In search of Aboriginal art in Utopia, Central Australia.
After over 30 years I really have no idea about the amount of the trips I have done to the Utopia region of the Northern Territory, but yesterday was really special for me. I took my 15 year old grandson Joel with me. Yes, he actually wanted to go with his Pop!
We got away about 9am – a bit later than usual because I had a couple of other early commitments to attend to. On the way out we talked about Aussie Rules football because we’re both diehard Collingwood supporters – yeah I brainwashed him early in his life! And he is right into the Dream Team footy competition and knows just about every stat on every footballer in the competition – if not all the vast majority! I loved it because I learnt lots and it might help me in the tipping competition that we have (Joel makes the mistake of always picking Collingwood to win no matter who they play – you don’t win tipping competitions for that loyalty and I learnt that the hard way many years ago!).
As we motored along on this 600km+ “day out” the subject changed to what we were going to do during the day, where we would be going, who we would be seeing and a little knowledge about certain individuals and outstations. It was important, I thought, to keep it light and interesting. I also wanted to introduce him to a little about some of the vegetation and how it is important to the aboriginal people. Again keeping it basic – to Joel the vegetation was just the bush and pretty boring, so I thought I’d leave the education to just the Mulga trees and Bush Plum shrubs. And I’ll take you readers through the information as well because you may find it interesting.
As we drove along I pointed to a forest of Mulga trees and asked Joel if he knew what the species were. “Trees, Pop” was the answer! So as we drove along looking at ‘thousands’ of these Mulga trees I chatted about some of the importance these trees have for the aboriginal people who live on these lands. (Joel pointed to an Ironwood tree and tested me by saying “What’s that one Pop?”. Fortunately I knew it and sounded wise!!!!) They are a hardwood tree and their wood was used to make boomerangs, spears, shields, coolamons (wooden bowls), clap sticks, nulla nullas (clubs), woomeras (spear throwers), dancing/ceremonial sticks, adzes, churingas (sacred boards) and no doubt other bits and pieces.
They [ironwood trees] are a hardwood tree and their wood was used to make boomerangs, spears, shields, coolamons (wooden bowls), clap sticks, nulla nullas (clubs), woomeras (spear throwers), dancing/ceremonial sticks, adzes, churingas (sacred boards) and no doubt other bits and pieces.
Honey ants live under many of them and local aboriginals wander amongst them looking for worker ants. When they find them they know that the prized honey ants, with swollen abdomens of honey, are not far away and can be dug out of the ground (it really has a yummy flavour!). The worker ants collect a white sugary substance off the Mulga tree branches called lerp scale that infests lots of these mulga trees, and they take it to the nests where it is stored in the swollen abdomens of other designated ants. The seeds of the Mulga tree were also collected, roasted and ground into flour in the past.
A mistletoe parasite grows on nearly all the Mulga trees and produces small sticky berries that are also eaten. (It was Lindsay Bird some 20 years ago that brought me some of these branches with berries to show me that it was his Mulga Seed Dreaming).
Mulga tree apples are also found on Mulga trees. Usually those trees that grow close to a good water source because they come about by wasps who bore into the branches and lay their eggs. A gall then forms with the grubs inside it. Both gall and grubs are then eaten. Some galls are dreadfully bitter and can’t be eaten but aboriginal people could recognise this, and of course like some other native foods you rely on the bitter test – that is spit it out if you are unsure.
Some galls are dreadfully bitter and can’t be eaten but aboriginal people could recognise this, and of course like some other native foods you rely on the bitter test – that is spit it out if you are unsure.
I decided our first stop should be to visit Lena Pwerle at her bush camp behind the Alparra (Utopia) Store. This is some 250kms North East of Alice Springs. Lena had got a message to our art manager, Tomo, that she needed a warm blanket, and I gave in because we also had some other requests for warm jumpers as winter is fast approaching, this is something I don’t do a lot of now because I simply don’t have the room in the car. But Lena is such a persuasive old soul it’s hard to say no to her and she can twist Tomo around her little finger.
We got to her camp (a bush humpy is her preference) and unloaded the flour and blanket and I introduced Joel and took a photo of the two together.
Artist Lena Pwerle and my Grandson, Joel
Something that I wanted to do and Joel responded really well. I also picked up a painting here from Connie Petyarre but it wasn’t up to her normal standard of very fine work. Everyone there said that her eyes were going on her (Connie is really shy). I made a mental note to bring out a selection of glasses for her on the next trip.
Rosie Pwerle who is about the same age as Lena I would guess, also lives here but was away at the time. Apart from paintings, Rosie keeps herself busy by making small native wooden carvings and bead necklaces. She brought some into town a week or so ago and I just loved them!
Rosie Pwerle with her beautiful carvings
We then drove on to Rocket Range camp and were quite busy for about an hour or more. I introduced Joel and asked if he could take a few photos and they all said yes but he was a bit shy here as it was all new to him. We collected some nice paintings from Carmen Jones, Katie Kemarre, Hazel Morton, Kylie Kemarre, and Michelle and Lily Lion, and gave out new canvasses and paints.
Soapy Bore, some 20km away was our next stop, where we also collected a nice array of paintings from Loretta Jones, Dorothy and Jilly Jones and also May Lewis . I was really happy with a painting by Loretta Jones and also some extremely fine dot work from Dorothy Jones. Lots of other non-artists and kids came around the car as well and love to interact while we’re there. We then said goodbye to Soapy Bore and drove to the turnoff to Kurrajong Outstation because we had received word that Violet Payne would be there. However she wasn’t, so we drove slowly past Alparra Store which was not far away. Still no sign of Violet so we headed off to Camel Camp via Tomahawk Outstation.
There was no one at Tomahawk so we arrived at Camel Camp some 10 minutes later. There we were met by Angelina Ngale, Glady Kemarre, Matthew Mbitjane, Kathleen Ngale, Polly Ngale and a few other people. I introduced Joel to them and said he was Terri’s oldest child (They know Terri who often comes with me). They all started talking in their language and broken English about him with big smiles on their faces. I know it was very welcoming.
They all started talking in their language and broken English about him with big smiles on their faces. I know it was very welcoming.
Glady had a couple of small carvings that I really loved – very unique and I have never seen them done in this way before. Matthew had a 90x90cm painting in a very similar style to his sister, Elizabeth. Very naïve and didn’t adhere to being painted evenly to the borders of the canvas. I think it will look really good when stretched (as do Elizabeth’s) and will appeal to that person who isn’t looking for conformity.
Matthew was extremely talkative and happy (as he usually is) but hard to understand as his English is very limited. Joel asked me “How do you understand them Pop?”. I replied that I have developed an ear for it over the years, but even then I miss a lot! Polly Ngale had a few small to medium paintings and she talks at 100 miles per hour. I must admit I don’t comprehend a lot of that. (But there is usually someone who can interpret for me.) We were quite busy there spending a fair bit of time just engaging. They all have a good sense of humour – Glady has a really dry sense of humour and a wicked laugh!
After leaving them it was time to head home and my arithmetic was saying probably about 6:30/45 before getting Joel back home to his mother and father. However, just after leaving Camel Camp, Violet Payne and about 6 of her family found us and waved us down. They had lots of paintings which we processed and one 180x60cm by Laura Payne – Violet’s youngest sister. We had a big laugh because Laura has had the canvas for about 2 years and I always tease her how she’s going with it and we get a laugh out if it because we both know it’s still in the ‘too hard basket’.
We had a big laugh because Laura has had the canvas for about 2 years and I always tease her how she’s going with it. We get a laugh out if it because we both know it’s still in the ‘too hard basket’.
Anyway, here in the middle of nowhere next to the dry Sandover River out it comes – all finished! And she laughed and laughed (and so did I!). And it was good!! She had done a larger one of this style once before and I thought it was something really special with her own ‘ownership’ stamped on it.
They also had some of their mum and dad’s, Harold Payne and Doreen Payne’s, paintings which I also paid them for. I had also forgotten why Harold sometimes had white (or cream) and black bird symbols on his paintings and asked to be refreshed on it. I was told that in mythological times the little bird (a native pigeon) landed on the Bush Plum Tree with the fruit was still unripe. It then walked onto the clusters of berries which then turned black and were ready to eat.
Harold Payne’s painting that depicts a pigeon walking over ripening fruit on the Bush Plum Tree
After giving out more canvas and paints they got in their cars and turned for home, as did we. They were all waving from their windows and it gave Joel and me a really nice feeling. And it also related to Harold Payne’s story that I mentioned earlier.
This put us another 40 minutes behind our ‘home schedule’, but that was fine. Off we went and Joel fell asleep (I might have too if I wasn’t driving!). After about 100km I stopped on the side of the road and showed Joel a Bush Plum Tree and explained a little about that.
Joel turns 16 this year and can get his driver’s licence then, so I threw him the keys to do a little driving on some dirt tracks – and yes he was a model student! Having driven hundreds of thousands of kilometres on Territory dirt roads I instilled a few rules and subtle advice. We both survived and Joel had one of his first bush road lessons.
Joel turns 16 this year and can get his driver’s licence then, so I threw him the keys to do a little driving on some dirt tracks – and yes he was a model student!
It was after 7pm when we arrived home, but when we were some about 50kms from home I asked Joel to give me 3 negatives about the day. He said the distance we had to travel from home to the first Outstation (about 270km), and he also incorporated the time actually driving over the bumpy roads – he couldn’t think of a third negative which was good! I then asked him to give me 3 positives and he stated “the trees”. I had to ask him what he meant by this and he elaborated that he meant learning about the Mulga trees and Bush Plums. He also liked the “driving” and I replied that he just gave this as a negative! He clarified that he meant HIM driving! His third positive of the day was that he liked how we “got the art”. I added 3 more to his list of positives – meeting lots of aboriginal people in their home environment, seeing an enthusiastic side of their personality expressed in their native language, and of course, spending time with Pop.
That’s all from me on this latest of bush trips. Good night everyone.