A Place Called Utopia – Aboriginal art from Australia at Saul Hay gallery

ada bird petyarre

Quite often it is easy to feel that Manchester is the centre of the universe and why the heck not? But what is most exciting is when a whole other world comes to Manchester and allows us to step out of what we know and get a glimpse into another culture we don’t. In Castlefield, no less.

Now, you may be thinking, speak for yourself. I am well versed not only in aboriginal history, culture and teachings, but in its art too.

Well my knowledge of this area was patchy and didn’t extend beyond some of the animation contained within the Australian children’s feature, Dot and the Kangaroo. But thanks to artist curator and collector, Dr Victoria King and Saul Hay Gallery Director, Ian Hay, I now know a little more. And all it took was a tram ride from zone 2 into zone 1 and a jaunt down Castle Street.

A Place Called Utopia, at Saul Hay Gallery, is an exhibition of artwork by noted contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists, including Emily Kngwarreye and Minnie Pwerle. Kngwarreye’s painting Earth’s Creation sold for over $2 million in 2017, setting a record for a painting by an indigenous Australian artist.

The collection celebrates art from the remote Aboriginal outstation of Utopia, 270 kilometres northeast of Alice Springs in Australia’s semi-arid, red centre. It is home to the Anmatyerre and Alyawarre people, and in 1981, was the first outstation in Australia to achieve Land Rights, when the original indigenous owners’ land was finally returned to them.

barbara weir

What I find fascinating is that it was only in 1988 that the artists received acrylic paints. Emily Kngwarreye, for instance, was in her 80s by this point, but embracing this new medium, was prolific in producing what I can only describe as mesmerising paintings in acrylic, right up until her final days. Indeed her painting Earth’s Creation sold for over $2 million in 2017, which set a record for an indigenous Australian artist.

What you will see in the collection, are pieces which are the result of (predominantly but not limited to) women who began painting their Dreamings (creation stories about how the land and natural world came to be) and awelye (women’s ceremonial body painting designs).

The artwork on display is from the collection of Saul Hay Gallery painter, sculptor and photographer, Dr Victoria King who volunteered at Utopia between 1998 and 2004.

She says:

The remote Aboriginal outstation of Utopia is a place of sublime, harsh beauty and infinite complexities. Over the five years I volunteered there, I transcribed the women’s Dreaming stories and watched as they created remarkable hybrid works of art that reflected their ancient culture. Their profound experiential wisdom and ecological knowledge astounded me and living with them was a privilege that forever changed how I see the world.

I spoke with Dr King when I attended the preview, and the passion and respect with which she talks about her time at Utopia and feels for the artists she met, is all too apparent and actually moving. Indeed, Dr King will be giving a talk at the gallery as part of the exhibition on Thursday 16 February at 7.30pm.

And as Ian Hay, Director of Saul Hay Gallery says:

This exhibition represents a significant and important collection of Australian Aboriginal paintings collected by Dr Victoria King, an esteemed painter herself, who developed a close and lasting bond with many of the artists represented.

We are pleased to be able to bring to Manchester works of such quality from some of the most renowned Aboriginal artists and to help to tell their story.”

We really are lucky to either live, work in or just have access to this wonderful city of Manchester, where whilst enjoying such a creative and vibrant identity of its and our own, we have access to some fantastic hubs and hosts of culture outside of this. And this is one of those opportunities to do so.

A Place Called Utopia, is free to attend, and runs until 26 February 2023. All works will be for sale.

Saul Hay Gallery hosts a vibrant collection of artists and sculptors from the Manchester art scene and beyond and is a charming space to visit, nestled amongst the Castlefield canalways, arches and cobbles.

As I told Ian Hay following my earlier embarrassment on learning that the gallery had been around for six years and I hadn’t visited once, I’ll be back.

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