The Utopia region is located approximately 250km north east of Alice Springs in Central Australia, containing a dozen outstations and camps spread over about 1000 square kilometres. The region may be further dissected into that of Ahalpere, Ngkwarlerlanem & Arnkawenyerr, Irrwelty, Ilkawerne, Alhalkere, Atnangkere and Arawerr. Despite its First Nations origins, the land was predominantly leased by German settlers in 1927 who established a station and homestead, and applyied the name ‘Utopia’ due to the plethora of wild rabbits that roamed this land and were easy catch. This portion of land is called Urapuntja by the Aboriginal people.
This incredibly vast region is home to some of the most vibrant and dynamic Indigenous painting styles, including the often under-acknowledged batik. Batik is a method whereby cloth is decorated with hot wax to the surface to act as a resistance to coloured dyes. When the wax is removed in boiling water, the design remains untouched by the dye. It can be repeated several times to provide layering and depth, depending also on the intricacy of the design and number of colours.
In 1977, a group of Alyawarr and Anmatyerr women from the Utopia region began to experiment with batik painting. They were taught the techniques originally by Susie Bryce and Yipati Williams (a Pitjantjatjara woman) in craft classes that also included sewing, woodblock printing and tie-dyeing. Soon after, a series of government sponsored workshops were facilitated by Jenny Green and the following year the Utopia Women’s Batik Group was formed. Some of the original members of this group included Emily Kngwarreye, Audrey Kngwarreye, Lena Pwerle, Rosy Kunoth Kngwarreye, and Petyarre Sisters: Kathleen, Violet, Gloria, Nancy, Myrtle and Ada.
These first batik workshops triggered the individual painting careers of Aboriginal women artists across the Central Desert who, up until this time, had only been known to assist men in the completion of their paintings, but were rarely permitted to paint their own. The batiks enabled the Utopia women to visually portray their own connection to country, moving their knowledge from sand and body to silk and canvas.
Furthermore, the Utopia Women’s Batik Group had a profound impact on the local community. The money they were able to raise through the first sale of these early batiks provided them with the funds to launch a successful claim for Alyawarr and Anmatyerr freehold title over the Utopia Pastoral Lease in 1979. This returned the ownership of the land to its traditional inhabitants. The batiks were also used in conjunction with ceremony as evidence in the hearings of the women’s ownership of country.
In the late 1980s, the Utopia Women’s Batik Group was commissioned to produce the opening exhibition for the Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide. The exhibition, Utopia – A Picture Story, included 88 beautiful batiks and went on to tour internationally with many of the artists following alongside. Soon after, the works were purchased by the Holmes à Court Collection in Perth which paired with the new art coordinator of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) to begin a project to introduce the Utopia Women’s Batik Group to painting. It was called the ‘Summer Project 1988/9’ and springboarded many of the most recognised Utopia painters onto canvas, although the batik medium has still been favoured by many into the 21st Century with 6 exceptional examples featured within The Le Pley Collection of Indigenous Art to be auctioned by Leonard Joel on 21 November 2023.
OLIVIA FULLER, Head of Art
Banner Image (detail): LENA PULA PWERLE (born 1934) (Language group: Anmatyerre) Untitled – Loatjira (Goanna) 2007, batik on silk, 110 x 224cm (irreg) | © Lena Pwerle/Copyright Agency, 2023 | $3,000-6,000