The Women Painters of Ilyente: or, home is where the art is

By Dr Christine Nicholls, Posted 02 February 2019

A Catalogue Essay by Dr Christine Nicholls


In the late 1970’s a group of Anmatyerre and Alywarr Aboriginal women from the Utopia region in the Northern Territory of Australia, whose land is situated about 275 kilometres north east of Alice Springs, began learning the techniques of batik print-making at an adult education course provided by the government. 

Not long after that, the same group of older women, who have consistently emphasised the connection between Indigenous art and land, became key claimants in an eventually successful claim for Anmatyerre Freehold title over the Utopia Pastoral Lease. In 1979 the land around Utopia was formally returned to its traditional owners.

The young women painters are the daughters, nieces, grandnieces and granddaughters of the same group of women who embarked upon batik-making and painting in the late 1970’s.

The members of this younger groups have learned their Dreamings as well as their artistic techniques from those pioneering older Anmatyerre and Alywarr women artists, and are active in carrying on the traditions of their foremothers and forefathers.

The Utopia Women Artists

The work of the Utopia women artists has been well-documented (see, for example Brody 1989, 1990a, 1990b, and Boulter 1991). As well as the astonishing collective success of the Utopia women artists in batik making and acrylic art, Australia’s (arguably) most famous woman artist, the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye emerged from their ranks when she was already into her late seventies. Kngwarreye literally took the Australian and international art world by storm, an amazing feat for one who was not only positioned at the extreme margins of the dominant Australian culture, but was also so advanced in years.

The Utopia women artists have also had an important impact on the Australian Indigenous art scene insofar as they have to a certain extent upset the dominant paradigm and entrenched white beliefs about how gender relations are organised in traditionally-orientated Aboriginal society. Go give but one example, a prominent white Australian male anthropologist and doctor spoke for many others of his ilk when, as late as the 1970’s, he famously and disparagingly commented that he considered Aboriginal women to be little more than ‘feeders, breeders and follow-the-leaders’ (Cawte 1974). 

Since then feminist scholars (notably Bell 1983, Dussart 1989, and Glowsczewski, 1988 and 1989) have amply demonstrated that Indigenous Australian women are frequently leaders in their own right, and that their social power extends to realm of the sacred, as well as in secular matters. It is better accepted nowadays that Aboriginal women are not the passive, powerless, oppressed group that some white male anthropologists would have us, or like us, to believe.

This is borne out in the case of the Utopia women artists, who dominate the artistic scene in their own geographical regions. Comparatively few men have taken up painting in that particular region, and even fewer men have experienced the levels of success of many of the Utopia women artists. The art which the Utopia women produce and create, like other Indigenous Australian art, needs to be understood within the category of the sacred and religious, known in Aboriginal English as ‘The Dreaming’. The Utopian women are empowered to paint special Dreamings as a matter of heredity. This all-important concept of ‘The Dreaming” will be discussed in the next section.


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