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Myrtle Petyarre (c. 1932–2014)
Myrtle Petyarre was a traditional Anmatyerre woman and a custodian for her country of Atnangkere at Utopia. Her main Dreaming was for arnkerrthe, a small lizard commonly called a mountain devil lizard whose tracks are frequently seen in the red sand. She used acrylic pigments on canvas to
depict the body painting designs of women’s awelye ceremonies as well as the Dreamtime journeys of mythical Mountain Devil Lizard women. These creation stories tell of the formation of Utopia’s typography.
Myrtle’s paintings have a rich cultural iconography. She painted with gestural authority and lyrical, stylized rhythms. She was celebrated for her bold, individual style, and artworks that incorporate the designs that women paint on their breasts and upper bodies during awelye ceremonies.
Utopia is a remote Aboriginal outstation in the semi-arid centre of Australia, approximately 300 kilometres
northeast of Alice Springs, where sixteen small, family-based Anmatyerre and Alyawarre language-speaking
communities live on 3500 kilometres of land. In the 1920s, two British settlers took the land by force from
their ancestors, made it a cattle station, and called it Utopia because of the abundance of rabbits, an
environmentally disastrous introduced animal. In 1978, Utopia became the first Aboriginal outstation in Australia
to have a successful Land Rights claim.
Aboriginal Australians have the longest, land-based culture in the world, over 65,000 years, and are
custodians for specific places that they call ‘country’. Their oral culture holds extraordinary ecological
knowledge and experiential wisdom that the people continue to pass on to new generations. They have long
drawn patterns in the sand and painted patterns on their bodies with ochres during separate ritual men’s and women’s ceremonies.
The women of Utopia come together for awelye ceremonies to re-animate the land, ensure perpetuation of plant and animal species, and for the people's health and happiness. Over many days and nights, they ‘sing up’
country, ‘paint up’ their bodies with ochre designs, do ritual dances, and tell Dreaming stories to
new generations of young girls.
The contemporary Aboriginal art movement is very recent. In 1977, many of the Utopia women
participated in a batik workshop, and even though it was a labour-intensive process, it became a
popular communal activity. They used small tjanting tools and hot wax melted on open fires while
collecting bush tucker. When acrylic paints were distributed at Utopia in 1988, the medium became
more popular because they were an easier and more versatile medium to use. It is still women who
primarily paint at Utopia and they depict their Dreamings and women’s awelye body painting
© Copyright Dr. Victoria King 2023.
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