Medicine Dreaming by Gloria Tamerre Petyarre (1942 - 2021)

Visiting galleries in Australia and in Europe I noticed paintings by Gloria Petyarre and her sister Kathleen and the first contact I had with Gloria was when I attended a traditional Dance performance by Gloria and Kathleen in Tantanya, the Aboriginal Art Centre in Adelaide. 

Then in the late 1990’s I placed a lot of effort in building a working relationship with Gloria and also Kathleen. Both worked for a range of other galleries but eventually I succeeded, and Gloria became a regular visitor to my place. The relationship could best be described as a friendly business relationship, but this changed after some 12 years when Gloria came with a severe cold into my studio. Gloria liked to come to me since I always had only one artist at the time around. I simply could not afford more.

I told Gloria that I can cure her cold and told her about a special soup with bones and garden greens my grandmother made for me when I was a child and had a cold in freezing temperatures in Germany after the war and some other anecdotes. She listened and loved the soup, slept in my studio on her pillow for some time and when she woke up, she was keen to tell me stories about her grandmother as well and started to paint and for the first time in my place she started to sing while doing so.

The next morning, it was cold in Alice, she knocked on my door. I told her that I am leaving for Adelaide to visit my family. She said, I know, you told me yesterday, I only came to get more of your soup. She paid AUD50 one way for the taxi to come to my place for the soup.

In later years, when I had left Alice for the Gold Coast, I arranged twice a fortnightly stay in my place for Gloria. She loved Elena’s cooking. On her last visit I had to accompany her to her room since she walked always in the wrong direction. One day she finished a painting, and I placed it into the sun to dry. Unfortunately, a bird dropped something on it. Gloria was asleep so I thought I could fix this easily, wiped off the dropping, took Gloria’s brush and used the same paint to fix 3 leaves. I tried several times, but the leaves appeared not to belong to the painting. When Gloria woke up, I told her of this. She took her brush and fixed it in no time.

On Gloria’s last day on the Gold Coast, when I accompanied her to her room, I said that this would most likely be the last time to have a workshop together. Her response was “I miss you”. This was a reward I will never forget.

On another visit earlier Elena went shopping with Gloria when a passer by stopped them and said, you are Gloria, I am so excited. This lady used her connections to arrange for a Camera Crew to come around and do a video with Gloria and myself to show on Gold Coast News. As a thank you and following my suggestion Gloria did a small painting for this nice lady for free.

Seeing Gloria paint, brush in hand, brings the realisation that she was highly accomplished, and quietly dignified in all that she did. I was lucky enough to hear Gloria gently sing her way through the many verses that comprise the song of the Medicine Leaf. The singing took the form of short, rhythmic verses, which could produce, in her, a trance-like state. Traditionally this was a lead into ceremonial performance and dance. All of this was accompanied by body painting.

She would tell that each of her dreaming’s carries with it a traditional, ancient song. Her singing combined with the gentle flow of paint from her brush promoted the idea that this was, in truth, a performance that was substituting for an ancient ceremony. When the performance was complete the resulting object, the painting was incidental.

Although the media paid very little attention to it, Gloria won Australia’s longest running art prize, The Wynne Prize in 1999. Gloria was the first indigenous painter to win this highly prestigious award.