Queen of the Desert

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Me kweyetwemp, bush name," says Kathleen Petyarre. Surveying the 60 works that comprise her retrospective at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, the quiet, dignified Anmatyerr elder from Mosquito Bore, 300 km northeast of Alice Springs, reverts to a skittish giggle as she recalls the body-painting ceremonies of her childhood. As a young girl, Petyarre had to stand at the back of the queue as the senior women danced in celebration of the yam harvest. "Her grandmother chose her to be special to learn about the law," explains Christine Nicholls, lecturer in cultural studies at Adelaide's Flinders University. Today, painting "is a different way of being special."

And special Petyarre is. Having survived controversy (a former de facto husband's claim that he painted her 1996 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award-winning Storm in Atnangker Country II was dismissed by a museum board inquiry in 1998), Petyarre has emerged as the leading artist of the renowned Utopia art movement, and heir to the late, great Emily Kame Kngwarreye, her aunt. To stroll the MCA's fourth-level galleries, from Petyarre's rough-and-ready batiks of the late '70s to her recent and sublime color-field canvases, is to witness the spinning of indigenous knowledge into fine-art gold. With "Genius of Place," which runs through July 22, it's doubtful the visitor will see a more beautiful, transcendent show this year. "There is something very centered and very sure and very serene about the place that she takes you to with her work," says the MCA's Russell Storer, who curated the exhibition with Nicholls.

Petyarre (who guesses she is just over 60) is a cultural navigator, and the place she knows is her Atnangker country. As Nicholls writes in a monograph that accompanies the show, Petyarre's paintings are "mental maps" of the ancestral lands she traveled as a child with her extended family: her grandparents, her father and his three wives, her seven sisters and three brothers. After laboring for nearby pastoralists, the family eventually moved to the government settlement of Utopia, where Petyarre worked for 20 years as a teaching assistant at the local school. During this time, she became active in a land claim which saw much of Utopia returned to its traditional owners in 1980.

All the while, a sense of spiritual ownership survived through the Dreaming stories Petyarre enacted through body painting and later batik, which was introduced to Utopia in 1977-"the creative link between the traditional and the contemporary," wrote initiator Jenny Green. Allergic to the smell and smoke of batik wax, Petyarre became one of the first local women to turn to acrylic on canvas when art adviser Rodney Gooch introduced the materials in 1986. The brilliant stippling that would become a hallmark of the Utopia style was in part a reaction against the more explicit religious works painted by the men of nearby Papunya a decade before. "The dotting is actually overlaying sacred areas, protecting them from the predatory gaze," says Nicholls.

What distinguishes Petyarre's work from the shimmering surfaces of Kngwarreye is the pathway it offers through the dots. With the scale and minimalist grace of a Rothko, her paintings invite the viewer to step into the Atnangker landscape. For travelers at the MCA, Petyarre's Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming, 1997, is key. Bearing the cross motif that is pared back in much of her other work, it is a road map of her land, with four Dreaming tracks converging in a ceremonial square, where secret men's and women's business takes place. Shaded in gray toward the bottom left of the picture are the watercourses and rockholes that Petyarre brings alive in a series of works housed in an adjacent room. Mysterious firmaments of olive green and celestial blue, they give the feeling of entering a darkened crypt.

The exhibition's final room offers a more visceral experience of the landscape. With subtle shifts of the horizon line, Petyarre's dotted fields of ocher-red and hailstorm-white conjure up the sensation a passenger might feel in a light plane swooping in to land. Housed along four walls, they create an effect of spiritual uplift and endlessly eddying space. And infusing much of the work-suggested by a circular dance of footprints here, a cloud of dust there-is the ephemeral presence of Petyarre's custodial totem, the thorny or mountain devil lizard, arnkerrth-a tiny, miraculous creature adept at the art of camouflage and survival.

Not unlike the artist herself. The memory of Welsh-born Ray Beamish's allegations over Storm in Atnangker Country II still pains Petyarre, for whom English is a tentative second language. When asked about the controversy, she drops her head in silence. (While Petyarre acknowledged that Beamish had assisted her with the work, she successfully proved custodial and artistic ownership of the image.) "It was heartbreaking," recalls her Adelaide dealer, David Cossey. "It was like saying, 'You're not a real person.'"

Three years later, Petyarre-who divides her time between Adelaide (where she paints) and Mosquito Bore (where her only child Margaret Pwerle and pet dogs reside) -is indefatigable. "Soon as I get up, I start work," she says. "Sometimes I go shopping, then come back and start again doing painting, yeah. I just keep on." To achieve her microfine mist of dots, Petyarre uses the sharpened ends of satay sticks, purchased in bulk from Indonesia ("Many bamboo forests have been felled," jokes Nicholls). A large work can take up to six weeks. "I paint slow," she explains. "Not quick one."

One of the first paintings Petyarre completed after her annus horribilis was the magisterial My Country (Bush Seeds), 1999. Now in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, it depicts the greening of the desert as the bush seeds come into flower before being collected, ground and baked into cakes by the women of Utopia. Petyarre's art, too, seems born of the land. Fertilized over a lifetime, it's now reaping its own extraordinary harvest.