Gloria (Tamerre) Petyarre, is recognised as one of Australia’s most high profile and collectable female indigenous artists. She was born in the Northern Territory in circa 1942-1945 in Atnangkere country, near an outstation called Boundary Bore, in the remote region of Utopia which covers an area that is approximately 230 to 260 kilometres north east of Alice Springs.
Before moving to the established settlement of Utopia, Gloria lived in traditional Aboriginal ways. She was one of seven sisters who belonged to Arlperre country with the Language group of the Anmatyerre, a group that have produced many renowned artists, including Clifford Possum (c. 1932-2002) and Gloria’s renowned aunt, Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c. 1910-1996), the most famous and accomplished Australian female indigenous artist.
Many of Australia’s foremost Indigenous artists sprang from the Utopia area. Gloria’s sisters are all well-known Aboriginal artists, including Kathleen Petyarre, Nancy Petyarre, Violet Petyarre, and Ada Bird. The artwork of the Petyarre sisters share the same Dreamings, including: Arnkerrth, the Mountain or Thorny Devil Lizard, Awelye, ceremonial women’s body design, and stories related to bush food and medicine.
The history of the Utopia art movement began in 1977, when the Utopian people gained a 99 year leasehold on the Utopia Pastoral Lease, purchased through the Aboriginal Land Fund Council. In that year, Gloria and her family became interested in art by participating in the Utopia Women’s Silk Batik Group, introduced and initiated by CAAMA (the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association).
The Batik painting programme provided the town and its artists with income and recognition. Many of the women artists in the group were taught to sign their names, as well as other skills that would make a difference to life at Utopia, including how to drive a car. Gloria and her aunty Emily Kame Kngwarreye, were founding and leading members of the Batik group.
The success of the Batik programme, led to another successful project, the 1988-1989 Summer Project introduced in 1988, again by CAAMA. Artists were taught to paint on stretched canvas, and many of them took to the new medium with enthusiasm, finding it more exciting to work with than batik.
The resulting paintings were exhibited in April 1989 at the exhibition, “Utopia Women’s Painting; The First Works of Canvas; a Summer Project 1988 to 1989” at the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney, which also toured to other notable galleries across Australia.
It was the very successful beginning of the Utopian Art Movement, which gained international attention, with Gloria’s work receiving much interest. After the success of the exhibition, Gloria and many other Utopian artists moved away from batik and into painting fulltime with acrylic on canvas, representing their traditional women business subjects from their indigenous culture, ceremonies and Dreaming stories. They quickly mastered painting techniques, with a huge range of colours and tones emerging in their work, than was possible with batik.
Gloria’s very first painting on canvas, and her subsequent early paintings referenced “Awelye”, the traditional body paint designs at women’s ceremonies. These early canvases were to shape the unique forms of Utopia painting in the 1980s. Other subjects portrayed by Gloria, include: Bush Medicine Leaves, Mountain Devil Lizard, Bean, Emu, Pencil Yam, Grass Seed and Small Brown Grass.
In October 1989, Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne opened a Utopia women’s exhibition sourced from Delmore Gallery. This was the first exhibition of works from Utopia painted on linen. Including paintings by Gloria, the exhibition created a wave of interest and demand in Utopian art.
In 1990, Gloria travelled to Ireland, London, and India as a representative of the “Utopia Women in the Utopia – A Picture Story” exhibition. In the following year she held her first solo exhibition at Utopia Art in Sydney.
As demand for Utopian art grew, so did Gloria’s career, and throughout the 1990s, her paintings progressively increased in size and painterly precision.
Her work was included in many exhibitions and she travelled to several countries, participating in projects and exhibitions in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, the USA, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, India, and in public and commercial gallery exhibitions throughout Australia.
In 1994, the Le Louvre gallery in Paris acquired Gloria’s painting, ‘Mountain Devil’, which increased her fame, and raised the profile of Indigenous Australian in Europe and throughout the contemporary art world.
A multi-award winning artist, Gloria was selected as finalist several times in the Telstra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in the Northern Territory. In 1999, she won the prestigious Wynne Prize, awarded annually by the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, for the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours. Gloria was a finalist in the Wynne Prize another four times. Her 1999 win for her painting “Leaves” affirmed her position as one of the most talented and well-known Aboriginal artists. The painting was a huge, gold and green abstract, composed of swirling leaf-shaped brush strokes positioned closely together on a black background.
Gloria’s signature works that feature leaves from the Kurrajong bush medicine tree, have become her most iconic and popular pieces amongst art collectors.
Bush medicine leaves were traditionally collected by Aboriginal women and then dried and mixed with animal fat to cover wounds to aid healing, and also applied as an insect repellent. In the desert where doctors and medicine are not available, traditional medicine was important to the Aboriginal people, as much as food and water. They developed stories around bush medicine, now depicted in their art.
Gloria began painting bush medicine leaves in 1994 at Mosquito Bore in Utopia. She recalls doing her first work of leaves: “That first one. I was looking, looking. Looks like leaf, and I been put another one and another one and ‘ah yeah’. First leaf.”
Throughout the years Gloria’s leaf design has become more refined, whereby leaves aren’t loosely scattered, but have become swirling zephyrs spread across the canvas, in layered, engaging and energetic patterns, filling the canvas with colour and movement.
The bush medicine style has been adopted and adapted by several generations of Gloria’s family. However, Gloria is credited with being the creator of this popular style and is its most collectable proponent.
“Arnkerrthe”, the Mountain Devil Lizard also ranks among Gloria’s most significant subjects, telling how the Devil Lizard travelled over Gloria’s land creating all the people, sacred sites, songs and other Dreamtime stories. In its neck the lizard held a sack of ochre. Gloria and her people use ochre for ceremonies. Gloria’s style for Arnkerrthe Dreaming is a swirly design where the brushstrokes represent the thorny skin on the back of the lizard.
Gloria’s paintings are distinguished by their definition, strong linear patterns, precise curved lines and a powerful rhythmic quality that creates a kinetic, optical intensity. They are also noted for their beautiful use of colour and tone. Over the years, her style evolved to a higher level of abstraction and diversity as she continued to experiment with line and colour.
Later in her career, Gloria’s leaves subject evolved into massive ‘Big Leaf’ paintings, utilising expressive and giant brush strokes that mixed colour on the canvas to gain a variety of fascinating paint effects.
Also in her later years Gloria developed a new style when she visited Uluru for the first time. The Uluru inspired paintings related to her early works inspired by traditional body painting, and her father’s Mountain Devil Dreaming, as well as the Anmatyerre people’s strong historical connection to their traditional visits to Uluru after big rains, when all the water holes and rock holes along the journey to, and at Uluru, were full, enabling them to walk there from their Arlperre country.
Gloria painted until her retirement in 2019 due to health issues. She passed away on 8 June 2021 in Alice Springs.
Her paintings are included in many important public and corporate collections, including: the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the National Gallery in Melbourne, British Museum in London, Seattle Art Museum in the USA, Singapore Art Museum, Musee du quai Branly in Paris, Musee des arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie in Paris, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of Queensland, Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, Art Gallery of South Australia, Museum of Victoria, Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Campbelltown City Art Gallery in NSW, Gold Coast City Art Gallery, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Woollongong City Art Gallery, University of New South Wales Collection, University of Queensland, University of the Sunshine Coast, Flinders University, Griffith University Collection, Queensland University of Technology, University of Woollongong, plus many prestigious private and corporate collections in Australia and overseas.