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image icon 'Mountain devil lizard Dreaming (with winter sandstorm)', 1996

'Mountain devil lizard Dreaming (with winter sandstorm)', 1996
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an acrylic painting made in 1996 by Kathleen Petyarre (c1940-). Measuring 183 cm x 183 cm, the work is composed of thousands of white and yellow ochre-coloured dots on a dark background. The dots have been grouped to form different patterns and forms. The work has effectively been divided into four segments by a large asymmetrical X. Hundreds of wavy lines made up of groupings of white dots radiate from the centre point of the X. The waviness of these lines creates the illusion that a series of concentric circles is spinning around the centre point of the X.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a significant work by Kathleen Petyarre, who is recognised as one of Australia's greatest living artists - born in the remote location of Atnangkere, an important water soakage on the western boundary of Utopia Station north-east of Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Petyarre is from the Alyawarre and Eastern Anmatyerre language groups and speaks English as her third language; as an Anmatyerre woman, Petyarre was involved in the successful claim for freehold title that led to the formal transfer in 1979 of the Utopia pastoral lease to its traditional owners; her inherited Dreaming stories are 'Mountain devil lizard (Arnkerrthe)' and 'Woman hunting emu and dingo (Atnangkere)'; her paintings refer to these Dreamings and to the associated country around Utopia in the eastern desert of central Australia
  • references the ancestral history of the artist's country - the centre of the painting represents a sacred women's Dreaming site associated with the green pea (antweth); the seeds of the pea (ntang) are depicted throughout the painting; the X shape that divides the image represents the trajectories of the Mountain devil lizard ancestor's Dreaming paths; the areas around the intersection of the two diagonal lines at the centre of the image incorporate sites for a men's initiation area and a women's business area
  • is linked to a significant Dreaming story related to Arnkerrthe, the mountain devil lizard - Petyarre and her sisters and brothers have custodial rights to this Dreaming narrative; the artist acquired her knowledge of the Arnkerrthe Dreaming as a child by listening to her paternal grandmother's verbal account of the narrative and watching her grandmother paint the 'awely' (or 'awelye') designs associated with that Dreaming on the bodies of other women; by listening to the stories of the old woman mountain devil's travels across the countryside, the people of this Dreaming group were taught lessons in survival, and younger ones were taught to put the group ahead of self-interest
  • references the Arnkerrthe, the thorny or mountain devil ('Moloch horridus'), a small spiked lizard that lives in spinifex plains and sand ridges of Australia's interior - this shy creature moves slowly in a jerky fashion leaving a characteristic pattern of semicircular tracks; if required, it can stay motionless or change colour to blend in with the surrounding land and bushes; with an ability to collect water from its skin, the lizard can withstand drought and the very dry conditions of its desert environment
  • uses a visual code to refer to the mountain devil lizard and its symbolic role in teaching people how to survive and live in the desert - the layering effect signifies the ability of Arnkerrthe to camouflage herself, no matter how challenging the terrain; the circular movement and the rippling of the lines as they radiate from the centre of the work capture the characteristic movements of the thorny or mountain devil; the pea seeds represented in the picture are an important food source for the creature
  • interprets the natural beauty and seasonal cycles of Petyarre's country - it has been said that this image communicates the awesome energy of a desert sandstorm and its capacity to shape the landscape as it moves across it; the patterns that Petyarre creates in her art can be mapped onto geographic features in Atnangkere country and the particular rock holes, hills and mulga tree groupings that Arnkerrthe encountered in the course of her epic travels during the Dreaming
  • is an excellent example of what the artist has described as a 'new style' - Petyarre began painting with acrylic on canvas in the later 1980s; her initial painting style in the early 1990s was characterised by a meticulous attention to detail; by the mid- to later 1990s the artist had evolved an individually distinctive style based on layers of fine and variously coloured dots; this technique has allowed Petyarre to achieve an all-over effect that she has described as being similar to 'travelling in a light plane, like it's moving, travelling, looking down'
  • is a carefully organised and technically innovative work - each of Petyarre's compositions is based on a grid pattern that is drawn in detail before any painting commences and considerable time is spent on canvas preparation; gesso, a textured medium used to prime painting surfaces, is first applied to the raw canvas and a series of mostly earth colours is applied and allowed to soak into the canvas; the dotting is then applied using the sharp ends of bamboo satay sticks.