Named by German settlers in the early 1920’s, Utopia is a region (Map) covering approximately 5,000 sq km of land north east of Alice Springs and is home to around 2,000 aboriginal people. The two main languages spoken in this area are Alyawarr and Anmatyerre, two languages that have no courses available for English speakers wishing to learn. There are dictionaries printed by the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) Press in Alice Springs in both languages which makes research a little easier. The majority of the people at Utopia speak very little English. Younger ones are able to learn it at a few small schools that Utopia has, and some of the older people join courses at Batchelor College in the Darwin region to enhance their reading and writing abilities in English as well as their language. The chances of visiting Utopia and learning something new are very high which makes working with the Aboriginal people who live there even more special. Mbantua Aboriginal Art Gallery has over 25 years of experience with the people of Utopia, traveling there weekly over the years and building strong friendships and an education outlet for both cultures.
This region is loosely termed Utopia whereby much of the land (not all) lies on aboriginal owned land called Urapuntja. Utopia comprises of several large communities and several small communities. Arlparra Store, a medium sized general store and petrol station, sits in the heart of Utopia. Any other groceries or supplies are obtained by residents of Utopia from visits to Alice Springs or small stores at neighbouring stations. There is a Utopia clinic that sees nurses travel to the various communities, and there is normally at least one member of each community who is trained as the onsite clinic worker. The Sandover Highway is a rich-red dirt highway running straight through Utopia, where communities access it through smaller dirt roads. Permits are required for specific business only to visit Utopia for non-residents and these are rare. There are minimal road signs which also make travelling to this area very difficult to the untrained.
The creation of works of Art is by far the largest source of employment in an area sadly lacking employment opportunities and employment skills. You’ll never find people more skilled at art. Though most of them have never attended art classes or western schooling for art, the subject of their paintings is 99% in relation to their culture; a dreamtime story that is enhanced by a full spectrum of colours and artistic designs, or body paint designs that could be the world’s oldest living art form. Central Australia is a rich source of coloured ochre which is crushed and mixed with animal fats or blood as a binder for paint. You’ll find red, yellow, white and deep purple and mauve ochres. Mixed with white they come up a stunning magenta or light purple. Inspiration is not lacking either, springtime is sensational at Utopia after experiencing the red-hot summer and cold winter, the flora surprises you with its beauty and abundance. And to see a sunset here is like nothing else!
If not an artist, other employment opportunities may include clinic work, school assistance, CDEP work and stockman work on stations. Sports are very popular and the people love to support their communities, in particular with football for men and softball for women, though facilities are lacking. Mbantua Gallery sponsors the Mulga Bore Magpies football team with uniforms and equipment.
It was in the late 1980’s that Aboriginal people of Utopia started to put acrylic paint on canvas. This followed a very successful decade of working with batik, several years after the Papunya art movement began which put Utopia on the map, so to speak. The women had been rounded up to try their hand at batik, which they fell in love with (Lindsay Bird was the only male artist to participate). When painting eventually reached the people of Utopia, with its quick drying and no mess properties batik was a thing of the past. Generally Utopia artists were initially quite formal in their painting techniques. That is to say, most work was done with the use of fairly large dot or linear work. It was quite traditional in depiction so much that the symbols or style clearly showed a cultural story whether in regard to ancestral Dreamings or Bush Tucker.
It didn’t take long before many artists became bolder in style, colour and flair. This is what the art of Utopia is renowned for to this day. Utopia women in particular are known as the leaders in female aboriginal art as well as their colourful contemporary appeal. This resulted in an even deeper and broader interest in aboriginal art throughout Australia and the world. A number of individual artists started producing art that was so different to the normal. The colour sense, the creativity and genius caught everyone by surprise. Utopia art had truly emerged. So too had artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre and Ada Bird.
The art continued to change and evolve. More colour was introduced, more storylines such as camp scenes, plus more abstract work developed, but always having that underlying cultural meaning. Other artists such as Barbara Weir, Greeny Purvis, Nancy Kunoth, Angelina Pwerle, and Violet Petyarre began to be noticed and joined the others as household names.
Today the art of Utopia continues to astound. There are well over 250 professional artists in the region, all producing work that has great significance in one way or another. Whether it be traditional or abstract art, or in the form of dots, lines or a mixture of these applications, there is always a sense of pride and achievement in their art!