Raised in a remote part of the Eastern Desert and instructed in Anmatyerre law and traditions, Gloria Petyarre participated in the first art programs organized at Utopia in 1977 when 39 years of age. These early batik-making workshops marked the emergence of Aboriginal women artists. Up to this time they had commonly assisted men in the completion of their paintings, but were rarely permitted their own paint and canvas. From the outset their works were informed by the natural shapes and patterns of local leaves, flowers, seeds and grasses which provided the touchstone of form and structure. Gloria’s early batiks were richly colourful and reflected the daily interaction of the desert women with their environment. When art advisor Rodney Gooch introduced the women to acrylic paints and canvas in the early 1980’s a range of new possibilities were opened up that were both distinctively female and without precedent in the Aboriginal art movement. Until this time women had been unacknowledged as artists in part due to a belief that cultural values and iconography dwelt in the domain of men only, but also because women were less forward about discussing ‘women’s business’ such as their rituals, responsibilities, journeying and all important, Awelye or ceremonial body painting. Traditionally, men and women of Aboriginal societies played complementary though differentiated roles. The different yet, equally powerful cultural role of women manifested from this time as a rich abundance of unique imagery and expressiveness that began to ignite interest amongst art collectors around the world.
Gloria’s first paintings depicted designs from the body painting she had been taught as a child by family elders, literally 'lifted off the body and applied to the canvas' (Hodges 1998). Details of these designs can represent the patterning of desert animals, birds or plants such as the Mountain Devil Lizard, the Emu or even wind scattered grass seeds. Ancestral beings are honoured, good rains and harvests are acknowledged and the rules of relatedness between people and country are carefully retraced and strengthened within these markings, though always suitably obscured from the uninitiated. Over time and with a tangible excitement Gloria began to more freely explore the picture plane, experimenting with bands of parallel lines, curvilinear patterns, colour schemes, and textural areas of dots and dashes. Her own sense of artistic authority quickly developed, surprising all with its boldness and beauty. Working alongside Emily Kame Kngwarreye and inspired by the older woman’s groundbreaking success and brave, expressive abstraction, Gloria similarly tapped her own experience to produce a confident and distinctive style. Her simplicity of focus allows a concentrated energy to build through pattern and repetition, reflecting the rhythm of traditional song and dance, sometimes whirling and flowing with dots and dashes of colour, other times emphasizing line in more spare and austere works which nevertheless are still 'pulsing with life' (Hodges 1998).
Utopia’s longstanding status, both nationally and internationally, as a vibrant art making community has rested greatly on the strength and creativity of its women. During the successful land claim that in 1979 returned ownership to its traditional Anmatyerre and Alyawarre inhabitants, the women presented the greater part of their claim through Awelye; 'they painted the body designs, performed the dances and displayed the ritual objects that belong to their clan areas' (Brody 1989). Re-affirming their Dreaming heritage and consolidating an identity deeply rooted in relationship to their country strengthened the whole community, determining a continuing central role for women in its uniquely autonomous management. This history is reflected in Gloria’s dynamic paintings which capture the energy of the land and communicate an underlying and vibrant spirituality.
During a career that has spanned almost two decades Gloria Petyarre has become one of Australia’s most successful female artists. That she has done so while working primarily as an independent artist, without assistance from a permanent art centre, is a testimony to her special ability to negotiate across a wide range of cultural and artistic relationships. These have included her special relationship with artist and gallery owner Christopher Hodges whose mentorship and assistance has resulted in many of her finest works. Besides regular solo exhibitions at his gallery, Utopia Art in Sydney, Hodges has ensured that her work has been included in important prizes and landmark exhibitions. For one of these works she was awarded the prestigious Wynne Prize, by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1999. Her reputation has been further enhanced by the gallery by ensuring that her works toured internationally and by including them in important European exhibitions. Gloria continues to maintain this relationship while working with a variety of other dealers. They include her nephew Fred Torres and his Dacou Gallery, as well as Tim Jennings and his Mbantua Gallery in Alice Springs, and a number of other smaller dealers.
Gloria is an artist who has grown in self-assuredness over the years, especially since emerging from behind her more famous aunt Emily Kngwarreye. She seems to derive great pleasure in the fact that she can produce work for, and enjoy the patronage of, many different people. That she take spride in the integrity and quality of her work have ensured her success. The same knowledge and vision that enriches her work sustains her as a person as she travels the world today, participating in significant exhibitions and projects, such as the mural at the Kansas City Zoo, which she designed and executed with her husband Ronnie Price. Though holding firmly to her Aboriginal traditions, Gloria continually expands upon them in her art, moving beyond the literal to create images that radiate their own integrity, thereby confirming her important place in Australia’s current contemporary art scene.