Utopia, Northern Territory
Born 1959, Utopia Homestead, Northern Territory
Lives and works in Utopia, Northern Territory
In Indigenous Australian parlance, the term ‘sugar bags’ is used to describe the sweet honey made by one of around 14 species of native stingless bees found across Australia. As a visual motif, it is one of the most variable and iconic in Australian Indigenous art. For thousands of years, sugar bags have adorned the faces of rock-art sites in the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and the Central Desert. With the dawn of the Indigenous art movement, the sugar bag emerged as an emblem of seemingly endless iconic possibility. In the paintings of artists as diverse as Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek, Jack Britten, Barney Ellaga, Jimmy Wululu and Lucy Ward, it has provided both a source of sweet inspiration and potent formal potential.
In most instances, the sugar bag is a symbol of tripartite significance. On the one hand it refers directly to the bush honey collected from the hollows of trees or crevices of rock shelters. On a more abstract level, the sugar bag usually refers to a particular Dreaming associated with a specific place. Lastly, the painting of sugar bags is often used to assert a totemic or ancestral connection to that particular place. In this sense, therefore, it is a visual metaphor of physical, personal and spiritual dimensions. In her latest body of paintings, Anmatyerre artist Josie Kunoth Petyarre has devoted herself entirely to the depiction of the sugar bag. According to Petyarre, these paintings contain ‘all the sweetness of the bush’ – not just the sugar bags themselves, but also the colourful bush grevillea and corkwood flowers that produce the honey, the changing colours of the season, and the travel of the bees across the landscape. In Petyarre’s case, this is landscape of her father’s Alhalkere country of Utopia in the eastern desert, to which the sugar bag Dreaming is associated.
In Petyarre’s hands, the sugar bag explodes across the canvas in a combination of firework like circles and slithering serpentine tracks. The recognisable forms of desert paintings are flung together with a compelling joie de vivre that shows an artist clearly relishing the experimental possibilities of the motif. To me, these paintings reveal an artist refreshing herself, finding liberation within a representational form that is open enough to allow for considerable personal expression.
However, it would be wrong to overstate the extent that this expressive freedom is derived from the ‘abstract’ nature of the sugar bag motif. Josie Kunoth Petyarre was born in 1959 at Utopia, in the remote eastern desert. She first rose to prominence around 2007, with her quirky depictions of bush football, remote community life, and her wide-eyed studies of big-city-life from an Indigenous perspective. Petyarre’s figurative paintings belonged to a long maligned school of desert painting, often derided as being an inauthentic fusion of western and Indigenous styles. And yet, while these works might not contain the same mythical content as more abstract desert paintings, they should be read as secular renderings of a very similar worldview that reveals a peculiarly Indigenous episteme, tempered by the adaptive cosmology of the Dreaming. Despite using the visual repertoire of western figuration, Petyarre’s figurative paintings were always structured upon an Anmatyerre spatial logic. At their best, this fusion presented a fascinating and vivid meeting of two visual cultures.
If we take this view, Petyarre’s sugar bag paintings might be seen, less as a decisive break from her previous figurative works, than as a parallel articulation of precisely the same worldview. Indeed, the distinction that is commonly assumed between ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’ works is a peculiarly western one. For Indigenous artists, traditional designs are rarely non-objective in the way that is implied by the categorisation of ‘abstract art’. Thus, in Petyarre’s sugar bag paintings we can see an artist using a stored cache of visual ideas – circles, dots, dashes – and twisting them in order to find new ways to depict the overlap of country and culture; to represent the shifting metaphors of the physical, geographical and spiritual. What could be waterholes or sandhills, winding rivers or desert blooms all come together in a personal experiment in colour and form. This is not a form of experimentation structured along modernist lines of non-objectivity, but rather, one structured around a particularly Anmatyerre reasoning, in which the sugar bag as bush tucker is as much a lived reality as the ancestral connections that it connotes in both the spiritual and everyday environment. If we see Josie Kunoth Petyarre’s sugar bag paintings, not as a break from her figurative works, but as a parallel articulation of the same episteme, we can begin to see them as two different, but complimentary articulations of a world is absorbed and united within the immutable cosmology of the Dreaming. The alchemy of Petyarre’s innovation is her ability to continually find new ways to express this ancient cosmology.
Australian Parliament House Collection, Canberra
Berndt Museum of Anthropology, University of Western Australia
City of Perth Collection, WA
The Holmes à Court Collection, Perth
Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth, Western Australia
Murray Bridge Regional Gallery, Murray Bridge, South Australia
National Museum of Australia, Canberra
State Library of Victoria, Victoria
University of Western Sydney, New South Wales