A Day in Utopia with Barbara Weir

Earlier this year, we visited the remote community of Utopia (Urapuntja) with renowned artist Barbara Weir. Here, KOG Crew member, Elizabeth Geyer, recalls some of the highlights of the day.

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Visiting Utopia as a day trip from Alice Springs is not for the faint hearted. Expect to leave Alice Springs well before the sun rises!

With our supplies packed in the troopie the night before, we were ready to pick up renowned artist Barbara Weir and hit the highway, pronto. En route to Barbara’s place, I spread out in the back of the troopie and made myself comfortable – with only four people in a vehicle that can hold up to eleven, I was hoping I could catch up on a few zzz’s I had lost that morning. But as we pulled up to Barbara’s  house that fantasy quickly subsided.

Despite Barbara being in her 70s, she was the most energetic of all of us and quickly instructed us what to load in to the troopie. Barbara had purchased an incredible amount of food for her family who we’d be visiting that day. As the massive drums of food essentials piled in, I realized it was going to be a cosy ride to Utopia. With the back doors squeezed shut, we were ready to start the 300km journey to Utopia.

Our early start was rewarded with a spectacular sunrise. Already well on our way, but hours of driving left, we stopped and enjoyed the sunrise until the sun started to sear the first blades of grass. Then we were on the road again, knowing the day had begun.

For some, the Sandover Highway may just be a very long (560km long to be exact!) dirt track. But the places and people who live along the road are quite extraordinary. And if you’re an art buff, you’ll know the community of Utopia is home to some of Australia’s greatest artists. We took a moment to say farewell to the bitumen road, and embrace the glorious red earth ahead of us.

Mt Skinner cattle station, roughly 200km north-east of Alice Springs, is the first property we passed on the Sandover Highway. Whilst the cattle set against the desert landscape has a visual contradiction for some, they were very healthy and completely content in their surroundings. Utopia station was once a cattle farm too; the land was leased by German settlers in the 1920s that set up a station and homestead – apparently called ‘Utopia’ due to the abundance of wild rabbits. So I assume Mt Skinner Station it is a window of what Utopia once was for a short period of time. In 1979 the Anmatyerre and Alyawarr peoples gained freehold title to the Utopia Pastoral Lease under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. 

Over an hour of travelling on the bumpy dirt road and we reached the stock grid dividing Mt Skinner Station and Utopia Station. My first impression of Utopia was that there were a surprising amount of shrubs, bush grass, even gum trees in certain areas – which suggests a good source of water. Despite visiting at a drier time of the year, we were still able to see a beautiful variation in vegetation, and vibrant bursts of colour from the wild flowers. I can only image the colour punctuating the landscape in spring!

The bitumen greeted us for a few short kilometers while we visited Alparra, one of the 16 outstations and camps spread over approximately 1000 square kilometres of land. Alparra is home to the local store, school and AFL field – which hosted a big game the night before – so Alparra was buzzing as we waited for the local store to open. If you ever visit Alparra, make sure you stop at the local store as it also houses the local ‘trophy cabinet’ for the community – and they’ve won plenty of very impressive trophies!!

As we enjoyed our breakfast and succumbed to the devoted eyes of some of the community dogs – Barbara was already busy catching up with family. We continued on our journey, first stop: Atnwengerrp.

I was very excited to visit Atnwengerrp (pronounced ‘a-noong-a-pa’) as this is the title given to many of Minnie Pwerle and Barbara Weir’s artworks. Kate Owen Gallery also held an exhibition and artist in residence program a couple of years ago titled ‘Atnwengerrp Revisited’ with Barbara Weir, Lizzie Pwerle, Charmaine Pwerle, and Teresa Purla. I had to pinch myself that I was about to be on the Country which is home to (and to which has served as artistic inspiration) for some of Australia’s greatest artists.

It was a delight to pull up in the troopie and see some familiar faces like Lizzie and Teresa, and to be introduced to a whole host of family members. Anmatyerre and Alyawarre language was flowing as everyone caught up.

Teresa took us on a tour of Atnwengerrp outstation – as well as a great artist, Teresa has served on the Board of the Urapuntja Council Aboriginal Corporation for the last 15 years, and she was eager to highlight the improvements that had been made in Atnwengerrp. The Urapuntja Council Aboriginal Corporation is the administrative body responsible for service delivery to the Anmatyerre and Alyawarra speaking people who live on the Angarapa and Alyawarra Land Trusts, covering some 3,230 square kilometers. Teresa is now the vice-chairman of the Urapuntja Council, which is hugely rewarding, but due to her many commitments she has had limited time to devote to her artwork. Teresa showed us some artworks she had been working on in her limited spare time and they are spectacular – make sure you keep an eye on our newest artworks page for when they arrive in the gallery!

Teresa then took us to meet three esteemed elders and legendary artists, Galya, Molly and Emily Pwerle.  Three sisters and matriarchs who witnessed their late sister, Minnie Pwerle, skyrocket to dizzying heights of the contemporary Australian art scene, and now paint in their own right on country – rarely leaving their home for the ‘big smoke’ of Alice Springs.

Despite Galya and Emily being in their 80s, and Molly in her 90s, they walked up unaided to meet us and took great delight when we asked if we could take some photos (Molly LOVES the camera!). What struck me was the pure, unadulterated happiness and openness with which we were met. Despite living in one of the most remote places in Australia, it appeared the sisters’ health, happiness and overall wellbeing surpassed many people their age in Alice Springs, or Sydney for that matter.

After a quick lunch Barbara was ready to hit the road again – she had many other outstations she wanted to visit that day and unlike us, she knew what the road conditions would be like ahead! We waved good bye and continued on to Rocket Range.

At Rocket Range we were able to witness Angelina Ngale painting – on country and surrounded by family. For me, it highlighted the artmaking practice employed by many Indigenous Australian artists, which is in stark contrast to the western notion of the artist secluded in their studio, removed from the distractions of the outside world. For Angelina, creative expression occurred while life continued all around her; siblings sharing stories, children playing, dogs wanting to cuddle up close (sometimes too close and stepping on the canvas, which was met with a ferocious yell from all of the ladies). Art and life are inextricably linked.

We also had a chance meeting with nephew of  ‘the batik man’. Batik is traditionally a women's art form in other countries, and is a method of decorating cloth by applying designs in hot wax to the fabric followed by dyes.

In 1978 the women had learned the art of batik as a means to establish a source of income in preparation for the land claim hearing. The 1978 Utopia Batik Art Program was the first art program in Utopia and participants included Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Lena Pwerle and the Petyarre Sisters: Kathleen, Violet, Gloria, Nancy, Myrtle and Ada, as well as one man, Lindsay Bird Mpetyane.

The Utopia batiks soon gained recognition for their distinctive artistic statements, showcasing an intuitive sense of movement, composition and colour.  Art collectors took notice and by 1981 Utopia batiks were exhibited at the Adelaide Art Festival in a major event titled “Floating Forests of Silk:  Utopia Batik from the Desert”. By the late 1980s the artists moved to the painting medium and, as they say, ‘the rest is history’.

The Batik Mans’ family has kept close ties to the people of Utopia, and we found out he was to be the lucky recipient of Angelina's recent creation!

After some time catching up and having a yarn Barbara was itching to get on the road again – still so many more places and people to meet and half the day was already over.

We visited more outstations, including Soapy Bore, Three Bore, and Mosquito Bore. Some of the roads appeared more like walking tracks, but they proved to be valuable shortcuts and a brilliant opportunity to see more of the vibrant red earth and vegetation; soft long grasses, scrubby bushes and areas that were charred black from a recent burn off.  

We then passed through the great Sandover River. While it was dry when we visited I was surprised just how large the river bed was. This is a major feature in the landscape, with large old white gum trees lining the river as far as the eye can see. It made complete sense why the bend in the great Sandover River is a frequent motif and Barbara Weir’s art.

We then continued to what remained of the old Utopia Station. Barbara pointed out old foundations of what once was the old homestead. The metal frame of a shed, a water tower and the old windmill appear to be the only items that have withstood the test of time.

It felt like a place that held a lot of childhood memories and nostalgia for Barbara, but also the place where her life dramatically changed forever.

Being of mixed heritage Barbara was hidden from welfare patrol at a young age by her family, including her Aunty, the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Barbara has fond childhood memories living at Utopia with her large extended family, and in some of her works today she will depict the caves where she would collect water with her coolamon. As we passed through the Sandover River, Barbara also showed us the bushy scrub next to many of the great gum trees that lined the river, which made for good hiding spots as a child.

Her idyllic childhood was disrupted when at the age of ten Barbara was suddenly taken from her family by welfare from Utopia Homestead, as she was collecting water. She is one of the people known as the "stolen generation". Barbara was taken to Alice Springs, but because she kept speaking her Anmatyerre and Alyawarre tongue, was moved further away to children's homes and foster families around Australia, eventually ending up in Darwin. Though she lost contact with her family, she was determined to return to them, never forgetting that 'Atnwengerrp' was the Anmatyerre word for her home.

As Barbara and her children stand on country today, speaking language with an intimate knowledge of culture, country and law – it is true testament to Barbara’s strength and resilience.

As the light started to shift to the soft afternoon sun, we knew we were fast running out of time if we wanted to reach the bitumen before dark. The Sandover Highway put on a spectacular show for us, which made it hard not to pull over for a few more photos – the light perfectly hitting the red earth, the rock formations, and even animal tracks in the sand.

This land is alive and full of features in the landscape - quite different to the story painted by Google Maps when you search this region of Australia (a vast expanse of nothing appears!). While it would be brilliant for Google street view to capture the Sandover Highway – I don’t think their equipment could take the battering of the corrugated road or the dust whipped up on the road. By the end of the day I think all of our bodies were weary from the relentless rattling and shaking of the troopie.

As we turned off the Sandover back on to the highway, we were greeted with large clouds forming in the distance, and shortly after, a spectacular lightning show. We rolled the windows down and soaked in the smell of the rain hitting the hot earth.

We left Alice Springs in the dark hours of the morning, and we got back late in the evening. There was a stillness in the air again, and the streets were glistening from the storm that had passed through earlier in the evening. Our bodies were tired, but for the KOG Crew who had never visited Utopia before, our minds were invigorated by the amazing people and country we had the pleasure and privilege of visiting that day.

I hope this blog has been a glimpse into a day that none of us will forget. Our sincerest thanks to KOG’s Director, Geoff Henderson, for this brilliant opportunity and our most heartfelt gratitude to the incredible Barbara Weir. 

Video: A Day in Utopia with Barbara Weir


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