“Kathleen Petyarre (b.c.1940) niece of great Aboriginal artist the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, is universally recognised as one of Australia’s greatest living Aboriginal artists.
During 2001 Kathleen Petyarre’s fame and place in Australian art history was cemented when she was honored with a major retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Titled “Kathleen Petyarre: Genius of Place”.
Kathleen Petyarre was born at Atnangkere, near the western boundary of Utopia Station. Atnangkere is a water soakage that is central to the lives of her people. She belongs to the Alyawarre/Eastern Anmatyerre clan and speaks Eastern Anmatyerre, with English as her second language. Her childhood was spent in a traditional way, moving across the land with her extended family. She suggests that she was seven or eight years old when she saw her first white person. It is clear from the discussion of white occupation of that country in chapter one, that there probably would have been opportunities to do so before 1947 or 1948. However, her meeting up with a white man on a horse and his subsequent involvement with her family left a lasting impression on the young Kathleen. She became interested in the world outside the one she knew so well. In a traditional way, Kathleen Petyarre was married as a teenager to an older man to whom she was ‘promised’.
Regardless, Kathleen Petyarre grew up with a foot in each world and became an accomplished English speaker. During her youth, Kathleen Petyarre had a wonderful grounding in traditional life and developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of her country around Atangkere. Birds, animals, snakes, lizards, rock holes and soakages were all basic to her world and beliefs. As an Aboriginal painter she has drawn on that knowledge. It was her grandmother who ‘chose her to be special to learn about the law … today painting is a different way of being special’.
She started painting at Utopia, like many others of her generation in 1988-9 after being a part of the Women’s batik Group. Since her rise to fame Kathleen Petyarre has shared her time between Mosquito Bore on Utopia and her house in Adelaide. Market demand for her paintings in 2009 was stronger than ever before and since 1993 Kathleen Petyarre has maintained a sound connection with the Aboriginal Art Gallerie Australis in Adelaide. She is yet another outstanding Aboriginal painter who never wanted to be affiliated with an ‘official’ community Aboriginal art centre.
In 1996 Kathleen Petyarre was announced as the overall winner of the 13th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award for her painting “ Storm in Atnangkere Counrty 11”. The “Telstra” was indeed the greatest award offered to indigenous artists across the country and Kathleen Petyarre was delighted.
Kathleen Petyarre’s supreme image is her ‘Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming’. In this work she displays a cross motif that is peculiar to this work. Four Dreaming trails converge on a ceremonial square, where secret men’s and women’s business takes place. Angling towards the bottom left corner of the ‘map’ is a watercourse that has been full after rainy times but now leaves a residual pattern that is characteristic of her country. Seen from above this is a thoroughgoing map that includes the tracks and destinations of her totem, the Mountain Devil Lizard. Frequently painted on a black ground with fine cream dotting, this work speaks volumes about Kathleen’s country and her connection with it.”