Utopia Now

Dr. Victoria King

The presence of the late Anmatyerre artist Emily Kngwarreye is still strong at Utopia. In any one of the many clusters of women and children sitting down in the sand near Arlparra Store, you feel her nearby. There is a close intimacy of bodies as rhythmic conversations flow simultaneously in Anmatyerre and Alyawarre native languages, broken only by frequent laughter and the raucous barking of mangy dogs. Pervasive dust and flies cover every surface. Willy willys spin past in the distance. The women sit cross-legged, drawing constantly with fingers or sticks in the red sand as they explain relationships and topography to me, or simply to create patterns before brushing them away, erasing before beginning again. Grounded and dignified in their dark bodies, the women suddenly get up and walk off to gather bush tucker, and I follow. Their bare feet caress the hot sand as the glaring sun shimmers and obliterates the horizon. A different perspective exists here which the people and their paintings reflect.

The men, too, assemble near the store yet some distance away from the women. They are solitary figures within their small group as they sit collectively gazing out over their country, ever watchful. They are silent like the land, remarkable hunters who are unerring and efficient. This is a country within a country where traditional Aboriginal Law still exists. Family groups live on sixteen outstations at Utopia on 2000 arid square miles that have a surprising diversity of flora and fauna. Old cars filled with family groups and men going hunting criss-cross sandy tracks that cannot be called roads. The sand records every trace, even that of the smallest insect. Everything that occurs is seen, noted, and interpreted, nothing is missed. Mythical Dreamtime Ancestors shaped every place and object, animate and inanimate, creating an austere, sublimely beautiful landscape that is interwoven with their stories and presence. Immense wisdom is held at Utopia, but the unrelenting speed and complexities of the modern world also leave their imprint. There are no Dreamings for alcohol, fast foods, diabetes, renal failure, money, or unrecyclable packaging.

Yet the people's capacity for survival, their imagination and astute observation are cause for hope. I would often hear repeated the same phrase from Western tourists whom I encountered in Alice Springs who had travelled to the Centre: "There is nothing here." Non-indigenous people do not recognise the abundance before us. Our eyes and minds have not been trained to perceive the different reality and Law which exist here. For outsiders, the land finds weakness and beauty, and then amplifies them. It mirrors inner processes and reveals shadows, reflecting with no sentimentality. The land holds many mysteries.

Tracking is a very fine art, a skill requiring fine vision and many years of experience. The dirt roads that intersect Utopia bear none of the conventional references of signs or markers that one normally takes for granted. As our vehicle belts across dusty, ungraded sandy tracks dangerously weathered by rain, I try, unsuccessfully, to get my orientation. I am here meeting Emily's family with her niece, Stolen Generation artist Barbara Weir, and I quickly realize that even in terms of direction, the land holds secrets that will never be revealed to me. The Aboriginal women in Barbara’s car glimpse perentie and porcupine tracks even at high speed, and she veers off into the scrub to follow them. Other times, we stop simply to admire ankerrthe, the tiny mountain devil lizard of the seven Petyarre sisters' Dreaming as it makes its nest in the sand.

Emily loved to go hunting. Barbara told me that her auntie would always sit in the passenger seat of her car, her short body filled with natural authority as she shouted out directions to her. Her sharp eyes would notice every track and demand that each be followed, no matter how late or inconvenient. She would sit high on a cushion like a queen, and shriek with delight delight when she saw a particularly fat goanna or emu and it was brought back to her.

Each place that we pass holds stories and memories of Emily for her family. Her country, Alhalkere, is filled with the bountiful spring growth of her Yam Dreaming. The legacy of her phenomenal creativity and achievement is evident everywhere at Utopia. A remarkable number of Aboriginal people young and old now paint in acrylics, fluently making art that resonates with land for which they are custodians, painting on canvases laid flat on the sand under the shade of simple forked wood and leaf lean-to's. Groups of women paint together, grandmothers next to grandchildren. Some also carve the hard mulga wood into sculptures and artefacts or string red ininti seeds and eucalypt pods into necklaces with flair and verve. Everywhere young children play and mangy dogs romp and snarl.

The men of Utopia are the traditional owners of their country and holders of Aboriginal Law, and paint powerful depictions of their Dreaming stories with a commanding authority onto large canvases which hint at but never reveal the secret/sacred. Questioning them is inappropriate, and I quickly understand that my desire to know more is a subtle form of appropriation. Within Aboriginal communities, one patiently waits for knowledge to be given for it will be discerned when and if one is ready to receive it. The sacred patterns that the men create on their canvases mesmerize and reverberate with references to secret/sacred Men’s Business ceremonies and to their Dreamings for bush plum, crested pigeon, caterpillar, possum, goanna, and honey ant. The men paint geometrical patterns and fields of dotting in acrylic pigments that echo the yellows, reds and white of natural ochres which are still ground for ceremonial body painting.

Like Emily, all of the women of Utopia love vibrant colour. They use it fearlessly and with great effect in their paintings. There is a joyful cacophony of colours and patterns in their blouses, skirts and scarves which they buy from charity shops in Alice Springs. Women's traditional role has always been that of collecting bush tucker, plants, berries, honey ants, and witchetty grubs, and hunting smaller game of perentie and goanna while the men bring back large kangaroos and emus. Going hunting with the women, I am thrilled when I see flashes of fluorescent emerald ring-neck parrots dart overhead. The bright pinks, lime greens, purples, lemon yellows, and carmines of native flowers and berries are more outrageous against the red sand than one could ever imagine. The peeling white bark of a few old, ethereal eucalypt ‘ghost gums’ illuminate the land and give welcome shade and shelter. As the women walk and softly ‘sing up’ perentie, the startling body patterns of the giant lizard come into view, and it is dug out and pulled unwillingly from its underground chamber. A deep pit cooking fire soon blazes forth in the dusk, and the world becomes sensually even more vivid.

The art of Utopia is un-self-conscious in its congruence of vision and embodied experience. Our eyes find beauty in the artists' shimmering canvases and catch a glimpse of a culture to which generations before us have largely been blind or ignorant. Yet the people of Utopia are faced with a future of sometimes seemingly insurmountable difficulties. In order to truly see and appreciate their abundant creativity and wisdom, we require a non-judgmental vision that can penetrate the mirages of our sentimentality, assumptions, and preconceptions. Aboriginal art reflects an extraordinary culture, and through learning more about it, we open our eyes to the myriad historical and present injustices the people suffer. Their culture has much to teach us which we desperately need to learn: the importance of ecological custodianship and kinship connections, and the necessity of developing deeper relationships with the land and nature.

© Photograph and text copyright Victoria King 2022