Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c. 1910 – 1996) without doubt was Australia’s most famous indigenous artist ever. View her biography to learn more about this unique artist.
As collector and owner of Boomerang Art I always tried to have researched and one day published some information about this very special Aboriginal artist and for this reason I asked the well-known Art Historian Dr Garry Darby to do some research on behalf of Boomerang Art. Here is what he had to say in his essay:
“In November 2008 the largest international solo exhibition ever by any Australian painter was mounted in Osaka and later, Tokyo, Japan. The result was that a tsunami of interest was created in Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work. Furthermore she was described (again) this time by curator, Akira Tatehata, as being “one of the major abstract painters of the 20th century”.
Jenny Green had previously made the same claim, adding that, “the market has been led by comparisons of her work with that of past masters such as Matisse, Monet, Renoir, Kandinsky and de Kooning.”
That assessment was made in April, 2000 and its efficaciousness has only increased since that time.
There is little doubt that Emily was a phenomenon in her own epoch and that she changed the face of Australian Aboriginal art. She did not adhere to one painting style but in a burst of creative energy over an eight year period she is reputed to have painted some 3,000 canvasses.
Her explosive, gestural painting bore no resemblance to any other Aboriginal painter. Emily broke the mould. This was possible, to some extent, because she had come to painting via the making of batik with designs and colours put to silk fabric. This demanding technique was inhibiting to Emily who blossomed as an artist when, in 1988, she took to working with canvas and acrylic paint.
From the very beginning Emily worked with remarkable assurance and speed. Indeed it has always been recognised that the great painters of all eras have worked that way.
During 1990-91 Emily enjoyed solo shows in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. These were followed by many other exhibitions overseas. As her remarkable career unfolded she was awarded an Australian Artists Creative Fellowship known as the ‘Keating awards’ in 1992, was posthumously, an Australian representative in the Venice Biennale in 1997 and the subject of a huge national touring exhibition in 1998. That particular exhibition was curated by Margo Neale, who, a decade later was to oversee the expansive shows in Japan.
The sophisticated cities of Osaka and Tokyo are a world away from the origins of Emily and the ancient culture she knew. Describing her youth she recalled that, I was born at the place called Alhalker, right there. When I was young we all came back to Utopia station. We used to eat bits and pieces of food, carefully digging out the grubs from Acacia bushes. We killed different sorts of lizards, such as geckos and blue-tongues, and ate them in our cubby houses [shelters] … My mother used to dig up bush potatoes, and gather grubs from different sorts of Acacia bushes to eat. That’s what we used to live on. My mother would keep on digging and digging the bush potatoes, while us young ones made each other cry over the food; just over a little bit of food. Then we’d all go back to camp to cook the food, the atnwelarr yams … We didn’t have any tents – we lived in shelters made of grass. When it was raining the grass was roughly thrown together for shelter. That was in the olden time, a long time ago.
Indeed Emily’s memories of that time provide us with a clear picture of how life must have been for those Anmatyere and Alyawarre people who experienced life when white pastoralists such as the Kunoths occupied the homestead at Utopia.
Emily, born c 1910, would have been in her mid-teens at that time. She had grown up in her traditional country for some fifteen or sixteen years before the development of the cattle stations. Alhalkere is situated on what became the south-western area of Utopia station. Importantly there are several water places on this country the most significant of which is the soakage and rock hole that gives its name to the surrounding area.
It was not until 1977, when she was c 67 years old that Emily came in contact with art making involving non-traditional materials. The story of her beginning is well known and is encapsulated in her recall of those times.
I did batik at first, and then after doing that I learnt more and more and then I changed over to painting for good … Then it was canvas. I gave up whatsitsname, fabric, to avoid all the boiling to get the wax out. I got a bit lazy; I gave it up because it was too much hard work. I finally got sick of it. I didn’t want to continue with the hard work batik required – continually boiling and boiling the fabric, and lighting the fires, and using up soap powder, over and over, that’s why I gave it up and changed over to canvas, it was easier. My eyes deteriorated, and because of that I gave up batik on silk – acrylic painting was better for me.
There is no escaping the resonances of batik style that remain in Emily’s paintings … particularly those of the early painting years, 1989,1990 and 1991.
Furthermore, it could be said that those same resonances are evident in much of the painting from Utopia since 1988-9. The work of Kathleen Petyarre, Gloria Petyarre, Barbara Weir and Josie Petrick, amongst many others shows the way in which batik making influenced subsequent painting. Emily, of course, with her unchallenged success and ensuant standing in the community was the most influential of all.
It is important to understand that paintings from Utopia, like all those by desert painters, emanate from the earth itself. Country is everything. Emily’s country was Alhalkere, the place where she spent her formative years and the place that became her spiritual home. When she painted the motivation was most frequently Alhalkere. It was this country and the dreamings attached to it that remained constant in her work right through seven or eight stylistic changes in her painting career.
Her symbolism derived from the Altyerre, the creation precept which informed her spiritual beliefs and led her back physically and metaphorically to country. ‘Altyerre’ in the Anmatyrre term for the ‘Dreaming’ or more properly the ‘Creation’ time.
At Alhalkerre in Altyerre time there were two emu brothers, guardians of the land who kept watch for and punished any transgressors of the laws bearing on this country. It has been noted that, the senior custodian of the Emu Dreaming at Alhalkere is still empowered to make judgment and practice this punishment.
Emily was deeply committed to and cognizant of the Emu Dreaming as part of her cultural heritage from the country on which she was raised. The Emu Dreaming informed many of her early paintings on canvas.
Desert painters, including those from Utopia, do not paint for frivolous reasons; painting is not a pastime or a hobby. In many cases it is a ‘performance’ or mini ceremony which celebrates over and over their concern with country and everything it embodies including the creation mythologies. There is nothing random about the choice of subject; all is powerful and meaningful. Therefore each individual paints designs associated with his or her country. These designs represent special and detailed knowledge of their totemic associations, seasonal conditions, ancestral and creative mythology, and body paint patterns, all of which illuminate their knowledge and love of country.
Although she had the inherent right to paint a number of dreamings, Emily’s imagery was frequently built around the atnwelarr (pencil yam) in a variety of aspects and the emu dreaming mentioned above.
Emily’s middle name, Kame, means yam seed or yam flower. When the yam flowers blossom in season they form part of the emu’s diet. Emily once described, in very broken English, one of her paintings, a large rectangular canvas showing yam flowers in varying shades of yellow. The dots were medium to small and they covered the surface completely making a shimmering field of gorgeous colour.
When she talked about the painting she waved her arm across the surface and indicated that under the veil of flowers was the yam root system. However it could not be seen in the painting. Then Emily spoke of the emu in the painting. There was no emu to be seen. The painter explained that when the yam flowers blossomed the emus came and ate them. No further explanation was offered.
Some in the perplexed group viewing the painting realized that what Emily was saying was that both the yam roots and the emu were certainly there, they always were, but there was no need for her to draw a picture of them. Her knowledge of country, season and nature precluded this. They just were. In this sense Emily had reached a sublime state of abstraction in her work that could well justify the claim for her being one of the great abstractionists of the 20th century.
The same blossoms have influenced Emily’s use of colour. In indigenous cosmology there is a decided ‘interconnectedness’ between various precious, personal aspects of the earth and all of nature’s creations in its wide sweep. Recognition of this is not written down (there is no literary tradition in Aboriginal society) but lives on in oral history, mythology, dancing, singing and painting. Ceremony, combining many of these aspects, provides a way of giving extended and continuing life to a set of communal and strongly held beliefs.
Asked to explain her paintings Emily would often say that they were about ‘everything’ or ‘the whole lot’. This was not any attempt to avoid the question; she did indeed mean that her paintings were about her whole world, her whole life. The term ‘Awely’ describes this phenomenon. Particularly and traditionally Awely was fundamental to women’s ceremony and consequently to women’s body paint. Through ceremony, dancing, singing and rhythmic chanting women celebrated their place in the world; they celebrated Awely.
Jenny Green has written eloquently about this ancient practice. She said, The women perform Awely to look after their country, promoting feelings of happiness, health and well-being in the community. They sing to ensure that bush plants continue to grow in abundance, bush animals proliferate, and to make babies healthy and fat. The younger women and girls are taught the songs and dances which have been revealed to the generations of women before them, thus ensuring continued harmony between the land and its inhabitants.
When batik was first made, women included the symbols of Awelye. Subsequently, of course, the use of such imagery was continued in the production of paintings on canvas. As one result Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s work displays gravity, profound implications from her knowledge of country and ancient qualities that ensure and nourish enduring values.”