Utopia Trip May 2018

Back in early May with a thermos of homemade soup and a few cold slices of homemade pizza on board for lunch, I headed out through the hills north of Alice Springs enroute to the Utopia Region.  It was 7.35am, the car was loaded with canvas and paint, the sun was up and it was 16 degrees Celsius.   Weather wise, it looked like it was going to be a perfect day – and it was!

There were quite a few people that I wanted to catch up with, both from an art point of view and also just to have a yarn with.   The trip out was fairly uneventful, although at the 200km mark, near to the turnoff to Mulga Bore, I could see lots of thick dust and a big truck was heading my way.  The wind was non-existent so the dust just sat there with nothing to blow it away.   This can be very dangerous if there is some impatient driver behind the truck who takes a punt by blindly passing through the dust.   So, I always pull over to the side of the road just in case!!

At 9.30am I arrived at Camel Camp and saw old Motorbike Paddy.   He’s a wonderful old gentleman and we always have a few laughs.  I asked him how his wife, Kathleen Ngale, was.  He replied “she’s good” and didn’t elaborate any further….   I know that the last time I was out there she was sitting out the front and appeared in good spirits but she was inside on this occasion.   He said that his daughter Elizabeth was over at the Store (30kms away) and had a painting that was finished.  His son, Matthew, came across too and was his normal, talkative self – a really nice fellow but very hard to understand because his English is very, very limited.

I didn’t stay there too long before heading to nearby Tomahawk Outstation where the Dixon family often reside.   There was no one there though so I headed to Alparre Store and found Lena Pwerle in her humpy up the back of the community along with Rosie Pwerle and Nora Petyarre.   I dropped off a box of groceries and a drum of flour to Lena.  (Our long-time art manager, Tomoko Kuroda, dotes on Lena and insisted that I take them out for her!!!   😊 😊)  I sat down on an old flour drum and had a good chat to them all, along with Lena’s oldest son George.  George’s wife, Shirley, and sister, Thelma Dixon, were also close by and asked me for some canvas and paints, which I gave out to them both.

A bunch of young and middle-aged men also wanted to have a talk to me about artefacts and I was happy to have a yarn.  I’m always encouraging them to make boomerangs, woomera’s, spears, carvings and other artefacts, but usually the chit chat enthusiasm doesn’t evolve into actually doing much of it – although sometimes they surprise me.

I was just about to leave the area when Polly Ngale and Elizabeth Mbitjana also visited.  Both told me that they had finished the canvases that I gave them last trip, but they were at Camel Camp!   So I told them that I would revisit Camel Camp after I had called into all the other places I was planning to head to.

Next stop was an Outstation I refer to as Old Quartpot’s Camp.    On arrival, I went directly around to Lily and Michelle Lion’s campsite, which is directly opposite to the Hunter ladies humpies.   Teresa Purla also walked across from her home as well and gave me a good hand.   All of these ladies are family to Teresa and she encourages them all to have a go.  Geyla Pwerle wandered across carrying a box with 10 – 30cm x 30cm completed linens.  They were very good for an old lady and she is really happy doing them.   Molly didn’t come across but had also had 10 – 30 x 30’s finished – nice little circle ones.  I later photographed her with them in her humpy.   (I checked our old records when back in Alice Springs and her date of birth is guessed at 1928 – so she’s roughly 90 years of age now.)  I must say, she appears in good health, both physically and mentally for someone that age.

Michelle and Lily also had some great little camp scene paintings too.  These are fantastic paintings and I know the ladies enjoy painting them but having said that, I do like to encourage them have a go at other ideas and concepts.  I asked them to think of some other design to play around with.  They wanted some direction, so I suggested maybe mixing up some larger dots with smaller dots and use lots of bright colours, something that they can enjoy and be creative with.  Teresa emphasised the same..  So I am looking forward to my next trip because one never knows what these ladies might be achieve.

Michelle Lion holding up 2 of her Camp Scene paintings.

Teresa also made the point that Geyla and Molly love painting the canvases that I leave with them.  It gives them something constructive to do and it was clear to me that the looks on their faces reflected just that.  I’m not sure how the paintings will sell but I feel sure that there will be people out there in this big world of ours that will come along and appreciate them. 

I have saved four of each for Mbantua’s permanent collection.

Molly Pwerle Aboriginal Artist
Molly Pwerle holding her painting.

Queenie Kemarre, Michelle Lion, Lily LionQueenie Kemarre (Lily and Michelle’s mother) actually walked across to the car to say hello too!  On most of my visits Queenie is sitting or lying down in her bush shelter.  This was the first time for a very long time that she had walked across to the car and I was really quite stoked.  I insisted that we take a photograph of mum and her two daughters and they were really happy to have it taken!

 

Queenie with her daughters, Michelle and Lily Lion.

Jessie and Susan Hunter also had some really nice completed pieces.  Teresa is a terrific artist in her own right too, but didn’t have hers finished.

I took lots of photographs and Teresa also used my camera and took some of me with the ladies.  I enjoyed my time there, except for the millions of flies which were horrendous!!

Angelina Ngale Aboriginal artist
Angelina Ngale with two younger family members.

Rocket Range was my next stop.  Most people were away and I only collected paintings from Angelina Ngale.

Soapy Bore was next and also very quiet – just a few paintings from Dorothy Jones.  So I headed back to Camel Camp, some 40kms away, and collected 3 nice paintings by Polly and a really lovely 150cm x 90cm painting from Elizabeth.

 

 

I departed Camel Camp for home at 3.07pm – I had a social game of lawn bowls to play that night!!   😊 😊

Tim

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.

MB052707MB052707
150x90cm
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.

-Tim

 

The World I Live In

Walking with artists from UtopiaSome of the flora that the Utopia artists paint; on the left, a Desert Yam Flower as painted by Jeannie and Lisa Mills.  On the right, I'm holding the Rattail (Alpar) plant, which is painted by the women in the Bird family.Visiting the Payne familyTasting some honey ants with Marie Ryder watching onRosie Pwerle with her beautiful carvingsChecking out some of Rosie's jewelleryMy grandson, Joel, with Lena PwerleOutback road on the way to the Utopia regionIninti seeds are speared with a hot wire to create holes to make jewelleryA collection of seeds ready to be made into jewelleryPreparing ininti seeds to create jewellery