Artists from Utopia played an important part in the campaign by the claimants in the late 1970s to establish their traditional ownership of the country through their cultural connections to it.
The Utopia artists, primarily women, began working with fabric decoration. They combined traditional designs with western craft practices, beginning with batik in the 1970s.
The batik project started in 1978 to help the women find a source of income in preparation for the land claim hearing. By being able to demonstrate the economic viability of the outstations through their art work, the women were justifying their legal and moral right to their land.
The Utopia batiks were immediately distinct and soon caught the eyes of various art dealers. In 1981, Utopia batiks were shown at the Adelaide Art Festival in a major exhibition. These featured free representations of seeds, grasses, flowers, berries, yams and other plants which play a prominent part in women’s ceremonies. By 1988 the Utopia women’s batik group had more than eighty members.
The Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) took over the running and finances of the Utopia artists and in 1988 commissioned a number of batik works. Eighty-eight of these batiks, one by each artist member, formed the opening exhibition at the new Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide in 1989. The exhibition was purchased by the Robert Holmes a Court Collection.
However, while the batiks were acclaimed critically, they were not easy to promote to the wider art market, especially in competition with the very successful paintings produced by the artists from Papunya.
The use of acrylic paint on canvas was therefore introduced to the artists in 1988-89, resulting in a highly successful exhibition at the S H Ervin gallery in Sydney. It consisted of one hundred small canvases using four basic colours, black, white, yellow ochre and red ochre. This exhibition attracted great public attention to Utopia art and Emily Kame Kngwarreye in particular.
In 1991 CAAMA ceased its managing and support role, and since then the artists of Utopia have mainly made their own independent arrangements to sell their work through a network of dealers and representatives. There is no community owned or controlled art centre in the way that there is in many other central and northern Australian communities.
The community has come to be associated with some of Australia’s most exciting art. There are now approximately 200 Aboriginal artists working in the region. Among the best known are Emily Kame Kngwarreye (deceased), her adopted daughter Barbara Weir, Kathleen Petyarre, Gloria Petyarre, Ada Bird, Edie Holmes, Michelle Holmes, Gloria Ngal, Poly Ngal and Minnie Pwerle.
Women working at their camp near Arlparra