Ada Bird Petyarre
Ada Bird Petyarre
1930 - 2004
Prominent Utopia artist Ada Bird Petyarre was the eldest of seven sisters (including Kathleen, Gloria, Violet, Myrtle and Jean), all celebrated artists who spent most their lives in this remote and arid area 230 kilometres North East of Alice Springs. The art of Utopia rose to prominence swiftly, not least because it heralded the emerging prominence of female artists and their particular themes as a significant force in Aboriginal art. Utopia had once been a large cattle station where Ada had worked as a young woman. In 1978, the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission returned the land to its traditional Anmatyerre and Alyawarre owners, who established small settlements throughout the 1,800 square kilometres. Ada was born at Mulga Bore (Akaye Soakage) and continued to live there amongst her large extended family, raising two daughters and four sons. Ada Bird participated in the batik making workshops run by the adult education programme in the late 1970s. The women took to this traditional Indonesian craft with ease, reflecting their many years of ‘mark-making’ when painting their bodies as part of their preparation for Awelye (women’s ceremonies). From the outset, Ada Bird’s vibrant personality was expressed in her bright colours and fluid linear designs. Alongside the batiks of her sisters and her aunt Emily Kngwarreye, her early works on luscious silk were soon exhibited and snapped up by buyers including the celebrity collector, businessman Robert Holmes a Court. German filmmaker Wim Wenders acquired one of Ada’s batiks and gave her a part in his film, Till The End of the World, that was partially shot in Central Australia.
Traditional obligations and ceremony always played a large part in Ada’s life, feeding directly into the graphic magnetism of her practice. As a senior elder of the Anmatyerre people, she was deeply respected for her talent and cultural role. The body painting of Awelye (women’s ceremony) is a process that is considered as important as its end product. It has been described as a way of inhabiting the world as well as of seeing the world. Fat is rubbed onto the body so that the finger-painted lines of ochre on moving limbs shine and shimmer, particularly by fire-light. Native grasses are soaked and splashed over the skin to produce a decorative effect across breasts and body. The women paint each other according to their skin names and tribal hierarchy. They sing all the while to call the spirit ancestors to the approaching ceremony. This haptic and affective practice invokes a tangible sense of awe and involvement amongst ceremonial participants and it is this influence that infuses Ada’s art making with similar qualities. Growing confidence and skill allowed Ada to move seamlessly into acrylic painting when, in 1988-89, 'Summer Project' workshops organised by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) again made new materials available to the women at Utopia. It had become apparent that a unique style had formed. In fact, the first major book on these artists, Utopia Women’s Painting (1989), featured Ada’s work on the front cover of the landmark publication. In late 1989 the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra acquired a major canvas of hers and the addition of her works to many other major collections followed. The depictions of body painting designs relate to the fertility of the land and the abundance of bush foods, but one of Ada’s most popular and compelling subjects is Arnkerrth, the Mountain Devil Lizard. This tiny desert creature is said to have created the desert by moving sand, grain by grain, since the dawn of time. It is a shared Dreaming among the Petyarre sisters and elucidates the love and responsibility the Anmatyerre people feel for their homelands. Unlike early Europeans, who were wary of the lizard’s bristly spikes (hence the fearful Latin name, Moloch horridus), desert people love these creatures and often keep them as pets. Their camouflage ability to change skin patterns and colouring in keeping with their surroundings gives rise to myriad design possibilities.
In 2004 Ada died after a stroke. She left a legacy of traditional knowledge embodied in beautiful artworks known for their striking palette and pleasing, linear design. Some rare and lesser-known works are more subdued in colour, sometimes incorporating fine dotting or even small representational elements. Her works are held all over the world in public and private collections and she remains an inspiring figure of the early Aboriginal contemporary art movement.
Profile author: Sophie Baka
Edited: Adrian Newstead
Individual Exhibitions: 1990, Utopia Art, Sydney.
2008 – More than stories, Utopia Art Sydney, Sydney.
2005 – Decouvrir, Rever, Investir, Australian Embassy, Paris, France.
2004 – Binocular: looking closely at Country, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney; Reves de Femmes, Galerie DAD, Mantes-la-Jolie, France.
2001 – 2002 – Land of Diversity, The Northern Territory, at Hogarth Galleries, Paddington. 1994, Power of the Land, Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art, National Gallery of Victoria.;
1994, Yiribana, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
1993, Central Australian Aboriginal Art and Craft Exhibition, Araluen Centre, Alice Springs; The Tenth National Aboriginal Art Award Exhibition, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin; 1993, Tjukurrpa, Desert Dreamings, Aboriginal Art from Central Australia (1971-1993), Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth WA; 1993, After The Field, Manly Art Gallery & Museum, Sydney;
1993/4, ARATJARA, Art of the First Australians, Touring: Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf; Hayward Gallery, London; Louisiana Museum, Humlebaek, Denmark.
1992/3, New Tracks Old Land: An Exhibition of Contemporary Prints from Aboriginal Australia, touring USA and Australia.
1991, Flash Pictures, National Gallery of Australia; 1991, Aboriginal Women's Exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; 1991, The Eighth National Aboriginal Art Award Exhibition, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin.
1990, 'Utopia – A Picture Story,' an exhibition of 88 works on silk from the Holmes a Court Collection by Utopia artists which toured Eire and Scotland.; 1990, A Portfolio of Australian Women Artists, Macquarie Gallery, Sydney.; 1990, Contemporary Aboriginal Art from the Robert Holmes a Court Collection, Harvard University, University of Minnesota, Lake Oswego Center for the Arts, United States of America; 1990, Utopia Artists, Flinders Lane Gallery, Melbourne.
1989, Utopia Women's Paintings, the First Works on Canvas, A Summer Project, 1988-89, S. H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney; 1989, Utopia Batik, Araluen Centre, Alice Springs; 1989, Utopia, Utopia Art, Sydney.; 1989, Utopia Women, Coventry Gallery, Sydney.
1988, Time Before Time, Austral Gallery, St Louis, USA.; 1988, Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Utopia Art, Sydney. 1977-1987, Exhibited with the Utopia women at exhibitions in Australia and overseas.
With an impressive exhibition history and a strong presence in the literature you would expect Ada Bird to be one of Aboriginal Australia’s most collectable artists, if currently slightly out of fashion. Important institutions that hold her work include the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia, the University of Queensland, the Holmes a Court Collection, the Kelton Foundation in Santa Monica, USA, and the Anthropology Museum, St. Lucia.
The highest price achieved for a work by Ada Bird at auction was the $27,600 paid for the Delmore provenanced Atnangkere (Awelye) 1990 that had been exhibited at the Haywood Gallery, London, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne. Sold at Sotheby's in June 1999 (Lot 97) it measured 151 x 122.5 cm, and exceeded its presale estimate of $8,000-12,000 by a significant margin. Another work, currently the artists’ second highest secondary market result, sold for $16,100 against an estimate of $8,000-12,000 at Sotheby’s a year later (Lot128). Women’s Ceremony for the Mountain Desert Lizard 1992 came from Mulga Bore Artists and was signed by Rodney Gooch on the reverse. It measured 230 x 164 cm.
Nevertheless, only five of her ten highest results exceed $10,000 and the average price of the 45 works that have sold of the 101 offered is only $3,896. This is due to the fact that many of the pieces that have been offered at public sale were not in her preferred style. She is an artist who has painted without representation. Many of her paintings have been created with poor materials and have not been executed with great care. Her ouvre is a very mixed bag that is heavily weighted with poor works and her failures at auction have been damaged by these since they first appeared in 1995.
Her best year at auction was as early as 1999 when 12 works appeared of which 7 sold for $49,350. In 2007 six of nine sold for $27,192 and in 2010 five of six sold for $20,179. New works entered her current top 10 results in 2010 and 2012 at equal 3rd and 6th places even though her first, second and forth highest results were all recorded in 1999-2000. Interestingly, it was the same work entitled Atnankere Dreaming 1997, which originally sold at Phillips International in 1999 that later achieved the identical result ($15,535) at Mossgreen auctions just over a decade later in 2010.
Her results since 2014 have been less than ideal, with only 5 works selling of the 16 on offer in that period, none of which graced her top 20.
In reality, Ada Bird is one of those artists who was prolific for a decade but created only a small number of highly collectable works overall. While collectors should keep their eyes open for the best of her paintings, on those rare occasion when they appear at sale they are unlikely to set new records over the coming years. Her more inimately executed works are the pieces that will hold, and possibly increase, in value over time. Even so, it is hard to see even the best of them pushing her records a great deal higher than her current best results.