Scene of the Desert (The Saturday Paper)

Last year Sarah Price from The Saturday Paper contacted me and asked if she could do a story on us and the artists of Utopia.   After a bit of soul searching and talking to a few artists, who were happy for this to happen and to also allow her to do a trip to Utopia with me, I relented.   (I get asked a lot by different parties if they can join me on a bush trip to Utopia and I usually reject the request because, quite frankly, it is a work trip and the car is full of canvas and paints etc.  Also, permission is required to enter where I travel so permission must be sought to allow any ‘guests’ of mine.  Plus, I’m always very busy!)

So, we set a date and below is what Sarah published sometime later in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2017 as Scene of the Desert.  I hope you enjoy the read!

Tim Jennings and Aboriginal art

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.

MB052109   150 x 90cm  Katie Kemarre

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.


 Top Left: Kylie Kemarre at work  Top Right: Kylie Kemarre holding her latest painting Bottom: MB052599     90 x 45cm

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.

Angeline Ngale
Atham-areny Story

 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 Dec 9, 2017 as “Scene of the desert”.

Mbantua Gallery Beginning

How did Mbantua Gallery come to be?  A question asked by many!

Mbantua Gallery in fact is a derivative of Mbantua Store.

Mbantua Store - Gap Road Alice Springs
Mbantua Store – Gap Road Alice Springs

Mbantua Store was first set up in the 1950’s by Finke River Mission at 55 Gap Road, here in Alice Springs.  The store was a general store that sold groceries, hardware, clothing and also had a small aboriginal art section.  It was run by the Mission for many, many years and was affectionately known as “Mission Block”.  Somewhere around 1982 the Mission decided to sell the business (not the real estate) and the then store manager bought it.  Then in 1986, while chatting with the owner, I asked him if he would be interested in selling it.  He said he had had enough after 13 years in total of running it so on July 13th 1986 I was officially the new owner – and what a roller coaster ride I have had ever since!

Mbantua Gallery first opened its doors at 303 Unley Road in Adelaide and then on the 1st of June 1990 we opened our doors in Gregory Terrace, Alice Springs.

Mbantua Gallery - Gregory Tce Alice Springs
Mbantua Gallery – Gregory Tce Alice Springs

Lots and lots has happened since and now our presence is at 64 Todd Mall Alice Springs, right next to a great coffee and ice cream shop, Uncle Edy’s!

We’re also situated at Shop 2/30 The Mall in Darwin and we have every intention to be around for a long time to come.

Have a great day and God Bless.



Utopia Bush Trip – 18th May

May 18th 2017 was my last art trip to the Utopia region.  The plan was to take out our Art Manager, Tomoko Kuroda, and get away at a leisurely 8am because we were expecting it to be a relevantly quiet trip.  At about 7:30am I received a phone call from Tomoko saying that she was ill and could I wait until 8:30am because she might be feeling better by then? Of course I said yes but she hadn’t improved!

Sandover Highway - Utopia
Sandover Highway – Utopia

Having packed the vehicle with paints and canvas the night before, I headed out on the 600km journey on my own.  The weather and temperature were fantastic but as per normal the dirt roads were dreadful.  The main road, the Sandover Highway (why it’s called a highway beats me!), can be quite dangerous because it’s easy to get a bit impatient and if you concede to this and sneak a bit of extra speed then you’re sure to hit a heap of bumps and bounce all over the place! So patience is a necessity!

I decided to visit Camel Camp first because I had a large canvas with me painted by Kathleen Ngale.  I collected it on one of my last trips but she was away in hospital so I didn’t get a photograph of her with it.  I had been informed on the grapevine that she was back home at Camel Camp so was hoping to catch up.  Unfortunately, she was ill in bed when I arrived and couldn’t come out.  I asked Motorbike Paddy if I could photograph him with the painting so I could at least have the painting verified that it came from Camel Camp. Motorbike Paddy was happy to do this so our Certificate of Authenticity for this particular painting will have him holding and identifying the painting as Kathleen’s work (this is something I think is pretty important to do in this industry, where possible).  Hopefully Kathleen will make a full recovery and we can revisit a photograph with her!

Motorbike Paddy
Motorbike Paddy

Records approximate Motorbike Paddy’s birth year at 1932 (Kathleen at 1934) which makes him approximately 85 years old now.  He has taken to painting a few small ones himself.  When he asked me for canvas a few weeks ago I said ‘What are you going to paint Motorbike Paddy?’ He said ‘I’m gonna paint my story’.  So I gave him a couple of small canvas and paints.

When I collected them from him I asked him what it was and he replied ‘Bush Plum Story’.  Because he has very limited English “Bush Plum” could mean any of the bush berries, not necessarily what is actually known as the broad leaf bush plum.  I hope in time to determine the correct “Bush Plum”!  Two of Kathleen and Motorbike Paddy’s children, Matthew and Elizabeth Mbitjana, brought their paintings across to me as well.  They also have very limited English.  Matthew has only been painting for us for a couple of months now (although he has done the odd few over the years) and he paints the “Bush Plum story” and his “Country” using fine, irregular dots.  They look quite impressive when stretched and on the wall.

Matthew Mbitjana painting
Matthew Mbitjana painting – MB052096

Elizabeth on the other hand has been painting for us for quite some time and we have a number in stock.  She also paints using quite fine, irregular dots but usually a bit neater than Matthew’s!  I personally think very highly of Elizabeth’s work but unfortunately images don’t seem to do them justice.  Definitely worth seeing first hand!  On this visit to Camel Camp Elizabeth’s latest painting wasn’t completed so am looking forward to seeing it on my next visit!

Katie Kemarre Painting
Katie Kemarre Painting – MB052108

Off to Rocket range next, some 50km’s or so further along the Sandover.  Here I caught up with Carmen Jones, Katie Kemarre, Hazel Morton, Janice Clark, Lily Lion and Kylie Kemarre.  All of our other Rocket Range artists were away in Alice Springs at Batchelor College.  Carmen had some nice small pieces and had also played around with a new design which I really liked.  So she is going to paint some of those for my next visit.  Katie had some nice works too, I particularly liked the two 90x90cm paintings (1 pictured left).

Kylie Kemarre Painting
Kylie Kemarre Painting

She also had quite a few small 30x30cm paintings finished as well and we’ll have some of these up on our website soon!  Hazel had a couple of lovely soft and subtle 90x60cm paintings and Janice a few small 30x30cm’s.  Kylie, who is a magnificent artist but isn’t prolific, had a large 180x120cm linen on the go.  She has completed about 60% so it shouldn’t be too far off!  Right is an image of it so far..

From Rocket Range to Alparra Store next to visit Lena Pwerle and her family.  Lena was away at a meeting but I caught up with Rosie Pwerle, Nora Petyarre and Connie Petyarre.  We had a good yarn – especially about Connie’s recent eye operation.  They were all pretty happy as her sight had improved for the better!

When leaving Lena’s, Angelina Pwerl waved me down on the side of the road.  She told me that she was now living at Alparra (previously she lived at Camel Camp).  She had some great finished Atham-areny paintings that I picked up.  Dorothy Kunoth (born c1953) was also with her and asked for some more canvas for herself.  I’ve known and purchased art from Dorothy for years but her heart doesn’t always seem to be in her work.  So we had a little chat and she did seem really keen so I gave her out some smaller canvas and lots of bright colours.  I’m really looking forward to catching up with her next trip to see what she does!

Angeline Pwerle Ngale - Atham-areny Story
Angeline Pwerle Ngale – Atham-areny Story

Lena Pwerle’s son George and his wife Shirley stopped by and said that they have paintings completed at their camp, Tomahawk Outstation.  So 20 minutes later I was at their home and Shirley had completed some nice work.  She also had some completed Thelma Dixon works too so I paid Shirley for these as well (Thelma was away visiting family).  I gave out more canvas and paints for Shirley and Thelma.  Shirley also asked if I could leave some for her mother, Elsie Dixon, who is currently living on a community outside of Utopia.  I’ve known Elsie for years as well and had no hesitation.  There was also a young lady, Nikita Inkamala, present.  She told me that she was married to Thelma’s son and now living at Tomahawk Outstation. She was very well spoken and interested in what we were doing so I asked her if she’d like to learn to paint?  She was a little bit nervous but said that she would so I gave her out some small canvas and paints as well.  It also turned out that her Dad is Eric Inkamala who I knew about 25 years ago!  He was only a young fella then – how time flies!

From Tomahawk Outstation I headed home – only a short 250km’s away! I bypassed Mulga Bore and Angkula Outstation’s because I was pretty sure our artists there were in Alice Springs.

I reached home about 5:30 that evening – another great bush trip done and dusted.



Emily Kame Kngwarreye

The vast majority of people over the years, who have had negligible or no exposure to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s paintings, generally have little or no idea as to why they are held in such high esteem and admired by those who understand her work.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine from the “vast majority” that I mention above, selected from our website this image of an Emily painting.   She said to me,  “Tim, it is an atrocious looking painting.  How on earth could anyone think that it is anything but?”

We all have our own views, ideas and likes regarding art.  My explanation to her was that Emily was a very old, authentic and traditional aboriginal lady when she painted this.  Her upbringing was all to do with the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime – and she even had a hole in her nose from those very early days. This is an absolute rarity now!

She spoke next to no English and through interpreters and the few English words that she possessed, she said that her paintings were about everything.   And “everything” was pretty much to do with creation and mythology.  She was given paints and canvas and almost immediately showed the art world how a little old aboriginal lady could master modern abstract, representing what she saw through her eyes and thoughts.  And thus allowing us, the viewers of her paintings, to see what we believed them to be.    It was all about everything.

Personally I love this piece.   I look into it (and probably because I knew Emily and have had over 30 years experience with her family and other Utopia people), I see it as quite a mystical painting.   I think of her having lived under the stars in the Central Australia deserts all of her life and this is a representation of her perspective of the night skies.  I see bright stars, more distant stars, stars behind clouds, reflected sunsets on the evening clouds, storm buildups – and I imagine thoughts and wonderings of all people when lying on the ground looking up into the night heavens.

Others might see something completely different and I’m sure that they do – and that in itself shows the genius of Emily Kngwarreye.


Ada Bird Petyarre

I first met Ada Bird Petyarre back around 1985 at a Utopia Outstation called Angkula, some 190kms north east of Alice Springs. This Outstation is about 10 or 15kms away from Mulga Bore Outstation, which at that time hadn’t been built but is now quite a large community. Also living there at that time was her husband Tommy Bird (who passed away not long after), Lindsay Bird and Gloria Petyarre. Ada at the time was heavily involved in the Utopia Batik movement. Acrylics on canvas were quite uncommon! It was about 1987 or 1988 that Ada started to paint with acrylics and she was just a natural! Probably because of her history with batik but I also think that what she painted on canvas was what she had painted on human bodies for much of her adult life. Ceremonial body paint was simply a big part of her life! The local word is Awelye, pronounced “A-wool-ya”.

For the 30 plus years of knowing the Bird family very well, I was always under the impression that Ada and Tommy only had the 6 children – being Paddy, June, Hilda, Colin, Steven and Ronnie. Just recently I sat down and had a yarn with Colin Bird and his wife, Colleen Wallace, and they told me there were 3 other siblings too. There was Linda, who was first born and died when she was 30. Colin said that he was maybe 10 years old years old at the time. And the other 2 siblings were Graham and Jamie, who were born between Colin and Steven and both died relatively young, probably back in the late 1960’s.  But life went on out there in the outback and Ada raised and guided them all through the teen years, resulting in a tight-knit and loving family.  And then there was all the grandkids – 11 alone to Paddy and his wife Eileen! And Ada was ever present with all of them..

Ada was always very vocal! Always with good humour and passion..  Made me laugh so often!!

Ada’s paintings, as mentioned above, were nearly always Awelye – Body Paint and Ceremony. The majority were about the Mountain Devil Lizard which was one of her totems passed to her from her father. (And passed also to all her Petyarre sisters: Kathleen, Gloria, Nancy, Myrtle, Violet and Jean).

Above, Kriss has selected a black and white painting of Ada’s that actually shows the Awelye lines and also the breasts to give you some idea of what was in Ada’s mind when painting. Many of her paintings depict the lines that are painted onto bodies for ceremonies. We have selected 20 of these paintings to show you and are offering 40% discount on them all until the 30th of April 2017.

Year by year we lose more of our oldies and with them their own personal history…  Ada passed away in June 2009 but her family survives and flourishes.