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. Group Exhibitions: 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.