Story Dreaming: Bush Medicine Leaves
When I think of Gloria Petyarre, I have to smile. She is a no-nonsense woman with a good sense of humor; she’s strong and bold just like her paintings. Her work brings all my senses to life, mainly her Bush Medicine Dreaming paintings. I can almost feel, hear, see the grass swaying in the wind on a hot summer’s day.
Gloria was born in approximately 1945 and is from Atnangkere soakage in the Utopia region of Central Australia. She is part of the Anmatyerre language group and has been an instrumental figure in contemporary Indigenous Australian art. Gloria and her five sisters, Kathleen, Ada Bird (now passed away), Myrtle, Violet, and Nancy (now passed away) are all talented artists and the nieces of the famous Utopian artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
Like many others from her generation, Gloria became involved in the Utopian art movement through the community project titled “Utopia – A Picture Story” in the late 1970s. It was a joint venture which brought silk batik making into the community. The project was a huge success, resulting in acquisition of the entire body of work by the Holmes à Court Collection as well as Australian and overseas exhibitions. Gloria became one of the founding members of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group.
In 1989, Gloria was also involved in the “Summer Project” at Utopia, where canvas and acrylic paints were introduced to the women. The result was an explosion of creativity. In 1990, she traveled to Ireland, England, and India as part of the “Utopia – A Picture Story” exhibition and held her first solo exhibition in 1991.
In 1995/6 Gloria was awarded a full fellowship grant from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board of the Australia Council, and in 1999, she won Australia’s longest-running art prize—The Wynne Prize—becoming the first Aboriginal person to win a major prize from an art gallery in New South Wales. Her work has been exhibited widely around Australia and overseas in Europe, North America, and Asia.
Gloria’s work is based on the Awelye, which is the Anmatyerre word for women’s ceremonies. Awelye also refers specifically to the designs applied to a woman’s body as part of a ceremony.
The Awelye is performed by Aboriginal women to recall their ancestors, to show respect for their country, and to demonstrate their responsibility for the well-being of their community. Since it reflects women’s roles as nurturers, the Awelye celebrates the fertility of the land and the aboriginal food it provides.
The Awelye ceremony, which is never performed in the presence of men, begins with the women painting each others’ bodies in designs relating to a particular woman’s Dreaming, their skin name, and tribal hierarchy. The Awelye designs represent a range of Dreamings including animals and plants, healing and law. The designs are painted on the chest and shoulders using powders ground from ochre, charcoal, and ash, applied with a flat stick with padding or with fingers in raw, linear and curved lines. A meditative and sensual experience, the act of decorating the body transforms the individual and changes their identity. During the painting process, which can take up to three hours, the women chant their Dreaming, and the ceremony concludes with more dancing and chanting.
Gloria is the custodian of several Dreaming stories, including the Pencil Yam, Bean, Emu, and Mountain Devil Lizard. Her paintings are monochromatic or multi-colored and distinguishable by their well-defined segments filled with curved lines. Her work has evolved into abstract fields that represent leaves, grasses, and body paint. A clear example of this is her “Bush Medicine Leaves,” which depicts leaves from plant species which are used for medicinal purposes in traditional healing practices. The women from Utopia would gather the leaves and boil them, adding resin and mixing the substance into a paste for use as a medicine to treat many ailments. The tradition still thrives in many communities and is honored in Awelye ceremonies to this day.
All Images Including Cover, Courtesy of VISCOPY & Central Arts © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia