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Emily as located historian: the Camel Lady narrates a history of discovery without 1788

Paper presented by Professor Ann McGrath, Australian National University
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 22 August 2008

Prof. Ann McGRATH: I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and to thank Agnes Shea for her welcome this morning. I would also like to acknowledge the Utopia people, including Emily’s relatives, who came all the way down here and also the people who came from Japan especially for this event.

It’s been an incredible year in Australia with the apology earlier in the year and now Emily [the Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye exhibition] coming to Australia. I must admit I am humbled. Margo said I was nervous. It is partly because I am not an art historian and in the lead time to this I couldn’t read all the brilliant things they had written. However, I read enough to realise that they have made some wonderful contributions to assist us in appreciating Emily’s work.

In the Unsettling Histories project that Margo [Neale], Frances Peters-Little and I are working on, we have been looking at non-text-based mediums such as cultural festivals as ways to remember history - all sorts of performances, song, dance - so art and painting seemed an obvious one to pick. You could think of Rover Thomas’s work, some of which named after massacre sites, or Gordon Bennett’s, which are a wonderful critique of white Australian history and he adds brilliant new perspectives. There are many other artists I could name.

Our project was inspired to recognise a different historiography: an understanding, presentation and representation of history by Indigenous people. We were inspired partly by an author who wrote about North American Native American traditions where he points out that Native American history telling practices are often in people’s memories in their heads. In Australia too there has been quite a lot of study of oral history as an important Australian Indigenous mode of history telling.

And in the general public who are not Indigenous, we remember history in many different ways too, not only in authorised history books. When you think of colonisation there is the obvious recognition that Aboriginal people have in their interpretations of colonialism where they say, ‘You white people brought the law in a book and God was in a book. Everybody was in a book.’ They are very conscious of the ramification of the written text and the written word.

Emily, of course, speaks without writing. As Margo writes, her paintings speak volumes. Some people might see her paintings as country maps. Thanks to Emily we perhaps have something that goes way beyond a Melways, Gregory’s or Refidex for her dreaming country. There is a moral universe ensconced in the directions she gives us and roots that are not only for human but all living creatures to follow. I think some of these routes and maps are ways of looking at history in a fresh way.

My slideshow is not that directly connected with what I am saying. I am going to trawl through it just to give you the feel of the wonderful ways she presented that able us to think of new metaphors by which to see our world and her specific country.

Critics who try to locate Emily’s work as abstract, representational, personal or autobiographical, themselves get caught up in historical paradigms. The judging scales of art history and the chronologies of art history have been written for Europe, and European dates and events are the timelines. These raise interesting questions some of which have been addressed by Howard Morphy in his Becoming Art [Becoming Art : Exploring Cross-cultural Categories]. But the Dreamtime has often been seen as a different conceptualisation of history or the Dreaming as something that is cyclical rather than linear as compared to Western notions of time. But once you start to locate place as central to analyses of time, there is a different story going on altogether.

In this paper I argue that Emily’s paintings and Emily herself must be understood in their historical and imperial contexts. They must be seen as not just being about history but also being made into histories and making history. We generally tend to think of oral histories as being where Indigenous people remember their history stories and tell them and share them. I was thinking about this and telling history stories via art is not the first effort Indigenous people have made to share their stories with us. Many of them told their stories to people - including David Unaipon whose book was then taken over by a non-Indigenous author and published even though he had collected Indigenous stories from all over Australia - but they were usually turned into picture books, and even today they are usually seen as children’s stories.

That’s an interesting thing to reflect upon because this interpretation that we see via Emily and via other Indigenous artists is a very sophisticated intellectual story. It gets away from that problem of when you translate stories into English and simplify them they are so often marketed just for children; whereas these stories might be adult stories. In fact, you may have to be an adult man or woman before you even hear these stories. There has been a cultural filtering which has oversimplified and viewed them in quite a condescending way as simple fables.

In Australian national history writing, which we take quite seriously and the previous government took so seriously that we ended up having the history wars about it, we actually think still that our history starts in 1788, even though the nation actually didn’t begin until 1901. We are still obsessed by this and in fact we celebrate it every January.

This tends to overlook what I am arguing Emily is doing in her work, which is telling a story where the year 1788 becomes quite irrelevant. Aboriginal Australians are still seen by international audiences and by Australian audiences as exotic in many ways, especially compared with other Australians, and so is their art. But what do they actually think about the 60,000 years of knowledge that might be conveyed by some of this art? Indigenous art like Emily’s, in my view, promises to shift the boundary away from 1788 in a way that the picture books never could.

The date 1788 was irrelevant to Emily’s ancestors. Emily’s encounters with the British did not begin until well after she was born - her birth being in the 1910s, even though there was no birth certificate. She stated that she recalled seeing her first white man when she spoke to Rodney Gooch and Jenny Green. There are some interviews with her about her life story. In a powerful and frightening image she actually told of seeing a man, who was thought to be a policeman, on a horse and she thought they were both devils, and then there was another horse behind them and there was an Aboriginal man walking along with a chain around his neck. You could say this story is so archetypical and apocalyptic that perhaps it’s a metaphor for white encounter. But no it happened on a particular day, and Emily said she was with a particular other girl and she talks about the age they were when it happened. This is a very powerful story. Then there is another powerful story of a policeman who took her uncle away and also took her away. She thought he might have wanted to molest her or kidnap her and she managed to escape. So there are some frightening stories of first encounter with white men. It is astonishing that that happened in her own lifetime.

Although Emily is now famous and definitely a significant Australian, historians or biographers have not attempted a serious, sustained study of Emily’s life. I see a need for a contextualisation of her life within the context not just of the beginnings of the Western Desert art movement, the batik craft training that she had, but in the context of the following rather traditional chronologies of someone’s life - the timelines and themes. Ever since I started thinking about Western timelines and history, I keep seeing timelines over all over Emily’s work. There are a lot of lines. I keep thinking: was she trying to tell us something about where her timelines went? The other thing is this web idea, which I think is an amazing way to view history as an historian.

For me she is prompting ideas about what history might be, and of course this is what Australian history might be. So much has not been researched about Emily. There has been very little archival research done. She did have an experience of time throughout the twentieth century. There are police records around. There are all sorts of station diaries, records and memories that could be researched.

And of course she worked with different animals which surely gave her different visions and vantage point, like seeing the world from a horse or a camel, if she did ride them - you would have to research that and not just make assumptions; she may have only tended them or looked after them. There is a lot of knowledge and perhaps some people who knew Emily may have that knowledge and it is quite simple to get. But other things can be cross-checked and verified.

I would like to say a few things about the pastoral industry in central Australia but would also comment that she did go through an incredibly important change with the land rights movement. There were a lot of tensions in the 1970s and total changes in the relationships between the white people and the Aborigines due to a dramatic political change when land rights actually came to Utopia. Before that there had been a long history of pastoral engagement. It is not exactly the same sort of history that Sally [Butler] is implying about saying ‘don’t speak your own language’. The central Australian pastoralists ran their relatively small blocks and weren’t the big Vesteys or Bovril estates, the big multinationals that sometimes had a very impersonal, speculative attitude to these pastoral runs. These families put their life into it. A lot of their kids spoke the local languages and so did the pastoral bosses.

There are different ways of viewing that contact experience in the pastoral industry. Until recently, the general view of left-wing white Australians was that they were totally exploited because they didn’t get wages. But I think it is important, and it is evident in Emily’s work, that they did hold on to country and they held on to knowledge. They didn’t lose their languages. They in fact appropriated modernity in a similar way to what Sally was saying by working with the cattle people, using their knowledge of resources and exploiting their skills and their close observation of animals. They were the majority of people in the industry. They were the majority of people in central Australia. Missionaries were not actually telling them to read the Bible. In fact, a lot of the pastoralists didn’t want them to be that well educated. The conditions of contact and the underdevelopment relatively speaking in this area did shape their life in such a way as they could continue to be people who could progress and become ceremonial elders and keepers, like Emily did. Some of the employers were quite paternalistic but they did allow what are called walkabouts, ceremonies and so forth. The reason there was flexibility in control, which sometimes suited the local Indigenous people, was that they were running the show and pulling the strings.

As you have probably heard, Emily was a camel lady. I don’t really know whether she rode the camel, fed the camel or what she did with the camel nor do I know exactly when in her life she was a camel lady. But if she was around when the Mohammads of Alice Springs or the Afghans were around, we are missing a very important encounter of an engagement with Muslim aesthetics, because they had prayer mats, they had fancy saddles that they made and they often wore very ornate clothes for special occasions. They also had those amazing hooka pipe things and quite ornate objects that they had brought from Afghanistan-Pakistan region depending on the tribal group that they came from. There is an interesting congruence there about nomadism and encounter with people who were viewed as nomads - there is a lot of debate about what ‘nomadism’ means. So certainly if she was up on top of a camel or up on top of a horse or in a Toyota or an airplane, she would be seeing country differently, and I think that is all very interesting.

There are so many themes I would love to explore, so many questions I would like to try to answer that you can do through archival research. Once again we have more lines, timelines, and then there is that embodiment which takes me to the relationship with country. We know that is really central, but I would also like to point out this nurturing of country that Indigenous people do and the nurturing that country does for them is not something that works in the present; it is something that works through time that goes way back into deep time - you are looking at 40,000 to 50,000 years. That is really astonishing. It’s a very different worldview from ours where we might think 220 years is a long time. It’s quite mind-boggling when you think of it: how many generations is that?

As Galarrwuy Yunupingu said in 1988, ‘It’s a blink of eyelid that white people have been in our country’. But country, and understanding the whole lot, is about history too. When Emily’s people walked around her country, they saw stuff. There’s more recent stuff like the stone tools and things discarded by perhaps people they knew or perhaps people long ago at camp sites. There are geological features that were made even before humans were there and there were only spirit creatures. In this understanding of the whole lot there is a whole lot of history, I would argue. History is powerful and ever present in the landscape.

[Professor William Edward Hanley] Stanner actually called the Dreaming ‘every when’, and yet we use that terrible term timeless and we are always talking about Aboriginal culture. This happened in the 2020 summit where I was really annoyed that everything was culture. Culture implies something static. It goes down to the science of anthropology and the way they framed this definition for culture. Australians might have culture: non-Indigenous Australians - all Australians have culture - but it’s as though only people with text have history, and Aboriginal people have culture rather than history.

So I think we are still denying the historical dynamism of Aboriginal people. There is a lot invested in that in Europe too, because if you go to the Musée du quai Branly [in Paris] there is very much a primitivist model, and if you had gone to Tokyo or Osaka there was very much the modern white cube. We are still exploring the ideas of primitive or modern. It is ironic that someone who is from the culture that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century all the ethnologists were saying was the most primitive on the earth, in fact created this amazingly sophisticated modern take on landscape.

Time is visible to Indigenous people when they look at their country. They don’t see it as static; they do see it as culture, but they see culture as something dynamic and living. You would be familiar with this vital practice of relationship between person and country in a very intimate way and telling stories and singing and dancing as part of that continuous retelling.

I looked up what Australian history books were available in Japanese translation, and it was Manning Clark’s A Short History of Australia and Geoffrey Blainey’s A Shorter History of Australia, and I sort of thought - maybe Emily is telling the longer history of Australia. Singing the stories is another important theme, because I don’t think the art totally stands alone in many ways. When Emily was alive and she went down to a Sydney gallery where she was hosting launches and exhibition openings, she used to sing. There is a very spiritual dimension to that singing. It is about song lines and journeys. That is an incredibly important theme. Gloria joined in when she was singing at the opening in Sydney in 1992. I was very moved in Osaka when Gloria sang for Emily’s paintings. That is really very powerful, and I think that’s part of the history lines being connected up with other parts of the world. I know that that was talked about in a previous paper today so I won’t go into that in much detail, but Aboriginal people believe they were born here in Australia and that they have always been here. If these storylines keep going around the world like this, I sometimes wonder whether that might change, because the power of those stories are now going global.

The singing keeps the paintings alive, the country alive and the history alive. Bringing songs and bringing stories from afar empowers them further. My main points therefore are that Emily and her work - like that of numerous other marvellous Indigenous artists but perhaps Emily is a stand-out having given people in Japan these incredible experiences. When I was in Japan I saw people just standing meditating, reflecting and experiencing these works. I may have to call them timelines again. I am saying, okay, think about culture and about the land but think about the history - and is this important to nation to Australia? I think it is. It is about the way we see ourselves. It is about the way the world sees us. There is one photograph which actually shows Emily painting a map of Australia. So I think she was quite aware of the song lines circulating around the nation and the relevance of this as an intervention into the story of nation.

Just thinking about these lines as being about country but also stories in country, it relates to what the other speakers were saying about interconnectedness but I think it could create a sort of historical revolution in Australia if we really took it seriously enough. The history wars were so bland, colourless and unnecessary, what we have is a new history staring us in the face. This painting is called Creation [shows image]. I don’t know whether Emily really called it that, but creation is certainly something to do with history, I think. Maybe Emily gives us some ideas about where to go with our history in the future. In fact, a MakMak woman from further north in the territory said that, to her, her country is like a spider web where all the history lines are joined up.

[shows images] Pick the princess. That’s Emily doing her map of Australia - that’s what the caption says. Whether it is true or not, I don’t know. That marvellous image of her where she is a symbol for her own country and its history way back in deep time before geographical features were even there in her country.

Just to finish, I think there is a global span of a web of meaning that is about history as well as about culture. Perhaps it’s Aboriginal people who will be telling the story in the future to countries other than Japan. I think they have already started to do that in France. Those relationships with the world might change something about our own relationships with deep time and our understanding of what 1788 might mean in relation to that.

And just finally, just in case you thought that Djon Mundine was exaggerating before about Australian police attitudes, this was a photo I took on the day of the apology [shows image]. This guy is smoking. This security guard from Parliament House is really worried. Then he goes and he is following him along. They try to scoot out towards the bush or something. It just seems such an odd scene - when everybody else was embracing and trying to come to terms with the whole sadness of the stolen children, which did affect the Utopia people too. [With the audience points out different people, including Ann’s daughters, in images on the day of the apology of Kevin Rudd.] Thank you.

MARGO NEALE: That is a nice light note to almost end on. Thank you, Ann McGrath. That was a nice little twist at the end. We are well on time. We have another 20 minutes if we need it. If anyone would like to respond, add to or make any comment on the texture of the day or any other things that have since occurred to you, because I know you can’t always think of things that you need to say until later after a cup of tea.

QUESTION: by Barbara Paulson. Ann, I wanted to ask regarding the Indigenous modes of history research that you, Margo and Frances did together and in relation to Emily and the Papunya Painting exhibition when it was up late last year about using paintings as text. What was your summary of that when you went through your historical analysis? Prof. McGRATH: That [Papunya Painting exhibition] was a very different exhibition because there were really big captions which talked about the symbols in the paintings. One of the things I thought was quite interesting - possibly a breakthrough - was that there were photographic portraits of the artists and nearly every man was wearing a stockman’s hat. It sort of showed that the sheep and cattle had been really important to their identity. History as text - it was a very rich exhibition for that theme. I have the book and I haven’t read it all yet. The analysis that goes on in the catalogue can also contribute to an exhibition.

When I first saw the Osaka exhibition I was shocked that there weren’t captions and text with it. I guess I am now seeing what an important debate that is in the art world and how culturally bound we are to always think we have to understand things via writing first and how important it is often, as we have been discussing today, to just be confronted with the reality of the work perhaps without the biography of somebody. I am not arguing that they should be together but I am certainly arguing that, seeing Emily is such a significant person in Australian history, there should be deeper research done into her own life and its context, and the cattle and sheep industry in central Australia.

QUESTION: Taking that a bit further, I remember early last year we had the whole Queenie McKenzie debate, the fact that she had a painting that was talking about Massacre Creek, I think it was. We had a huge public debate about whether or not that painting should have been part of a national history collection because there wasn’t any backup documentation to say that that painting was a recording of a true event. How does your understanding of painting as documentation of Aboriginal people writing their history through this painting, how does that relate to the research that you have done? Prof. McGRATH: That is an interesting one, because I guess you could say the painting is whatever the artist wants it to be. We create works that are fictional works. Historical fiction is a genre. A lot of Aboriginal people talk about their country as ‘the country tells no lies’, so they do believe it to be an intrinsic truth. Then you get into the whole argument about the truth of history, and what is truth. In fact, when you look at the history of writing history in the Western world in Europe, it was more closely allied to historical fiction in the eighteenth century. So it is quite recent that it has become truth-oriented and positivist.

QUESTION: by Djon Mundine. I just want to comment. I liked what I think you were attempting to talk about with creating a biography and a history around Emily and also placing her into history that most probably common people aren’t generally treated seriously in history at all, or it’s been the way that history has changed and you can then see common people as having been very active in history. At the time of Emily’s birth, women had just got the vote. Her life is symptomatic of many things. I liked your list of things but I couldn’t photographically get it down. It should be taken more seriously.

If you will allow me to digress a bit: I was just thinking on the previous speakers about this business of modernism and Emily, one could come away with an impression that Emily was a great modernist, that she had published books about the theory of modernism from the last speakers and that in fact Aboriginal art comes from another history and 200 years of some interaction doesn’t mean that we have totally absorbed Western art history. I use the term ‘we’. The thought that escaped me previously was how we get hung up on explaining things maybe too much in Western terms. In fact maybe in Europe they don’t even talk about these things so much any more. A friend of mine said that most probably the last full chamber orchestra playing Mozart will be found some time in the future in South Korea when everyone has stopped playing Mozart in England, Europe and Germany. It will only exist in some other funny little corner of the empire who are still trying to live like full Englishmen or full Europeans. We have to carve out our own histories - not carve them out - we have to discover our own histories and believe in our own histories and our own ways of dealing with art possibly.

There are many antecedents in European history for terms like ‘country’, ‘relationship to land’, etc, that we must be able to live our own lives in some way. I thought that the images of relationships to land with those body images of women’s breasts and so on, which are always a bit problematical given the Henson debate, how many naked Aboriginal people do you see in books? There are books full of very small naked Aboriginal children that are published and still being published and are very popular, certainly amongst a certain set. But anyway, harking back to that image of the painted body, just remember that most probably in Aboriginal terms the painting isn’t a representation of something, it is that something. When you paint your body, your body is the land. It isn’t a representation of it; it is the thing.

There was one other point. One should be very careful when you talk about ritual. There is a saying in Aboriginal society that you can read all the books you want but unless you have been there you can’t talk about it, you don’t understand what happens. I remember a very Christian anthropologist who refused to go to a certain major ritual that I went to. He was asking me questions from the book, ‘Do they dress like this? Do they dress like that?’ I could have told him they dress in drag like on Oxford Street and he would have been none the wiser. As a saying you have to know things before you can comment about them.

Art has a responsibility and has a social result. I have seen older people die from the shock of seeing culture being trivialised or mistreated. I have seen lots of family interactions - very violent interactions etc - because people are put in positions where they don’t fulfil particular rituals according to certain procedures and so on. So the whole idea of people making art in a ritual, you re-affirm your associations to each other and they have very strong social responses from those re-affirmations. No-one should trivialise those things, because they do have repercussions. Aboriginal people believe beyond just family domestics, arguments or inter-family feuds, which are bad enough, that it does upset things in a spiritual sense. It does have repercussions in a spiritual sense that manifests itself in full-on climatic and other actions and events.

You shouldn’t go away from here thinking Emily was a great post-modernist or modernist in that sense, otherwise she would have had Toyotas, harbour bridges and McDonald’s etc in her compositions. It still comes back to, like I said, actually reading the sign, certainly not trying to re-incorporate yourself and re-incorporate Eurocentric views into things.

If you have a civilisation that has come from 30,000 or 40,000 years, it is not to be trivialised or misread. I only mean that in the sense of someone saying, ‘Hey I am Aboriginal this week,’ or ‘I saw the Mornington Island dance group dance’ or ‘I saw somebody create a ground painting’. In fact, watching someone create a ground painting here is the stuff of tourism; it’s not the actual ritual. That’s all, thanks. I don’t want to be a grumpy old man.

MARGO NEALE: Thank you, Djon, for your second speech of the day, but it was welcome. They are the things he forgot to say before. Thank you very much. Sally, do you want to say something?

SALLY BUTLER: Just to respond to Djon. I take on board what you are saying but I certainly don’t want anyone to think that in any way I am trivialising the Aboriginal concept of ‘ritual’. I would also like to say that the definition of ‘ritual’ that I was referring to, certainly I had ground paintings and ceremonial dance up there but particularly with Emily Kngwarreye the ritualistic behaviour of gathering bush tucker etc that is not secret and sacred at all is far more a part of her art than anything to do with secret and sacred rituals. Certainly, there is no aspect of attempting to say that I understand secret and sacred ritual or in fact to trivialise it. I would say that ritual does have a more general frame of reference than what Djon is speaking about. I totally take on board what Djon’s saying but I just wanted to reply that that really wasn’t the intention. Thanks.

MARGO NEALE: Thank you. Unless someone else has something to say, we will wind up the day.

Date published: 27 October 2008