UTOPIA COMMUNITY - 270km NE Alice Springs
Utopia derives its name from European settlers who set up a cattle station on tradition owners ceremonial homelands in the late 19th century. Traditional owners have a connection to this land that was utilised as sustainable hunting grounds and for ceremonies a long time before Western civilization arrived in Australia. The region was subject to a land claim by the traditional owners in the 1970's. Following the successful return of the region to the traditional owners in 1980 there was a revival of broader ceremonial practices. With the return of their country came self determination and empowerment. The celebration of a new found respect and freedom was expressed through the craft of batik fabric making during the mid 1970's, 1980's and by 1990 beautiful paintings on canvas began to emerge. Artists from UTOPIA gained national and international recognition for their unique lyrical styles.
The most famous artist to emerge from Utopia was Emily Kame Kngwarreye who is now recognised as one of Australia's most important artists. Later other significant artists emerged with unique styles including Minnie Pwerle, Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre and Barbara Weir.
Emily Kngwarreye was the catalyst for and at the forefront of the Eastern Desert Art Movement (EDAM). Many artists were influenced by her and many more were inspired to share their knowledge about indigenous culture and history through painting. A school of artists developed around the more famous artists from Utopia. Major artists from Utopia assisted emerging artists to develop unique styles based on their dreaming stories just as non indigenous Australian artists would share knowledge about technique with their students. A thriving community of artists live at outstations producing beautiful paintings and sculpture that are widely exhibited.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF UTOPIA
Cattle stations in central Australia are very large properties by comparison to regular sized farms. Cattle herds are allowed to run wild without intervention, unlike on farms that utilise agriculture and animal husbandry methods. When white settlers arrived in early 1920's Aboriginal men from the region were forced to become stockmen and women housemaids in return for food and board. According to Henry Reynolds (the well known Australian Historian) this practice contravened the Crown's directive that applied to pastoral leaseholds. The Crown directive stipulated a share of the revenue produced from the leasehold be returned to the traditional owners who resided there before white settlement.
Central Australia has a very harsh environment, rainfall is uncertain and droughts commonly last for sometimes decades or longer. It is generally very hot and dry in the summer months and very cold at night during the winter. Australia had no hoofed animals prior to 1780 and were introduced by the settlers. Cattle trampled the land destroying bush foods Aboriginal people depended on for survival in the desert. Further exacerbating relations between traditional owners and settlers was the fact that cattle and sheep were much easier to catch than native animals, making introduced animals softer targets. Cattle and sheep were taken even in boon times as the first Australians developed a taste for the fatty flavoured meat as opposed to the leaner meat of kangaroo, emu and perentie lizard.
The first Australians living on Utopia Station have an easily traceable traditional usage of the land for Men's and Women's Ceremony. They never lost their connection to the land. Traditional owners could prove traditional usage, one of the prerequisites for their successful land claim in 1980 (see pdf Supreme Court NT). Near the communities north west boundary and beyond is an area traditional owners call Atnwengerrp (pronounced a-noon-gerr-a-par) which is designated Women's Ceremony country. The tracks in the ground at Atnwengerrp made by women dancing during Women's ceremony over a long time are permanently etched on the ground. Other areas within the region are utilised exclusively for Men's Ceremony.
Recent photographs of Utopia after a one in fifty year rainfall event
Ceremony is a complex and secret initiation undertaken throughout a lifetime. It is not acceptable for initiated adults of opposite gender to attend each others ceremonies. Coorobories in contrast to Men's or Women's Ceremony are gatherings of both men and women with neighbouring groups focusing on social interaction and matchmaking. Delving deeply into the private ceremonies of either gender is not condoned so it's difficult or impossible for a respectful researcher to document and unveil sacred rites. Knowledge is passed down to the next generation through Ceremony. Nothing could be documented because Aborigines didn't have a script so knowledge was passed on orally.
Although traditional owners had clear traditional usage of the land, they also had to prove that they could make some kind of sustainable income to get the land back like running cattle on the property. White educators presented options to the community and asked traditional owners what they would like to learn to do in order to create an income. The traditional ladies decided they would like to learn to make batik fabrics. The ladies not only learnt to make batik fabrics well they did so well the artworks on silk are now hanging in museums around the world.
Being an accomplished batik fabric maker one needs to be decisive with this dynamic media as the hot wax flows very quickly leaving little margin for error. The traditional ladies artworks were very lyrical integrating Awelye motifs and this became a trademark of their art movement.
Arabesques used during men's ceremony can not be loosely interpreted as their meaning is linked with the topography of the land and therefore the songline for that country. Learning the songlines and singing them in the correct order helps Aboriginal groups to locate another suitable campsite when food is exhausted at the resident campsite. Aboriginal people were nomadic hunter gathers within their region and limited by the acknowledged boundaries. They knew the consequences of crossing into other tribal regions could prove fatal.
Sand paintings were made on the earth for ceremonial use. Arabesques used as the foundation of the ochre earth or sand paintings are ten's of thousands of years old and passed down through the Elders. A Baldwyn Spencer photograph c.1912 shows a traditional Men's Initiation Ceremony. Elders believe it is inappropriate for anyone outside the circle of the initiated group to look at such sacred arabesque so it's remarkable Baldwyn Spencer was invited to document Men's Ceremony.
A great deal more information could be added here about the designs and arabesques meaning and so forth. There are too many simplistic explanations of sacred arabesque and traditional symbols circulated on the net. The Papunya school teacher's Geoffrey Bardon produced a book titled Papunya that has detailed explanations of many symbols used in Men's Ceremony.
In the early 1900's church missionaries frowned on indigenous ceremonial practices and considered such images and ceremony the devils work. Traditional elders would have been concerned about the impact this would have for the regeneration of their land and the sprits whom they believe reside in the land. Country means more to traditional people than ownership and security. The sprits of all who have passed remain in the land. Aboriginal people have a kinship with the land that is complex and important.
The traditional people from Utopia were guarded from the full impact of the Western civilizations arrival because their region was very remote. It was one of the last places in Australia to be settled and fenced and one of the first to be handed back to the traditional owners. Luckily, traditional owners at Utopia retained their language and therefore their history traditions and laws.
ART FROM UTOPIA IN CONTEXT - A UNIQUE ART MOVEMENT
When their country was handed back to the traditional owner they must have felt relieved and empowered. The paintings that began to emerge from the outstations within their now freehold land were a celebration of their love for the country. In 1990 the Eastern Desert Art Movement received international acknowledgement when the batik silks were collected by curator Ann Maree Broady on behalf of the Holmes a Court Collection. The collection was broadly exhibited overseas with the kind patronage of Janet and Robert Holmes a Court. The exhibition was documented in a hardcover catalogue titled Utopia a Picture Book. The silks are magnificent early artworks from Utopia. The canvases that followed made with acrylic paint gave artists more depth, chromatic intensity as well as wider tonal variety and facilitated the development of greater creative diversity that led to the monumental paintings, securing many senior artists places as iconic Australian artists.
Once the tradition of painting in Australian Aboriginal culture is explained methodically to art collectors, qualified by the oral tradition of passing on knowledge including initiation ceremonial arabesque, art collectors engage with the artworks unimpeded by western traditions or aesthetics. Eastern Desert Art Movement is a globally significant and the only unique art movement to emerge from Australia since colonization.
The contribution to Australian art by non aboriginal iconic artists John Olsen, Russell Drysdale, David Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Donald Friend, Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley and Fred Williams who are all steeped in European traditions and focused on our antipodeans connection is important and significant too. John Olsen and Fred Williams came very close to discovering the essence of our country in their abstracted landscape paintings. Arthur Boyd & Russell Drysdale took a dim view regarding the treatment of Aboriginal people by the settlers, exposing the inhumane conditions the first Australian's endured.
Queen Elizabeth was asked what she would like from the Commonwealth Government of Australia as a gift during her 1963 tour. Her Majesty a seasoned art collector wisely requested a Russell Drysdale oil painting (Man in a Landscape). Later at a lunch with the artist she asked him what the painting was about (the subject was an aboriginal man holding onto a rock) he reportedly replied, "it is an Australian trying to hold onto his country."
Nolan, Whiteley and Friend set about exposing our countries "heroes" and archetypes amassed over the short history of the colonization. I can't help thinking (and it's my opinion) our iconic artists felt a sense of guilt, firstly as humans and secondly as intelligent people who could do little but watch the glorious First Australians culture be consumed by political and religious solutions. It was so disturbing for David Boyd that he risked his life and inadvertently the safety of his children when he exhibited and publically explained the Tasmanian series and the Truganini paintings during a prime time broadcast television interview during 1959. David Boyd told me he received death threats and feared for the safety of his family after giving the interview. Furthermore, he attributed this event as one of the reason his art was broadly overlooked in the collections of state and regional Australian museums. He left Australia for many many years and moved to Italy with his wife and children not long after the TV interview and in his words "...thanks to a lifeline the Italian Government that offered me a fellowship securing my family and me from harm".
Art in Australia could not flower if the guilt of a nations ill treatment of the first Australians could not be healed. It is my opinion that this is one of the reasons artists like Sir Arthur Merric Bloomfield Boyd and Sir Sidney Nolan lived most of their lives in Europe. Of course one might suggest that Europe has more depth and is more defined culturally. That would have helped artists like Fox, Bunny, Penleigh David & Arthur Boyd, Smart and Blackman. Living abroad was almost a prerequisite to being a success here as Australia's cultural umbilical cord to England has never been properly severed.
By the early 1990's the ethnographic arabesques that are the foundation for traditional Aboriginal paintings were being lyrically interpreted by the women artists from Utopia. Utopia artists are considered the cradle of this non ethnographic desert art movement. When we saw the first canvases by Emily Kngwarreye on show in Sydney one could not help but think she had broken through. Her work was absolutely original Australian art. Marketers talk about the flavour of the month but Emily Kngwarreye was to become the most important female artist Australia has produced. She was the flavour of the century. Important art historian and critics lauded her contribution of more than 3000 consistently challenging and unique artworks that were created over a period of less than six years. There are four book about the Emily Kngwarreye with essays and illustrations in English as well as one in Japanese.
Australian indigenous art influenced internationally recognized artists like A R Penck, Keith Haring and Howard Hodgkins to name a few. For the first time in our history Australian art was influencing European and American artists.
A FRAGILE ORAL HERITAGE - CULTURE
Less than 70 years after the first white settlers arrive here, Aboriginal populations were decimated and surviving communities critically marginalised. Traditional owners were pushed out of their hunting grounds as quality land with permanent water supply was taken up for farming. This of course led to conflict and increased the divide between TO's and settlers. There are many documented events on both sides of the divide that led to extreme conflict, slaughters and absolute regional genocide of traditional owners. When western civilisation arrived in Australia there were more than 300 unique languages spoken nationally. Many languages were eventually lost all over the country.
Knowing your kinship to another by knowing your skin name is very important in Aboriginal culture. You know your mothers, brothers, fathers and grandfathers, everything is clear. Actress Deborah Mailman wrote a play during her tertiary studies about her Aboriginal culture that touched in part on kinship issues. I recall seeing a performance of her play the Playhouse Theatre that demonstrates the meaning of Aboriginal kinship. Mrs. Mailman made eight piles of sand on the theatre floor and explained the importance and meaning of each of the skin names to Aboriginal people, she then blended them together to show how the stolen generation lost their skin name and subsequently didn't know any kinships. The Aboriginal Oedipus Rex! There can not be anything more debilitating than denying people their identity, heritage and traditional land. Aboriginal people all over this country are a big family. They are all connected through kinship and marriage. In Aboriginal culture your auntie is your mother too and her children your siblings and so forth.
Today my Aboriginal colleagues continue to share general traditional dreamtime stories during workshops and seminars. They are excellent public speakers, convincing storytellers and a new generation of Indigenous people that appreciated the importance of practical reconciliation from the youth up. There was a momentum for change in non aboriginal Australian society and this cause was undoubtedly highlighted by the amazing outpouring of creativity coming from bush artists like Eastern Desert Artist Movement.
Savah Hatzis, copyright 2012.