A Visit to the Artistic Hillbillies of Utopia

Driving along the desolate and gorgeous Sandover Highway northeast of Alice Springs, there are only two sure indicators that life exists in this parched red-orange landscape. One is the curious ubiquity of pink cockatoos, which dart out of the bush and swoop over the Land Cruiser, occasionally exploding into the grill in a suicidal puff of pastel feathers. The other is an abundance of junked cars—sun-bleached Ford Falcons and rusty station wagons that have been abandoned at the side of the road by Aborigines going to or coming from their isolated homes in the outback. In the heat of the afternoon, when the horizon shudders like a mirage and towering dust devils swirl across the highway, this place can feel like the end of the world. Perhaps seized by irony or optimism, the German immigrants who tried to settle this area in the 1920s named it Utopia.

I’m traveling along this barren Utopian byway with Dale Jennings, a 24-year-old Australian woman who works as a field research manager for the Mbantua Gallery in Alice Springs. Our goal for the day is to collect and document new paintings from the aboriginal artists who live out here. We’re also going to investigate a mystery concerning the Dixon clan of Tomahawk Camp—a promising group of female artists whose intricately detailed dot paintings declined in quality when the gallery began to pay them more money. Dale can’t understand how a pay increase could result in shoddier dot work, so she’s packed a box of reading glasses and prepared a pep talk in the hope that the women’s work will return to its previous standard.

For the past couple of decades, paintings and folkcraft have been the most vibrant—and marketable—expression of Australia’s indigenous culture. Tied to the intricacies of dreamtime spiritual law, aboriginal rock art and body painting is said to be the oldest ongoing artistic legacy in the world, stretching back at least 40,000 years. Despite such ancient traditions, however, Aborigines have been selling paintings to outsiders for only a little over half a century. Albert Namatjira, a pioneering Arrernte watercolor artist, was the first indigenous person to be granted citizenship by the Australian government, in 1957. (Average Aborigines didn’t get this privilege for another 10 years.) In the early 1970s, a teacher named Geoffrey Bardon encouraged artists in the Western Desert community of Papunya to re-create their sand-art designs on canvas, using synthetic paints. Initially controversial (some Aborigines considered their art to be sacred and private), the symbolic, dreamtime-inspired “dot” paintings of the Papunya community soon proved a hit with tourists and collectors. Other indigenous communities around Australia began to render their dreamtime stories on canvas, and aboriginal painting centers sprang up around Australia. At least 50 such art collectives now operate in the Northern Territory alone.

Thanks to this indigenous renaissance, Australia has more working artists per capita than any country in the world—and the Alice Springs area has more art galleries per capita than any place in Australia. Of the four H’s said to motivate indigenous tourism worldwide (habitat, heritage, and history included), handcrafts are by far the most sought-after aspect of aboriginal Australian life. A souvenir dot painting is as close as many tourists to central Australia come to actual contact with indigenous culture—and this is usually no accident, since aboriginal communities tend to protect their privacy. To gain entry into the far-flung communities of Utopia, in fact, I had to shed the tourist mantle in Alice Springs and brandish my press credentials in the Mbantua Gallery. Hoping to make the most of my last-minute intrusion, Dale Jennings has deputized me to hand out paints and take photos while she collects and documents the new paintings.

Turning off the Sandover Highway, past a large sign decreeing a liquor ban on aboriginal land, Dale steers the Land Cruiser over a series of rutted dirt roads that take us into the heart of Utopia. Nearly the size of Luxembourg, this area includes more than a dozen remote communities, where the primary languages are Anmatyerr and Alyawarr, dialects vaguely similar to the Arrernte spoken in the Alice Springs area. Despite its isolation, Utopia is one of the most renowned art regions in Australia, made famous in the 1990s by the stylistic innovations of the late Emily Kngwarreye and Gloria Petyarre, whose paintings now sell worldwide for tens of thousands of dollars. The Utopia scene is female-dominated and derives its most distinctive canvas techniques from the ceremonial body painting used by generations of Anmatyerr and Alyawarr women. Of the 2,000 or so people who live in the Utopia region, more than 250 artists sell their work through the Mbantua Gallery, representatives of which make a 350-mile round-trip journey to collect paintings twice each month. Dale is the second generation of Jenningses to make this biweekly excursion; her father, Tim Jennings, founded the art gallery in 1992, after two decades of working in Utopia as a policeman and shopkeeper.

Our first stop is Rocket Range (named for the shape of the local water tower), where I quickly learn why tourists aren’t encouraged to come here. Simply put, the settlement is filthy: Smashed soda cans and broken glass glitter in the dust; plastic grocery bags float in the breeze; festering dogs cower in the shadows. Children sit in the dirt, half-naked, snuffling amid clouds of bush flies. The concrete houses resemble military barracks long since given over to squatters; beds with soiled mattresses lie in dirt yards. In one slow, 360-degree gaze, I am able to count over 30 junked cars sitting tireless on the sun-baked soil.

Having grown up visiting the area, Dale is unfazed by the squalor. Spreading fresh canvases and paintbrushes out on the Land Cruiser tailgate, she greets the white-haired old ladies by name as they dodder over to show off their new artwork. Abstract, colorful, and richly detailed, each of these women’s paintings corresponds to a unique dreamtime story (often involving food, such as bush plums or bush tomatoes). Speaking a combination of pidgin English and Alyawarr, Dale updates her files on each artist, logging new acquisitions, passing out fresh art supplies, and asking each artist to sign the paintings she intends to buy. Mostly illiterate, the elderly artists sign their names in big block letters. For each painting Dale collects, my job is to take a photo of the artist with the handiwork. In addition to creating a personal keepsake for the potential art buyer, these photographs are meant to serve as a badge of authenticity, since aboriginal-style art is now widely forged in places like Vietnam and China. With Rocket Range artists like Queenie Kemarre creating canvases that sell for upward of $2,000 each, proving authenticity is becoming increasingly important.

After collecting art, dispensing supplies, taking photos, and handing out payments, Dale and I continue on to other Utopia settlements, where we repeat our routine. As we travel from camp to camp, I’m amazed by the local art variations: It’s as if each camp of a dozen or so Utopia artists has its own signature style. Whereas the Rocket Range artists paint large and colorful canvases, with lots of impressionistic abstractions, the painters at Mosquito Bore have held to the traditional method of tightly grouped dots, occasionally accenting their work with linear details. The chatty women at Camel Camp use white paint to create a bright and dreamy mood in their paintings, while the stoic male artists of Mulga Bore stick to earth-based ocher hues (yellow, red, and black) and traditional symbols derived from sand art.

Amid the artistic diversity, the only thing these aboriginal artists seem to have in common is the fact that they all live like hillbillies. At every camp we visit, the scene is the same: trashed cars, mangy dogs, dilapidated houses, piles of garbage swirling in the wind, entire families lolling in the shade. Most startling is Jeannie’s Camp, where a half-dozen families have centered their lifestyle in and around 20 or so broken-down sedans and station wagons, which they use for shelter. There are no houses here, just dead cars, dusty clumps of trash, a few shade-hutches made from sticks and dirty blankets, and one sickly calf tied to a tree. When Dale and I first arrive, we pass a sleepy-eyed man patiently driving a car with four flat tires.

Though years of political prejudice and territorial disenfranchisement have led Aborigines here to live this way, cultural choice is also a factor. Three years ago, the residents of Jeannie’s Camp lived in concrete houses in a nearby settlement, before aboriginal funeral rites (known in pidgin English as “sorry business”) required them to move to a new location. Unlike Western funerals, sorry business can last for months—and after relocating to this dusty knot of old cars, most of the families in Jeannie’s Camp enigmatically elected to stay, even after the mourning period had finished.

Considering that some of these artists can make thousands of dollars a month from their paintings (in addition to hundreds of dollars in welfare benefits), it can be hard to understand why they’d choose to spend their days living in such primitive settlements. One easy assumption is that middlemen and art dealers are exploiting their isolation.

“We hear that quite often,” Dale tells me, as she collects paintings from the Jeannie’s Camp artists. “About once a week someone will come into the gallery and accuse us of taking advantage of the artists. All we can say is that we’ve been working with the Utopia communities for years, and we’ve gone to great trouble to make their interests a priority. We can pay the artists a generous compensation, but we can’t force them to move into town and live a middle-class life.”

A thousand generations of nomadic heritage is undoubtedly part of the problem. In his book Collapse, biologist Jared Diamond notes that “the values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.” Diamond was referring to 15th-century Norse settlers using inappropriate farming methods in Greenland, but this notion could just as easily apply to indigenous Australians facing the modern world. For 40,000 years, the accumulation of possessions was considered an impediment to a lifestyle that required constant mobility within a harsh climate. Surplus food was used or destroyed, and refusal to share resources with the community (a cautionary motif in many aboriginal dreamtime stories) could result in violent punishment. Life was lived in the mythic moment; most aboriginal languages had no words for “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” To this day, most of the Aborigines living in Utopia spend or share their money as soon as they receive it. White Australians run all the outback supply shops, since indigenous proprietors would be culturally obliged to give away their goods for free. For the same reason, aboriginal auto mechanics are virtually nonexistent—hence the abundance of dead cars.

In many ways, the social complexities of aboriginal culture (from extensive, memorized traditional laws to an intricate kinship system meant to eliminate inbreeding) were rendered functionally obsolete when globalization and modernity arrived with European settlers, beginning in 1788. And, while all humans lived with hunter-gatherer values before the advent of agriculture, most world cultures have had 8,000 or so years to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of settled life. Cultures like the Anmatyerr and Alyawarr of Utopia, on the other hand, have been aware of this new worldview for less than a century—which could explain why cosmetic garbage disposal (an absurd concept to nomadic people) has yet to catch on here.

As Aborigines across Australia struggle to sustain nomadic traditions within the abundance and abstractions of modern life, many of their communities have suffered. Unemployment among Aborigines is four times the national average, infant death three times more likely. In remote communities, bush foods have given way to carbonated drinks and tinned meat purchased with welfare money. Alcoholism and obesity are rampant, and aboriginal life expectancy is 20 percent shorter than that of mainstream Australia’s.

Still, there are signs of improvement, and—despite the impoverished appearance of places like Jeannie’s Camp—the Utopia communities are actually a comparative success story. Thanks to the financial and moral successes of the decadelong art movement, heart disease and smoking are on the decline in Utopia; obesity is virtually nonexistent, and life expectancy is significantly longer than in neighboring Northern Territory aboriginal communities.

The final settlement we visit on our Utopia art run is Tomahawk Camp, where Dale hopes she can inspire the Dixon ladies to return to their previous standards of artistic excellence. Even famous artists like Emily Kngwarreye were notoriously inconsistent in their craft, for reasons the gallery curators of Alice Springs have yet to fully understand.

As it turns out, Dale’s pep talk is not necessary: Today, after two months of progressively inferior work, Thelma, Lorna, and Maggie Dixon show up bearing vibrantly colored canvases filled with detailed dot work. Dale seems equally delighted and perplexed with the quality of the new paintings. “Morrengre,” she says to the elderly sisters. “These are beautiful.” Perhaps for good measure, she gives the old ladies reading glasses anyway.

It would appear as if the artistic anomalies of the Dixon clan have been resolved for now—yet I can tell from the look on Dale’s face that the whole episode is still very much a mystery.