Bush Medicine Leaves in Utopia Art

First Nation Australians have used bush medicine leaves for millennia due to their holistic healing abilities. When it comes to bush medicine knowledge it is considered ‘women's’ business;’ thus, it is up to the women in Indigenous communities to take on the significant role of being a conduit for intergenerational learning (ABC Alice Springs, 2019). Arrernte woman, Teresa Alice (2019) - from the social enterprise the Akeyulerre Healing Centre in Alice Springs, NT - comments on this holistic relationship between bush medicine, Country and its people:

“Bush medicine is from Country, so it comes from the land and gives us strength.” 

By the Indigenous women paying homage to the medicinal plants, they can, in turn, benefit from the plant’s healing powers. This homage has been done for generations upon generations through singing ‘healing songs’ from harvesting the bush medicine leaves, to producing the remedies, to applying it to those in need (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2019). These songs were also sung whilst women painted the Bush Medicine Leaves Dreaming story. 

Gloria Patyarre painting Bush Medicine Leaves for Japingka Aboriginal Art Gallery. Image sourced from Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021. 

Artists from the Utopia homelands, north-east of Alice Springs, Central Australia, are highly regarded for the richness and diversity of their artworks. Utopia women are renowned for their batik paintings, which is a form of art that they learnt in 1978 through community workshops. The artists in the community utilised this technique as a means to establish a source of income in preparation for their land claim hearing. In 1979, the Utopia Aboriginal community gained permanent legal titleship to the leasehold of their land, and it was the artists who played a significant role in this succession. Soon after, the Utopia batiks gained widespread recognition for their distinctive artistic style, and art collectors came flocking. This led to, in 1981, the artists being able to exhibit their works at a major event: the Adelaide Art Festival. In 1988, the artists were introduced to the mediums of acrylic paint and canvas, enabling them to produce paintings on a larger scale. This resulted in the rise of many famous Utopia artists, such as the renowned Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Gloria Petyarre, and many others like Kathleen Patyarre, Minnie Pwerle and Kudditji Kngwarreye (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2019).

Gloria Petyarre, an Anmatyerre woman from Atnangkere country in Utopia (born 1942), is renowned for depicting leaves with medicinal qualities, which play a significant part in Gloria’s connection to Country. ‘Leaves’ is by far the most well known of Gloria’s collections of paintings, for which she won the acclaimed Wynne Prize for Landscape in 1999 - she was the first Aboriginal to receive this award. The theme of leaves in her works is not pertained to dreaming stories from her culture, making it a rather original idea.  

Gloria Patyarre painting 'Leaves' for Utopia Lane Gallery. Image sourced from Utopia Lane Gallery, 2021. 

Whilst working on a series of ‘Awelye’ (body paint design) paintings in 1994, where she was experimenting with curvilinear patterns, Gloria realised that the “...muddy yellow and brown shapes she had painted resembled dried leaves scattered on the canvas, just as they were on the ground around her” (Utopia Lane Gallery, 2016). 

“That first one. I was looking, looking. Looks like leaf, and I been put another one and another one and ‘ah yeah.’ First leaf [painting]," Gloria said in a press statement.

In 1996, Gloria’s ‘Leaves’ phenomena fully emerged, capturing the attention of devoted art dealers, gallery owners and viewers. Gloria would paint the leaf motifs using a collection of close tonal values of colours layered upon each other to create dimension. Her fine, swift brush strokes depicted patterns “...where leaves appear to be picked up in swift passing zephyrs, entangled in whirls of wind and swept across the landscape” (Utopia Lane Gallery, 2016). It’s as if the canvas holds no boundaries; the energy and movement of the leaves continue off in all sorts of directions (Utopia Lane Gallery, 2016).

Arrethe leaves being broken down using a mortar and pestle. Image source from ABC Alice Springs: Emma Haskin, 2019.

Not only are the bush medicine leaves extensively painted by artists from Utopia, they are used to produce a wide range of remedial products. The Alyawarr and Anmatyerre women residing here have been using leaves from trees such as the ‘Ilpengk’ (desert fuschia), ‘Arrethe’ (rock fuschia bush) and the ‘Irmangka - Irmangka’ (scented emu bush) for generations. The Ilpengk is a rare plant from Central Australia which is only found in the far north-east region and has a highly aromatic smell; key to its selection by ‘nangaras’ (Aboriginal healers) (Utopia Lane Gallery, 2019). Back in the day, women from the Alyawarr and Anmatyerre communities would collect the leaves and grind them up using a stone to produce a compound. Next, the leaves were boiled to extract the resin and mixed with kangaroo or echidna fat to form a thick, sticky gel. When the gel cooled, it resembled and smelt like vapour rub, and was used to relieve cold and flu-like symptoms. It’s antiseptic properties meant that it could be applied on the body to heal wounds, cuts, rashes and insect bites. The leaves of the Arrethe and Irmangka - Irmangka plants were used in the same way, and when ground into a powder-like substance and mixed with water, it could be added into tea to soothe a sore throat, or inhaled to unblock the sinuses (Utopia Lane Gallery, 2019).

Arrethe leaves ready to prepare it into a vapour-like rub. Image source from ABC Alice Springs: Emma Haskin, 2019.

Check out ICTV (Indigenous Community Television) to see how ‘old lady’ Nancy Jackson teaches Daisy Ward (both from the Ngaanyatjarra Lands of Western Australia, 330km from Uluru near the border with the Northern Territory) how to produce one of the modern versions of bush medicine, made from ‘Irmangka - Irmangka’ leaves (ICTV, 2015).

At Yarn, we work with several health and beauty brands that utilise bush medicines. These brands include Bush Medijina, Dilkara and Juddarnje. Check them out! They’re all Australian Made and contain native ingredients from wild harvesting. The use of bush medicine leaf motifs have become widely adopted amongst contemporary Indigenous artists, and we love learning about and sharing these different styles to the wider Australian community.