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Emily Kngwarreye’s practice of painting: an international perspective

Paper presented by Professor Terry Smith, University of Pittsburgh
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 23 August 2008

Prof. TERRY SMITH: It is not only a pleasure to be invited but also an honour to speak at this great institution. I apologise for not being able to be here yesterday but I was teaching at the University of Sydney. I was very sorry to miss the papers of colleagues who have worked in the field of Aboriginal art and studies so effectively for so long – my apologies to them.

It is a privilege to be here, especially to have the opportunity to view the exhibition. I have been lucky enough to see some great exhibitions, for example, the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, nearly ten years ago, an experience I will never forget. On such occasions, you have a chance to see both the greatest achievements of an artist as well as the moments when an artist runs into difficulties. In the exhibition here, we can see an extraordinary depth and range of Emily’s work - it is a compliment to Margo Neale and all concerned with it.

I love the spotlighting of each painting, because it is very calm compared to that at the Papunya Painting: out of the Desert exhibition as installed currently at the Australian Museum in Sydney. This is wonderful work - a stunning collection of relatively unknown, large and resplendent early paintings. I took friends from the United States and Puerto Rico who had not seen this work before. Their main comment was: ‘This is so intense. All these works are similarly intense. What is the intensity? Where does that come from?’ Unfortunately, most of it came from the lighting. We somehow had to work through that to see the real intensity of those works.

I am not going to talk about Emily as an internationalist, because she wasn’t. Western, globalised internationalism was not her perspective. Her situation is more complex and more interesting than that. I want to bring my international perspective to the understanding of her work, precisely in order to bring out what was specific and local about it. To do this we need to do more than compare Australia to the rest of world, or the desert, Utopia and Alice Springs, to the nation as a whole. The thinking I am doing now about the nature of contemporary life and what I call the condition of contemporaneity is really influenced a lot by what is called ‘big picture history’.

One of the outstanding practitioners of this idea is David Christian, an Australian from Sydney and who now teaches in San Diego, in the United States. He has written a book for high school teachers on how to teach world history, that is, the entire history of humans on the planet with all the implications involved. This approach can be full of generalisations that don’t hold totally, and thus easy to dismiss as irrelevant to more concrete thinking. Yet generalisations of a certain kind can hold if they are seen as explanations that operate at an appropriate level. Of course, if you shift them down to a more regional level, or a local level or to a personal level they won’t hold. Answers need to be calibrated, as it were, to the place where the work itself is done and to the many places where it circulates. How might taking a larger perspective help us look at Emily’s work?

On page 103 of David Christian’s book This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity (Berkshire, 2008) there is a diagram of ‘Three Major Eras in World History’ [Three major eras in world history] He assumes that the human history moves through these eras: Foraging, Agrarian and Modern. In the nineteenth century, in a lecture by Thomas Huxley for example, a diagram like this would have been drawn the other way around, implying that there was a primitive race of people at the bottom and we have progressed from there upwards. Now, however, you have to try to imagine this stream of human history unfolding horizontally before us like on a film screen. Each era is succeeded by another, and there are subsidiary and subordinate eras within them, which also succeed each other. A couple of things stand out immediately. The contemporary era is a tiny fraction of human history, the years since 1945 (some, including myself, would say since 1989). Emily’s lifetime, however, obviously goes through the modern period. But she also lived in the contemporary sub-era - like all of us, when seen from this very broad point of view.

Clearly the assumption here is that human history on the planet is continually modernising. It is driven by relatively rational responses to living conditions and the numbers of people who have to deal with the resources that are available. This is, itself, a modern concept that is being read back through history and then brought forward.

One of the distinguishing features of modernity, according to Christian, is the inevitable erasure of foraging cultures and values. The fact that people whose worldviews and approaches to life and beliefs and so on were developed in that first era still exist in this era is itself remarkable from that point of view. He sees a long-term trend against their survival, thus their anachronism is profound. So, on a model like this there is an in-built assumption that what happens in the exhibition simply could not, or should not, happen. If it has happened, there is something peculiar and against the grain of history about it.

Such a conclusion tells us that this way of looking at the world has a profound inadequacy built into it. Certainly, it is true that Indigenous peoples throughout the world are struggling in terrible ways. But there has also been for a number of decades a turn towards not just survival but growth. There has been a huge production of culture and art around that fact. This is also what we see affirmed in the exhibition. Again and again we see imagery of that which grows: we are shown the earth as irrepressibly fecund, the fertility of bodies and the enormous generative power of people flourishing within conditions of apparent scarcity.

This kind of art speaks back against the massive, mistaken presumption about inevitability in Western historical thinking. Questions like ‘is this artist’s work modern, or contemporary, or not?’ come from such presumptions. These concepts have enormous historical force and weight. That is not to say they are wrong, because they do apply to some art; or that they don’t have power, because they certainly insist on being asked. Rather, we have to arrive at a more nuanced way of working with, and against, the presumptions built into them. Otherwise, we do a disservice to the artists whose work we discuss when using them - Emily included.

Let me draw your attention to the fact that, like ‘modern’, the word ‘contemporary’ has a vast and ancient history in human usage in many different languages. I would love to know how concepts like ‘the contemporary’ do their work in various Aboriginal languages and Indigenous languages. I have explored how it works in English and related European languages. Immediately striking is that it means a lot more than what we usually take it to mean: ‘that which is happening now’, ‘whatever is occurring’ or ‘what’s up to date’. We tend to use it as a kind of placeholder - in fact, we are waiting to see which of today’s art will connect with previous art, that is, become modern. We assume that some will connect with the past history of art and the rest will just fade away. So the presumption about contemporary is ‘Yes, it’s here, now, but most of it is going to disappear into the rubbish bin of good riddance.’

Contempus’ means to be with time - all the many ways in which one can be with time. An object can exist in time. A person can live through time and, as we are acutely aware these days, live through time with others. So the contemporary is about multiple temporalities, multiple experiences of time occurring at the same time, which may occur at any time, in the past and in the present. The Oxford English Dictionary gives us four meanings, the first is: ‘belonging to the same time, age or period’. To ‘belong’ to a period can either mean you just happen to live in it, but to belong is a really important relationship to have to anything. The ways in which our time now - that which we all share, whatever differences we have - creates conditions of belonging: people often speak about ‘our time’ or of predecessors as being of ‘their time’. It is to speak about what is shared. The second meaning refers to existing in the same time period or same time zone as another, to be coeval with others (also an important relationship). The third meaning - to ‘occur at the same time’ - is adventitious, that which happens as an event, while other events happen at the same time. The fourth definition of ‘contemporary’ is modern in the orthodox sense: ‘of or characteristic of the present period; especially up-to-date, ultra-modern; specifically designating art of a markedly avant-garde quality, or furniture, building, decoration, etc., having modern characteristics’.

In actual usage, particularly in the art world, ‘contemporary’ replaced ‘modern’ during the 1990s. Even the word ‘post-modern’ has all but disappeared. For the most part, however, ‘contemporary’ is just a default word that art worlders use when they don’t think much about what is going on. We need, however, to take it seriously, if we want to mean something by what we say.

In this country we are very aware of another contemporaneity: that Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples have a profoundly different sense of what time is, of how it moves through its own histories, what it is for a body to be in time and what it is for memory to do its work. It is not that all white people have the same, shared sense of time, while all Indigenous people have another, also shared sense of time - that is obviously a nonsense. There are multiple ways of being in time in both cultural spheres and there are multiple ways of existing in time between those spheres, because they are contemporaneous with each other. Another reason for taking contemporaneity seriously.

If we were to reconsider the big picture of the contemporary and how it relates to art from the perspective of an expanded conception of both we might be led to set out a chart such as this. [Art in the conditions of contemporaneity diagram]

Us humans on the planet earth have moved, I believe, beyond what were previous considered periods, epochs and eras, including those named ‘modernity’ and ‘post-modernity’. (This is where I even more deeply disagree with David Christian.) I think we have moved to a point where the different ways of being in the world have generated profound incommensurability between perceptions of the world, understandings of the future, readings of the past and so on. Some of these are at war with others, generating all kinds of conflicts in the world, as well as counter-movements to negotiate and develop a peaceful coexistence between them. What that adds up to, in my view, is that we have brought ourselves to a condition or a state of being which doesn’t have the overall shape and form of the previous human eras. We are not necessarily moving forward in time in a way that is continuous with past time - many elements of what we do are, but some are not. Again, multiple contemporaneousness.

Damien Hirst is an artist who works with visual images in order to create shock and intense sensations. He is, as well, a sensational promoter of his work. Also with artists like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, we have that obvious focus on art works that operate as part of the high market and work literally as instant visual sensations in and of themselves. That is one very obvious tendency in contemporary art that is quite consistent with developments in modernism and particularly of avant-garde practice throughout the twentieth century. I call it Sensationalism.

Parallel to this is a tendency toward reshaping and renovating modernist art practices, to renewing modernist values and traditions. Artists such as Richard Serra, Gerhard Richter and Sean Scully are what I call Remodernists.

These two tendencies together are the ones that attract most public attention, reach the heights of the market and fill the museums and galleries of the main cultural centres.

But for the past 30 or 40 years, largely as a result of decolonisation, vastly different ways of making art, thinking about visual images, relating to mediums and communicating values have appeared. Initially, it was concerned above all with creating senses of identity, often nationalist ones, against the colonial regimes. The Aboriginal art movement emerged within this second current. In a very particular way, insofar as the Aboriginal art movement in this country is a movement, it is a national movement. Based in the sovereign values of each Aboriginal people, it also attempts to create some connections between Aboriginal cultures across the continent, and at arm’s length to the settler state. As Ian McLean has pointed out, this self-determination was taken over and absorbed into the non-Indigenous governmental image of Australia, the official state image of this country. But, it is obvious that Emily’s art, like that of every Indigenous artist, is rooted in very local culture formations, it aims at keeping them alive, making their presence felt and giving them an existence in the world. This is just one instance of the South rethinking the North, something that is happening all over the world.

The third great current of contemporary art is made by a younger generation than Emily’s. These artists are more concerned with very specific questions of time, place, mediation and mood. They work in a wide variety of mediums, in a much lower key, usually more cooperatively and produce works of art that try to seek a way beyond the dialectical conflict that in effect is embodied in the first two tendencies.

I see these as three currents in all contemporary art as it is being made around the world today. An important element of their contemporaneity is that, although fundamentally very different from each other, they actually co-exist; they operate in parallel with each other. Often, artists who are aware of this try to work between them or across them and like all artists they often work against the grain of a larger tendency.

How do these big picture ideas relate to the art of someone like Emily, which is made in a community and then sent out from it? However often she turned her back, and walked away when the job was done, she was actually sending out into the world something about her own life and her own values in ways that she understood would be grasped by people who had a different way of looking at images and understanding art than hers or those of the people immediately around her. We know from our daily experience that there are such layers and levels in the world. Certain artists act between them. This is parallel to what happens on the level of politics, economics, travel, cultural exchange, and so on, but is distinctive when it comes to art.

That leads us to the question: is Emily’s art contemporary according to this broad view and, if so, how might it be contemporary? You will not be surprised to learn that there are going to be at least two or three answers, not one. Searching for one quality of Emily that will really give the answer to understanding her work is as false about her as it is about any artist in the condition of contemporaneity. That is a modern way of thinking about these issues. Things are more complex now. How?

I will show some works by Emily and make some comparisons to bring out this idea of art being made by her and then work being made by other artists totally working in different currents. To evoke Emily’s earlier work, her practice of making a painting initially based on sacred body markings for emu and for kame (seed), I show Awelye, 1991. There is a wonderful wall of seed paintings in the exhibition. I find the idea of seeding very suggestive. Initially we used to think about these works as essentially a practice of underpainting and then overpainting. The overpainting practice was understood to be a deliberate obscuring of that which was sacred about the work. A parallel was drawn to Jackson Pollock’s way of underpainting and then overpainting his imagery. The under-imagery in a Jackson Pollock usually of a profoundly pathological nature. Finding them unbearable, he painted over them. He did this for most of his career, except for about five paintings during 1948, 1949 and 1950. The practice of putting something down that is intensely important and then disappearing is obviously important for many Aboriginal artists. Many others, such as Turkey Tolson Tjurpurrula, were able to suggest presence and absence at the same time. What we learn from this show is that, if you have the imagery of seeding, and the practice of marking out ground, growth and then placing seeds within these, you have the painting itself exploding seeds out at you. This happens often in this exhibition: it is quite extraordinary. These are art works that, instead of making a mark and then covering it up (showing and then withdrawing), move one, two, three steps towards the spectator. This is a lot to do with finding something in the ground, helping it grow and then drawing it out of the ground. It is obviously a very specific practice relating to the yam itself, encouraging its growth, gathering it to eat, scattering its seed, etc.

We thank Margo Neale for bringing out for us this aspect of Emily’s work.

Another great theme in her paintings an imagining of what it is for the body to, as it were, be the earth; in other words, what it is for a person to be land, to be country as such. That is the most profound imagining that goes on in her work and in the work of many other Aboriginal artists. In her case it’s a very rich one. I will come to the ways in which I see it in a minute.

Firstly let me do a comparison. In the collection of the Guggenheim Museum, New York is a work by Gerhard Richter entitled Korn, 1992. In so far as it is about seeding, it is a European wheat field that is evoked, most likely as a title arbitrarily added after the fact. Richter is what we call a ‘post-conceptual’, ‘post-photography painter’. For him to paint during the 1980s was to paint after painting itself in the Western tradition was meant to have finished, to be over, to be complete, to have arrived at the total black painting and minimal sculpture, to have arrived at the end of art practice based on the old studio traditions of painting, sculpture, architecture, graphic design and so on. In that context, the only kind of painting you could do in the West is that which in one way or another mourns the death of painting, evokes the idea of the artificiality of painting but quotes past works of art such as, in this case, the American Abstract Expressionist artist Willem de Kooning. Richter’s procedure is that he takes a photograph or creates a computer-simulated model of an abstract form, paints that up in oils, and then applies these great squeegees to the surface. This pulls paint sideways and blurs the image. He then paints over it again and blurs that surface. This way of working evokes photographic printing techniques to painting, and tries to capture photographic effects in oil paint. It is really art about art about art not being able to be painting.

None of this is relevant to Emily’s values, way of working or effect. Hers is just a totally different mindset. There is another level, however, on which they share something, although it is a parallel. People are now realising that Richter is a German Romantic and his work continues on from the tradition of landscape painting, from Caspar David Friedrich, recently exhibited here at the National Gallery of Australia. I illustrate another Gerhard Richter painting entitled January, 1989. He just didn’t happen to paint it in that month. It’s a painting that, by using that technique I have described, nevertheless evokes what it is to be in southern Germany in winter. It evokes the nature of the soil of really dirty snow without picturing it - just evoking that kind of setting. Many of you will know that Richter also does photographically realist paintings of such settings alongside these very abstract ones and he paints abstract images over photographs of such settings. He is an artist who in the German romantic tradition is very aware of natural phenomena and the development of the seasons in his own area. He is a quasi-regionalist artist, despite the usual interpretations. That is a parallel to what Emily is saying in her work. They are, after all, contemporaries.

Desert Storm was painted in 1992. This very large picture was painted at the time of the US invasion of Iraq (code-named ‘Desert Storm’), but has nothing at all to do with that. It is about a storm in the desert; it is about a wet in the desert. I wrote a detailed account of it in a book edited by Jenny Isaacs, Emily Kngwarreye Paintings (Sydney: Craftsman House, 1998). Like many in the show - particularly the works that begin from the one owned by Ann Lewis and are hung in the room behind (the potato dreaming ones) - this painting is absolutely extraordinary to me, because it evokes that idea of the body is the land in a very concrete and specific way. On one level, it is a depiction of a lot of water coming in during a storm in the desert, turning the red sand pink, moving in towards the centre, making a kind of gully, collecting the water and creating in fact what is a soakage bore which will go down and come out later on. This is the work in which, in a certain sense, what is fundamental about the movement of water in that region is depicted as moving in and flowing in. And then at either end water comes out and all these wild flowers appear.

In terms of the sense of body that is involved, the body is profoundly female. Men cannot paint like this. It’s a profoundly female sense of what it is to have a body that is created in these works, not just because of the sacred markings, the women’s dreamings, but because of the sense of implied flesh, even though it is land that is also being painted here. That has a lot to do with the fact that these paintings open up at their centre. This sounds, perhaps, corny - and it may be an echo of ‘central core’ imagery from feminist art of the 1970s - but it is something that I directly experienced, as I am sure many people do. The paintings are open, breathing, folding fissures. They draw you in, and then they gently expel or express you.

How is that effect achieved? It is quite literally done by Emily’s technique of painting. Most of the paintings were presented to her on stretchers; she then drew them to her lap and paint out in a series of lines (rows of splotches) and then paint back in a series of other lines. So her action of painting is reaching out to the extent that she can reach and then drawing what she has done back into herself. Every single line is done that way. There is a parallel to Pollock but it’s very different - that was a very masculine way of thinking about it conquering space.

In my view, Emily’s achievement during a four or five year period after 1989 was to arrive at a distinct, individual and fundamentally different way of generating artistic form. This is what she sends out from the desert, from that second, post-colonial current that I delineated, to the first one. That is what she sends back to world contemporary art. This is the sense in which her art is international - not because it looks like other international art but because it has something profoundly original to say about what it is to make art when engaged with grasping such important topics. It is an important addition to ways in which artists throughout the world have, for centuries, tackled such challenges.

Another difference between Emily’s work and that of northern artists working conscientiously according to their own frameworks comes out when we consider Sean Scully, the great Irish artist who paints walls in a way that some say parallels Emily’s last works. But he is not painting the land or the land as body - it is nothing to do with that - this is about what it is to look at a wall, and for a wall to communicate with you, to convey its character to you. I chose one where he is looking at the wall in the desert at night time, Wall of Light, Desert, from the Rice Museum, Texas. A parallel subject to Emily, but I am not knowledgeable enough to distinguish the works she did of night in the desert as opposed to those that assume sunlight. Do we know whether she did any night pictures? But Scully clearly did. You have to think about light movement in the night. You have to think about walls in the desert, probably in North Africa and places such as that. So it is a different kind of perspective. It is a little more tourist, thinking about the history of walls and constructed architecture in that sense; whereas again to my knowledge I don’t think Emily has painted a built structure as such. Do we know that?

Dr MARGO NEALE: She has painted car doors.

Prof. TERRY SMITH: Yes, she painted on to them but did she use them or any built structure as imagery? If you are painting abstract art after the long and often glorious tradition of Western figurative painting, you have a different way of registering the world visually. Natural effects, to a northern artist, are the play of light on walls, or shadows across a pathway in a forest, or clouds gathering over a cultivated field. Like many Aboriginal artists, Emily painted her country as if the settlers had not been there, were yet to come - or, perhaps, never will come. Unlike Rover Thomas, she seems not to imply the co-presence of both Aboriginal country and settler history across the same land. She lived through the modernisation of her country, and her art speaks to modernist art (specifically late modernism) but is not in its inspiration modernist.

These considerations lead us to the other idea of contemporaneity that I mentioned earlier: the worldwide coexistence of major cultural differences, and our accelerated awareness of these differences. How does Emily’s work and that of other Aboriginal artists operate in that framework?

Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula painted a series of very important works during the 1990s and up to his death in 2001 on the theme of Straightening spears at Ilyingaungau. There are a number of great paintings based on the story of the initial possibility of conflict between groups of men, which was resolved by the elders focussing for so long and so carefully on getting their spears straightened and ready over the fire that the conflict didn’t happen. The essence of that story is about becoming aware of potentially deadly difference, of the prospect of war and massive destruction, but at the same time seeing it as an opportunity to build community and coexistence. These are paintings about peace, about how to generate a condition of peace that is absolutely at one with the country that you are in, while recognising the potential for conflict within it. For Turkey, it was worked out as a practice of painting careful dots, lining them up in rows, taking lots of time, arriving at a mesmerised state. Each of the different colours evokes one or more of the players: the bodies of people, the sand, the sun, fire, land, the ashes as well as the actual spears themselves implied in some of the shapes left over but also in some of the white lines. Again, the painterly practice and the subject are deeply integrated, one comes out of the other. That is, in fact, the key test in assessing modernist painting: the deepest content of the work is expressed above all through the form and the process through which the work was produced. This is the ethical fallout of modernism in art. There is a parallel going on, clearly, in the way that I look at the work of these artists. That could be to do with my own history, training and limitations. But it could also be a convergence.

In a work such as Turkey Tolson’s Two Sites 2000, a concentrated image of two sacred sites, we get into some strange territory. It is one of Turkey’s mono prints that Christopher Hodges was kind enough to let me buy from him just as it was done. I took it with me to the United States, where I arrived on 10 September, 2001. I recall looking at the towers that day, at the people jumping, and the implosions, then looking at this image, and thinking ‘What is going on here?’ I will leave that to your own unconscious. The point is that in a certain way I already had his gift, which was the determination to insist on the possibilities of peace even in such threatening circumstances.

Other people responded to that situation very differently. You will know that Ian McLean has written wonderfully about Gordon Bennett’s 9/11 works. Bennett was already in dialogue with the lower East Side artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was of course dead by then, but the spirit of Jean-Michel Basquiat was an alter ego in a sense to Gordon as an artist. Part of Gordon’s response was to be shocked back to some of his early works. Notes to Basquiat (The coming of the light), 2001, references one of own first paintings: the convict chain or chain of death is connected to the Statue of Liberty, as indicating Indigenous peoples’ loss of freedom. The attacks on the towers he shows an impact on bodies - he clearly sees the buildings as bodies. I should have put this on the cover of my book The Architecture of Aftermath (University of Chicago Press, 2006) rather than Steve McCurry’s photograph of the towers going down, because really most of the argument is there in Gordon’s painting. A detail relevant to this discussion is that, near the centre of this painting, he lists a series of words that he sees as cant. He has ‘modern’, ‘contemporary’, ‘current’, ‘fashionable’ and so on. That is one kind of response by an Australian artist.

Other responses to 9/11 were different depending on where the artist came from. Paul Chan did some wonderful works (the Light series, 2005-7) that simply showed things in the world rising slowly up out of Manhattan upwards, as if they were being resurrected or as if the rapture had happened in some weird way. Again, these are people trying to understand the presence of the spiritual within the secular, to understand spiritual belief being made secular - which, in a certain sense, the attacks exemplified. Issues like that are very important in the connections between those different levels of our contemporary culture.

I finish with reference to a younger generation Aboriginal artist who is trying to do work that addresses these questions. She is, I believe, seeking to think on a similar level to Emily but not on such an epic scale. This work by Rosella Namok is called Before time proper strong, 2005. The imagery that operates here is drawn not only from her local culture and local ways of thinking but also clearly she must have been told about the creation of the universe and looked at the Christian story which you see in the Sistine Chapel, for example, where God divides the light from the dark. This is a very powerful image of the world coming into being, being created, that really parallels the Genesis imagery, but again is very different.

Namok has obviously looked at Richter’s signature blurring but is not doing what he is doing. She is doing something more like this [shows image Old girls...they talk in the sand...yarn for country...land – country, 2004], which is in a way a kind of tribute back not directly to Emily but to women such as Emily. Namok is a Queensland artist, whose people live by the ocean, and who used surfboards, which happen to be a signature motif of the artist Scott Redford. But here she takes the surfboard and puts it to work in terms of reminding people of the value of remembering country and the character of country. This is, again, a very contemporary thing to do, but contemporary in a different way from what we have seen before.

What I have tried to sketch out for you today are some ways of thinking about what it is to be contemporary in the present, to underline the fact that for an artist to be contemporary it is not sufficient to simply have an up-to-date style, or to do work that looks like contemporary art elsewhere. More profoundly, it is to give to people a sense of what it is to be rooted in place while at the same time speak of peace to a world in which cultures are pulling in different, often dangerous directions. The great gift of Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s art, which we can experience in this exhibition, is that it engages us in the enterprise of a woman who, with prodigious energy, never stopped trying to show us the underlying grounds of her being.

Thank you very much.

[Note: this transcript has been revised by the author]

Date published: 8 October 2008