Utopia Dreaming

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Utopia Dreaming


Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


These days, Australian Aboriginal culture has become synonymous with Australian Aboriginal art. The look is multifariously patterned paintings, the result of hundreds upon hundreds of little dots.

So popular in contemporary art circles, it's enough to make legendary French neo-impressionist painters like Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and Paul Signac (1863-1935) pound on the lids of their coffins for want to be alive and kicking, just so they can be part of what has become an internationally recognized art movement.

The movement can be traced as far back as 50,000 years in the form of transitory drawings usually made in sand or on people's bodies for the purpose of ceremony. But the best-known form of modern Aboriginal art -- paintings on canvas characterized by allover dotting and associated with desert communities -- didn't get started until 1971.

That was when a young Australian schoolteacher named Geoff Bardon arrived at a remote place called Papunya, a small government- controlled settlement about 100 miles from Alice Springs in Central Australia.

Intrigued by what he saw in the sand paintings, Bardon encouraged the artists who were making them to paint murals of their designs on the walls of the local schools. Soon thereafter, the artists began painting traditional stories and motifs in acrylic on canvas.

Like the transitory drawings of the past, the paintings of today are based on "dreamings" that are symbolic creations of stories that are central to Aboriginal beliefs. Almost 50 such paintings are on display in the exhibit "New Works From Utopia" at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Downtown gallery SPACE, as part of the Trust's "Australia Festival," a six-week celebration of contemporary and indigenous performing and visual arts from Down Under.

The exhibit is drawn from works created by artists associated with a Dreaming Art Centre of Utopia.

Just like the Cayman Islands has a real place called "Hell," Australia has "Utopia." Named by German settlers immigrating to Australia in the 1920s hoping for better times, Utopia has, since the mid-1970s, played a distinct and important role in the development of modern Australian Aboriginal art.

Utopia is 167 miles northeast of Alice Springs, where Utopia's modern-day art movement started in 1977, when a women's batik- making fabric workshop evolved.

Begun to empower local women and provide a source of income in advance of their regaining land rights to their ancestral homes, the "Women's Batik Project," as it was called, eventually led to the Asia Society's "Dreamings" exhibit in New York in the 1980s. Since that time, Utopia has come to be associated with some of the finest and most famous contemporary Aboriginal artists.

By 1988, the Utopia Women's Batik Group had grown to more than 80 members and has become a well-established group. Fabric as a contemporary art medium was difficult to promote, especially in relation to Papunya's well-established painting movement. …

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