ABORIGINAL ART & CULTURE

Bush plum journey

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since we first crossed the sandy riverbed and drove through the ‘front gate’ and into Utopia. Utopia, an area of just under 2,000 square kilometres to the North East of Alice Springs, is semi-arid desert country inhabited by Aboriginal people. In the early days of the Utopia contemporary art movement ANGELINA PWERLE was one of a group of women who produced batik. She was also a participating artist in A summer project, the seminal event that inspired the first Utopia canvases painted in the summer of 1988-89. 

'Utopia has been particularly important in the recent history of Aboriginal art and cultural practice as it was the heart of a women’s art movement of considerable distinction'

An art movement has flourished at Utopia and from the mid 1970s non traditional media such as acrylic paint and canvas have been used.

Harry

Aboriginal art of course means a continent of creativity, a vast range of styles and materials, depending on the region and its cultural traditions. This is part of why collecting Aboriginal art is such a complex, enthralling and engaging thing to do. It is the great art of survival, the cultural maps of food and water, it is the art of the spiritual, the recognition of connection to place and the land. It represents the constant monitoring of the land, not stilled by time but always contemporary and enquiring.

Utopia has been particularly important in the recent history of Aboriginal art and cultural practice as it was the heart of a women’s art movement of considerable distinction, producing, now internationally famous women artists, their work including batiks, carvings and paintings on canvas. These works are embodied with traditional meaning and are a spiritual and historical record of culture and law.

This was to be the second of three journeys over a period of two months filming Bush plum, our current project. Fires still burning around us, as they had done two months earlier, we made the 250 kilometre journey to our destination on Utopia.  Along bitumen covered roads at first and then an hour or so to the north of Alice Springs, the turn off and onto the sandy bush roads of the Northern Territory that lead us to Utopia. We rattle our way along the sandy tracks, clouds of dust trailing behind us.

On this journey we are taking two four-wheel drive vehicles full of supplies, our swags, a great deal of water and of course a lot of technology, cameras, computers, sound recording equipment and lots more. There are eight of us, two our Aboriginal friends, sharing their knowledge of country and culture.

We see more and more wildlife, the Wedge-tailed Eagles and other birds of prey, and here in the lizard kingdom, it is not hard to spot a large Sand Monitor (Goanna) or a Dragon catching the early morning sun on the sandy roadway, their numbers boosted by the large mouse plague, a great feast, that accompanied the unusually wet seasons in Central Australia.

The Bearded Dragons sit dangerously on the road and try to defy any attempts to move them to a safer spot, happily we were more stubborn than they were. The Central Netted Dragons scurry off the road in front of us, leaving their smaller footprints in the sand. Here the shy Perentie (Australia’s largest monitor) also lives, elusive despite its considerable size. These lizards, part of dreaming, important in Aboriginal culture.

There was a gallery of reptile species, suddenly a King Brown glides its way across the road in front of us, only slightly smaller than the Australia’s Taipan, the King Brown or Mulga Snake can reach three metres in length and because of its size produces large quantities of venom. This is a place where you keep your eyes firmly to the ground and where you avoid walking through clumps of long grass. We tread carefully on country.  The King Brown, because of its size is easier to spot. The Desert Death Adder is almost impossible to see with all its camouflage and relatively small size. We stop every few minutes, cameras at the ready, as some of the reptiles obligingly allow us to film them and do so even in macro.

The flowers are out too, framed by their background, the red earth of Central Australia, the Billybutton, Sturt’s Desert Rose, the floral emblem of the Northern Territory of Australia, and the Bush Plum. Australian Deserts, these semi-arid lands, can have a relatively significant cover of vegetation, species adapted to these harsh conditions with a complex range of mechanisms to ensure their survival.

There are deserts or parts of deserts in Australia with a lower density of vegetation, the Stony Desert and in parts the bare windswept crests of the Simpson Desert. The flourishing native plant life in parts of arid Australia tricking the early settlers into believing these lands could be used for farming.

There was a mass extinction of native species in Central Australia in the 1930s because of the introduction of feral predators, inappropriate land use and increasing non-indigenous settlement of the region.

Among the animals to become extinct was the Desert Rat-kangaroo, adapted to the harshest conditions in Australia, but sadly, no match for European settlement. By a trick of language the exterminators of this beautiful animal can reassure themselves that nothing of great value has been lost. All this once again diminishing the traditional food supply for Indigenous Australians.

Through the Utopia front gate and we take the track to the small outstation where we are working. Here there are traditional bush shelters and a largely traditional life of hunting and gathering.

Peter, Angelina and Gladdy, Utopia

On this occasion the camp food supply is supplemented by the tucker, the fruit and other goodies, that we had taken with us. Oranges are particularly important, providing a large dose of vitamin C. We pull up at the camp and are greeted by everyone. The place is full of smiling faces and the wagging tails of the camp dogs.

It is great to be back.