History and Culture

Art of the Eastern Desert

The Eastern Desert Art community of Utopia, home to both the Anmatjera and Alywerreye language groups. Located some 230 kms north-east of Alice Springs, Utopia arose out of a vast cattle property and not a government settlement or mission station. Instead of a central community being established like many of its other regional neighbours, Utopia residents prefer to live in small outstations or camps close to their ancestral country…. the source of their main artistic inspiration.

The rise to artistic prominence of Eastern Desert artists began with the making of batik in the late 1970’s under the guidance of Jenny Green and Susie Bryce, although artists had earlier explored other media techiques such as block printing and tie-dyeing.

With the formation of the Utopia Woman’s Batik Group in 1978 women quickly developed a preference for free drawing using a brush for broad areas and the waxpen for fine work. The designs of the batiks were mostly based on ceremonial body decoration, however, some artists chose to incorporate the more naturalistic designs of local flora and fauna….. While some men learned batik making, the numbers of women involved from the start (as well throughout the general painting history of Utopia) made the enterprise fairly much ‘women’s business’.

Despite a major national and international survey exhibition of batiks in the late 80’s (which was instrumental in establishing Utopia as a major contemporary art community) fabric making as a contemporary art medium was proving difficult to promote, particularly as the Western Desert acrylic art movement was achieving outstanding public success home and abroad.

With the appointment of Rodney Gooch in 1989 as Utopia’s project officer, Eastern Desert Art underwent a major transformation….. Utopia artists were enthusiastically and with a great freedom of expression….. transferring their original batik designs as well as a range of new and highly innovative imagery onto canvas. These new painting styles (particularly throughout the 1990’s) were quite formalised with women’s works exhibiting a delicate and precise composition of fine dotting, whilst the handful of men who continued to paint in an overwhelming female environment were producing strong powerful iconographic mythscapes.

Three artists in particular who were to excel in the field of individual expression and were certainly responsible for bringing international recognition to the art community of Utopia, were the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and sisters Kathleen, Ada and Gloria Petyarre.

With a number of younger and talented Utopia artists now painting and achieving great success in the field of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, the Eastern Desert’s artistic heritage will be guaranteed for some time yet.

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