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Emily Kame Kngwarreye: her place in Australian art

Paper presented by Susan McCulloch
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 22 August 2008

SUSAN: I am going to zoom out a bit on this subject after hearing Christopher’s very personal insights into Emily Kame Kngwarreye. There have recently been a number of revisions of the spelling of the name of Emily, but instead of the spelling I think we really should have language lessons. I notice that all sorts of people in the last day or so have grappled with the same. The family have tried to teach me how to say ‘Kngwarreye’ properly. I am not sure it matters, but it is one of those things that shows us the distance and perhaps mystique where Aboriginal people and artists are seen in one part of the universe and we viewers are seen in another part.

My own background has been that I have been very close to artists all my life. This is a bit like Djon Mundine’s disclaimer: I am not an artist; I am not an anthropologist; I am not an Aboriginal person; but I have been very close to many of Australia’s most famous artists and international artists all my life. My father was an artist and an art critic. My mother was similarly interested in art. My daughter and I still work in a studio built by Arthur Boyd.

Just to backtrack to something that Janet Holmes à Court has been raising in the last couple of days about putting this exhibition on in New York. In the 1960s some of my earliest recollections about Aboriginal art were from my parental background where my Dad in 1965 took an exhibition of bark art to America and placed it not in an ethnographic context but in the fine art context. The director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston at the time in 1965 was James Johnson Sweeney, who had been the second director of the Guggenheim in New York. I was thinking of these discussions between the two of them and Karel Kupka, who was an artist and collector of Aboriginal art for what is now the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, was instrumental in this as well - the discussions about art not being seen in an ethnographic context. They were all passionately convinced way back in the 1960s that Aboriginal art should be seen in this broader fine art context. Maybe, Janet, we need another JJ Sweeney to take the Emily exhibition to New York.

Zooming out a little bit about Emily’s place in Australian art, in 1999 I was the visual arts writer for The Australian. One of those things that happens in journalism is that within a week someone said, ‘It’s the end of the millennium, we need a piece on who are Australia’s most significant artists for the last 100 years.’ I quickly went through the list of possible hundreds of artists and came up with - I think these were the ones that I chose: Arthur Streeton, Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Fred Williams, Brett Whiteley, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Rosalie Gascoigne, Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. I chose those artists not because there were not many other contenders for that incredibly concise view of Australian art but because to me those artists had changed our ways of seeing. I think that is fundamentally significant in judging or surveying the significance of an artist through in a broader perspective.

It got me thinking about what Emily’s position had been in those years and how she would be viewed historically. It was after the first Emily show that Margo [Neale] had done in Queensland, but I felt that particularly Rover Thomas and Emily had taken Aboriginal art into new dimensions that would be seen and that has come to pass. They have actually influenced a whole generation of Aboriginal artists, whether consciously or unconsciously, although I don’t know there was so much consciousness going on. But certainly her art was a stylistic breakthrough, which with Thomas broke the mould of what was perceived as Aboriginal art. That is her significant legacy in a broader perspective.

Going back a bit more to my own engagement with and observation of Emily’s work and the Utopia lands, I didn’t know her as have many other people – people who worked with her as Chris was talking about – himself and the late Rodney Gooch, Jenny Green and others from those early 1980s batik days. However, I first went to Utopia in about 1992 and was at Donald and Janet Holt’s place which is not actually Utopia but the station called Delmore Downs next to Utopia. Emily was not there but she was called over or she had heard that a number of people were there, and she came over and she was painting on the verandah. I, too, was struck by this extraordinary ability that she had to take a great range of colours and it looked like a total muddy mess. I thought how is anything going to emerge from this? I have often equated the sheer energy of her hand as she painted to the pounding of a clove of garlic because she really would pound very strongly. This Penny Tweedie photo [shows image] has been the cover of our book [McCulloch’s Encyclopaedia of Australian Art] since its first edition, which was also in 1999. Penny had had quite a long engagement with the Utopia community and is a wonderful photographer in Aboriginal societies. She manages to bring to her photographs an engagement that is quite - something we don’t really understand why but her photographs have a certain emotional quality because she spends time with people. People clearly love her and respect her and are able to work with her. I think this image of Penny’s shows Emily’s hand and its strength - she was a camel lady and a very strong person, little but very strong. It also shows the way that she would paint with both hands. As Chris has said, her ability to start off in one part of the canvas and continue it all the way through was quite extraordinary. My own personal knowledge of her was from those years and seeing her paint.

It was then more as an industry commentator during the 1990s, by sheer virtue of having been around art for so many years and knowing so many stories of art and so many stories behind the scenes of art, I started writing those scenes and putting them in the public dimension for The Australian. Emily’s rise to fame, as we say in the Encyclopaedia of Australian Art, was so great and so quick that it was too quick to assess at the time. We have written that within four years from her first exhibition she had achieved a fame and demand for her work that few artists achieve in a lifetime’s practice. That is really quite something. Media coverage was intense. While Kngwarreye herself often proved an illusive subject, her story continued to be spread and her paintings always surprised. As Chris has mentioned, the surprise in her paintings, the new styles, was one of the fundamentally significant things about her position as an artist of great significance.

Most impressive also given the commercial demands was that she would paint different painting styles for different people. I think that showed her business ability, because it was often a commercial decision to paint certain things for certain people. And that is exactly what she did. She worked with many dozens of dealers. Rodney Gooch and Christopher Hodges were the first, along with Gabrielle Pizzi, to bring the work into the public dimension. We also cannot ignore Donald and Janet Holt from Delmore Downs, Michael Hollow of the Alice Springs Desert Art Gallery, and most particularly her adopted grandson Fred Torres, who is the son of Barbara Weir. Barbara and Emily’s story is complex and the subject of a whole other discussion and exhibition. They supplied works to the expatriate Adelaide dealer Robert Steele and Hank Ebes. Ebes, Gabrielle Pizzi, Sonia Heitlinger of Melbourne’s Flinders Lane Gallery, Savah of Sydney and many others spent time with her at the Utopia lands she rarely left. She also sold works to a huge number of other dealers and people around at the time.

Her works did become the subject of speculation about fakes by copyists and those by members of her community whose works were passed off as being by her. However, I think the thing that was supreme about Emily was that neither she nor her art was compromised or reduced by these highly-fraught issues. There is a great demand on Aboriginal artists to produce art to help their communities to fund all sorts of people and all sorts of projects. The fact that this elderly woman was able to withstand these pressures and continue not only to sell works to support much of her wider community but also to continue to develop stylistically was, as those who knew her, characteristic of both herself but also of the power of great art and the spirits which guide it.

I wasn’t going to talk so much about this issue, but there was a piece in the Canberra Times just recently and I thought ‘Oh here it comes again.’ We all want to get rid - me included - of the issue of fakes, frauds and so forth. However, it continues to pop up whenever there is an exhibition. I have to say that in Indigenous art it’s an issue but it is completely out of context, because wherever there is a demand for art, where demand exceeds supply, there is a parallel industry of fakes, frauds and all sorts of bad dealings that go on.

We subscribe to the international Art Newspaper online. Every week I don’t want to open it in my email inbox because it is all about fakes, frauds and scams, and people in museums ripping off other things. The entire art world could be seen in this rather jaundiced way, and it hasn’t diminished. In the 1980s there was an enormous school of fake Australian impressionist artists. Yet we don’t go ‘Oh, Arthur Streeton’. Should we query every work in a retrospective exhibition of his? This school of fakes have dogged all the successful artists. The reason that we have exhibitions such as retrospective exhibitions is really to sort the wheat from the chaff and say, ‘Look all those things exist but what has been distilled and presented here is legitimate, selected and carefully thought-out art.’

I was rather curious to see an article in the Canberra Times on Saturday 16 October in which art critic Sasha Grishin is quoted - and I hope he was quoted correctly – as saying there is some spectacular work here but he also says that Emily’s work has been ‘incredibly well promoted’. That is so of any artist. Any artist who has an exhibition in a public gallery, one would hope that their work would be well promoted. It shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing. We have to promote art in order for people to come and see it. So it seems to me a slight slur to say that it only exists because it’s been well promoted. I can’t for one minute imagine that that was so, and maybe he didn’t even intend to say that but that is what was written. He did go on to say, as quoted in this article, that there have been:

a galaxy of accomplished artists – Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Rover Thomas, George Milpurru [sic] and David Malangi - they are all major artists, and could all be seen as worthy of as much attention.

In fact, Clifford Possum has already had a retrospective and Rover Thomas was in the Venice Biennale. There have been many things that have been worthy of attention in all of those artists’ work. The article goes on to talk about some of the origins of Emily’s work and things become murky. There is nothing new in this. I think it has hit the news again because there have been some recent newspaper articles.

There was a Four Corners program a little while ago, which I thought was a very confused program, which confused the white auction process with Indigenous art and I think it did more to confuse than explain anything. However, there are some figures talked about there are allegedly 5000 works of Emily’s around and only 3000 are legitimate. As Christopher Hodges have said, there were all sorts of family works and white copyists and all sorts of people painting paintings that were passed off as Emily’s painting. If there is any questions that we would like to talk about maybe as a result of that, I am very happy to give my views on them.

Emily’s significance - in the latest edition of Contemporary Aboriginal Art which is coming out next month, there were two things that we found hard. First of all, this cover image, which is from 1994, is the one we chose for the cover of the 1999 edition of that book. For anybody who knows about publishing procedure, it’s almost a given that you have to choose a different cover for new editions of books. We went around the world and back again because we couldn’t find a better image that summed up what our book is all about, which is not just Utopia and Emily but it is all of Australian Indigenous art. This book covers nine regions and some 80 art communities and places. And still this image spoke to us most clearly as being representative of both this book and the great quality of Indigenous art. That an image from 1994 could still look radical in 2008 I think really speaks of the significance of both her art and the photographer and her image making. Within the Utopia region I think that Emily by example has enabled a flowering of a new generation of artists.

When she died in 1996 I was the only media representative fortunate enough in a sad way to be asked to go to one of the memorial services at Utopia for her. It was a pretty extraordinary day, a day full of tensions, sadness and many emotions. But after that period it was as though the community was in a deep period of mourning. There was a lot of commercial pressure to come up with another Emily. There were a lot of people running around saying ‘Let’s find another Emily,’ because there was a gap left for financial and all sorts of other reasons - and that didn’t happen, as it really shouldn’t. It is not something that you can create; it is something that has to evolve organically. Utopia is not one place; it is a number of small homeland communities, each of which has their own very particular style and artists who have been hugely significant. Gloria Petyarre and Barbara Weir are here, and they are wonderful artists. There are some 200 or 300 artists from the Utopia region so to try to look at it in one view is just not possible.

However, I have to say that some three or four years after Emily’s death an artist, Minnie Pwerle, who had been observing the art of Emily for years and never painted, asked for paints at a workshop and started to paint. She was another late blooming genius whose work has been compared to Emily’s. There is a superficial resemblance in body painting and obviously some of the structures and styles. However, they painted from very different countries and very different stories.

Emily’s impact on the Utopia region has been very significant both at the time and since. Just in the broader Australian context, even through this exhibition, I still feel that while we are not at the beginning of it we are certainly a part of the journey along the way. I am amazed that we are still seeing this work and having it introduced to us - maybe it is just new generations, which is what happens. There are new questions that come up; there are new issues; there is new engagement, new interpretations and new writing on it - and I think this will continue. I can see her position just growing. It started in the previous retrospective where it was huge and then it perhaps died down a bit. Now with this exhibition it is clearly achieving a position that will only increase. Maybe in ten years time we will have yet another exhibition, a different exhibition. Maybe every ten years you should do one, Margo, a sort of Emily through the ages and it can grow. What an inspiration Emily Kame Kngwarreye is. This woman was in her 80s when she started painting - we are only just starting. Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Dick Aitkin. To what extent do you think Emily has had a discernible influence outside of the Utopia area and community? For instance, has she had a discernible influence in other central Australian Aboriginal communities – Papunya, Yuendumu or wherever?

SUSAN: Yes and no. Because Aboriginal art is very much based on people’s own stories and people’s own representations of those stories, it is not the sort of thing that is necessarily influenced. Her influence was more subtle in the colourism and the gestural nature of her work. I think that has had an indirect influence possibly on not just Indigenous artists either. It has enabled a whole lot of non-Indigenous artists to relook at the notion of abstractionism or expression and abstract expressionism. Certainly the use of colour is one thing that you could say has been influential or it has enabled people to break free somehow and to move into colourful expressions; whereas perhaps certainly the Papunya school had consciously decided, on and off, to stick to earth tones in their paintings and pretty much do still. But in other areas it really broke that sort of mould in the public perception as well as in the artistic communities.

QUESTION: On a recent trip to Alice Springs after many years absence and to Yuendumu, I spent quite a bit of time looking through the galleries. What you said about colour, I felt very much the same thing: there is a real breakthrough from other communities as well if you look back historically to say 10 or 15 years ago. I got a very good feeling that she and perhaps Mini have had quite an influence outside of their own community. That is all really.

SUSAN: I agree.

Date published: 11 March 2009