By Kirsty Jukes, Art Historian, Curator and Writer (www.instagram.com/in_the_hanging_garden/)
‘A Place Called Utopia’ is a group exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art created by Anmatyerre and Alyawarre women and men. from the outstation of Utopia, 270 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs. It consists of sixteen small extended family groups situated on their ancestral lands. In this exhibition, Emily Kngwarreye, Weida Kngwarreye, Minnie Pwerle, Jeanne Petyarre, Myrtle Petyarre, Violet Petyarre, Nancy Petyarre, Ada Bird Petyarre, Janie Morgan Petyarre, Barbara Weir, Pauline (Polly) Ngale, Glory Ngale, Gladys Kemarre, Johnny Jones and Tommy Jones’ acrylic on canvas and linen paintings allow a view onto a world very rarely seen. Also on show from other Aboriginal communities are four works on paper by Judy Watson, Estelle (Elle) Munkanome, Sue Pascoe and Rosella Namtok.
This marks the culmination of many years of learning, exchange and practice between Utopia women artists and Dr. Victoria King. An artist herself, King voluntarily transcribed the histories of indigenous women at Utopia over five years whilst living in Australia between 1993 and 2018 after being asked by Barbara Weir. In doing so, she learned more about how their lives and familial traditions are spiritually entwined in image making, ceremonies and ecological custodianship. They were also fraught with ongoing issues from the trauma of colonisation and poverty. Familial roots are extremely important to Aboriginal peoples, no more so since the violent colonisation and ‘civilisation’ efforts enacted by the British Empire from 1788 onward. This resulted in families being torn apart, traditions erased and many, many lives being lost. Mixed race children were placed in missions and ‘reserve schools’ and socialised to live with white families. The intention was to make them forget their native language and eradicate all memory of their ‘savage’ culture. Some never saw their true family again. The violence of these acts cannot be underestimated. This collection of paintings stands as visual testimony to the traditions and continued existence of Australian indigenous peoples.
For the people of Utopia, as with other traditional indigenous Australians, their paintings are a spiritually sacred conduit through which their Dreamings and ancestral Dreamtime past can be described. The people are custodians for natural phenomena such as flora, life-sustaining bush foods, geological features and animals which inspire the lines and shapes of their contemporary artworks. Mainly painted by women artists at Utopia, they combine elements of each person’s specific ‘Dreamings’ as well as the women’s ceremonial body painting designs of ‘awelye’ to create contemporary hybrid artworks. ‘Dreamings’ are handed down through the generations. These creation stories come from both the mother and the father. In the ‘awelye’ paintings, the linear patterns of the women’s ceremonial body painting on the female upper body and breasts in ochres is evident in the looping brush strokes and dots.
Initially, Aboriginal cultures used natural ochres and plant dyes to create colour for body paint, maps or drawings. In 1988, when an art dealer gave the people of Utopia acrylics and canvas, the members of the community began to render their cultural voices in a different medium. Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s ‘Yam Dreaming’ paintings in particular achieved huge sums at auction, however, the money was always shared amongst her large extended family, and as is so often the case with white Westerners controlling the output of colonially subjugated peoples, the artists were originally not paid fairly. Slowly that began to change as Aboriginal co-operatives began to be formed which ensured fair pay.
Sadly, the tragic effects of the abuses and genocide suffered under British colonialism and the coercive control laws that followed continue in Australia, as does the racism. King brings these works to Manchester so that we may appreciate and better understand the depth and complexity of Aboriginal history and the beauty of the artworks. She asks that Western artists viewing these paintings do not ‘borrow’ the indigenous artists’ styles, for as she said, far too much has already been taken from them.
What first struck me upon entering the exhibition at Saul Hay Gallery was how each artwork had ample room to breathe, allowing me to take time over each work in turn. The spacing of the hang set the pace of the viewing experience, affording the luxury of closer examination as well as room to step back and absorb an entire piece. This is important for paintings with repeated motifs as it allows the eye to focus and minimises distractions from neighbouring work. Just the same as a group of Anni Alber’s textiles or Bridget Riley’s paintings would not be hung too closely together, the same stands for Aboriginal art.
Put simply, the work is stunning and must be seen in the flesh to be truly appreciated. The hypnotising mark-making brings the Dreamtime to life. Effortless texture created in sweeping or ‘dump dump’ style brush strokes animate the rich acrylic colour palette, a mirror of the environment in which these works were created. The marks on the canvas look like the slow working out of a complex thought, the spiritual manifest.
Dr Victoria King was there at the preview to talk about her time volunteering with the communities who created these artworks, and I would highly recommend attending on a Sunday between 2-4pm before the exhibition ends as she will again be on hand to discuss the work in more detail. As owner and custodian of the works, it was fascinating to hear her talk with such knowledge and respect about Aboriginal cultures and traditions. Collecting these works and each of their stories has obviously been a labour of love for her. There are a number of books and a video showing a compilation of King’s photographs that she took at Utopia in the exhibition space which help to punctuate what is on view. This show is a real coup for Manchester as Aboriginal art lacks exposure here. A chance to see works of this nature in the UK is rare and would usually mean a trip to London. To see such a fantastic grouping of ethically sourced works was a real joy and one I know won’t be available in Manchester again for some time.
‘A Place Called Utopia: Aboriginal Art from Australia’ runs until 26th February 2023 at Saul Hay Gallery, Railway Cottage (behind Bass Warehouse), off Castle Street, Castlefield, Manchester, M3 4LZ.