'Bush Plum' is an extraordinary work by Evelyn Pultara. Painted across five panels, each stands almost 2 metres tall! Evelyn comes from Woodgreen Station in Utopia, Central Australia, she was born around 1940 and is part of the Anmatyerre language group.
Today, she exclusively paints her plant totem, the Bush Yam. However, when she began painting in 1997, she depicted traditional designs such as Awelye (women's ceremonial body paint designs) and bush tucker, such as the bush plum.
Bush Plum Dreaming
The Bush Plum Dreaming Story is told through tribes in the Western and Central deserts, from Warlpiri country to the Utopia lands. This is how the story is told in the Utopia region:
In the Dreamtime, winds blew the bush plum seed to the ancestral lands. The first bush plum grew, bore fruit and dropped more seeds, which were then picked up by the wind spreading the plum across their country.
Aboriginal people retell the Dreaming story to pay homage to the spirit of the bush plum, ensuring that this important desert shrub fruits year after year. Traditionally, it is celebrated in tribal ceremonies through song and dance, but today, elders like Evelyn also pay tribute by painting its story. ‘Bush Plum’ represents the plant’s fruit, leaves and flowers, but also recalls the designs painted on the body during ceremony inspired by the Dreaming.
The Bush Plum
This 2-3 metre tall shrub is not a true plum, but is, in fact, a relative of the sandalwood tree. It fruits in the summer after the rains, producing small olive-sized fruits that are green when young, turning from pink, red to purple and finally almost black when ripe. It has distinctive blue-green leaves and produces a creamy yellow/white flowers.
The bush plum has been an important food source for generations of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers. They can be eaten ripe, or dried and eaten throughout the year. It was once found widely throughout the outback, but numbers in the wild are in decline due to its popularity with more recently introduced grazing animals.
However, since the discovery that this bush tucker contains large amounts of Vitamin C and antioxidants, communities in Kimberley who grow the plum are experiencing something of a gold rush. The Gudumul community supplies large quantities of the plum for the manufacture of anti-ageing supplements, as with many bush foods, modern science is only now discovering benefits that have sustained Aboriginal people for thousands of years!
As well as its significance to the people of Utopia, for the Warlpiri in Australia's Northern Territory, the bush plum also plays a significant part in ritual practices involved in Yilpinji, Love Magic.
In her book Yilpinji: Love, Art and Ceremony, author Christine Nicholls describes the part the plum plays in the courtship between young couples:
'When a girl falls in love she goes to her female relatives and is instructed in how to attract her man as a lover. She weaves a belt out of hair while singing Yilpinji songs imbuing the belt with magic. When the man approaches she entices him with her charms until he comes under the influence of her allure. She reveals the belt as his ardour grows and persuades him to place the belt around her waist. As he does, he falls under her spell and they go off together as a couple. Together they eat bush plums and hunt for food. Other important Warlpiri, on learning of their tryst, follow and confront them as a couple and also eat the bush plums. In this way, the group recognizes their relationship and acknowledges that it is an appropriate match. They are now recognized by all as a couple.'
Land, plants and animal are all intertwined deeply in many aspects of Aboriginal culture. Ritual, religion and myth are born from the Indigenous people’s deep love and respect for the natural world, even the humble desert plum plays a part.
Evelyn grew up in her family's homelands surrounding Utopia, where she raised six children. Now an elder, she lives in Willowra in Central Australia with her husband, where she continues to paint. There are a number of artists in Evelyn's family, notably her late sister Greeny Purvis Petyarre and late great Emily Kame Kngwarreye, her niece.
Emily was one of the most prominent and successful artists in the history of contemporary indigenous Australian art. She was described by some art critics as an "accidental modernist," due to a perceived likeness with the work of 'western modernists' and Abstract Expressionist such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. For her part, Emily simply asked, "Why do those fellas paint like me?".
Given their family and Utopia connections, it's not surprising that there are certain similarities in some of Evelyn's and Emily's works. An interesting comparison with Evelyn's 'Bush plum' is Emily's 'Earth's Creation', the painting that set an auction record for a female Aboriginal artist selling for over AUD 1 million. Both are both large, bold, abstract works with vibrant colour and broad, dynamic brushstrokes.
Earth Creation (1994) by Emily Kame Kngwarreye
In 2005, Evelyn won first prize in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award for her entry into the general painting division. This prestigious award brought her to wider attention, and following this, significant collections in Australia and overseas have acquired her work.
'Bush plum' will be on display at our next exhibition 'Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Art' at the Riverhouse Arts Centre, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, 5th February – 1st March 2020. Please click here for further details. We hope you come and see this extraordinary painting for yourself.
'Bush Plum', Acrylic on canvas, Five panels, 196 x 46cm each. For further details and enquiries, please contact Nadia Phillips firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources and further reading:
Yilpinji: Love, Art and Ceremony by Christine Nicholls
Emily Kame Kngwarreye: The impossible modernist by Margo Neale
Bush plum dreaming by: David Wroth, Japingka Gallery