and still painting. She had a few small paintings that had smudges but in my mind it all adds to the authenticity and nature of the desert art.
By the time I finished with the ladies, George Petyarre was sitting on the porch of his house signing the backs of his own paintings. I went over and sat with him awhile.
I know George through his mother Lena Pwerle. Years ago, whenever Lena would come into Alice Springs to paint, George would often come visit and take her home. I don't know much about him or his being an elder with his community, but I sure can see him being one. He has a confident nature, teaching abilities and good humour. I asked if he were allowed to tell me about his Dreaming, and he was happy to talk to me about it. In fact, he was very forthcoming and I could see he wanted to teach me.
Today George had three paintings each measuring 45cm x 45cm and some smaller ones. Each depicted the Yerramp (Honey Ant) Dreaming.
I know about this Dreaming, which George assumed as much because it is well known, and it is 'a big one', as George puts it.
It begins south of Alice Springs and winds its way north through Utopia, spanning several countries, with each country owning a different part of the story.
"You know Wenton Rubuntja? It starts down that way and comes up, across through Three Bore, through Camel Camp, Homestead. Not Ahlapere. Then Ngkwarlerlanem." - George Petyarre
George didn't explain why 'not Ahalpere', which was a burning question of mine - Ahalpere sitting right in the middle of Utopia and in between Homestead and Ngkwarlerlanem countries. How does the Dreaming travel from Homestead to Ngkwarlerlanem I wondered. But I am patient and will seek an answer another time, if allowed.
Most of George's paintings today had four concentric circles in them. These, George said, represent four rockholes or soakages that are significant to this Dreaming.
There are many soakages in the area but there are four in particular that George was painting.
George kept gesturing into the bush trying to indicate to me where they each were located. With the look of sheer confusion on my face, he settled to telling me they are 'near Ngkwarlerlanem', which was some 50km away from us. That is George's country. I appreciated his efforts in trying to teach me.
We left more canvas and fresh paints before we left, and continued our journey north toward Arlparra Store.
Angelina Ngale would be waiting for us there, and I wanted to make sure I stopped in to see Lena Pwerle there too. In fact, seeing Lena is the main reason for my trip. I think of her like a distant grandmother.
Arlparra Store is surrounded by the most developed community in all of Utopia, and it is central. The store consists of a general store and petrol station which services the entire region. If it doesn't have what you are looking for, the next stop would be Ti Tree or Alice Springs - 250km away. The community also has a newly built police station, a couple dozen houses, basketball courts, education facilities, and a rugged looking football oval without any green grass in sight.
It was the middle of the day, and there wasn't a lot of people out and about due to the heat. Driving slowly through the winding dirt tracks just behind the store, I saw some movement by a humpy near the police station. I pulled up beneath the shade of a nearby tree and waved at the woman who was now approaching us. She knew who we were and told me that Angelina saw us drive in and was on her way over.
I'm not sure how she received that news but, sure enough, an old Toyota pulled up within minutes and out climbed Angelina and a few others.
Angelina Ngale is as bubbly and energetic as Kathleen Ngale, and such a delight to see. She had some Atham-Areny paintings of varying sizes. One of them had a unique looking illustration in it; some kind of animal in it. She told us it was 'kwer' (meat or animal).
"Which kwer?" I asked.
"Aloatyerre". A sand goanna.
As soon as the cheque was handed over, Angelina and the others were back in the toyota and on the road back to the Store. And we were back in the car onto our next business for the day - looking for Lena Pwerle.
We had received vague instructions on where Lena was now living - 'a structure that is not a house, with a white roof'.
I decided to ask this woman where we might find Lena and this 'structure'. I was told to look for a water tank and it would be just behind that.
We eventually found it; when I recognised Lena's youngest son who flagged us over!
Lena was sitting on a concrete floor under the shade of what seemed to be a large porch with a tiny house attached to it. There were a dozen or so people inside and out.
Lena looks well; the same as the last time I saw her two years ago. But I was disappointed to hear she can’t walk. She had a walker on wheels nearby, with a pair of unworn flat loafers sitting on top. She told me she’s hoping to take medicine soon that will help her walk. I'm unsure what that means but it sounds positive.
We talked for a little while, before looking at the time and saying farewell.
Not far beyond the Store, I took a left turn. The road sign had eroded and I couldn't make out what it said. I couldn't remember how far up I had to go before turning left toward Arnkawenyerr, so I took a chance and started driving down it. We were ten minutes in before I realised we were on our way to the wrong camp!
Back on the right track, the road to Arnkawenyerr was heavily corrugated. My little hand sketched map wasn't wrong about the conditions.
Katie did amazing work. I fell in love with a large dot painting in cream and white with an umber-like colour in the background.
Katie also had an unusal bush tucker painting which we talked about for awhile - making sure we noted it all down so we had the right information. I find this particularly important as part of our mission to educate others on their behalf.
We were told that artists Lucky Morton Kngwarreye, Janice Clarke Kngwarreye, Kylie Kemarre and Sarah Kngwarreye were all in Alice Springs so I didn't get to see them. We were offered a viewing of an unfinished painting by Kylie Kemarre [below] though and I couldn't resist. Kylie is not prolific, and can take upwards of a year to complete a painting.
We headed straight home after leaving Arnkawenyerr. Shadows danced across the long, straight Sandover Highway as the sun began to set and my eyes strained to keep focus for the 3 hour journey home. It was a fulfilling day and we had beautiful new paintings to show for the experience.
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Deep into Central Australia’s remote Utopia region, there is a small community nestled in the bush where Dinny and Josie Kunoth live.
Several bright coloured buildings are home to the residents of this community which include a portion of Dinny and Josie's nine children and their families.