February 17, 2021

Utopia Suite

         I am somewhat familiar with the style of paintings characteristic of many Australian Aboriginal artists, but had not realized before that among the other various media these same artists have worked in is wood block printmaking.  Utopia is an area in central Australia where an art center was established in 1977, building on traditional body painting and sandpainting practices and introducing batik, printmaking, wood carving, canvas painting, and more.  Most of the artists have been women, and a number have reached international recognition.
        In 1990 these artists produced The Utopia Suite, a collection of 72 wood block prints by 70 different artists.  I can’t find any specifics about the project, such as whether there was any unifying theme beyond the usual interests of this group of artists.  Were the individual pieces intended particularly to be viewed together, or were they simply a collection of diverse output from a particular time and place?  At any rate, there are many pieces with definite similarities, starting with the fact that they’re all black and white, and including the use of dots and scattered motifs, the depiction of local flora and fauna, and so on.  None of the individual pieces is titled.
        We begin with two pieces that share animal motifs in a field of dots.  The first has some nice details in the lizard’s tongue and bird’s crest, and it seems to me that the lizard’s silhouette is particularly sensitively-observed.  The artist is one of I think only two men contributing to the portfolio.  The second piece has not only a wider array of animals - I particularly like the emu - but also some footprints, and some lines of motion around the snake.  These imply the story of where the animals have been or are going.
        The next two pieces both look more abstract to my eyes that do not know the stories behind them.  From what little I do know about Aboriginal art, I assume that they are representational in some sense, but I don’t know what they represent.  The third piece evokes a sea star to me, but perhaps more likely is trails to a water hole… or perhaps something completely different.  The fourth looks to me like leaves covering a forest floor, but again, I assume that’s just me and not at all what the piece means to the artist herself.
        The fifth piece definitely looks like trees and shrubs to me, and I think it would make a lovely fabric design, made into a repeating pattern.  I find it interesting that I don’t see in it any sign of animals, footprints, trails, etc.  Also, it looks to me as if the lines on the larger trees may have been carved by holding the gouge upside-down so that it scratches the wood with its two edges instead of scooping out a single wider trail.  The smaller shrubs, however, are carved with single lines.
        And the final two pieces are more different.  Number six is the only one showing a scene with a more kind of Western-art composition: mountains in the background, shelters with a bit of perspective, people going about their business.  I like the people, especially what I’m guessing is their curly hair depicted with halos of tiny dots.  The fire, too, or its smoke, is depicted with dots rather than lines.  
And the seventh piece is again abstract to me.  I particularly like the variety of lines: thicker white lines, trails of little dots, tight zig-zags, and more.
        While these don’t have the bright or earthy colors so often associated with Aboriginal art, they do still have the wonderful texture and sense of repeated patterns.  I find them a very interesting variety from most of the block prints I feature here.

[Pictures: Individually untitled wood block prints from Utopia Suite, portfolio of woodcuts by

Lyndsay Bird Mpetyane, Mavis Petyarre,

June Bird, Nora Petyarre,

Kwementyay (Gladdy) Kemarre,

Anna Petyarre, Gloria Tamerr Petyarre  (All images from AGSA).]

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