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Art gallery brings Utopian vision

From selling artwork in Paris and New York to cooking emu over a fire in the central Australian desert, Fred Torres has straddled two very different worlds for the last 15 years.

Fred recently opened a new gallery in Alstonville with Justine Barratt, called Quotidian & Quixotic, where artworks by some of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal painters, many of whom are Fred’s relatives, will live alongside the works of local Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists.

Fred’s great aunt is Australia’s most famous Aboriginal female painter – Emily Kame Kngwarreye – who first picked up a paintbrush in her 70s and who very quickly caused huge ripples in the art world with her semi-traditional, semi-abstract paintings. Emily sadly died in 1996 but her legacy lives on right around the globe in galleries and private collections, and today, one of her large paintings can sell for as much as $1.1 million.

And it was Fred’s entrepreneurial flair that brought his family’s art, from the remote community of Utopia in the Northern Territory, to the rest of the world.

When Emily and several of Fred’s other relatives were introduced to paint and brushes back in the late 1980s, Fred saw immediate potential for the art they began creating. He was working as a plumber’s apprentice in Adelaide at the time, and his family would come to visit and paint in his backyard. He took some of the paintings to galleries around Adelaide and the response was immediate. The art world was interested – very interested.

In 1993 he established DACOU (Dreaming Art Centre of Utopia) so his family could determine how to distribute their art and the price they wanted for their works, rather than being paid a pittance by an art dealer who would then on-sell them for far more than the artists received.

Today, the works of Fred’s mother Barbara Weir, grandmother Minnie Pwerle, aunt Gloria Petyarre and great aunt Emily Kame Kngwarreye are held by collectors and galleries both in Australia and internationally. DACOU has galleries in Broome, Melbourne and Sydney, and plans for a franchise in New York to open later this year are well underway.

And it is Fred’s connection with family that has brought Utopia’s art to the main street of Alstonville.

Fred and Justine’s daughter Mia, now six, spent many years travelling to Utopia and around the world with her parents. When it came time for her to attend school, Fred and Justine chose to send her to school in Lismore, where her grandmother has run the canteen for the past 20 years, and open the gallery in Alstonville where Justine’s family has lived for generations.

“It was time for Mia to settle down and she knew all her black family but she didn’t know my family, so I thought it was important for me to put some roots down and for her to have her family around her,” Justine said. “People would ask us why we didn’t open the gallery in Byron Bay, but we didn’t want to be there, we wanted to be where family was. Having the gallery here keeps the Utopian culture around her and now she will get to meet Bundjalung people too. Mia has always been around family – out bush it’s such a huge extended thing – so, to her, family’s more important than anything else.”

Justine, who left Alstonville as an 18-year-old, said she was also looking forward to connecting with local Aboriginal people.

“As a child I always wanted to know the Indigenous people of the area but it wasn’t open then for me to meet them or to understand this country here, and what the laws and traditions were – in those days we were always kept away from that,” Justine said. “So I feel like this is an opportunity for me to meet the Indigenous people of the area I grew up in and get to know more about them.”

Justine and Fred have been working together ever since they met while Fred was curating an art exhibition of Utopian art for the Sydney Olympics. Justine was at university completing a teaching degree, but the chance to work with such a progressive Aboriginal enterprise captured her imagination and she was soon immersed in the business.

She said since they opened Quotidian & Quixotic at the start of December, where local Bundjalung Elder Aunty Bertha Kapeen gave her blessing to the gallery, she had once again had to draw on her skills as an educator.

“Everyone is very positive but I have been surprised at the amount of people that don’t realise who these women are. Emily (Kngwarreye), for instance, is Australia’s most renowned female Aboriginal painter and is the only Aboriginal artist to have ever had an international retrospective exhibition – that was held in Japan in 2008,” Justine said. “People have been coming in and going, ‘Is that painting really $55,000?’ So it’s been exciting for me to tell people about DACOU and about the women of Utopia and what they’ve achieved.”

Justine said the beauty of having a gallery owned and operated by the people who create the art is that you have the luxury of time to establish a reputation and a presence in art circles.

“For so long most Indigenous galleries have got together through government funding and then they don’t know if it will get funding again the next year or the next,” Justine said. “Being self determining gives artists the chance to step up and take control… and I think that will be encouraging for local Bundjalung artists. It’s hard work, but DACOU has now been registered for 20 years. This year they published their first book, which is the family speaking about Emily. It’s been academics writing about Emily for so long so this is about her life and who she was as a person. Being self-determined gives you that sort of freedom.

“The response so far to this gallery has been fantastic; people are really excited it exists. The artists exhibiting are so proud, they think exhibiting in an Aboriginal enterprise is brilliant, and they feel it’s a great honour to be part of this. I know, myself, I feel it’s a great honour to be able to work in this gallery.”

Through artists’ networks Fred and Justine will be inviting submissions from local artists who would like to sell their art or craft in Quotidian & Quixotic, or Q&Q as it has been nicknamed.

The name came from a desire to differentiate it from DACOU because it will be open to non-Utopian artists, and also move away from more mainstream names and create some curiosity. Justine said the two words resonated with both her and Fred.

“The word quotidian means everyday, commonplace, and most of the work done by the women from Utopia is very domestic, it is about daily survival. And I think art that can affect our daily practices is of enormous importance, especially as it is our commonplace activities that have created the pollution we are now rethinking/reworking,” Justine said. “Quixotic is romantic, about ideas that are idealistic and often unpractical, but visionary, Utopian.

“I wanted a title which was not easily passed by that would create an opening for dialogue about what art is. To me, those two words together are like the vision statement for the gallery.”

Q&Q has a particular interest in exhibiting works by local artists and those whose art focuses on ‘Upcycling’. Upcycle art is about being conscious of and creative with the use of resources, using only the artist’s energy to create.

For instance, in the current exhibition the former Liberal politician Michael Yabsley, who was born in Lismore, has a display of lamps in the gallery which he creates from industrial and historic artefacts, bespoke shades and adapted electrical fittings.

The building of the gallery was also carefully planned, with everything from the tradespeople to the furnishings sourced as locally as possible in order to reduce the gallery’s carbon footprint.

“We are really interested in artists who are looking for new ways to approach our lifestyle,” Justine said. “The Utopian community have lived the same way for thousands of years so there’s a particular interest in displaying art that sheds light on how we can live sustainably yet move forward into the future.”

Q&Q is located in Main Street, Alstonville. Any artists wishing to make a submission to have their work exhibited can contact Justine at justinembarratt@gmail.com.


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