We’ve lost another of the first white contact pioneers of acrylic painting from Utopia “ Kathleen Petyarre, who died aged 80 on 24th November. Kathleen, or, as she was born, Kweyetemp Petyarre, was one of seven sisters from Atnangker, a site where they had proprietary rights through the male line. Not many males about as the Petyarre sorority eventually consisted of Kathleen, Ada Bird, Violet and Gloria and three other Petyarre sisters. Emily Kngwarreye was their aunt.

Her first encounter with a European was in 1949, after the second world war. He was crossing Anmatyerr country with a camel and the children peeked nervously at the strangely coloured man and his equally bizarre animal companion from behind bushes. Eventually their father addressed the stranger, offering him food and water, which were badly needed. The man remained with the family for some time, but insisted they cover their nakedness, for which he supplied garments.

With a giggle, Petyarre told academic and friend Dr Christine Nichols:
We girls had to wear sacks, flour bags with cut-out hole for neck and arms. Really itchy one!

As an Anmatyerr woman, Kweyetemp had to learn how to collect and grind seeds to make and cook cakes “ and those seeds would turn up later in Kathleen’s multiply-dotted canvases showing the seasonality of her Country. She also received a mythological education involving her principal Dreaming Ancestor, Arnkerrthe, the Mountain or Thorny Devil (Moloch Horridus). This too would become the frequent subject of her art, though never literally visible because of it chameleon-like capacity to blend in with its surroundings. Its other capacities invariably included travelling on a semi-circular route, and rarely needing water in the hostile surroundings of the Simpson Desert.

The Chalmers Family didn’t see Anmatyerre Country as that hostile. Post-War, they saw good cattle country, and took up a vast lease “ part of which was the Utopia Station. Suddenly, the Petyarres were ’employed’ by them in exchange for tucker; the men as stockmen, the women around the house or, like Kweyetemp and Violet, in the station school. There, Kathleen – as she was now known “ taught local children their native language.

In the 1970s, the Chalmers family divided up their properties, and the son who received Utopia found he had a wife who couldn’t handle such remote living. As a result, the Aboriginal Land Fund bought the property in 1976, though a successful land claim in 1978 saw the freehold handed over to the Anmatyerre and Alyawarra peoples.

In 1977 Jenny Green arrived in Utopia and began organising workshops in batik technique. This appealed only to the women, including Emily Kngwarrey and all the Petyarre sisters, but would provide tangible evidence to the land claim of the women’s knowledge and relationship to their Country. Lawyers scrambled to buy their works when the case ended. Kathleen, however, found her chronic asthma was affected by the chemicals involved, and when CAAMA’s amazing self-appointed art coordinator, Rodney Gooch suggested trying canvas and paint during the epic ‘A Summer Project’ of 1988/9 as a follow-up to his ‘A Picture Story’ in which 88 batiks on silk were sold to the Holmes a Court Collection, Kathleen’s (and Emily’s) art took off.

At a solo level, Kathleen’s big moment came with the 1996 ‘Big Telstra’ award for her work, ‘Storm in Atnangker Country’ (1996). But it was a bitter victory, for a dispute between two Aboriginal art dealers led to the claims by Welshman, Ray Beamish that, as her one-time boyfriend, he’d added many of the dots to her work. The Award was withheld during a protracted enquiry, which, Christine Nichols says, took an enormous toll on Kathleen’s health: she began shaking with fear, for months barely speaking and not painting at all. The source of Petyarre’s malaise was what she understood to be the theft of the Mountain Devil Dreaming, passed down to her by generations of Ancestors who held sacred copyright over that Dreaming.

Fortunately, 19 months later, she was cleared and returned to both painting and proudly showing her art around the world. In 2001, she received a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney called Genius of Place, featuring more than 40 works from 25 years of Petyarre’s career. With the closure of her primary dealer, David Cossey’s Gallerie Australis in Adelaide, though, Kathleen’s painting days were numbered. I can’t find evidence online of any work by her dated later than 2010.

Kathleen was the foremother of artists who continue her female line, daughter Margaret Loy Pula and grand-daughter Abie Loy Kemarre, whose ‘Bush Hen Dreaming’ works surely are a tribute to her grandmother.