Reading the Land


Kathleen Petyarre is one of the better known Aboriginal painters, and deservedly so. Her works are both complex and yet sublimely minimalist, suggesting both the macro and the micro view of the land around her. Many of her paintings pay homage to her dreaming ancestor Arnkerrth, the thorny or mountain devil lizard.

Kathleen’s paintings, like those of her countrymen and women, are more than simple reconstructions of visible spatial features. These paintings offer an integrated spatial, environmental, economic, spiritual and moral “reading” of the land…Abstract spatial features such as socio-political units and boundaries, temporal events that can be linked to spatial features, organizational events, for instance initiation ceremonies, and a high level of environmental know how are also incorporated into the paintings, in a condensed fashion. Each work is accompanied by an elaborate and lengthy oral narrative, the retelling of which can take hours, and which custodians may sing, dance and paint. The paintings are visual, iconic metaphors for these longer narratives…

Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming

The spatial information or patterns that Kathleen creates in her art correspond to and can be mapped onto existing geographic features…Satellite imagery and computer-generated overlays indicate a surprisingly close correspondence to the work of traditionally oriented Indigenous artists including that of Kathleen Petyarre.

Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming

(Quotes are from Christine Nicholls in Kathleen Petyarre, Genius of Place.)

Much of the multidimensionality that Nicholls points to in Kathleen’s work is going to be outside the grasp of a Western viewer (relevant geographic and socio-political circumstances, for example.) While the primary access point for non-Aboriginals into her work is aesthetic, the other dimensions still hold their place. It is like a complex chord with some tones more subdued and harder to decipher, but elemental to the polyphony nonetheless.

2 Replies to “Reading the Land”

  1. This Mountain Devil Lizard is a beautiful beast – almost a phantasmagoric combination of flora and fauna in one entity!
    These two amazing images show an axis, corner to corner, which(for me) initiates an illusion of slowly rotating motion, almost like the night sky shifting over time. Also, for me, they seem to map out movement over time, a long time, over and through a very familiar terrain. This is a completely different way of showing relationship of self to place, from western painting. Thanks for providing these images, Deborah!

  2. I really like what you have to say about Kathleen’s work. Yes, the suggestion of movement in these paintings is multi-dimensional. In her storytelling about her imagery, Kathleen talks in detail about how the mountain devil lizard moves through the landscape, both the Dreamtime ancestor Ankerrth as well as the living version. Her paintings suggest the micro view of the lizard’s progress through the desert landscape as well as the macro progression of larger forms, like the night sky. A reproduction of a work of art is not the thing itself of course, and when seen in the flesh these works are exquisitely complex and beguiling.

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