Emily Kngwarreye

Yam Dreaming
183 x 91 cm
Acrylic on linen

122 x 91 cm
Oil on canvas

Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Alhalkere, Paintings from Utopia

In the 1990s Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c.1910–1996) emerged as one of Australia's leading painters of modern times. Kngwarreye's prominence is no overnight sensation; it finds its roots in a lifetime of ritual and artistic activity. Her energetic paintings are a response to the land of her birth, Alhalkere, north of Alice Springs — the contours of the landscape, the cycles of seasons, the parched land, the flow of flooding waters and sweeping rains, the patterns of seeds and the shape of plants, and the spiritual forces which imbue the country. Kngwarreye's vision of the land is unique; her paintings challenge the way we look at art by Aboriginal Australians.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye: Alhalkere — Paintings from Utopia traces the brief but impressive career of an artist who started painting in the public arena when she was in her eighties. Kngwarreye was a founding member of the Utopia Women's Batik Group which commenced operations in 1977. This communal project operated on an egalitarian basis (on the traditional model). No one artist was singled out above the rest. All were encouraged equally to produce work. The Holmes à Court Collection sponsored a series of similar projects which launched the Utopia artists into the public domain on a scale they had not experienced previously. Through the use of introduced materials, their art had begun the transition from the private to the public domain. Kngwarreye's painting began to attract attention partly due to the prominence gained by the reproduction of her first canvas, Emu woman 1988–89 on the cover of The Summer Project catalogue for the exhibition at the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney in 1989. The work was selected as a mark of respect to the artist's seniority.1

Emu woman bears similarities in style to her early Awelye2 paintings; they possess strong linear structures upon which distinct individual dots straddle lines and overlap in the areas of ground. In 1990 the egalitarian attitude fostered by CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) was set aside for a joint artist-in-residence program and exhibition of the work of Kngwarreye and Louie Pwerle (born c.1938) at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. That year Kngwarreye had her first solo exhibition at Utopia Art Sydney.3 Suddenly, public interest in Kngwarreye's paintings created a great demand. Within a short space of time her earnings were substantial but would be, according to custom, distributed amongst kin. From this grew a level of expectation and the pressure to produce work, from family members and dealers alike.4

Kngwarreye's attitude to the results of the growing popularity of her work, represented in cash and adulation, was very much based in traditional values and modes. For example, in 1992 she received an Australian Artist's Creative Fellowship, a substantial sum awarded to artists who have made a major contribution to the cultural heritage of the nation. Kngwarreye regarded the award as recognition of her past efforts and the means to retire; it was time to pass on the mantle of senior artist to others. The demands of the community and family were never to make this possible. She was the great provider.5 The notion of the star artist or the 'solitary genius' 6 has been considered antithetical to indigenous custom. Tradition demands the reciprocal rights and obligations in all matters concerning the group or clan, whether it be in rights to land, performance of ceremony, songs, dances and stories, or ownership of painted designs and images. It may also permeate the group's activities in the public domain. Nonetheless, within the communal whole, each individual has an inherited place, one which is enhanced through ritual and through personal attainments. The notions of individual and group are therefore not necessarily mutually exclusive. Further, as in Kngwarreye's case, the benefit accrued by the individual is reflected in benefits to the group as a whole.

Kngwarreye was an eager participant in each of the communal Utopia projects. And, it is the early batik work which holds the clues to her development as a painter. The technique of batik is unforgiving; each mark, each stroke of the canting is recorded, layer upon layer. None is obliterated. An early batik, Length of fabric of 1981 holds some clues to Emily's range of imagery. The cloth is composed on a linear grid; in some cases dots are laid down in lines, either following a form or filling in a space within the grid. In places dots appear within others. Free-flowing lines and 'patches' of dotting complete the composition. The work reveals an exuberance of gesture and a sureness of hand. Here we find the elements which are to recur in Kngwarreye's later paintings; the grids which structure the pictures, the sequences of dots aligned against or over lines, the straight dashes or lines, the wandering lines of unpredictable but resolved logic, the areas of dotting and the build up of colour. These elements are reinterpreted, re-invented, used separately or in varying combinations, refreshed and revitalised in the paintings.

The paintings, however, are constructed from a closed set of marks and images found in the batiks. There is no unilinear progression in the development in her painting, rather, Kngwarreye uses the lexicon of marks as a springboard, constantly varying, reinterpreting and creating anew with every touch of the brush to the canvas. The paintings are not the daubings of an 'untutored' artist acting purely on intuition; the term has been applied often in the press to hype up the phenomenon which is Kngwarreye. Intuitive no doubt these works are; but it is an intuition founded on decades of making art for private purposes, of drawing in the soft earth, of painting on people's bodies in ritual or, in the late 1970s, of painting on the bodies of the Utopia women as they successfully presented their claims to their land in legal proceedings.

spacer—Wally Caruana

Emily Kame Kngwarreye died on 2 September 1996. The artist's full name is used with permission of the Utopia community. This text is based on an article written for the catalogue of the exhibition from the Holmes à Collection, Utopia: Ancient Cultures/New Forms, at Galerie Petronas, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 12 November–10 December 1998.

1 A. M. Brody, 'Emily Kame Kngwarreye: Portrait from the outside', in M. Neal et al., Emily Kame Knwarreye: Alhalkere, Paintings from Utopia, Brisbane and Melbourne: Queensland Art Gallery and Macmillan, 1998, p.18.
2 Awelye is the Anmatyerre word for women's painted or drawn designs and ceremonies.
3 C. Hodges, 'Alhalkere', in M. Neal et al., (1998), p.35.
4 Brody, in M. Neal et al, (1998). p.11.
5 Ibid., p.19. 6 Ibid.