Australia's painted oases of the mind

Emily Kngwarreye - Emily Kame Kngwarreye - Dreamings of the Desert - Michael Jagamara Nelson
April 3, 1998

Aboriginal art from all over Australia, which has recently become sought after in art capitals around the world, has its origins at the dawn of civilisation. Over millennia, Aboriginal people have created traditional artistic motifs to teach laws and customs that are directly based on their forebears' spiritual belief in "The Dreaming", the period in which the world was created together with all its laws and customs. The Dreaming relates not only to the past, but also to the present and the future. Aboriginal people today remain true to the beliefs of their ancestral heritage. Throughout Australia, they continue the practice of teaching young initiates through ceremonies involving song, dance, story and mark-making.

The people of the central desert region made use of the sands to create "sand mosaics" featuring Dreaming motifs. These sand-mosaic paintings, which at times covered vast areas, were created by drawing and dotting symbols in the sand that relate to stories of law, initiation and of Dreaming ancestors. Moreover, the construction of the sand mosaics was accompanied by elaborate ceremonies featuring song-and-dance rituals.

In contemporary Aboriginal paintings, the subject matter, the motifs and the traditional lands portrayed by the artist are directly inherited from his or her ancestors and the paintings are always linked to the artist's particular Dreaming thematic. Central-desert artists always depict their Dreamings from an aerial-view perspective. In some examples, paintings can be read as topographic maps of the artists' traditional lands.

The way in which this contemporary art emerged from the western desert of central Australia is remarkable. In 1971, at the small Aboriginal settlement of Papunya, 150 miles west of Alice Springs, a young white Australian schoolteacher, Geoffrey Bardon, encouraged his students to paint and draw non-western imagery. From Bardon's inspiration and under his enthusiastic guidance, senior men of the community began painting their Dreaming imagery, initially with acrylic house paint on scraps of wood, afterwards in the more stable medium of artists' synthetic polymer paint on board and then on canvas. The central Australian art movement had begun.

With the establishment of this first central Australian art organisation and the financial independence it brought to the painters, word spread to other language groups in numerous remote Aboriginal communities. During the 1970s and 1980s, Aboriginals in Utopia, Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Balgo Hills, Fitzroy Crossing and many other places began to paint, with each community presenting a unique visual depiction of their artists' Dreamings.

Dreamings of the Desert: Aboriginal Dot Paintings of the Western Desert is an informative introduction to Australian Aboriginal central-desert art and a detailed catalogue of the Art Gallery of South Australia's desert-art collection, published to accompany an exhibition at the museum just over a year ago. This gallery was the first Australian state art-museum to acquire contemporary Aboriginal paintings - quite a daring step in 1980, given the conservative nature of collecting at that time.

Since then, the collection has expanded to become one of the most highly regarded in Australia. Compact, yet comprehensive, it contextualises the artistic styles of numerous communities that cover the period from the early "story boards" of the 1970s, through the intermediate period, to the dynamic and colourful works of the 1990s, particularly those from the art communities of Utopia and Balgo Hills that emerged later.

The book details the history of the desert art movement, contains artists' biographies and illustrates many memorable works including Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula's Straightening Spears at Ilyingaungau, painted in 1990, a stunning masterpiece.

Michael Jagamara Nelson is considered one of the outstanding artists of the Australian central-desert art movement. Nelson began painting during the early 1980s and quickly established himself as a major exponent. His mosaic outside the Parliament building in Canberra made him a national figure. Today he is universally acknowledged for his contribution to Australia's contemporary art.

Vivien Johnson's book about Nelson is one of several volumes on leading Aboriginal artists by this respected researcher and writer. Here she provides a detailed and systematic analysis of the artist's Dreamings, as she explores with Nelson the ever-important relationship between an Aboriginal artist and his ancestral lands. Thoroughly researched and generously illustrated, Michael Jagamara Nelson takes the reader on an excursion to the artist's sacred sites, revealing the deep roots of his culture.

Few Australian artists have been afforded the tumultuous accolades that have been bestowed upon the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, a traditional Aboriginal woman born around 1910 at Alhalkere, Utopia, some 150 miles north-east of Alice Springs.

Although she spent a lifetime involved with artistic ceremonial endeavours, her "painting career" occupied only a short period near to the end of her long life. She first worked with batik along with other Anmatyerre women at Utopia in 1977, and then began painting works on canvas in 1988 at the age of 78. At the time of her death in September 1996, she was one of the most lauded artists Australia has ever known.

A diminutive woman with powerful hands, Kngwarreye worked at a furious rate, at times ambidextrously, and created a prolific outpouring of works. Her wildly creative styles, which could be interpreted as abstract, impressionist, expressionist, minimalist and postmodern, together with her brilliant understanding and use of colour, swept Australian Aboriginal central-desert art towards a new frontier. There was a virtual stampede for her works, unlike anything witnessed before in the Australian contemporary art scene. In the eight short years in which she worked with acrylic on canvas, she enthralled and seduced collectors from as far afield as Switzerland and Saudi Arabia, Venice and the Vatican.

Two eagerly awaited volumes have now been published that celebrate her life and pay tribute to this mercurial desert-dwelling genius. Emily Kngwarreye Paintings is a superb volume containing detailed essays by authoritative contributors and generous illustrations that chronologically trace her evolving oeuvre. It draws mainly upon works held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and the extraordinary collection of Donald and Janet Holt who nurtured the artist for many years.

Judith Ryan, a senior curator at the gallery, explains how Kngwarreye established the "basic structural elements of her works, its lines" in body painting for Anmatyerre women's rituals or awleye. "These bold marks or stripes, the principal source of her iconography, originally painted spontaneously in ochre on the body, expand into the organic liquid currents of hot wax, fluently applied to silk lengths in layers". Kngwarreye's first canvases, such as Anatye (Wild Potato), 1989, and Emu Story, 1989, "retain the linear network as an underlayer or foundation; but the dots that were subsidiary in her batik come to the surface ... Lines and dots converge in a dense field of irregular textured marks which create a sense of depth. Stripes from the body paint designs are painted horizontally along the stretching edge."

Kngwarreye's works became strikingly sophisticated during her colourist phase in 1991. Successive works depicting seasonal changes featured dense clouds of dots and over-dotting, in the most beautiful soft hues of yellow, pink, magenta, green, revealing a direct and profound sense of the artist's desert world.

From 1993 there was another shift in style. Another academic contributor, Terry Smith, writes: "Fluidity of form and colour dominates Kngwarreye's art throughout 1993. Winter Abstraction ... is an example. Her range of colour is audacious: luminescent purples cohabit the same surface - indeed, surge alongside - pale beige. In the desert this is not surprising - lilac flowers arise from the muddy sand. For sheer luxuriance and elegance of surface her paintings of this period are matched in Australian art only by those of Susan Norrie."

Although Kngwarreye sometimes reverted to her previous styles, the 1994 period onwards could be viewed by some admirers as the most daring and confrontational phase of her career. Ryan explains the genesis: "In the summer of 1993-94 the artist stripped away the layered overpainting, reduced her palette to single or dual colours on white and began to work in bold parallel stripes, verticals and horizontals on unprimed sheets of paper. These black-on-white works represent a return to her beginnings, the body-paint designs for awelye ceremonies condensed. The lines, unlike the fluent overlapping designs of batik, are left to stand unadorned like skeletal ribs on the bare surface; a form of audacious arte povera."

During this period and up to her death, we see Kngwarreye's work changing further, sometimes featuring raw monochrome gestural strokes, and at other times complex multicoloured lines of thick luscious paint. Some paintings seem almost violent, others employ wispy, ghost-like, mystical, shallow lines, which could be interpreted by the outsider as true abstract expressionism. This final period seems to reveal the inner workings of her art, stripped of adornment, the very essence of her Dreamings.

The second volume, Emily Kame Kngwarreye: Alhalkere: Paintings from Utopia, is another fine tribute. It accompanies an exhibition with the same title that opened at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane in February. Originally conceived to celebrate the work of the great artist, the exhibition has become, with her passing, an important retrospective. It will travel to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in Sydney, and the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, later this year.

The catalogue features 89 works, including the final, controversial, minimalist paintings created in the artist's last weeks of life. Besides detailed essays, there are records of interesting personal encounters with Kngwarreye. Margo Neale, a curator at the Queensland Art Gallery who was behind the exhibition, provides insight into the artist's spirituality: "Kngwarreye's prime concerns varied from those of many western artists in the sense that her works embrace the full width and depth of her country in a religious way. They function like ceremonial grounds on which she performs her role as a senior custodian." Neale mentions the abstract artist Jackson Pollock by way of comparison. "Pollock's performances have more differences than similarities with Kngwarreye's acts of creation. The disparities between the two artist's religious and cultural intentions completely separate the outcomes."

Towards the end of her life, Kngwarreye hoped that others could take her place - not an irrational thought given that an Aboriginal's Dreaming is linked to the "country" and is inherited by the proper custodian from one generation to the next. Artistic collaboration, which is common practice in Aboriginal communities, is seen by Aboriginal people as proper provided it is carried out by appropriate family members and custodians.

Emily Kngwarreye's niece, Kathleen Petyarre, a highly successful artist in her own right, is striving to clear her name following public allegations in late 1997 by her former white de facto husband Ray Beamish, that he is the alleged "author" of many of her paintings, including the work for which she was honoured in 1996 with Australia's most prestigious indigenous art award.

The painting in question, along with others of the same Storm series, refers to Kathleen's Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming, a custodial story she shares with her sisters. The Petyarre sisters began painting their Dreaming alongside Kngwarreye, in the emerging days of the Utopia Art movement, before Kathleen met her former husband.

While Kathleen immediately acknowledged that her former husband contributed to dotting in a subordinate role, under her direction and supervision, she is deeply offended by the allegations that he is chiefly responsible for the paintings that bear her name.

Since the couple parted in August 1997, Beamish has continued to produce copies of Storm lookalikes, together with copies of her Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming - to the outrage of many in Australia, Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals, who realise the secret and personal significance of a Dreaming. Petyarre now eagerly awaits the results of an official enquiry into the authorship of the award-winning work being undertaken by the convenors of the award.

When I first met Petyarre in 1992, I recall her saying, "I don't want to end up like that old lady" - a reference to her aunt, Emily. "Everybody fighting over canvas, all the time," was Kathleen's comment on the enormous pressure Emily felt from family members, and the multitude of art-dealers scrambling for her paintings. Little did we realise that Kathleen would in due course need to fight a non-Aboriginal for the custodial rights and copyright to her Dreaming.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye leaves us with a great cultural legacy, a gift that will endure-just as her Dreamings have endured, since time immemorial.

David Cossey is director, Gallerie Australis, Adelaide. He has produced three books and two films on Australian Aboriginal art and has represented Kathleen Petyarre since 1992.

Emily Kngwarreye: Paintings

Author - Jennifer Isaacs, Terry Smith, Judith Ryan, Donald Holt and Janet Holt
ISBN - 90 5703 68 19
Publisher - Craftsman House
Price - £40.00
Pages - 204

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