At Utopia, deep in the desert of the Northern Territory, the red edge of the land meets the sky in an unending line. The plains are rusted and sparse. Mulga trees and ghost gums that line the bush tracks spread thinly into the desert, greens and greys muted against the burnished earth.
The area is bisected by the Sandover Highway – one red road that is straight and unsealed, soft in places. If you stay on it you’ll get to the Queensland border, to Lake Nash or Mount Isa. To the east is the Kennedy Highway; to the north-west is Tennant Creek. The road is empty, except for road trains, and the occasional car, often abandoned. Spreading across the road and into the desert is brilliant sand, the colour of Tabasco sauce. Today, by the side of the road, there is a plastic tiara, its green jewels still intact.
From Alice Springs, Tim Jennings has been making the 12-hour round trip to Utopia for 30 years. Representing Aboriginal artists from eight of the 15 outstations, he sells their work in Australia and around the world. Most of the artists rarely travel into Alice Springs, he says. Instead, people will more often move around the Utopia region, where they have had continuous connection to traditional lands.
“At Utopia it is mainly women who paint,” Tim explains. “The women watch each other, encourage each other and learn from each other. They create their own designs or patterns, under their own steam. The quality of the paintings tells you of the pride the women of Utopia take in their art.”
Visiting the Morton mob at Rocket Range, where the community has grown a green garden oasis in the middle of the desert, Tim drops the tailgate of his car. The inside is filled with art supplies. Women emerge slowly from their homes, feet bare against the soft sand. Painted canvases are unrolled, shaken out and held up, laid out over the ground. There are depictions of cockatoos, goannas and kangaroos. Brilliant colours and fluid lines, precise dot work. Katie Kemarre rolls out an unfinished canvas, telling the story of Awely, a women’s ceremony. Carmen Jones offers her paintings, bright representations of bush flowers. Lastly, smiling and softly spoken, Sarah Morton steps forward, holding up a large canvas painted in bright red and orange, and varying shades of blue.
For most people at Utopia, English is a second or third language, after the traditional language groups of Arrernte and Anmatyerre. To the artists’ explanations, Tim listens intently, sometimes responding by drawing with a stick in the sand. “What’s the story?” he asks. “Bush plums? Animals? I understand.” There are jokes, laughter. Standing around the back of the car, the artists request blank canvases in certain sizes, select colours from a range of Matisse paints, collect bottles, nibs and brushes.
Since he first started travelling to Utopia, Tim has been collecting paintings by various artists. His gallery, Mbantua, now has a permanent collection: 30 years’ worth of art from Utopia. “I thought it could be very important to see how the artists change over time, evolve over the years. We’ve got about 1000 paintings. In this collection you can see part of the evolvement of the artists.”
Throughout the ’90s he provided a field and research department to the area, recording details of the artists, their families and some of the stories behind the paintings. “They took their time with the artists and jotted down what they could. Over the years we’ve recorded a lot of the history.” He is currently working on a book to profile the artists of Utopia, and has loose plans to put Mbantua’s entire Utopia collection on the market. Until then though, “the collection will continue to live and grow”.
At Camel Camp, Motorbike Paddy Ngale holds a painted shield that he made from the hardwood of a mulga tree. Running his fingers along the painting’s lines, he slowly, in a deep murmur, sings the Dreaming story of his conkerberry totem. Aged in his 80s, Motorbike Paddy has only recently begun to paint.
“I love his work. It’s messy to the eye and there’s no attempt at neatness, but that’s what he does,” Tim says. “I really enjoy the nurturing part of this job. Kylie Kemarre has been painting for us for over 20 years and her work is consistently brilliant. Her output is extremely slow; her paintings usually made of very fine dot work. Kylie isn’t known in the auction or public gallery world, because when her work does become available, it’s purchased by people who hang on to it. Lena Pwerle and Lily Lion Kngwarreye both produce fabulous fine linear work. Elizabeth Mpetyane was encouraged to take up painting by her mother, Kathleen Ngale. Her works of country are naive and imperfect, but they come alive beautifully, especially the larger ones, when they’re stretched and on display.”
Arriving in her work uniform at Tomahawk Outstation, Nikita Inkamala quietly unrolls her paintings. At the age of 17, making art is new to her, fitted in around working full-time at the local health clinic. Influenced by the artwork of the Dixon mob, Nikita is experimenting with images of animals and landscapes. On weekends, she says, her time is spent in the desert, hunting kangaroos and lizards with her husband.
At Utopia, there is story. Angelina Ngale kneels beside Tim at the Arlparra Outstation, and with her finger she traces the story of her paintings in the sand. Her fine dot work represents the anwekety, or bush plum, a traditional food source. Angelina’s other paintings tell the story of Antham-arenys, little spirits who live in caves or cracks in the ground, coming out to steal and hide babies in the community.
Stories and totems are inherited, then become a responsibility, Tim explains. “A person might inherit the story of the bush plum, or a kangaroo or a different type of bird. They then have the responsibility for that story. People have quite a lot of ownership over their totems.
“If somebody owns a bush plum story, they have grown up learning about the bush plum through word of mouth, dance and song. As they grow up they learn different levels of that mythology, until it becomes their responsibility to teach the next generation. Although people might paint the same story, it will be represented differently in the art.”
The artists don’t reveal too much because there are laws and secrecy around stories, he says. People tell only what they are allowed to. “There is mystery in Aboriginal art for white people. They are not our stories to fully understand.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2017 as "Scene of the desert".
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