Rosemary Bird Petyarre was born in the early 1950s at Atneltye, or Boundary Bore, on Utopia Station in the Northern Territory, located 270 km northeast of Alice Springs. Rosemary Petyarre is the niece of the famous Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye and sister of Jeannie Petyarre and half-sister of artists Greeny Purvis Petyarre and Evelyn Pultara. She is also a skin sister to other well-known artists including Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, and Ada Bird Petyarre.
It is clear that Rosemary Petyarre has painting in her blood. Rosemary was one of a group of Anmatyerre women at the forefront of the Aboriginal art movement at Utopia. Like many of the women artists there, Rosemary Petyarre originally produced batik works, eventually moving to painting after encouragement from her aunt Emily Kame Kngwarreye.
As a bush woman, Rosemary Petyarre is familiar with her land and its abundant species of bush tucker, medicinal plants, and native fauna. She and her sister Jeannie Petyarre inherited these stories, along with important women’s stories, from her ancestors via her aunt Emily and they form the basis of her paintings. The subject of many of Rosemary Petyarre’s paintings is a representation of leaves collected around her country and used for a variety of medicinal purposes. In particular, she returns again and again to Bush Yam Leaves and Bush Medicine, depicting these themes with flowing representations of the leaves. Typical of the Utopia artists, Rosemary Petyarre rejoices in the use of color.
In her paintings, she incorporates traditional iconography and realistic elements. The themes are primarily bush medicines, yam dreaming, and body painting. As a bush woman, she is familiar with her land and its abundance of bush tucker species, medicine plants, and native fauna. These are the stories inherited by her, along with important women's stories, which form the basis of her paintings. In aboriginal culture, ceremonies are focal points in the life of the community. They are held for different purposes but are integral to the happiness and well-being of the people. The people dance and celebrate to acknowledge the fertility of the land, the health of the people, the initiation of young men or to mourn the passing of a loved one. They would smear their bodies with animal fat and would then trace certain ceremonial designs on the top half of their body using a variety of powders, ground from charcoal and yellow and red ochre. They would gather together and sing and dance, led by the most senior women of the clan group. The women's ceremony is kept separate from the men's ceremony, though each one is equally as important. The main point is that the people are demonstrating their respect and love for the land. The body paint designs would vary from ceremony to ceremony and would depend on the subject and the time of year the ceremony is held. Different symbols are painted on the body and may vary from person to person depending on the seniority of each member. Rosemary Petyarre is the sister of famous Aboriginal artist Greenie Purvis Petyarre.
Today, Rosemary Petyarre spends her time between Utopia and Alice Springs. Rosemary Petyarre is a highly talented artist amongst the famous names of Aboriginal art who reside and work at Utopia Homelands. Rosemary Petyarre’s paintings have been acquired by collectors worldwide. Aboriginal art status – Established artist.
The Story Behind the Bush Leaves
The medicine bush leaves depicted were original of the Kurrajong tree of which there are some 30 varieties dating back 50 million years. They scale from small shrubs to massive trees some 30 meters in height. In the larger trees, their trunks are used to store water, but it is the leaves that have medicinal purposes.
The women of Utopia, the remote region far to the west of Alice Springs where Rosemary’s people originated, gather the bush leaves, boil them, and then mash them with animal fats (kangaroo, emu, or goanna) making a medicinal poultice or paste which can last for many months. The paste is used to heal a multitude of afflictions such as bites, wounds, skin infections, rashes, and skin cancer. The bush leaves are also boiled in hot water to make an infusion or healing tea. Other preparations were used as insect repellent or were thrown into the water to stun the fish.
The desirability of the artworks
Admirers of the medicine bush leaf paintings often observe their mesmerizing attraction. People are captivated by how the paintings appear to be in motion in front of their eyes like the leaves on the canvas are literally blowing in the wind. Many buyers and collectors of medicine bush leaf artworks both in Australia, America, and Europe are also medical specialists who buy the works to hang in their consulting rooms to show an Aboriginal artwork with medical connotations.
1989 Utopia Women’s Paintings, A Summer Project
1990 A picture Story, 88 silk works from the Holmes à Court Collection, UK
1993 Central Australian Aboriginal Art & Craft Exhibition, Alice Springs NT
1996, The Meeting Place, - touring exhibition, Australia
1996, Nangara, Stitching Sint-Jan, Brugge, The Netherlands
1998, Dacou Gallery, Australia
2008 Utopia Collection2, Japingka Gallery, Fremantle WA
2010 Colours of Country, Creative Native, Perth WA
2014 Desert Song, Japingka Gallery, Fremantle WA