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Kathleen Petyarre

c1938 - d2018

Earlier last year (2018), the art world farewelled one of the most important and influential painters of our time. Kathleen Petyarre, a traditional full-blood Atnangker woman, was born out-bush around 80 years ago in the Utopia region of Central Australia, approx 250km northeast of Alice Springs.

She became world renowned as a pioneer of contemporary aboriginal art – and one of Australia’s most collectable and sought-after artists. Kathleen came from a long line of seven sisters, Ada, Nancy, Myrtle, Jeanne, Gloria and Violet. A few of the sisters are also famous in their own right and are also very much collectable.

Kathleen has been very influential in the recognition of Aboriginal women as artists, and in particular, the Utopia/Atnangker clan, as she was one of the first generation of artists and the most prolific to come from the region.

She was awarded first prize in 1996 in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (also known as the Telstra Awards) which generated considerable controversy at a time when Aboriginal art was fast becoming a collectable asset and fetching extremely high prices in fine art galleries and auction houses in Melbourne and Sydney. Her works appear in collections and publications including a book Genius of Place, featuring over 40 works of hers alone.

Kathleen painted her traditional stories of her ancestral past. Keeping in mind that men are the traditional hunters and women are the gatherers, her motifs transformed into contemporary fine art using modern acrylic pigments on canvas or linen. She painted with a unique and complex style using tiny dots, a style that she adopted as her own. This style was totally different to that of the western desert people, including her own tribe (Atnangker country, referred to as Utopia, northeast of Alice Springs). Kathleen paintings had captivated everyone and anyone. You didn’t need to know anything about the painting or painter to appreciate her amazing works.

Redrock Artbank director, Mem Aziz, recalls his first encounter with Kathleen: “I had first met Kathleen in the late 1990’s on my quest to catch up with her sister, Gloria Petyarre, and found them both along with May Wilson Nampijinpa (Gloria’s sister in-law) in an estate outside Alice Springs own by flamboyant gay art dealer, Rodney Gooch, who had genuinely adored the Utopia women and protected the artists from carpet baggers.

“Rodney had provided the women with a protected peaceful environment to paint without being harassed or cheated by outsiders hounding them for the artworks. Rodney knew of my connection with the family and would make an exception for me to visit the Petyarre Sisters. Kathleen would paint large canvases for Rodney and in-between she would paint small paintings for me, as I was spending most of my time with her sister Gloria and commissioning new paintings.

“By the year 2000, Ronnie was stricken with the HIV and AIDS virus which by 2002 had taken his life. By this time, Kathleen was being hunted by every hungry hound. She had three homes, Utopia, Alice Springs (family) and Port Adelaide (South Australia), where another art dealer had given her an apartment to live in, in exchange for exclusivity to her paintings. Kathleen would call me to visit her in Adelaide, where she was accompanied by family members all year round as she would be home sick and lonely. A few times a year, I would receive these unexpected calls to come visit her. We would all sit, chat and laugh about the little things she missed back in Central Australia, including her grand-children. Kathleen was theatrical and talkative and the next day her mood could change dramatically, but either way she always remained polite.

“Every Christmas she would return to Central Australia for a couple of months. It was here that Kathleen introduced me to her daughter Margaret and grand-daughter Abie Loy, who is today a very highly collectable artist herself. Kathleen painted the Thorny Devil Lizard paintings and My Country - Bush Seed paintings for me. Every painting I had commissioned from Kathleen has been thoroughly documented and today I have a number of her paintings in my collection.”

Kathleen’s was one of those uniquely gifted people who draw their very lifeblood from their ancient culture. She lived a full life and loved what she did. Her talent for communicating her cultural heritage has not been lost now that she has passed on. Her spirit lives on in her brilliant artworks that are now admired and respected by people in places across the world, far from the source of her inspiration in Central Australia.

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