A new way of seeing: Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s significance in Australian art by Susan McCulloch

 `In the remote spinifex covered country of an isolated desert region of Central Australia, the nation’s most famous Aboriginal woman artist is being mourned in a traditional Aboriginal way.’ 1

This was the scene at the gathering to honour the passing of famed artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye at Utopia in September 1996; and a day which marked both an end and a beginning for the art of this extraordinary woman. 2

From the start of her first works on canvas in 1989 there was an exploratory, yet certainness in Kngwarreye’s work that spoke of a rare talent. As the late Rodney Gooch, who worked closely with Kngwarreye throughout her whole painting career said of her work in the first Utopia group exhibition in 1989:‘ [it] instantly shone out at it you and I knew [she] would be the star of the show.’

Emily Kngwarreye’s rise was meteoric and within four years, she had achieved both a level of fame and a demand for her work that few artists achieve in the practice of a lifetime. Media coverage was intense, while Kngwarreye herself often proved an elusive subject. Frequently she removed herself from the public to spend time painting with her friends and family - notably her adopted daughter Barbara Weir, and Weir’s son Fred Torres who set up the gallery DACOU in 1993 to represent Utopia artists. Yet her fame continued to spread and her paintings to surprise a hungry market. Most impressive was the restless energy with which she created new styles, often painting these in tandem.

Women of Utopia presenting a Batik to Clyde Holding, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Left to right: Barbara Weir, Clyde Holding, Kathleen Petyarre, Myrtle Petyarre and Emily Kngwarreye Utopia 1981

The paintings that first drew Kngwarreye’s work to attention were what became known as her ‘dump-dump dot’ works. Here, the strength of arms and hands made sinewy, tough and capable through years of outback work with camels and horses was especially evident. Vigorously, she’d use the full bristles of a large brush to pound the canvas - most akin to the action of pulverising a clove of garlic in a mortar and pestle. Layers of colours were built up, leaving other sections more thinly veiled to depict the tracing of veins of the land and its vegetation.

Soon, another style emerged with layers of fine dotting in which colour dominated. While to Kngwarreye, as with all her works, these were a reaffirmation of her lands and her women’s ceremonial duties (awelye) to a western audience they were reminiscent of the high keyed colours of Monet and frequently given evocative names representative of the seasons.

Next, came pared back linear works in which monotone or layered coloured strokes criss crossed and wove over the surface, evoking the roots of the yam stretching deep into the soil. Later again, another evolution with horizontal or vertical broad-brushed browns, blacks or blues against a white ground as a literal translation of women’s body painting.

And last, some of the most breathtakingly intense and bold paintings of all; a series of 24 intensely coloured hot pinks, greens, reds and white works created just two weeks before she died and with the wide brushes used to prime canvases. As curator Margo Neale has often commented, Kngwarreye’s genius as an artist was due to many things – not least being the sheer number of `breakthrough’ series she evolved – each of equal significance. 3

Passionate about Kngwarreye’s work, Neale has become the artists’ curatorial biographer, having created two major retrospectives of her work which have appeared in six major art museums. The first, in 1997, was for the Queensland Art Gallery and toured to two other Australian state galleries. The second, in 2008 was commissioned by art professor Akira Tatehata for the National Museum of Art, Osaka and shown also in Tokyo and at the National Museum of Australia. The largest solo exhibition of an Australian artist in an international public art gallery, the Japanese exhibitions attracted record breaking attendances and critical acclaim and positioned Kngwarreye firmly in the international context.

Although her work is most often likened to the internationally famous artists Monet, Pollock and de Kooning - and her work destined for even greater international recognition - Kngwarreye’s impact on the development of Australian art is of fundamental significance. Like the Impressionist artists Streeton, Roberts, McCubbin and later artists Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan, Fred Williams, John Olsen, Rosalie Gascoigne, Johnny Warangkula, Clifford Possum and Rover Thomas, Kngwarreye created entirely new ways of seeing the land. In the history of contemporary Aboriginal art, the work of Emily Kngwarreye and Thomas - whose spare paintings, made from deep brown, white ochre and blacks ground from burnt woods reinterpreted his Kimberley landscape - proved watershed moments. Kngwarreye and Thomas started making art around the same time, in the mid to late 1980s, yet with little knowledge of each other’s work, and indeed no similarities at all, other than both being indigenous Australians. Yet the work of each is of profound significance - both in their determined pursuit of highly individualistic styles and their lasting impact on Australian art.

Since the Papunya school, other Aboriginal artists had already redefined the representation of Australian landscape art, but the work of these two artists carried this into new and quite radical territories. This included a re-ignition of interest in abstractionism of all types and the medium of painting itself; but most importantly they paved the way for more expansive imagery by generations of subsequent indigenous artists. Here, Kngwarreye’s bold colouration and stylistic experimentation was of special significance. The resonances are seen in the art of Emily Kngwarreye’s own Utopia community’s painters, Minnie Pwerle and her sisters Emily, Galya and Molly; the master colourist artists of Bidyadanga such as Daniel Walbidi, Jan Billycan and Weaver Jack; the luminous colouration of Balgo artist Eubena Nampitjin; and the huge blossoming of colour-flled art throughout of the PY and NPY lands by dozens of master artists such as Tommy Watson, Wingu Tingima, Eileen Stevens, Jimmy Baker and many others.

That Kngwarreye’s work continued to develop stylistically as this elderly artists’ last few years progressed, accompanied also by many and varied pressures, was indicative of the strength of character of this unique woman. Her legacy is not only a body of visionary work that speaks of an indomitable creative spirit, but the forging of a new way of seeing that has, literally, changed the course of Australia’s visual culture.

Article taken from the book- Emily Kame Kngwarreye: the Person and her Paintings currently retailing for $60.00.

1. Susan McCulloch, ‘A tribute to artistic excellence at Utopia’, The Weekend Australian 7-8 Sept. 1996, pp 1 and 4.
2. Rodney Gooch in S. McCulloch,’Contemporary Aboriginal Art’, Allen & Unwin, 2001, p. 82, from interview by the author.
3. Numerous personal discussions between Margo Neale and Susan McCulloch, 1997-2009.

Also visit the Emily Kngwarreye page to view some of her paintings for sale.

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