Outback strokes of genius

Sue Williams watches artists at work on a cattle station combining landscape and luxury.

The Aboriginal woman sitting cross-legged in the ochre dust of a remote outpost of Central Australia leans forward over her canvas on the ground and deftly paints a series of intricate willowy curves millimetres apart from each other.

She does it freehand with such speed and self-assurance on the blood-red surface, it looks like the simplest task on earth.

I take out my sketchpad and the sharpest of pencils and try to copy the design.

After 10 minutes of drawing and rubbing out, drawing and rubbing out, I finally give up.

These artists work in pretty much the same way as their ancestors.

While her artwork looks like a dozen delicate butterflies are fluttering across the surface, mine looks like they landed – and were immediately squashed by a roadtrain. The woman glances over at my efforts, smiles and then says something to the other women sitting painting alongside her, and their children playing nearby,who all giggle. I laugh back. There’s no hard feelings.

It’s been an amazing experience sitting here, under the shade of a bough shelter in the middle of the isolated Utopia community on the vast Barkly Tableland, 250 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs,watching these women artists work in pretty much the same way as their ancestors more than 60,000 years before.

Many Australians are now familiar with Aboriginal art and the various art movements from different areas of the country, each with their distinctive styles.Utopia Aboriginal art from the Central Desert region today follows the tradition of legendary local artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye and is collected around the world.

However, it’s one thing to see the work hung in the nation’s art galleries and for sale in stores across the globe – it’s another entirely to actually sit with the women and watch them work.


They paint the finest of designs with such unerring accuracy, it’s one of Australia’s great wonders to behold.

‘‘It’s incredible to be able to sit and watch them work,’’ says Sonja Chalmers,who, with her partner, Charlie, runs the MacDonald Downs cattle station at Utopia,where these artists are now gathering. ‘‘I never tire of it.

‘‘Their work is so alive with colour and vibrancy, yet is so stunningly intricate.’’ The pair love the art so much, they’ve now opened up their homestead so visitors can come and stay for anything froma day to a week, see the artists and learn about their work from collector and art expert Sonja,who’s decorated the entire place with her favourite pieces.

She’ll explain what the various motifs on the paintings mean, describe their creators’ methods and will even sell to the right buyers.

As well, there’s the chance to see how a massive 2000-squarekilometre cattle station operates and have a look at helicopter mustering up close.

There are also numerous signposted trails across the property, a wealth of birds and native animals to see and photograph, and a rich-red landscape dotted with dizzying outcrops of granite boulders piled in crazy patterns that rival even Tennant Creek’s famed landmark, the Devils Marbles.

The homestead itself is pure luxury with all the mod cons, including a pool on the deck outside.

Sonja and Charlie can provide directions for people driving themselves from Alice Springs, or will organise for visitors to be picked up by car or plane and brought to MacDonald Downs.

Charlie’s pioneer grandfather came here in the 1920s and Charlie grew up on the property,while Sonja lived at the neighbouring station.

While Charlie stayed, building a reputation as one of the area’s preeminent pastoralists, Sonja moved at the age of 15 to Adelaide, and then travelled the world, marrying twice and living for a period in England.

When she returned to visit Alice Springs, Charlie arranged to meet her and fly her out to the station. It was the first time she’d been back since she’d been a teenager.

‘‘That was an extraordinary moment inmy life,’’ Sonja says now.

‘‘I’d come home; I’d never wanted to go back, I’d never wanted to go back to the outback again. But when Charlie flew me back, it felt so right.

The vast openness hit me; England had been suffocating. Itwas an amazing feeling.’’ At the same time, the couple suddenly realised they’d always loved each other, and then set up home together.

Now Charlie has become one of the first pastoralists in Australia to give a piece of land, 470 hectares (on which the stunning ochre granite boulder outcrop,Tower Rock, stands), to the National Parks and Wildlife Service in order to preserve its wide range of native plant species and fauna.

As for the painters, they love the relaxed feel of their sessions. ‘‘We come to Sonnie’s and sit and talk and paint. It is good for us,’’ Susan Pitjara Hunter says in her local Alyawarr language, offering me a witchetty grub –which I politely decline. The women also appreciate such ready access to canvas and paint.

Sally Kemara Perkins smiles as she bows her head over the intricately coloured and patterned design before her. ‘‘It makes me feel good to paint,’’ she says. ‘‘I feel proud of the paintings.’’

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies regularly to Alice Springs. Transfers to the cattle station can be arranged.

Staying there

MacDonald Downs offers one, two- and three-day packages at $750 a person a night, double-occupancy including accommodation, all meals, activities including scenic four-wheel-drive tours, guided walks, wildlife-watching, observing working artists, station activities; limited alcohol with meals (beer and wine), laundry. Children under 12 pay $400.

More information

(08) 8956 9433, sonjachalmers@bigpond.com.