Indigenous Paintings from the Utopia Region - Central Desert

A Brief History of Utopia

Important Artists from the Region

Contemporary Indigenous Paintings

A Brief Explanation of the Dreaming


A Brief History of Utopia


The region of Utopia is approximately 270 km north east of Alice Springs, NT.


Within its boundaries are; Atneltye Boundary Bore, Lyentye Mosquito Bore, Atnarare Soakage Bore, Arawerre Soapy Bore, Irrweltyr, Ingkwelaye Kurrajong Bore, Ahalpere Store, Ankerrapwe Utopia Homestead and Artekerre three Bores.


Indigenous peoples presence in this country goes back long before recorded history. No one is certain how old Indigenous people's history is but a conservative educated guess would make it more than forty thousand years (or for at least an ice age or two)!

The name Utopia was attached to the region when European immigrants began settling the Northern Territory. The Indigenous groups in the region were utilised by the settlers as housemaids, farm hands and stock hands for little or no pay.

The debate amongst scholars and politicians about native title rights for the traditional owners continues though it is more than probably


accurate to refer to the Indigenous people of the Utopia region as the descendants of the first inhabitants of this continent.

Although to this day a definite divide exists between the descendants of the European immigrants and the Indigenous people, considerable efforts are being made towards reconciliation.

Indigenous groups from Utopia as well as many other regions in the country are able to keep their culture alive through their painting. Recognition for their unequivocally sophisticated culture has come from all corners of the world through contact with the artworks.  [Return to Top]


We highly recommend this excellent series on SBS The First Australians Documentary

Contemporary Indigenous Painting - Utopia

Ethnographic records and photographs show that the Indigenous peoples had a tradition of painting on the body, in the sand, on cave walls and on bark. Utopia Indigenous painting must be viewed as a contemporary painting movement rather than an archetypal convention. Whilst contemporary Indigenous painters draw their inspiration from the Dreamtime stories any intrinsic secret rites that must not be shown are rarely depicted in paintings for sale*.

The contemporary Indigenous painting movement in the Utopia region began in the late 1980's. The most sort after artists from this movement are:

See On-line Catalogue

Ada Bird
Lindsay Bird
Emily Kngwarreye
Glory Ngarla
Anna Petyarre
Gloria Petyarre
Greeny Petyarre
Kathleen Petyarre
Nancy Petyarre
Minnie Pwerle

Barbara Weir

Some of these artists were involved in making batiks, prior to working with paint on canvas during the 1980s. Many of the major batiks made during the 1980s were included in a book titled Utopia - A Picture Story by Anne Marie Broady that catalogued batiks owned by the Robert Holmes a Court collection.

Since the early 1990s demand for paintings from Utopia has increased solidly. In recent years Utopia region painting exhibitions travelled to Belgium, England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan and U.S.A. And paintings by the foremost exponents from the region are represented in public collections in most state and regional galleries in Australia.

Important institutions, corporate and public, have substantial collections of paintings from this movement including; AMP, Macquarie Bank, Hitachi, Kelton Foundation, The Vatican Collection, The Holmes a Court Collection, Artbank, ATSIC, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of Queensland, Art Gallery of Western Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, University of Miami and many more!

*Gallery Savah's policy is that we do not offer for sale or show any images that contain non-sanctioned secret rites that may offend the elders of any Indigenous community. Furthermore, the Dreamings and Songlines depicted in the paintings offered for sale are not elaborated on or embellished in any way other than to state the title offered by the artist and the brief explanation given by the elders who have allowed the Dreamtime story to be released to the broader community.
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Important Artists from the Utopia Region

Ada Bird

Ada Bird was born in 1936. She began to paint with acrylics on canvas in 1989 and was one of the artists featured in the book titled "Utopia - A Picture Story".

Ada Bird's principal Dreaming is Awelye |IMAGE| (Body Paint) that depicts the various traditional ceremonial designs painted on the breasts of the women. She also paints the titles; Mountain Devil, Yam, Grass Seed and Emu.

Ada's paintings are in many important collections including the National Gallery of Australia. Her paintings have been exhibited around the world and are featured in many books and journals on contemporary art.
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Lindsay Bird

Lindsay Bird (or Tjampijinpa to his Western Desert acquaintances) was born on Bushy Park station in 1935. His language is Eastern Anmatyerre.

As a young man Lindsay was a stockman, mustering sheep and driving cattle. He married Mavis and they had three children, Kavean, Jessica and Rosie, who all inherited their father's artistic talent. Lindsay is Ada Bird's brother-in-law and Greeny Petyarre's cousin.

Lindsay Bird's main titles include Charpa (honey ant), Bush Plum, Men's Ceremony |IMAGE|, Yam Dreaming, Snake Dreaming and Kangaroo Story. Lindsay paints using a mixture of traditional and non-traditional colours.

One of the main themes in his paintings is the sacred ceremonial sites that are used for Aboriginal men's business. These sites are protected by various spirits or guardians that keep away everything that has no right to be near the site. These special places are known to Lindsay through his Snake Dreaming where two snakes grew up together and travelled the land marking important places such as Elgoanna. Often Lindsay depicts these sites using a circular design surrounded by a series of men's hunting weapons which represent the guardian spirits.

Lindsay first began to paint on canvas in 1988 and he demonstrated his talent in Summer Project; the First Works on Canvas. In 1989 Lindsay had his first solo exhibition in Sydney. His paintings have been shown in numerous exhibitions around Australia and have been sold to many private collectors. Lindsay's work is also exhibited at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra.
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Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996)

See Emily's Paintings

Emily Kngwarreye was born at Alhalkere in 1910. She was raised on the land in the traditional ways and spoke Anmatyerre. Her first contact with Europeans was in 1919. She took up painting in her seventies whilst working with the Utopia Women's Batik Group. Emily's first solo exhibition of paintings on canvas was in 1990 at Coventry Gallery, Sydney. Her pure talent with colour received immediate recognition from art critics and collectors, setting the stage for the phenomenal demand that Emily's paintings now command.

In 1992 she was awarded the Australian Artists Creative Fellowship by the Australian Federal Government. By the mid 1990's large collections of paintings by Emily Kngwarreye were acquired for permanent display in public galleries. In 1998 a retrospective of her paintings was launched at the Art Gallery of Queensland, curated by Margo Neale. The retrospective travelled to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Art Gallery of Victoria and the National Art Gallery.

Emily's paintings were showcased in many exhibitions world wide including the Venice Biennale.

Gallery Savah launched solo exhibitions of paintings by Emily Kngwarreye in June 1994, May 1996 (Reviewed by Sebastine Smee in the Sydney Morning Herald 31-05-96), 1997 (documented in the Queensland Art Gallery book "Emily Kame Kngwarreye - alhalkere - paintings from Utopia", 1998 "The Final Series".

Jennifer Isaacs (noted art historian and curator) acknowledges "... Savah in Paddington, Sydney" as a known source of paintings by Emily Kngwarreye, published in the Craftsman House book "Emily Kngwarreye Paintings".

Emily Kngwarreye main titles are Flower Dreaming |IMAGE| (aka Wildflower Dreaming), Yam Dreaming |IMAGE|, Body Paint, My Country, Earth Creation and Final Series |IMAGE|. Her paintings are represented in the art collections of many leading corporations and institutions including; AMP, Macquarie Bank, Kelton Foundation, The Vatican Collection, The Holmes a Court Collection, Artbank, ATSIC, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of Queensland, Art Gallery of Western Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, University of Miami and many more!
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Glory Ngarla

Glory Ngarla was born in 1948 at Boundary Bore.

Her late husband was Emily Kame Kngwarreye's first cousin, and together they raised six children (three sons and three daughters). She is also the younger sister of the late Motor Car Jim.

Glory is well known for her beautiful batiks and is featured in the book Utopia - A picture Story by Anne Marie Brody. Glory also travelled to Adelaide, Sydney and Darwin in the 1980's to exhibit the batik collection. In 1994, she was among the women that went to Indonesia to learn more about the art of batik.

Glory's main titles are Bush Plum |IMAGE|, Yam Dreaming and Body Paint- which she depicts both with linear design and intricate dot work. Glory's paintings are in many private collections world wide.

Glory passed away in 2002.
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Anna Petyarre

Anna Petyarre was born in Utopia in about 1965. Her mother is the well-known Aboriginal artist, Glory Ngarla. Anna is married to another artist, Colin Price.

Anna Petyarre is quickly emerging as a leading Utopia artist. Anna's main titles include Wildflower, Bush Potato, Yam, and Campsite Gathering Dreaming.
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Gloria Petyarre

See Gloria's Paintings

Gloria Petyarre was born in 1945. Her language is Anmatyerre and her country is Aknangkere.

From 1977 to 1987 Gloria worked in the medium of Batik, exhibiting with other Utopia women in shows around Australia and abroad. One of her first paintings on canvas was commissioned by CAAMA ( The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) and included in the exhibition titled Utopia Women’s Painting; The First Works of Canvas; a Summer Project 1988 - 1989.

In the early 1990's she travelled to Ireland, London and India as a representative of the Utopia women accompanying the exhibition Utopia - A Picture Story. Gloria's first solo exhibition was at Australian Galleries in New York in 1991.

Gloria Petyarre’s paintings were exhibited in several major survey exhibitions including; 1991 Art Gallery of New South Wales touring Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition. 1992 Flash Painting - National Gallery of Australia. The Body Paint Collection at Bishop Museum, Hawaii, which also toured the United States;1993 Tapestry Commission for the Victorian Tapestry Workshop and in 1994 for the Law Court in Brisbane; 1995-96 Full Fellowship grant from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board of the Australia Council; 1999 Awarded the Wynne prize by the Art Gallery of New South Wales;

Gloria Petyarre’s paintings are in the collection of almost every major Art Gallery in each capital city. In 1998, a work on paper was acquired by the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery , a major canvas by the Levi Collection in Seattle, USA, and a Kansas City institution requested Gloria in conjunction with her husband, Ronnie Price, to design a mural which is now a main attraction.

Gloria's paintings are featured; on the cover of Michael Boulton’s The Art of Utopia, Fire and Shadow by Anna Voigt and Nevill Drury, "New Visions New Perspectives by Anna Voigt, Dreamings Of The Desert published by The Art Gallery of South Australia.

Her primary Dreamings are Mountain Devil, Bush Medicine |IMAGE| and Aknangkere Growth.

In Mountain Devil Dreaming Gloria Petyarre uses a bold linear design accompanied by limited dotwork to depict this small spiky lizard. Alternatively, she may cover the entire canvas using small intricate dotwork in various colours creating an almost three dimensional effect.

Bush Medicine Dreaming depicts the leaves of a particular type of shrub that has medicinal qualities. Gloria uses a range of different brush strokes to represent the growth of the leaves at certain times of the year.

Gloria Petyarre's most recent series titled Aknangkere Growth depicts her country using bright lines of colour intermingled with a variety of dotwork.
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Greeny Petyarre

See Greeny's Paintings

Greeny Petyarre was born in 1940 at Boundary Bore. His language is Eastern Anmatyerre and his country is Alhalkere. He is the oldest nephew of the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye and a highly respected tribal elder. His titles include, Men's Ceremony, Plum Dreaming, Yam Dreaming |IMAGE| and An Enriched Country**.

Greeny Petyarre paints with vivid resonant colours which express the love he has for the land. The lines depict the root system of the bush tucker plants and the dots are the wildflowers.

In 1996 his major linear striped painting titled Plum Root Dreaming was purchased by The Art Gallery of South Australia.

**An Enriched Country is a series of paintings that Greeny Petyarre made in collaboration with Emily Kame Kngwarreye. These paintings depict the root systems of the bush tucker painted by Greeny and painted by Emily, wildflowers that can flourish after a fall of rain. The story was shared between them as this is the land where they were both born.
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Kathleen Petyarre

See Kathleen's Paintings

Kathleen Petyarre was born in 1940 at Atnangkere. Her language is eastern Anmatyerre.

Her titles include Mountain Devil Dreaming, Emu, Green Pea Dreaming and Dingo Dreaming.

In 1996 Kathleen Petyarre won the Telstra 13th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award and in 1998 was the winner of the People's Choice Award, Seppelts Contemporary Art Award, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.

Kathleen Petyarre's paintings are included in the permanent collections of: National Gallery of Australia and National Gallery of Victoria as well as many other important institutional collection world wide.
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Nancy Petyarre

Nancy Petyarre was born at Soakage Bore in 1938. She is the sister of the well known Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Ada Bird, Violet Petyarre, Myrtle Petyarre and Jeannie Petyarre.

Her main titles are Mountain Devil Dreaming and Body Paint.

Nancy is noted for her linear style of painting depicting Mountain Devil Dreaming with flowing strokes and bright colours. Often surrounding these broad areas of colour are small dots creating the effect of the lizards skin that is the basis of this Dreaming.

Along with her sister, Gloria Petyarre, Nancy also uses small dots to depict her Dreamings. These dots form an intricate display of patterns that capture the attention of the viewer and display Nancy's love of her country.

Nancy Petyarre is well known for her carvings that have featured in numerous exhibitions, and for as well as wood block prints which are in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
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Minnie Pwerle

See Minnie's Paintings

Minnie Pwerle was born in 1910. Her country is Atnwengerrp and her language is Anmatyerre and Alyawarr. She started painting her beautifully coloured linear canvas's in September/October 1999!

Minnie Pwerle's main titles are Awelye-Atnwengerrp |IMAGE|, Bush Medicine and Bush Melon Seed, all of which convey her love and respect for the land and the food it provides the people.

Awelye-Atnwengerrp is depicted by a series of lines painted in different widths, patterns and colours. This pattern represents the designs painted on the top half of the women's bodies during ceremonies in their country of Atnwengerrp.

Bush Melon is represented by meandering linear design, circles and breast motif in different colours |IMAGE|, creating very fluid and bold paintings. Bush Melon Seed comprises large and small patches of colour strewn across the canvas. Both these Dreamings tell the story of the sweet bush tucker that comes from a very small bush and is only found in Atnwengerrp. Once very abundant and fruiting in the summer it is now very hard to find. Minnie Pwerle and the other women used to collect this fruit and scrape out the small black seeds. They would then eat the fruit immediately or cut it into pieces and skewer them onto a piece of wood and dry them to be eaten in the coming months when bush tucker was scarce.
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Barbara Weir

See Barbara's Paintings

Barbara Weir was born in 1945 at what was formerly known as Bundy River Station. Her country is Atnwengerrp and her language is Anmatyerre and Alyawarr. Barbara’s mother (Minnie Pwerle) is Aboriginal and her father is Irish, and as she was of a mixed heritage, she was taken away from her family at the age of nine. This was a common event for half caste children at that time, and these people are now known as the stolen generation.

Barbara was fostered out to various families, first in Alice Springs, then in Victoria, and Darwin. During these years she lost contact with her family but was determined to return and re-claim her heritage.

In the late 1960s Barbara and her six children returned to Utopia. There she was re-united with Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who had looked after her as a child. The reunion was a happy one although Barbara was unable to communicate with the family, as she did not know the language. Eventually, Barbara mastered both the Anmatyerre and Alyawarr languages.

On returning to her home and her unique relationship with Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Barbara became interested in painting. In 1994, Barbara and other Aboriginal women travelled to Indonesia to learn more about the art of batik.

She returned from Indonesia full of ideas for developing her own style. In 1996 Barbara travelled to Switzerland and Paris at the request of a gallery owner who commissioned some of Barbara's paintings. Every painting was snapped up by private collectors and this proved to be the turning point in her life.

In 1999 Gallery Savah launched its first solo exhibition of Barbara Weir's paintings titled "Dream Works", this exhibition was a sell-out. Susan McCulloch art critic for the Australian Newspaper and author of Contemporary Aboriginal Art reviewed the show favourably in a full page article published in the Australian newspaper.

Barbara's second solo exhibition launched at Gallery Savah was in April 2000. This exhibition was featured in the 30min Discovery Channel documentary "Utopia Revisited".

Barbara Weir's main titles are; Bush Berry, Grass Seed and My Mother's Country.

In Bush Berry she depicts these small brightly coloured berries in an intricate yet bold style with often a spiralling theme indicating the berries fruiting from a vine that wound its way around its hosts tree.

Grass Seed |IMAGE| is a series of small brush strokes, often in earth colours, that overlap and weave to create a swaying effect, rather like the swaying of the long grass found out bush.

My Mother's Country |IMAGE|, a series of paintings in a subtle palette of intricate dots with the underpainting prevailing. Indicative of the spiritual attachment Indigenous people have with the land.
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A Brief Explanation of the Dreaming
The Dreaming Stories are an oral encyclopaedic record of the Indigenous peoples culture. It is a complete explanation of all matter and life forms. The stories were created, according to traditional belief a very long time ago during the Dreamtime. This Dreamtime period is generally regarded as the creation time by the Dreamtime Spirits. It was during this period that day, sky, stars, fire, air, water, terrain and all life was created.

The Earth was thought of as a flat circular plate like structure and beyond its boundary was the realm of the Dreamtime Spirits and where they go after they die. Thus the custodians of particular Dreamings were entrusted with them in order to keep the harmony between the Dreamtime Spirits and the living.

The Dreaming also gives some very practical or necessary information about the land, flora, fauna and human intervention including; medicinally useful plants, edible plants, dangerous regions, locations of subterranean waterways, animal habits, how to hunt, where and when to hunt, where and when to gather, one's tribal relationships and much more. [Return to Top]

Flower Dreaming

Yam Dreaming

Flower Dreaming - Utopia

Utopia has an extreme desert climate. The summer is hot with temperatures often exceeding forty degrees Celsius. In winter the nights are freezing cold and frosts occur from June to August.

Long periods of drought in the outback are not uncommon. During the droughts vegetation is sparse and only spinifex and mulga shrubs subsist though they appear withered and lifeless. The rest of the flora lays dormant in anticipation of the cyclic deluge (dry cycles are known to have continued for up to a decade and longer).

After the infrequent rain the desert landscape is transformed. The dried out spinifex flower resemble a field of wheat and the mulga shrub bears green dense foliage and masses of bright yellow flowers. Growing amongst these plants is an abundance of wildflowers that turns the deep red coloured desert floor into a utopian garden.

In Wildflower Dreaming the artist pays homage to the spirit of the flowers. The transformation of the land means new growth and regeneration. Thus the renewal of the Bush Tucker so necessary for survival.

Yam Dreaming - Utopia

The yam is one of the most stable types of bush tucker gathered in the region of Utopia.

The yam has a complex root system that can spread up to twelve metres from its stalk. The plant has bright green leaves with yellow flowers and branches out over a wide area. It is commonly found in woodland areas and close to a water source.

It is best harvested several months after rainfall when the exposed plant has died off. As the edible part is attached to the root system it must be located, dug up and gathered. Often large areas are excavated to find the yam.

In Yam Dreaming the artist is paying homage to the spirit of the yam plant so that it regenerates year after year to feed the people. [Return to Top]


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