Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Warning: Relatives of the artist are advised that images of Emily Kame Kngwarreye appear in this article

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Philip Bacon Galleries
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 1998

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

TWENTY years ago, few people would have thought to place an Aboriginal artist among the giants of 20th century abstract art. Modern Aboriginal art, once dismissed as ethnographica, is now rightly valued as a great art tradition. But Aboriginal art is also much more than Western ideas about art as aesthetic innovation and the triumph of individual expression -- it can be a restatement of collective religious belief, a dialectic between millenia of tradition and modern innovation, and a question of politics, an assertion of land ownership and a colonised people's identity, as much as pleasing patterns and colours on paper or canvas.

Yet the pictures of the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, leader of the Aboriginal art movement at Utopia, 250 km north-east of Alice Springs, have been eagerly (and some might say, simplisticly,) claimed by the Western world. Kngwarreye based her vibrant compositions on the ochre dots and stripes of body painting for the women's ceremonies of her Anmatyerre community. She took this traditional repertoire of marks and began to paint in a veritable rainbow of hues on canvas from the age of about 78, celebrating the "whole lot", as she put it, of her central Australian desert country. The result at her best was a series of glowing, affirmative images which are now being compared to such modern art standard-bearers as Monet's shimmering images of his garden at Giverny and Jackson Pollock's wildly energetic drip paintings.

Kngwarreye, painter,ceremonial leader and tribal matriarch(her reputed million dollar painting income was spent mainly buying new Toyotas and blankets for her numerous clan, while she spent her days sitting cross-legged in the dirt ... painting, painting, painting) is being given the kind of reverent adulation usually reserved for legendary European art masters.

A huge retrospective of almost 100 works opens next week at the Queensland Art Gallery and will travel on to Sydney and Melbourne. There are also not one but two new books surveying her life and art, an academic forum, and a coinciding show for collectors at Brisbane's Philip Bacon Galleries.

The opening of the vast retrospective, in the presence of a visiting group of Aboriginal Elders from Utopia and south-east Queensland Murri Elders, will be prefaced by a dance performance and smoking ceremony performed with a small fire of sticks by local Aboriginal artist, Ric Roser, at the QAG's front doors. "It will be a welcoming and blessing by the local community," says the exhibition's coordinating curator, Margo Neale, of the smoking ceremony, "paying respect to the (Utopia) community and Emily."

The Utopia Elders, including senior custodian and Kngwarreye's nephew, Greeny Purvis Petyarre, "are very excited, happy and proud that we are doing this tribute to her," says Neale. Greeny Purvis Petyarre has sent down special rocks from Kngwarrey's country to put in a "Utopia Room", which the gallery has set up to display photographs, maps, rocks, carved figures, seeds and a women's ceremonial hair belt and skirt, which will travel with artist and Elder, Gloria Petyarre.

All this for an artist whose exhibiting career in old age spanned less than a decade, from 1988 until her death at the age of about 86 in 1996. A short career, but one as prolific and richly generative as the yellow clouds of bursting seeds and black fields of tangled yam tendrils which cover her canvases.

In just eight years, Kngwarreye painted an estimated 3,000 works; an incredible output which intrigued admirers as she ringed changes on some of the conventions of Aboriginal dot and line painting.

Many Aboriginal artists before Kngwarreye had used a finely painted and formulaic dot style to tell ancestral stories and to `map' sacred sites. Kngwarreye, too, tells the same story of her country over and over, tracing the path of the yam, the wandering routes of Altyerre or creator beings marking out sacred sites and places along the Dreaming, and the tracks of emus feeding on yam flowers and seeds as they move from place to place -- but she gradually obscured the storytelling elements in her art.

Her early batiks and paintings presented recognisable patterns and symbols of yam and emu tracks, but she soon began to submerge these underlying structures under free and spontaneous clouds of dots as dense as a swirling dust storm. Then she moved on to using large brushes, making bigger dots or splodges across the canvas in a so-called "dump dump" style, but soon turned again to a different, reductive linear style -- just boldly painted stripes or lines, like the linear patterns of painted breasts, shoulders and arms for ceremonies.

These rapid stylistic changes were greeted by the art world with applause, if not rapture. A tide of hype -- Emily mania -- began to rise inexorably over the art scene, reaching its zenith around 1995 as dealers, critics and curators rushed to claim her as a kind of black, female Picasso of protean imagination and avant-garde sensibility. "She has Zenned herself," gushed one dealer in the pretentious and unconsciously hilarious gobbledegook favoured by art pseuds, "into the epicentre of contemporary abstract gestural expressionism."

Zenned herself, indeed! Kngwarreye the art trendy and revolutionary? Such labelling ignores the inherent conservatism of her lifelong adherence to a tradition stretching back forty thousand years. For some, the critical mantle of Western-style avant-gardeism sits uneasily on her sagging yet powerful shoulders, pivots for the strong arms and large hands used to driving camels and cattle, their energies turned as easily to pounding or sweeping paint over linen.

Other observers of Emily mania have worried about the proliferation of paintings sold under her name but painted by other artists in her community. "Emily fakes were everywhere," Alice Springs art adviser Rodney Gooch told the WeekendAustralian in 1995. "There was a period in the early 1990s where I'd say about a third, maybe even as high as 50 per cent, of the works being sold as hers, weren't."

Presumably these works are still circulating, a reality that unnerves collectors prepared to invest, say, $12,000 - $50,000 for a major Kngwarreye painting.

"If it's a major investment," advises Philip Bacon, "I'd say: try and check on the provenance, the origin of the picture. If it isn't of great financial investment, I don't think people should get too hung up about (who painted a work), because you are buying a whole lifestyle, a way of painting that is still legitimate, it's still all there."

Authenticity blips aside, Bacon sees Kngwarreye's reputation continuing to grow in the future. For many, she is simply a major international, not just Aboriginal, painter at the end of the 20th century, a time in which fewer and fewer artists generate the same excitement as Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse and Monet did at the beginning of the century.

The era of the painter as superstar has been over for a long time, and this also accounts for some of Kngwarreye's popular success. People rush to buy her work not because it is radically different or innovative, but, as Philip Bacon explains, because it is comfortingly familiar, a reminder of some of the great European colouristic painting of the past:

"People see her pictures as being almost like Western abstract colour-field paintings, or like Turner, or late Lloyd Rees."

The irony of such comparisons, as Margo Neale points out, is that Kngwarreye was probably unaware of the great European painters to whom she is likened.

Kngwarreye was nine years old when she had her first startling encounter with a white person -- a policeman on horseback leading an Aboriginal prisoner in chains. Apart from brief late excursions to the southern cities (including, famously, a trip to Canberra to receive a fellowship from then Prime Minister Paul Keating) she spent her entire life living in the desert country onthe edge of the former Utopia cattle station.

The gulf between Kngwarreye's experience and that of her non-indigenous admirers may be as wide as the distance between desert and city, and it should surprise no one if, as a gallery brochure claims, "her life, work and art practice defy all attempts to place her." But so what? Regardless of what we think of individual artists, in the end, a work of art exists and must be evaluated for its own sake, a truism that over-hyped visitors to the Emily show would do well to keep in mind.

Copyright © 1998 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author

Recommended Reading: