Published  10/11/2008

Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye

National Museum of Australia, Canberra
22 August-12 October 2008

The exhibition 'Utopia: the Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye' at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra was first planned for Japan, where it was shown in Tokyo and Osaka earlier this year. The opening in Osaka in February took place soon after the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, at his first opening of parliament as Prime Minister - the 42nd Parliament of Australia, on 13 February 2008 - made his historic apology to the stolen generations of Aboriginal people of Australia. Long in the waiting, the Director of the Museum of Australia described Rudd's statement as, '... a defining moment in Australia's history'.

The term 'stolen generation' refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who were forcibly removed, from their families by government, welfare or church authorities. They were placed into institutional care with non-indigenous foster families. In 1997 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission presented Bringing Them Home, the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. The report was a chilling and public revelation to the media of the systematic attempt at social and biological engineering by the forcible removal of indigenous children in Australia since early colonisation. Government policy sought to separate Aborigines by reserving land and to establish a protection board that would be given power to control movement, marriage and employment. Children were separated from families. Police enforced the 'law'. Intermarriage was considered to be the key to absorption; what was not taken into consideration was that they would not lose their Aboriginal identity.

Peter Read worked as historian of Aboriginal Australia since the 1970s. In 1999, he published A Rape of the Soul So Profound, a collection of articles, pamphlets and submissions written by Read between 1976 and 1998. Read wrote about the practice of removing children from their families long before it was even talked about. It is a powerful and passionate collection of writings, which makes a major contribution to understanding the 'stolen generations'. He pointed out:

While all the post-war advancement organisations were devoted to education, welfare or political progress, none to my knowledge adopted the plank of ending the child separation policy. Few manifestoes even mentioned it. Perhaps the white's own lack of comprehension of the extent of the policy and the cruelty of its execution helped to prevent separation from entering the agenda of serious political intention.1

The exhibition of the work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye reveals the powerful diversity of aesthetics and culture in Aboriginal art that has flourished since the introduction of western materials to Aboriginal art communities in the 1970s and 1980s. More importantly it reveals the remarkable progress made within Australian society to address the issues of inequality and marginalisation of the indigenous population in Australian society at the beginning of the 21st century. In the catalogue, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, stated:

Emily Kame Kngwarreye was one of Australia's leading painters of modern times. She is the first Australian artist to be offered an exhibition of such scale and significance on the international stage, assuring her place among the other greats of world art. It is another example of the contribution Indigenous Australians have made to Australia's place in the international art world. As an elder and teacher for her people, Emily provides, through her paintings, a window on her culture and vision of Country that all Australians can enjoy. Her paintings are an example of the uniqueness of Australian art and the dynamism of Indigenous Australian culture.2

In the late 1970s, a group of Anmatyerre and Alyawarre women from the Utopia region of central Australia, in the Northern Territory, some 280 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, began to learn the techniques of batik at a government-sponsored adult education programme, run by two non-indigenous women. Traditionally, the Anmatyerre- and Alyawarre-speaking people made important visual images for thousands of years on their bodies, on the ground and on ceremonial objects. In 1977 these images were transferred onto lengths of silk fabric. The subject matter comes from the land: plants, lizards, snakes, centipedes and goannas. The imagery of the ceremony itself, the choreography of dance and movement, is made manifest on the silk, then later canvas: footprints, animal tracks, sites and implements are in abundance. There is a sense that there is unlimited visual material, a plethora of imagery available to these artists whose lives have been steeped in the ritual and ceremonial traditions of their forebears. The batik work from Utopia was exhibited widely in Australia and overseas during the 1980s. It was also acquired by museums around the world. In the late 1980s a shift took place from batik to acrylic on canvas. The artists were assisted by a number of art and craft advisers, who acted as a link to the market place and organised materials from suppliers and exhibition venues.

Emily is the most well known artist from Utopia. The training she received in batik painting, with extraordinary attention to detail, was later amplified in her works on canvas, and attracted the attention of the worldwide art market and achieved such remarkable sales that productivity could be maintained on an unprecedented scale. Emily Kame Kngwarreye was born around 1910 and died on 2 September 1996. Since her death, her status as an artist has been recognised and celebrated. The first major exhibition of her work was held ten years ago. It is a fitting tribute that an exhibition on such scale should be staged at a major international venue. It is also significant that her work has precipitated debate from a range of curators and art historians, posing her significance, not only within the indigenous field, but also within the broader issues of international art, particularly the significance in relation to modernism. That a female artist in her eighties from an isolated desert community should paint in a similar manner to the abstract expressionists has fascinated many commentators.  It has certainly contributed to the massive appeal to the public, evidence of which includes the record attendances seen in Japan and in Canberra. Senior curator of the exhibition, Margo Neale, considers that the Emily exhibition, in a post-apology era, some ten years after the first major exhibition of her work, is an ideal time to reappraise issues pertaining to the significance of her work and Aboriginal art in general. 

[The authors of the catalogue] try to resolve the persistent need to reconcile the abstract canvases produced by an elderly black woman from the desert with the Western conception of modernism. Allied to this is the critical issue of how to pluck a single Indigenous artist from a community collective environment and present her work using a European model of the monograph in white spaces - a tradition that is alien to the lineage of the artist whose work is being represented.3

There is an overt fascination with the idea that an Aboriginal artist could paint in the manner of the best abstract artists of the 20th century, arguably better and certainly more prolifically than most of the major figures of European and American modernism - some 3,000 works in eight years. In political terms, Emily's work - with its extraordinary wide appeal - has made the reconciliation between indigenous and white Australian populations within Australia viable. Neale continues, 'We are concerned with how to acknowledge the cultural traditions that inform Emily's paintings - the living environment that they were produced in, the work practices she employed and the artist's community at Utopia of which she was an integral part, yet how can we produce a show of great contemporary Australian art that is not marginalised through cultural difference? We need to create an environment where the paintings function simultaneously as cultural narratives without becoming objects of anthropological scrutiny, and as works of modernist abstract art without being sanitised of their cultural content.'4

It is being suggested that, in the post-apology era, the work of Emily can be viewed afresh, that notions of the primitive can be wholly refuted, and that, if anything, Emily has simply done modernism better than any of the previously held leading artists: Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and so on. In his essay, The Impossible Modernist, Professor Akira Tatehata approaches the issues with a necessary pragmatism, stating that coming from another cultural space, as a Japanese man steeped in his own culture and as an international curator and academic, he can only view the work of Emily Kame Kynwarreye in an international context from a Japanese cultural space. He considers it wholly inappropriate to view her work from the position of Western modernism. Judith Ryan at the National Gallery of Victoria also considers that to discuss the work of Emily from this perspective is inappropriate.5 Her contribution to the scholarship of indigenous art in Australia is pivotal (see Pupunya Tula article March 2008 on this site). The exhibition currently showing at the National Gallery of Victoria 'Across the Desert: Aboriginal Batik from Central Australia' (to be reviewed November 2008) includes the work of Emily and the Utopia community, and is accompanied by an excellent catalogue. Together with the Emily exhibition, it presents a range of exciting and remarkable Aboriginal art.

The art of Emily Kame Kngwarreye and batik art were instrumental in the 1970s and 1980s in dispelling many patriarchal obsessions about Aboriginal art. The Australian community generally accepted that Aboriginal art and religion were the exclusive domain of men. Early anthropological writings tended to separate the 'secular' or 'profane' pursuits of women from the 'sacred' rites of men, which in turn were made manifest in their art. As a consequence, the early art activity for women was confined to the decoration of food-gathering sticks, and they were not given access to art materials such as canvas. Their work was confined to craft objects that accompanied their main activities in relation to the female duties of breeding and cooking. Female anthropologists were instrumental in seeing through the prejudiced perceptions and instigating projects such as the batik programme which in turn led to some of the most remarkable Aboriginal art of the past 20 years. The Emily exhibition and 'Across the Desert' are testament to the pivotal role of women in Aboriginal society and as key figures in the Aboriginal art programmes since the 1970s.

Tatehata extends his position as an outsider, to Emily herself, yet when he describes the impact of his visit to Utopia there is a touching candour that can inform any visitor to the exhibition:

The sight of the red earth of Utopia certainly made a spectacular impression on us. But in the end, we were visitors who had chartered a small aeroplane - nothing more than a research team who had come to interview Emily's family through an interpreter. When you think about it, the idea of Emily's works through the cultural device of an exhibition is itself a modernist undertaking. But isn't trying to understand another culture a way of recognising the productive significance of the connections between two cultures, and an attempt to integrate another context into one's own? Multiculturalism is a reasonable philosophy, but when coupled with the intolerant outlook of fundamentalism, people only recognise the differences in each other's perspectives, and the channels of communication are completely shut down.6

Emily's painting grew out of her work in batik. The Utopia Women's Batik Group was a government-sponsored adult education programme run in the community in the late 1970s. The batik motifs in Emily's work grew from her involvement in rituals such as body painting and sand painting. Batik enabled Emily to continue to work with the female community, but to transfer her imagery to a less ephemeral form, a commodity. She was also able to increase the scale of her working method. The batik works can be viewed as a precursor to her acrylic paintings. In 1988, Emily participated in a summer project organised by the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). 'Emu Woman' was painted, her first work using acrylic paint and canvas. In the eight years that followed Emily's first use of acrylic paint on canvas, she produced a staggering 3,000 canvasses. Filled with an absolute compulsion to work in the new medium, and no doubt given very great encouragement, Emily was sent vast supplies of materials. In just a few years, the elderly painter held numerous exhibitions, solo and group, in Australia and overseas. The enthusiastic market, of course, was a major determining factor in her productivity and that should not be overlooked. The remoteness of her community also enabled her to work without too much interruption.

It is perhaps the astounding confidence in the work of Emily that might seem at odds with an elderly artist working in isolation from the art world and from cultural centres, able to draw deeply from the ceremony of her ancestors and their relationship to the land. A list of articles in art journals reads as a history of the attitudes towards Aboriginal art:  'Aboriginal paintings: strong and beautiful abstracts survive the cultural dislocation' (Terence Maloon, Sydney Morning Herald, 1982); 'Aboriginal works come to the fore', (Elwyn Lynn, Weekend Australian, 1984); 'Postmodernism, appropriation and Western Desert acrylics' (Eric Michaels, in Postmodernism: A Consideration of the Appropriation of Aboriginal Imagery, Brisbane, 1998). Terry Smith described Emily as, '... an outstanding abstract painter, certainly amongst the best Australian artists, arguably among the best of her time'. Roger Benjamin considers that Emily's massive success came from having a seamless quality that he believed did not exist in the Papunya Tula painting. 'Despite the abstract schema of Papunya painting that so appealed to modernist taste, the paintings retained the classical Aboriginal iconography of circles and track motifs.'7 The fact too, that Emily changed styles dramatically and frequently in the eight years she worked in acrylic on canvas, appealed to the minimal treatment of imagery which is a characteristic of late modernism. Benjamin believed that Emily's reception was, '... a case study in cultural misunderstanding, indeed mistaken identity'. He demanded, '... a criticism more attuned to Aboriginal cultural values'. Emily's work is very exciting and of such remarkable quality that there is a natural inclination to address the numerous issues that surround it. The exhibition has stirred feelings in academic and political areas within Australia; it has aroused both passion and scepticism towards the great machinery of the art market.

Emily's first works on canvas followed some 11 years working in batik. After decades of mark-making on the body and in the sand, Emily's cultural narratives found expression in the method which emphasised technical precision. Throughout her career as a painter Emily used hot pinks, purples, linear patterns, dotting, overall patterning and layering. The surface on which she painted was of little importance. Of abiding importance was the cultural power of the mark and its reference to Alhalkere with its ancestral connections. An early work, 'Emu Dreaming Soakage' is executed in a naturalistic style. Small animals and plants from Emily's Dreaming narrate the story of the Emu ancestor from her Country of Alhalkere. The dominant floral motif refers to woolybutt grass; it recurs throughout her work where it is simplified to eventually create abstracted linear forms, powerful visual forms. Bush creatures - turkeys, goannas and lizards - are also depicted. In the background are fruits and seeds that emus like to eat, created in a manner that provides a formal patterning. In later works, aspects such as the grass and the seeds dominate to create an overall patterning, a rich and potent abstract field.

'Emu Woman' (1988-89) is thought to be Emily's first painting on canvas. Late in 1988, 100 blank canvasses were delivered to Utopia as part of the Alice Springs-based project: Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). Just a few weeks later, 81 completed canvasses were collected from Utopia. 'Emu Woman' created an instant excitement in the art world and was acquired for the Robert Holmes à Court Collection. Emily's use of dotting departed from male Aboriginal art from the desert, which was characterised by a 'dot and circle' style. Painting on canvas enabled Emily to flourish. Unimpeded by any form of self-consciousness, Emily's art drew on a lifetime of being intimately involved in the ancestral rituals and mark-making on the body, in performance, in the sand. The ephemeral nature of her traditional methods enabled her to work with phenomenal fluidity and productivity, especially when one considers her age. In 'Emu Woman', the painterly designs in fact mimic the lines and contours of body painting, and the marks made on women's breasts as part of the ceremony enacted for the emu ancestor. Emily's work developed rapidly into fields of dots, which became an integral stylistic element in her work.

Emily's work occupies numerous positions simultaneously: the figurative, the symbolic, the conceptual. Aspects appeal to and overlap with Eastern spirituality, Western modernism, and the centuries of Indigenous traditions and Aboriginal relationship to the land. This is a key moment in appreciating the work of one of Australia's most wonderful artists. It is also a pivotal stage in the study of Aboriginal culture mindful of the appalling shortcomings white Australians have shown until very recently. The choice of Utopia for name of the area, from which Emily's family came, is ironic when one considers the changes that have taken place. Utopia in European mythology is an imaginary perfect place. Emily Kame Kngwarreye belongs to the area, the traditional home of her people. Pastoralists in the 1920s named it Utopia because it was so lush and there were so many rabbits there that they could be caught by hand. Australia has traditionally been a place of freedom and plenty; now it is in the throws of a very non-Utopian drought. Emily's 'Utopia' panels (1996) were painted in the year of her death and were described by the artist herself as her last 'important big picture'.  Horizontal black lines, tough, and assertive: these are remarkable works for a woman in her eighties. Margo Neale rightly concludes:

Emily Kame Kngwarreye was arguably Australia's greatest painter of the land. No artist has painted their country the way she has, inflecting it with her personal vision and innovative style. Her ability to penetrate the soul of this land and capture the hearts, minds and imagination of the Australian audience is beyond art. It is also beyond our cultural linguistic impasse to articulate the full power of her work. Hers is not a view of the land, but rather its voice. She re-scaled the landscape with a cosmic dimension akin to a landscape of the Aboriginal mind, and this perspective is being written into the global imagination.8

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Peter Read. A Rape of the Soul So Profound. Allen and Unwin: Sydney, 1999: 169.
2. Kevin Rudd. Prime Minister's Message. In: Utopia: the Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye (exhibition catalogue). Canberra: National Museum of Australia, 2008.
3. Margo Neale. Introduction. Ibid: 13.
4. Ibid: 14.
5. Interview with Judith Ryan. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, October 2008.
6. Akira Tatehata. The Impossible Modernist. Op. cit: 31-32.
7. Ian McLean. Aboriginal Modernism? Two histories, one painter. Ibid: 25.
8. Margo Neale. Marks of Meaning. Ibid: 247.

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