Kathleen Petyarre was born in 1940 at the remote location of Atnangkere, an important water soakage for Aboriginal people on the western boundary of Utopia Station, 150 miles north-east of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia. She is one of the most eminent Australian Aboriginal artists, known for her paintings displaying an extremely refined layering technique with intricate dotting. Her art refers directly to her country and her Dreamings, concepts that may be difficult to grasp for the non-Aboriginal viewer.
She belongs to the Alyawarre/Eastern Anmatyerre clan and speaks Eastern Anmatyerre, with English as her second language. Kathleen, with her daughter Margaret and her sisters, settled at Iylenty (Mosquito Bore) on Utopia Station near her birthplace. She started working in batik in 1977 when an adult education instructor, Jenny Green, arrived in Utopia and organised batik workshops. In 1996 she was the winner of the 13th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Controversy arose in 1997 when Petyarre's estranged partner of ten years, Ray Beamish, claimed that he had had a hand in the execution of the winning painting. This controversy, which shook the Aboriginal art market at the time, resulted in much stricter emphasis being put on the documentation of authorship in Aboriginal paintings.
Kathleen Petyarre's name was eventually cleared, and she retained her award. Her considerable reputation as one of the most original indigenous artists has since been confirmed nationally and internationally by her regular inclusion in exhibitions at the most reputed museums and galleries. A book about her art, 'Genius of Place', was published in 2001 in conjunction with a solo exhibition of her works at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, and her paintings can be found in public and private collections all over the world. Her work has been selected, along with just a handful of Aboriginal artists, for inclusion in the permanent collection of the new Musée du quai Branly in Paris. The last few years, from about 2003-2004 onwards, have seen a bolder style emerge, with clusters of larger dots and stronger lines alongside the very fine textures for which the artist is known.
While this style has been decried in some quarters as being less refined, it has also been hailed as being a logical artistic development towards a more powerful and dramatic mode of expression, 'perhaps more abstract, certainly more modern in its technicality and presentation' Kathleen Petyarre is one of the most sought-after living Aboriginal artistsShe has been repeatedly nominated by the influential journal Australian Art Collector as being among 'the 50 most collectable artists in Australia'. She has several sisters who are also well-known artists, among them Gloria Petyarre, Violet Petyarre, Myrtle Petyarre and Jeannie Petyarre. However it is Kathleen's works that consistently show the highest degree of innovation and are in the greatest demand, and they tend to fetch the highest prices at auctions (record price to date: $80,000 at Deutscher-Menzies 25 March 2009 for 'Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming', 2008.