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Nancy Kunoth Petyarr is an elder and senior artist of the Iylenty people at Utopia and a custodian of the Mountain Devil Dreaming represented in her work. Her paintings are also based around ‘awelye’: sacred ceremonial body decorations used by ancestors and women today in ritual ceremonies. Her work is held in national and international collections including the Art Gallery of NSW and the National Gallery of Australia.
Jan Williamson met Petyarr’s daughter, Elizabeth Kngwarray, at the the Art Gallery of NSW last year when Williamson was an Archibald finalist with a painting of Aboriginal artist Sue McPherson and Kngwarray was in the Wynne Prize.
‘I thought what a great subject she’d be,’ says Williamson. ‘After contacting her agent, Lauraine Diggins, I travelled with her to visit the artists at Utopia, about four hours north east of Alice Springs. There were so many talented artists working there, I was just amazed and wanted to paint them all.
‘I thought they might be shy to sit for me but they were quite excited to do so. The landscape was magnificent and the people wonderful. Although not much English was spoken – their language is Anmatyerr – they understood more than they spoke. I sketched many of them but was taken with Nancy as she was one of the elders of the Iylenty and such a gentle, lovely woman. She had one of her grandsons with her and was so proud of him.
‘To me, her face and stance portray the pride and respect she is given in her community. I was particularly taken with her hands and wondered at the lifestyle she had led, which is so foreign to most Australians.’
Born in Brisbane, Williamson has been painting for over 20 years. She has been an Archibald finalist on four previous occasions, winning the Packing Room Prize in 2002 and 2003 with paintings of Jenny Morris and Rachel Ward. She also won the People’s Choice Award for her portrait of Morris. She has been a finalist on two occasions in the Portia Geach Memorial Award and has been hung in the Salon des Refuses and the 2000 Sporting Portrait Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW.