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An artist first and foremost
Paper presented by Christopher Hodges, Utopia Art Sydney
National Museum of Australia, 22 August 2008
MARGO NEALE: This session is called ‘Placing Emily’. As you can see from the first session there is a whole range of ways of looking at her work and different frames. Some people say, ‘Why do we talk about it, why don’t we just look at it?’ You can as well. But in terms of art history and with such an international profile as she now has, it is unavoidable [inevitable] that we talk about her and try to position her in order to extract additional dimensions to viewing her work. If you go to an exhibition first up and just see the work you have a particular personal response. If you go on a guided tour, you get something else as well. Then if you go again or you read some more or you see a film you get something else again. It is not that one thing is better than the other or that one thing is replacing the personal response - they are all part of gaining and increasing one’s understanding and/or appreciation. That is all part of the game.
The first speaker in this Placing Emily session is Christopher Hodges who is an artist and gallery owner. He has been exhibiting since the late 1970s both solo exhibitions and inclusion in many group shows. His work is included in public, private and corporate collections. As the owner and director of Utopia Art Sydney since 1988, Christopher is an acknowledged expert in the field of contemporary and Indigenous art. In addition to shows in his gallery, he has curated many shows for other venues and contributed to many significant national and international exhibitions in public and commercial galleries.
The interesting connection between Christopher and Emily is that Christopher is a great mate of Rodney Gooch. They had a lot to do with the Utopia artists hitting the canvas in 1988, which happens to be the year that Utopia Arts Sydney was started, which was part of promoting that community who had no arts centre and to this day probably still hasn’t. They have had fledging attempts at it, which is an interesting point. Emily is a non-arts centre artist. That is a very treacherous area which we won’t go into right now.
Rodney Gooch and Christopher Hodges need to be acknowledged for the work that they did in those days with the Utopia community, in which Emily was one of the painters, for being very thoughtful about how they encouraged the artists, how they gave them all equal money for their work, how they thought about placing that first body of work that came out of Utopia in 1989 with the then Robert Holmes à Court Foundation collection after which there were exhibitions. There was then a CAAMA [Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association] Utopia artist in residence scholarship run through the then Robert Holmes à Court Foundation.
Those very well placed, well targeted arrangements were not simply about investment, they were simply about giving the Utopian artists an opportunity to paint on canvas, like their peers were doing in the Western Desert and had been for ten years prior to that. There is a whole lot of history there. For me doing an exhibition like this when there is somebody like Christopher who is part of that whole history and knew Emily very well, has lots of anecdotes, who earned the trust and respect of Emily to the point of when I did this exhibition, I didn’t want to become another person from down south humbugging that lady for something. Christopher and Rodney already had that trust and respect of the old lady, so I worked mostly through them. Therefore I am very grateful, and anyone who appreciates the exhibitions they see of Emily’s works must also appreciate the contribution of people like Christopher and Rodney Gooch. With that I would like to ask Christopher Hodges to come forward and talk about an artist first and foremost.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: As always my dear friend Margo starts to pinch half my talk before I get to it but I will forgive her. Welcome and thank you for having me. Margo brought up so many points just in her introduction there that I can’t help but go back to one of them - the idea of art centres and Rodney Gooch. In 1988 when I bumped into a woman from the CAAMA shop with a bag of batik that she had just failed to sell at an exhibition here in Canberra and I then sold that bag in Sydney, I got an angry phone call from Rodney Gooch, ‘Bring that stuff back. I need it. Quick. Give it back to me.’ I said, ‘Hang on a minute, mate, wait. I can’t give it back to you.’ He said, ‘What have you done with it?’ I said, ‘I have sold it.’ He said, ‘Oh, that would be right.’ I then said, ‘I have just been waiting for you to get in touch with me so I can send you the cheque’ to which he replied, ‘Oh’. That was the beginning of my relationship with Rodney Gooch.
Rodney Gooch was the director of the CAAMA shop, an Aboriginal owned organisation, and Rodney had been asked as the director of the CAAMA shop to take on the management of the Utopia women’s batik out of the community of Utopia. The story that Rodney told me was that he was given a piece of foolscap paper with a map drawn on the back of it in biro as to where all the places were and a promise that there would be some funding coming. That is how he began through CAAMA representing the Utopia women’s batik and representing that community in the proper ethical way that any representative should. It was a community-based organisation. Utopia women’s batik had started many years earlier. It wasn’t until later that a bunch of other people stuffed it.
That was an introduction that I wasn’t planning to make but it fits quite nicely into 1988. In 1988 the image of Utopia that is conjured in your mind is a brilliant place. When I first went to Utopia to visit in 1988 it was after the great floods of Alice Springs and the whole of Alice Springs district was covered in water, and we couldn’t get to the Utopia community for our first visit. Helen and I flew into Alice Springs and arrived about 3 am with the intention of going out to see these wonderful people, which we never got to until much later. The idea of Utopia has always stuck with me as a beautiful thought and beautiful analogy - these wonderful women and how they fit together in the world.
We are looking at the landscape of a part of the Utopia community called Alhalkere. At the base of all Emily Kngwarreye’s art there is this place called Alhalkere which you all must know and understand. As Emily has often said, the stories that run through that land, the stories that created that land, the ancestors that made those stories - the pencil yam, the roots from the ground, the little dingo puppy that ran by - all these stories interwoven inextricably with the landscape, the geography. The actual events that are happening now and that happened in the past formed an amalgam, a whole universe, in her mind and could be explained in a simple way. The word awelye means this body paint that you put on your body; it also means that dance, that song, that ceremony; and it also means that whole consciousness of being that forms that place Alhalkere. If you think about all that, you can tell any one of those stories by footprints in the sand or sites and places. But to form that whole concept and be able to portray that calls for a new vision, a vision that is not just one thing.
Professor Tatehata declared that Emily Kngwarreye was a genius. He said the genius was formed by the fact that this woman who had no idea of Western art history, who had an education of traditional Aboriginal history from her land, who grew up at a time when the only land she knew, the only world she knew, was this block of land called Alhalkere and its neighbours, and who had no concept of the globe and certainly no concept of Western art history, was able to have in her mind this strong vision of her country and, when the opportunity came to use modern materials to make paintings and batiks, she was able to invent something that was absolutely striking and new. It was something that her culture had never had before but it was something that all cultures - as we have seen from the exhibitions overseas now - can embrace and be associated with.
Emily was a woman of opportunity. If you think back to 1988, which doesn’t seem that long ago, Helen and I bought our first piece of business equipment. It was a brand new thing; it was a fax machine; and it cost $2000. That piece of equipment in 1988 was the latest technology. But in the 1970s a couple of young women, Jenny Green and Julia Murray, were working out the Utopia community in education ways, and they saw a group of women who attended the school every day with their kids and with their family. They weren’t doing anything; they were just waiting for the children; they started a program.
You can see Emily Kngwarreye and on the left her constant companion Lily Kngwarreye [shows image]. They have a piece of tie-dyed fabric, which was the first opportunity that was provided for the women of Utopia to do something that would in turn make them some money, an income. This first tie-dyeing was more or less a thing carried over from the hippy days where people made T-shirts, and the community went on to make T-shirts and singlets. Here you can see Emily with a singlet on, a singlet she has made. [shows image] There is a young man who has gone on to do a couple of things, and his mother is very proud of him these days, and he is wearing the singlet. This is in early 1988 and is certainly the first time that Peter met Emily.
The women of Utopia then got the opportunity to make batik, and when Rodney Gooch came along one of the big things that he did was he encouraged the women to tell their stories not just to make patterns. Many women were making stories before this. You can see Emily Kngwarreye and Ruby Kngwarreye holding up one of the works that became part of the first big collection of batiks [shows image]. One of the things that a good art adviser does is to do things that show the quality of the artists that he is representing.
This is the first project where I met with Rodney Gooch when he showed me 88 pieces of silk the women had done each telling their own story. It was a major step forward in the development of that community. The word ‘community’ is very important because in those early days every person in that community was a part of it. When anything was done, it was done with complete transparency. All the money that changed hands was done in public. One woman would call out the payments and everything was shown to every other woman in the group. It was a great time. This was a golden age really.
This is the batik that the National Gallery of Australia owns by Emily Kngwarreye that it purchased in 1982. Emily Kngwarreye was not a name that anyone had heard of. None of the women from Utopia were known public names. A curator from the National Gallery of Australia searching through a bag of batiks in the foyer of a hotel in Melbourne picked this work out [shows image of batik from 1982] - as it turns out it is a great piece of work and it is in the exhibition. You can see the underlying structure; you can see the lines of dots; you can even see the lines of body paint; you can see overlay and underlay of images; you can see somebody that is working through a whole series of ideas in the one picture - and this is Emily Kngwarreye in 1982, unknown, undiscovered. The work was picked solely on the power of the piece of fabric itself - no name - just the power of the fabric.
This is a detail from the first batik of Emily Kngwarreye’s that I ever saw [shows image]. This was hanging on the wall of Rodney Gooch’s guest room, the first time we stayed at his place in Alice Springs. You hear that expression ‘The shock of the new’, and it made a lasting impression. You woke up in the morning and this is what you looked at. I had never seen anything like it before. A lot of art dealers would say, ‘This was the moment I made the great discovery, and everything after that was a piece of cake.’ It wasn’t like that at all. It was just that you identified in this piece there was something going on: look at the structure, the simplicity of the work. Grace Cochran purchased this for the Powerhouse Museum many years later. She was absolutely thrilled that this was in the exhibition. It is that contact that people make of Emily through a piece of artwork. Many people last night looking at this exhibition had just that contact.
Emily believed that, when you looked at one of her paintings, you would understand everything about Alhalkere. She would look me in the eye and say ‘you know’. She got very assured that she could pack into these pictures enough for you to be moved, and I think that she’s been a great success at it. In the early days at Alice Springs, people who were walking through CAAMA shop, a community shop that had the good, the bad and the ugly spread everywhere, one of her works would be over in the corner and people would gravitate towards it. You have no idea: people who weren’t art connoisseurs, people who were tourists and who were just looking for a piece of Aboriginal work to take back, but they would gravitate to these funny combinations of dots.
This is her first show in 1990 [shows image], the very first solo exhibition that was ever staged. There are works from that exhibition that are in this exhibition and there are other works from this very first exhibition in the Museum.
Emily arrived at painting a fully-formed individual. She arrived to make her first canvas completely with a set of images and ideas ready to go down. They were complex ideas. So they couldn’t be just simple stories, simple narratives. The only way she could term was abstraction. These simple fields of dots done in early days managed to capture that whole essence of Alhalkere, that whole spirit of place. If you look at these pictures carefully you can see the underlying root structure, as it is called sometimes - mapping structure as I call it on other days - and this veil of dots shimmering through the landscape. There are lots of funny names given to paintings and more descriptive names given by others, but Emily would simply touch a painting sometimes and you would sometimes get a little song. You would ask her, ‘What’s that?’ She would just go ‘You know. Whole lot. Finished.’ And after a while I couldn’t ask her the question any more, so they all remain untitled - Alhalkere. You can see the range of pictures in her very first solo exhibition.
This set of five panels [from the first show in 1990], which is in the exhibition next door, shows that lovely tracery and almost a cosmology. You can almost feel like you are looking at the stars as much as you feel like you are looking at the earth. This is a lovely piece which a dear friend Hugh Jamieson purchased for his Allen, Allen and Hemsley collection [shows image]. This was the second contemporary Aboriginal work of art that ever got purchased for that significant collection, and it wasn’t the last. It was groundbreaking to see contemporary collectors looking at this work, not just Aboriginal collectors.
Part of my ambition as a representative of Emily’s work was to get her in the Australian art section of the museum as a leading contemporary artist, not in the Aboriginal section. You might think that is funny but I have always thought that she was a great artist of this age and not a great artist of another age. She was living and communicating to me and to you her story, her ideas - a great cognitive development really.
She was 80 years of age so she was old when she started, if you like, and she knew that she didn’t have forever to do this work. So there were fast changes. You can see that she went from little dots and then she got to bigger dots. Then she got into colour. If you want to take that journey through you can make a chronology of the size of the dots, if you like, as she goes through and explores. But you can also see that from little pictures she is starting to branch out into some full-scale dynamic works where she is handling the scale with great aplomb.
If you look at the pale mauve work on the end wall there [shows image of 1991] which is one of my favourite works, it has this lovely feel. I always think of that as Emily Kngwarreye’s lavender mist, it is this beautiful pale zone. But this work on the right-hand side of the picture, we always call it cockatoo. A few of these pictures get nicknames and that one is nicknamed cockatoo because of those bright colours, especially those flashes of yellow coming through the centre of it. Those two pictures were done about six months apart. You can see that she was not just sitting on her laurels. She could have stayed making those cute little dot pictures forever, and they would have sold forever. But she didn’t. Every chance she got, every opportunity presented was an opportunity that she took.
In 1992 this exhibition at my gallery [shows image of the gallery] included on the right-hand side this very big picture which was five metres long. It arrived the day of the exhibition, and it was a big hole to fill if it didn’t come. That picture was the largest-scale work that she had ever done to that stage. When we saw that picture in Tokyo it was hung vertically. People there were shocked because they had always seen this long, skinny picture but when it was hung vertically it had the presence of a scroll. It had that lovely sense of falling and gently cascading down. That is a picture of it getting installed in the Art Gallery of New South Wales who eventually bought it. This was a landmark purchase for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and curator Djon Mundine is here. I can remember Barry Pearce, the head of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, at that stage saying, ‘We will probably buy 20 major works of Aboriginal paintings and that will do us forever.’ He denies that now. On the left is a curator called Deborah Edwards, the curator in contemporary art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She was instrumental in getting this picture hung there so that the trustees could come and look at this the picture. It really did make a big difference. Djon put together an amazing collection for the Art Gallery of New South Wales with an emphasis towards the top of Australia, and this was the first big purchase of a contemporary modern painting for the Art Gallery.
The Clemenger prize at the National Gallery of Victoria is an invitational prize - it is going to be on soon for the very last time – and Emily Kame Kngwarreye was one of the first Indigenous artists ever invited to participate [in 1992]. Rodney and I were discussing this with Emily, and I put to her that this was a really important exhibition, it was a very big gallery, and she could do something very special to impress the Clemenger prize judges. She didn’t win. But in that competition was also a very famous artist Rosalie Gascoigne who I very much admire and a local Canberra resident. This big picture looks fabulous at the heart of this exhibition in here [shows image of Emily]. James Mollison, who was the director of National Gallery of Victoria at the time, announced to all the contestants before they went in who had won so that they weren’t shocked when the general public was looking at them. Rosalie Gascoigne didn’t win, and when the door opened there was Emily’s big picture in front of her and she said, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’ She looked at it and just stopped. It’s a transfixing picture. It’s a very ramshackle picture. It’s a picture that is quite rambunctious. It doesn’t behave itself. It is not particularly beautiful; but it’s a very strong picture. When that work was finished - that was all separate canvases all laid out on the floor - it had the presence to really challenge everything that you knew about contemporary Aboriginal painting, and it certainly challenged what was happening in the general art world in Australia at the time.
Just to digress a second, the way paintings look depends on where they are shown. This is how it was shown in my gallery where you have a very close intimate personal meeting with the picture [shows image of Alhalkere suite painting]. You walked sort of through it, and it was a very different effect to when it was at the Clemenger prize. The photograph that you saw first was when it was at the National Gallery of Australia. They changed the hang one day and it had that very lateral presence. Now in the centre of this exhibition, I think it has the most wonderful sense that you are in the centre of the universe, you are in the centre of the city the place that you should be. So this is called the Alhalkere suite. It’s a name that I gave it and which Emily thought was okay. To me this is one of the biggest, bravest paintings that she ever did. The big shock that happens as people move along and look at the body of her work is with the size of her brushstrokes – she is not well mannered [in her technique]. If you look at the skinny one in the middle – I wish this was the proper picture because it looks better; this is only a little slice of it - you can see that the size of the brushstrokes are almost the size of a small saucer. She had been given the creative fellowship by the Keating government. They were great awards to acknowledge artists that were doing something special. She was the first Indigenous person to receive the fellowship and she was absolutely thrilled at that recognition.
The way that that picture was painted was with a very big brush. Some of you who will be students of Emily’s work will understand that she used to dip the brush in paints, quite often a couple of colours, and then she would put the brush downwards onto the canvas meaning the bristles would spread out and it would give you that florette shape. She had spied a very big brush, which eventually she managed to get off me, and she used it to make those paintings. If you go and look at that painting out in the exhibition after this [page 113 of catalogue], you will see a painting that is made of this funny blue, this funny brown - or red ochre if you like - and white. If you are a painter: go home and get those three colours and try to do that painting. To keep it clean and to keep the colours pure and not end up with a big puddle of mud you have to be pretty canny. Those paintings to me are an interesting thing. She got that award. She said she was going to give up painting - she had a break for a little while - and then she painted that group of paintings which are quite calm. They are quite simple, quite spacious. I think they capture a side of her spirit as a painter that she didn’t get an opportunity to do too often in those times.
This is a photo of Rodney Gooch, Emily Kngwarreye and Lily Kngwarreye [shows image]. You can’t quite see it but just over Rodney Gooch’s left-hand shoulder there is a little rolled up tube of paper. Emily and Lily were living near the shop at Utopia at one stage, and that little tube of paper ends up being that painting in the middle [shows Untitled (Awelye) 1994 - page 159 of catalogue] which is in this exhibition here. That painting was the first painting that had any sense of structure that wasn’t those little petals.
In 1994 Emily was very unwell and she was unable to paint. Rodney rang me and said, ‘Emily wants to paint but she is not well enough to paint.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you give her some paper or something that is lightweight and she can do something on that so that it’s not heavy and it’s easy to do.’ She painted a series of paintings that were white pieces of paper with black stripes on them. Those paintings are called awelye, the body paint paintings. It was a time when she was a little bit sad, she was a little bit unwell, and she painted those lovely simple stripes. The first series are in the National Gallery of Victoria. As James Mollison said, ‘They are black lines on white paper, but why are they so good?’ They were good because they had meaning, they had content, because she as an artist was portraying something that was more than just a decorative line. The black and red one on the end and this grey and black one are all very powerful, sombre works in many ways [shows Untitled (Awelye) 1994 – page 145 of catalogue]. They do not hit the highlights. But I think in time these pictures are going to get great recognition.
The way that she developed through this series of works was quite interesting too, because Emily didn’t just work for Rodney and me, she was doing paintings for a broad number of people at this stage. But she was doing these only for Rodney because nobody else knew of them and therefore couldn’t ask for them. She had a time when she made this very sombre series of works which just sing quietly. I love these works. They are superb.
She went to the Venice Biennale [in 1997] - I have included this because it has that nice green work in the middle [shows image]. These were the works that represented her at the Venice Biennale. At the Venice Biennale people have said that woman in the Australian pavilion was copying Sol LeWitt, an American artist who did do some linear work at the time. However, Sol LeWitt came and saw the exhibition and said, ‘This woman is fabulous,’ and through a friend of his acquired work. It’s an interesting thing: Emily has suddenly ended up in the middle of the contemporary art world and people immediately said that she was copying. But in fact, as Professor Tatehata said, that was the moment where people realised that something special had gone on, that a woman who had no history of Western art suddenly was being recognised and applauded by great artists from around the world. It was artists in Venice that really responded to her work.
The way she used colour was also interesting, because she had done those sombre black and white works, but look at this green and yellow work - it could have been a new sketch for the Australian flag, you could have worn that to the Olympic Games and people would have thought that you were really an Australian person. The combination of that linear pattern with the dots started to catch on. I might tell you that with the first exhibition we did of those striped works, another dealer rang me up and said, ‘What are you doing? You are killing the goose that laid the golden egg.’ And I said, ‘No, I am not,’ but he thought I was. Actually several people said that what I had done was a disgrace and that by showing this new work, this new direction, I was going to ruin all that had gone before. It is interesting, isn’t it? A lot of people in the art world really care for art and for artists; but there is another bunch that only care for money. The people that care for money only want to have things that look like what it should look like that they think should sell; whereas those that represent artists ethically and properly are trying to show what the artist has got, what the artist is made of and the true substance of the work. Those works are really good.
An interesting thing just as an aside, on the right-hand side and left-hand side you will see some little dotty works with quite a lot of space surrounding them [shows images not in exhibition]. They were done at the same time that she was doing the spare lines on the canvas and were very floaty. The picture to the left was done about the same time too. You can see in that there is a combination of the lines of stripes; there is a sense of the under-painting; there is a sense of a top layer and a bottom layer; there is a great sense of depth, openness and space in those works. It is interesting to see how she started to meld the different styles together.
In 1995 she has moved on, and the movement is quite profound. These works you will see in the exhibition, the one down the end is one called merne [shows image]. Merne was the first really bold gestural scribbly painting that she did. It still is one of the my favourite paintings. On the right you can see a series of works that were done in 1995 and are very broadly brushed [shows image]. These works give us an indication of the works that she does in the very last period of her life. They are all-over, misty, spiritual sort of pictures which hark back to those little fields of dots in the beginning and those big brush stroke ones in the middle. Look at the energy in this [shows image]. In the top left-hand corner do you see the handprints? All of us remember that motion of touching the canvas and singing, it just feels likes the hands touching - it is beautifully done.
These structural, rooty, mappy sorts of pictures start to grow and become the powerful dimension of her work [shows images]. We end up with the Big Yam painting, which everybody knows and is an icon of absolute persistence. If you said, ‘Here is a canvas that is as big as from here to here, lays on the floor from there out to here [indicating] and you have to cover it in paint,’ most artists would take months like Picasso when he painted Guernica, which is a picture the same size – took months, did drawings and sketches, did revision, thought about it, changed it on the way. Emily started in that corner and painted through to that corner, and that picture [Big Yam] is the result. It’s an unbelievable task to have the whole picture in your head and consistently go from one corner to the next corner and arrive so that you can step off the end of the canvas and walk away. It’s a defiant act and states very clearly how she had the whole of Alhalkere right in her mind. It was there. The one on the right, a bold and gestural picture, is a different sort of picture [shows image] that was painted in a day in between going to a doctor in the morning and going back for the results in the afternoon. It is lyrical and has that tension in it – great picture.
This is probably the last big commission that she did for the Queensland Art Gallery [shows image of installation at QAG] when her retrospective was planned, this is the exhibition that Margo curated at the Queensland Art Gallery [in 1998]. When I talked to her about it, I explained that this was a picture that would be right along one big wall and everyone was going to see it. Margo had asked me could Emily do everything about Alhalkere in this one picture. So this painting was done in little groups of different pieces. You can see the groupings with the black and white stripes at the ends, the vertical stripes which are in this exhibition and these more gestural menageries at the end. They are beautiful paintings conceived in a completely new way to anything that she had done before. The big pieces before had been more or less the colours that all matched each other, but in this one they are sequences of work that really define how she was thinking about Alhalkere at the time. And that’s ‘Em’ [shows image of Emily].
QUESTION: I wanted to ask a question about Emily’s materials. Did she request certain colours and canvases of a specific size or did she work mainly for commission?
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: Yes, no and yes. If you recall the picture of the Alhalkere suite, I discussed it with Emily and said, ‘We could do maybe lots of little things that can make one big thing.’ She said, ‘Yes, that’s good.’ And then she said, ‘Paint it yellow. I want it all painted yellow.’ So Rodney mixed up this paint and painted it all yellow for her, and when it was finished you can’t see any yellow, there are only tiny bits of yellow. Once I asked her specifically could she think about doing - I never tell artists what to do, but there was a commission that was coming through and I said, ‘Could we think about doing this picture’ and discussed the colours and things. I even brought a big box of colours and said, ‘These sorts of colours?’ She said, ‘Yeah’. The picture ended up being completely different from the box of colours that were there. She hadn’t even used the colours that were in the box.
She was really independent, and at times she would want lots of colours. Lots of artists would say, ‘I would like to do this picture. It is going to be green and blue’ but then in the process of being a real artist things change. The answer is I am sure some people said today it is black and white and that’s that. But my experience was always that true artists find their ways. Another picture I showed you, the yellowy brown picture where you can see the lines and the maps. Underneath that is greens, pinks and mauves and a whole other painting underneath it that has been covered over.
I suppose the most perverse thing I can tell you is that once she did a painting that was about this big [indicates] and in the middle there was a little tiny mark - it was a beautiful painting in subtle creams, pinks and whites. It was really lovely subtle picture. The woman who owned it said that it had damage in the middle and needed fixing. I had a look at it and said, ‘Okay, I will take it to a restorer and get it fixed for you.’ It was insignificant damage, the sort of damage that a pedant would find and wouldn’t be able to live with. Anyway, the woman insisted that it gets fixed by Emily Kngwarreye, no-one else but Emily Kngwarreye. She used chocolate brown and painted in the centre of the picture a big field of chocolate brown dots. That’s perverse, isn’t it? I hope that answers your question.
QUESTION: I was wondering whether that would account for some of the drastic stylistic shifts.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: When you see the big stylistic shifts, there is a big picture called Earth’s creation, and it’s a picture that I used to hate - I never liked it because it just didn’t do it for me; I didn’t like the colours. But in Tokyo it was hung in a new way and I actually changed my mind and thought, ‘No, I have to pay respect to that picture. It is very smart.’ But it is a picture that was painted about two years after it should have been. It is sort of like revision, it is sort looking back on the past. I guess that is what I didn’t like about it - she was painting stripes over here and then she was painting this. But I have since mellowed, and I could see it.
In 1989 she was painting little lines on the side of the canvas, and that was a natural follow-on from what she was doing in batik. In about 1991 certain dealers were getting her to paint little stripes on the side of her canvases again to give them that old look. But she was a consummate artist. Every picture in the exhibition out there is a serious work of art by Emily Kame Kngwarreye. There is not one picture out there she hasn’t worked on. If you hear anyone casting any aspersions on the quality or where those pictures come from or the authenticity of those pictures - they don’t know what they are talking about. With those pictures out there, there is not one I wouldn’t stake my life on - and they didn’t all come through me. They are all good pictures. But there is a whole other side of Emily Kame Kngwarreye work which is production line work which I don’t think there is any doubt she had the assistance of others in the community to do. As I have said to many people, you look at the quality of the work, you look at the good pictures, they all have that magic hand of Kame Kngwarreye in them. She is the only one that can handle the space. The pictures have depth and life in them.
QUESTION: Ian Hodgson. It’s been said - and this follows on from what you have just said - that not all Emily’s paintings are masterpieces or first class and that some of them are not very good. Did you feel that when you were working with her? Did Emily recognise that herself? What was your reaction to it; and what was her reaction to your reaction?
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: The statement that I make in an essay that I have written previously was that there were a number of people that got work from Emily Kame Kngwarreye and on the whole they got what they deserved. That is how I would answer your question. Certainly there are masterpieces and there are other works that are just terrific works; but there is a series of works - fortunately I didn’t have to handle any of these works – that I have seen out in the marketplace and in the tourist shops in Alice Springs, there were paintings there that I don’t care who did them - I don’t care if Emily did them - but they were just production line paintings. They had no heart, no soul; they were decorative, very flat pictures. People come and ask me all the time, ‘How do I tell if it’s a fake or not?’ I said forget if it’s a fake.
When any artist, Arthur Boyd, not every picture was the masterpiece. How do you react when an artist doesn’t do a masterpiece? You put it to one side. Arthur Boyd didn’t he put them in the auction. Thanks for having me.
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Date published: 17 September 2008