Emily: the impossible modernist
Virginia Trioli with John McDonald and Margo Neale, National Museum of Australia, 28 September 2008, National Museum of Australia, 28 September 2008
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Good afternoon, I am Virginia Trioli from ABC Television from Sunday Arts and also most recently Lateline. I am delighted that you have all come this afternoon to our discussion with the very challenging title and a title that has been kicked around both casually and also very seriously for the last few months that this exhibition has been on tour in Japan - ‘Emily: the impossible modernist’. If you don’t already know, I will explain to you in a moment where that title comes from.
The Director of the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Japan, Professor Akira Tatehata, who has been the inspiration for this amazing exhibition that is now back here in Australia in Canberra but first toured to Osaka and then Tokyo, described Emily Kngwarreye after first being moved to tears literally upon seeing her work as ‘the impossible modernist’. To him, she is, if not the greatest then one of the greatest exponents of the modernist approach to painting. In his view superior to some of the great American abstract expressionists, and no doubt we will get to that. What this topic of conversation points us towards is a discussion of what that means and why it should matter when you are talking about an Australian Indigenous painter.
To kick that around this afternoon you are very fortunate to have two wonderful guests who know the work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye incredibly well, who know this exhibition inside out and who know the field extraordinarily well too. Can I introduce you first to Margo Neale. She is the Principal Adviser on Indigenous Matters to the Director of the National Museum of Australia and is the Principal Curator of the exhibition that I hope you have already seen, Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye. From 2000 to 2005 she was a senior curator and director of the Museum’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program and the First Australians gallery. She has also worked at the National Gallery of Australia, the Queensland Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
John McDonald is here with us as well. He is the art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, a role that he has held on and off for the last 20 years. He is the former head of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia here in Canberra and the author of a most beautiful book called Studio, which was done with the photographer Ian Lloyd and a show of those photographs, portraits of Australian artists inside their studios is currently on exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales and is shortly to travel to Victoria. In early December the first volume of a new history of Australian art written by John McDonald is going to be published. The first volume is called From Exploration to Federation. That will be a landmark publishing moment to look forward to. Would you please welcome our two guests today.
I think we should go straight to the hard bit first. John, why consider Emily a modernist at all?
JOHN McDONALD: I think to consider Emily a modernist is really to be devil’s advocate because when you think of Australian art in general, nothing quite fits. If you think about the Heidelberg School, we called them the Heidelberg School for a long time because we didn’t really feel comfortable calling them impressionists. Now we have decided to take them at their own estimate and call them Australian impressionists. You have to ask yourself whether titles like modernism are equally subject to more subjective interpretations. We think of modernism as - to use Bernard Smith’s idea - a period style, although modernism is in fact many different styles. Modernism is almost hard to define the boundaries thereof but we have a sense that modernism began somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century and it fizzled out somewhere at about the 1970s with all sorts of diffuse movements like earth art and conceptual art and minimalism and then came this thing called postmodernism which was like the hangover after the party.
When we think of modernism and think about it in those terms, we think of it as a whole series of ideas and styles but as a kind of heroic thing pushing the boundaries as far as you could until you had reached the end. When you look at Emily’s work you could say there is a case for saying she is somebody who pushed the boundaries as far as she could. She is not somebody who came in late in the piece in the actual period in which she was working, which is more of a postmodern era, and did things which were full of ironic references. She wasn’t concerned with what had come before. She is somebody who is a pure painter. She is an intuitive painter. She is somebody who gets it from the heart. I think we have to say modernism is also the era of late colonialism, the era of rampant cultural imperialism. There were all these reasons why we might go back and venture a heresy, venture a revisionist approach, venture a speculative idea that perhaps we might be able to incorporate an elderly Aboriginal lady who began painting quite late in the piece and put her into the end of the story and say, ‘Hang on, modernism wasn’t quite as dead as you thought. Something else happened’. It may be slightly tricky thing to do. But on the other hand I think it is a lively thing to do. It is always good with art history and with received wisdoms and orthodoxies to throw a few bombs.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: I will conduct a bit of a discussion on stage here this afternoon with our two guests and hopefully they will take some questions from the audience as well. But just to get the ball rolling we will hear some opening statements, if I can put it that way, or some thoughts from both John and from Margo. Margo can I ask you to go first.
MARGO NEALE: Ian McLean [one of the writers in the new National Museum of Australia catalogue] sums up the impression - one feels in some degree or other, when viewing the exhibition, ‘like a siren Emily’s art seduced boatloads of modernist connoisseurs only to leave them wrecked on the rocks’. I don’t think anyone connoisseurs or not, can go and see Emily without this interesting sensation of irony and contradiction - there is a whole range of words of how this elderly woman can paint such extraordinary works that look modernist. They are modernist pictorial spaces or they are modernist in character but the word modernist always pops up. That is not unusual. Most of the audience have been fed on a Euro-American diet of modernism and so on. So that is not unusual. But the other people who don’t know anything about modernism will still go in and say how can this elderly woman from the centre of the desert start painting at 80, produce 3,000-plus works when she is so elderly. Others will comment on her output if they are not into modernism. There is a whole range of discussion about the enigma so-called of Emily.
I think Professor Akira Tatehata san, sums it up and Virginia told the story in brief. He stands in front of Emily’s Big Yam and even though I had only a photocopy of hers in the boardroom here after he had done his tearful job at the National Gallery of Victoria [NGV] standing in front of the real one, and even then standing in front of that photocopy he started snuffling and stuff. I thought he had sinus, a Canberra sort of situation [allergy]. He wasn’t. They were running and getting him tissues. This was a photocopy, for God’s sake. All of a sudden this almost inarticulate man in English becomes very articulate. He is saying, ‘I can formally and technically analyse her work. I can talk about the striation of the brush work and the variation of density and the layering and the depth, I can relate it to Brice Marden’, and so on, ‘but I don’t know where these works come from. I can’t explain where she has come from. It is impossible’. This is the impossible. This is the impossible modernist thing.
Then he goes on to say, and this is when he gets a little overwhelmed. He truly is totally overwhelmed and he is revisiting what he had seen earlier. He also goes on to say, ‘I don’t mean to sound racist or anything’, he said, ‘but it doesn’t really matter where or when she was born, whatever culture, she is a genius. She is just a genius. She is totally inexplicable’. Then later in his essay, when he is trying to write and think this through, he says - what I am talking about here is how do you approach her work with the baggage of who you are and where you have come from. He looks at her work and he says, ‘I am a Japanese man. I am steeped in my own cultural traditions. I’m a curator of international contemporary art. I can only approach her work that way. I can’t approach it any other way’.
Then he says, however, ‘It is not right to approach the work of any artist without having some understanding and knowledge of the origins of their work, where they have come from, how they’ve been created, what the influences are on their work.’ But if I then want to take on an Aboriginal kind of perspective, which is the only way I could really understand her work, then I could be guilty of cultural colonialism’. So he says, ‘Perhaps I should stay silent but I can’t stay silent because I am so impassioned by this woman’s work. I can’t stay silent so I will have to find a way’. He goes through this whole kind of angst and eventually he says, ‘All I can do is look for connections and consider the idea of multiple modernities. There are modernities in Tokyo, modernities in Utopia, modernities in India, so I have to broaden the concept of modernity’. And as John said, it is not about period style, it is about now, the idea of the modernity of now. He goes in then looking at these connections with the works of others. He clearly defines the difference between the technical similarities on the surface, as with Jackson Pollock or he introduces a whole new fleet of names, which is why it is good to take Australian work overseas. He talks about [Yayoi] Kusama and Brice Marden a whole lot and I talk about Lee Ufung, a South Korean artist. We talk about a whole range of things - I won’t tell the whole story now because I am taking too long.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: That is right.
MARGO NEALE: But I will just finish with saying he is being an outsider who acknowledges his position and then looks inside. But there is another person I want to mention and that is Ian McLean who I mentioned earlier. He said, ‘I don’t have any trouble, I don’t know what all this enigma stuff is about, reconcilable, irreconcilable’. He said it is very clear that the movement she is part of is a parallel movement. She doesn’t have to fit into that or out of that. It’s a parallel movement with intersecting points and it’s called Indigenous modernism. Emily actually isn’t the first, she is probably well along the track. Indigenous modernism has been occurring in Australia for 30, 40 or 50 years. He defines it simply as a person who has the knowledge of the Aboriginal cosmology and the aesthetics to practice it, combined with the opportunity to intersect and interact with modernity. When you have those two things in place, plus he adds a forceful personality and energy and the other things we know she has, then you have an Indigenous modern. Now someone might sit up and say, what about all these silly labels, it really doesn’t matter. But that is another story. So he’s got this Indigenous modernity, and it is a parallel movement - it went back to Hermannsberg and Albert Namatjira. With those criteria you can go back even further. Papunya came 10, 20 years before Emily. She is not the beginning but she is rather towards the end. This long-term consummation of a contact post-colonial period.
Emily actually explains this - and we will tease this out later - when she says, ‘I do whole lot, whole lot, everything’.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: That is the key quote and really the only quote that you can ever recall. ‘Whole lot. That is what I paint’. Whole lot is what Emily Kngwarreye always said. Inevitably we keep moving back of course and I guess by necessity we will today move back to this word of modernity and modernism and the idea of multiple modernities but an Indigenous modernity is an interesting one that we will move to. But before we do that, John, would you like to say a few words?
JOHN McDONALD: Well Indigenous modern sounds like quite an interesting style of interior design, doesn’t it? I thought Tatehata was actually a Kylie Minogue fan and he got that impossible modernism thing [from her]. Didn’t she have an album called ‘impossible princess’?
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: She did.
MARGO NEALE: That’s drawing a long bow.
JOHN McDONALD: I don’t know. He is very into all things Australian. It is quite an extraordinary thing. One of the things about this show which is, I think, unique, is that if we had gone to Japan and we had knocked on the door over there and we said, ‘Dear director of Tokyo National Museum, dear director of this museum, would you like to put on an Emily Kngwarreye show?’ They wouldn’t have touched us. They would have said, ‘Thank you very much. We will call you’. Whereas it all came about because Tatehata san had a particular passion for Emily Kngwarreye that he had cultivated, encountering her work at the Queensland Art Gallery many years ago. He had the conjunction of this other fellow Sakata san, who was a former Australian correspondent for the Yomiuri Shimbun [newspaper] and who then became head of cultural development at the paper. So suddenly Sakata was in the position where he could provide the funds to make Tatehata’s idea a reality. So they could be the driving force for this show. That is a really remarkable thing. That is how we end up having a first-ever retrospective of any Australian artist, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, in Japan.
But having said that, the great thing of this show is to take Emily out of context, to remove Emily from that Australian context, because so much Indigenous art - we have had this debate ever since the 1970s onwards, if not earlier, that Indigenous art is a particular kind of thing that has to be dealt with in particular special ways and to a certain extent we can’t avoid that. But on the other hand, there reaches a point where perhaps the discussion of Indigenous art is actually limiting our appreciation of the art as art. We are looking at it in terms of anthropological ideas or we are relating it to a social context in a way which is unavoidable and which in some ways also sets a kind of a threshold and the way it is seen. For instance when Aboriginal art is seen overseas, you often find people dismiss it in all sorts of rather narrow ways because they don’t really believe it is ‘real art’. They believe it is artefact or they believe it is white man’s art. They think it is art that is done to specifications, that dealers and advisers are saying do another one of those. These things, they are rather patronising problems that you have to get beyond.
I remember that Aratjara [an Aboriginal Art exhibition] in London when I was living there, I was talking to people who were art writers and artists and they expressed no interest in seeing the show. I said, ‘Why don’t you want to see the show?’ They said, ‘I don’t want to see it. It is all just white man’s art, just tourist art’. I said, ‘What do you want to see?’ They said, ‘I would like to see the ancient bark paintings’. What ancient bark paintings? The oldest bark paintings we have are these tattered little things from the 1890s. We have a few from the 1930s but the golden age of bark painting, I’m happy to add, we’re in it now. The bark paintings have never been bigger, better, more imaginative, have never been as flourishing as a magnificent art form in their own right like they are at the moment.
If we consider all of these problems of Indigenous art in Australia versus the non-Indigenous art, presenting these things overseas and the extraordinary response of somebody like Tatehata to come to this, it helps us to look again at the work ourselves. I think it is too easy for us to get caught into little boxes according to the politics of it and to think about Emily, perhaps as modernist, is a way of explaining those categories. It may not be true but on the other hand art history and art appreciation is not a science. You can’t say, ‘If I put chemical A with chemical B I get compound X’. You cannot do that with these things. If we are discussing a humanities subject there is always going to be a very large element of opinion. There is going to be a large element of speculation. There is going to be a point where you have to put combustible, incompatible things together and maybe something will come out of it.
I think this is one of those combustible ideas. I think it could be quite a productive idea in terms of broadening our ideas of what Indigenous art is and where it fits in the great story of world art.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: You have written, John, that at the National Museum of Art at Osaka where this exhibition first went to, that Margo, if I understood correctly, hung the show in reverse. So as a spectator you arrived looking at the later works first. And you wrote that was terribly clever because it forced the viewer to focus on the art itself rather than what you called the anthropology of Aboriginal life, which is exactly the point you are getting to there. Describe that experience of seeing this astonishing, what you might call - and again I am grasping here at Euro-American descriptors - colour field painting when you arrive at the exhibition?
JOHN McDONALD: Margo can describe the nitty-gritty of it but I will give you my first impressions. The first thing was the museum. I saw the show in Osaka; to my regret I didn’t see it in Tokyo. But it was pretty spectacular in Osaka. The Osaka museum is like some science fiction bunker. It has a great big tower on top designed by César Pelli, who is an Argentinian architect. You go down to the lower levels. You have to go to the lower depths to see the art so it is all enclosed. The first level down is the gift shop and the orientation. On that level what you could see was that enormous painting called Earth’s Creation, which is a spectacular introduction to Emily Kngwarreye because it looks superficially like it could be a work of abstract expressionism or a Monet. There are all sorts of things going on in that that people would recognise as potentially little bits of the story of the Western art. Then you have the orientation room, which has the photographs and the information about the community. So you actually see where she came from.
Then to go downstairs to the show proper where it begins, what you have is this competing message. You have this one spectacular work of art. You have this whole room full of artefacts and material about the community, then suddenly you are in the show and you think, my God what is this because it doesn’t really look like anything you would expect to be seeing coming from a small Indigenous community in the middle of the desert. They look like massive modern paintings. They look like the kind of things that if you changed the names and you said they were all by Bill Smith, the recently discovered abstract expressionist from the East Village, everyone would say, ‘Oh yes’, and they would nod. Then as you walk backwards through her career, you go through all the changes, turns and twists of Emily’s stylistic moves.
The way Margo hung that show was a very surprising hang. It’s the sort of show you ask yourself if I was going to hang this show, would I do this? You think no. You think, does it work? And you have to say yes it does work. I think a lot of people had exactly that experience. It showed there is a way of coming at this which is unconventional. We are walking back in time, which is totally the opposite of the absolutely fixed chronological sequence where we begin with the artist’s juvenilia and we work it up to their late great period. We had the late great period at the very beginning of the show and then we plunge back. Once you have gone to the end of the show you felt like you wanted to walk back around again and see it in the correct chronological order. But it gave you … MARGO NEALE: It was designed like that.
JOHN McDONALD: So it was a kind of boomerang show. Once you had got there you boomerang back around. To me that was taking full advantage of the fact that you are seeing Emily under what we must call new laboratory conditions.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: I can say from experience because I did see the exhibition in Tokyo, it was a different sort of hang there but again a completely overwhelming experience there. As the curator, Margo, as someone who wants to tell the Indigenous story and the personal story of Emily with this work, how could you not, because her life is her land, her images, it is all one, the whole lot. But as the designer of the show, as the curator, and mindful that you have this really intellectually very challenging discussion going on about the nature of where this art fits in, was that a tightrope to walk, when you have, if I can say ethnographic as well as the aesthetic, that you have to meld in some way?
MARGO NEALE: Yes. I have to take on board all of those things. But one of the things that made it easier, as we have already suggested, is doing it offshore because we could leave a lot of the baggage behind. There are two issues: we have Japan where there is a mob of people who have never heard of Emily, hardly ever heard of Australia and certainly don’t think of us as the home of any master artists. Then when they find out she is black, ancient and hasn’t been to school and lives in the desert, that would be just too much. So we had to keep that secret for a bit. We had lots of marketing discussions, whether you should put Aboriginal in the title or not. We got that front. But the advantage of that is you also have a clean slate, an audience who knows nothing about Emily or Australia. You can use that as a plus as well.
So what is it we are trying to do here? What are we trying to do by taking this Australian art of a high international calibre to an international audience? What is it that struck Tatehata? What is it that will strike the people there who have just seen a Monet, and it is co-billed with Modigliani, followed by Cézanne, and the only block busters they ever have in Japan are from Europe, not America? This is the kind of audience I am dealing with. Clearly the answer is quite simple: it is about art. It is no good starting with her earlier decorative smaller pieces. It is no good to start with batik because first impressions mean a lot. If there are just a lot of batiks with little goannas running over them, it will set a frame of mind that is not the one I want, or not the one that we should be doing. I intentionally started off with the biggest, loudest, most modernist last works, as John said. But I didn’t want to denude it of Aboriginality either. Clearly it’s the source. But first you must walk through and experience it on an aesthetic level and then you go back, as John said, through time. But the idea was you go through the exhibition and I wanted to have that circularity, the Indigenous world view of circularity, not the western view of time as linear - in Tokyo it was slightly different. These are the sort of hidden curriculums if you like. I am very interested in the experience of the viewer. I had them trailing around in this way with little intimate spaces, blasts of huge vistas and then they would come back another way. So they actually do a circular journey through time, up and then back to the beginning. Many would do it again. So you get this circularity, which is very much whole lot, whole lot, everything, Aboriginal way of seeing and being.
But then the idea was you would go to the Utopia room next, which is the education room, the one they have here at the back. It is important that that wasn’t upfront because when you go there, you will then get the whole cultural experience. The main thing is that you will experience it as Western modernist, abstract art or whatever contemporary art you know. But then it was important for you to know that it has a different source, an entirely different source. It has a source that goes beyond New York, back to 50,000, 60,000 years, its root system, its lineage is ancient. So the stripes are not the stripes of [Franz] Kline or someone, they are the stripes of body painting. By then you get in there and I can see people - in this one they get into the Utopia room, they look at the video and you can hear the pennies drop, ‘Oh I get it now’. And then they - here more than Tokyo - go back through the exhibition with a head full of a whole lot of other information, which didn’t destroy the beginning experience. On the return journey back to the beginning of the exhibition the paintings that were on the backs of walls are now on the fronts of walls. So they can go back with a whole additional dimension to their work.
One thing before I stop, then I got the confidence to think okay we will still slap a huge picture up, a picture of this ancient black woman with a pierced nose on Osaka on the first floor. You will see this picture of this ancient woman, then the next thing you will see is this amazingly modernist work and you will have this extraordinary kind of disconnect. It will build up that feeling of ‘I just have to find out about this. This is weird’. In fact I used to think people would go there and see this ancient black woman there, then they would see this really modern work and then they would say ‘Oh, they’ve got the signage wrong, this is the wrong exhibition’, and then they would get confused. I rather liked that unsettling thing because it is only five more steps and then you are absorbed into these huge pictures. It took a long time to say that, sorry.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Margo there is sometimes no point stopping you. But I will try.
JOHN McDONALD: That is what the Japanese found.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The Japanese of course as you will probably know are enormously polite. You would see them there bending under the weight of Margo sometimes in Tokyo. She would just keep going.
JOHN McDONALD: Moral weight.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The great weight of Margo. It is important we spend a little bit of time talking about this exhibition in Japan - even though of course it is next door and you have seen it - more to give you that sense of separation that was the ambition in Japan, to speak about this painter, freed up from those shackles of the context that I know a lot of Indigenous artists sometimes find quite overbearing as well. They are locked into a certain box in a certain context. I hope the discussion of you imagining what it might be like as someone from that country going to see these works, which are astonishingly still shocking and vibrant when you think of them coming from the desert, how that must have been redoubled for those people, will give you that sense of distance in wanting to discuss the concept of Emily and modernity. John you have said that if modernism is more a case of style and technique rather than tradition that Emily may be considered the last great modernist of the twentieth century. What do you mean by that?
JOHN McDONALD: I was thinking particularly of paintings like that Big Yam Dreaming.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Which is the big black one with the white.
JOHN McDONALD: The big black one with meandering white lines. That is a painting that I am sure when a lot of people who have cut their teeth on art in America or Europe see it, they would think of people like Brice Marden, who also is known for his meandering lines. Shortly after I had seen the Emily show I actually saw a big Brice Marden show. It was quite an interesting experience because the Brice Marden show felt incredibly flat.
MARGO NEALE: That is how I find it too.
JOHN McDONALD: It felt to me like a very lifeless show. It was like a kind of precious show. He had spent of lot of time thinking about painting grey stripes and then he would spend a bit of time thinking about painting a kind of meandering grey line. But even the meandering grey line had a sense of ‘now I am going to do another really sensitive line’, whereas when you look at Emily’s work you don’t feel like there is a moment of self consciousness.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Tell us about how Emily works with a painting like that in particular, you know the story of how she made that?
JOHN McDONALD: How she works is quite extraordinary. You can’t imagine anybody working like the way she worked.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: John, paint a picture for us.
JOHN McDONALD: She would basically have this canvas of whatever size stretched out on the ground. She would have the paints arranged around her and the brushes, maybe quite a thick brush, sometimes like a shaving brush, and she would just start to work, bang, bang, bang. I think Margo has films and stop motion photography, she would gradually work her way across the canvas [sitting] cross-legged, painting, painting until she had covered the entire canvas from one end to the other, and then get up and walk away without even looking at it. It is almost unheard of because we all think of the artist as somebody who makes the mark and then stands back and considers that mark and then goes back and makes another one. This is not the case at all. This is painting which is done almost by remote control.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Margo she started at the bottom left or went up ...
MARGO NEALE: Middle.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: To the top right.
MARGO NEALE: Big canvasses - in the book you will see her working on Earth’s Creation and sitting on it. She starts in various places but for a huge canvas like the one we saw in Earth’s Creation she will sit in the middle, she may start on the outer edge and move to the middle but mostly in the middle if it’s big. The thing about Earth’s Creation is it’s like knitting. It is quite measured and almost automatism. It is quite measured and she will go left hand, right hand and sometimes both hands, as people who don’t read and write often will be ambidextrous. You will see in that video she simply knits one bit into another into another and then she will fall off the edge of the canvas so to speak. In the video I have in the exhibition you will see it.
But those ones on the end are quite dense parallel lines, so there is wide open netting and then there is very dense netting and wide open netting. And for the very observant you see lots and lots of dog prints, because she had lots of helpers and doggy prints all over it. Then she gets up and, as John said, it is quite true: she gets up, finishes and she is off. You can drive a bulldozer over it after that, she doesn’t care, as long as you paid first perhaps. She really doesn’t care. Why doesn’t she care? Because doing a canvas, for an Aboriginal woman like her and many others, is performing a ceremony. So when the ceremony is finished, the ceremony is finished. The performance ground is then erased either with the dancing, the feet or otherwise, and in fact no vestiges should remain.
The power is derived from the earth, so the idea of sitting on earth in fact is also a very symbolic thing. Sitting on the earth, deriving the power from the earth, then driving the power back into the earth but in this case it is also the physical way of being, and then the power is then re-invested into the work. In fact when she paints many paintings, she will be chanting and singing as she goes. So in her mind’s eye she is actually going over Country and revisiting parts and sites. In other paintings part of the way through she will touch each part and she will go into chanting. If someone is with her they will join in and then there will this thin kind of intonement and then she will move to another part and another part. It is in fact ceremony. So the idea of it being significant, how you hang it, where you hang it, what you do with it - she doesn’t care. It is your business.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: With that then, that always provokes in me the same question really, which is: why are you or Professor Tatehata, why does anyone try to want to make me think of this work in terms of modernism? Modernism seems irrelevant to that. Why can I not see her in terms of - and I will use the word - a primitivist impulse? There seems absolutely nothing wrong with that. She comes from this performing tradition that is integral to the work and frankly seems a lot more rich and interesting than the modernist tradition of say Pollock and others.
MARGO NEALE: Except she is painting it for an outside audience. That is the difference.
JOHN McDONALD: I think what is interesting is it opens up our concept of modernism because if you look at a lot of modernist art, and we have seen bits and pieces flashing on the screen, modernism draws on so many different sources. Modernism is monstrously eclectic. It draws on primitivism. It draws on the naive art of people like the Delauneys and Rousseaux. It draws on African tribal carving. It draws on eastern brush and ink painting. There are a lot of artists in the 1960s, from Hans Hartung to Franz Kline, who felt that it was to do with this gestural mark.
I think to actually have that show initiated by the Japanese and shown in Japan is a really fascinating new context in which to see somebody like Emily Kngwarreye because if you read about Chinese and Japanese ancient brush and ink painters, the first thing they always say is, first sit cross legged on your mat. They are all sitting cross legged as indeed Emily used to sit cross-legged. You get your chi up. So when you finally get to make those marks, they talk about - in Zen Buddhism they talk about marga??, which is a union where mind and body act together and you don’t even think about it but it is done perfectly. It’s a philosophy of action. Whether you are painting a picture or you are firing an arrow, it’s done without self-consciousness but it is done with such training and with such preparation that it is done correctly. Then it takes you into other concepts which are very important for brush and ink painting in the Orient.
The Chinese Chan people called it wu, the Zen people and a lot of other Buddhists called it satori, which is that moment of revelation, that moment of awareness where the painting just works and the thing is there but it happens without knowledge. It happens without calculation, without self-consciousness. You could not find a less self-conscious painter in the history of world painting than Emily Kngwarreye. They talk about it as the opening of the mind flower or the removal of the bar. All of these things, which are concepts that meant a hell of a lot to all of the people who were being beats in San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s, they were all spouting this stuff. They were all talking about it. They were all trying to do things that were spontaneous and freeing their mind - flowers, opening and removing the bar while sometimes hanging around the bar for a long time. But these are concepts which actually fed the great polyglot, multicultural, multi-image thing that we consider modernism to be. By taking elements of that and applying them back to Emily I think we are unravelling the crazy quilt of modernism and we are seeing where all the threads actually go back to.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But we are seeing something completely different altogether. Just because she does modernism better than perhaps they did modernism or she does it less self consciously, does that make it modernism? Doesn’t that make it something else altogether?
MARGO NEALE: Maybe but it doesn’t make it not.
JOHN McDONALD: But the thing is, modernism in many ways, we have to say, is a spent force. It is a period style. It existed until about the 1970s, or so they say. If Emily is a modernist, she is a late blooming modernist. She is a kind of a modernist avant la letter or after the letter, après la letter.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: She is a modernist redux.
JOHN McDONALD: Yes. We think with art now it was very easy for a long time to divide paintings and painters, sculptors, schools into a series of discrete movements that all fit neatly within the history books. Then we had fauvism, expressionism, suprematism, constructivism. We are now in a position where there really are no isms. We are beyond isms. Postmodernism was the last great ism and that was a complete mess. That was really an ism which was there to leech onto all the other previous isms and to more or less make them look silly and to make itself look silliest of all.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: This is a particular soap box of John’s.
JOHN McDONALD: What we have now is an era of individuals and also we have an era which has gone beyond a lot of the national ideas of art. We don’t so much have shows of Australian art; we have shows in which artists participate who happen to be born in Australia or live in Australia. It’s the same all over the world. You may be born in Albania; you may be born in Pago Pago but you end up in these shows.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: I want to try to get to some questions from the floor in just a moment. Margo, can I get you to speak to a really interesting observation that you quote I think in your essay in the catalogue made by Professor Ann McGrath. She said, ‘Whether intended or not, the ubiquitous description of Emily and her work as miraculous and enigmatic, carries a subtext that says it is not possible for Australian Aboriginals to reach such heights and to produce such sophisticated work’, which is the flip side of what we are talking about if you wanted to talk about being Indigenous or being primitive. Why did that observation mean so much to you?
MARGO NEALE: That was stimulated by it being the year of the Apology, because when we opened in Osaka it was only three weeks later. Andrew Pike from Ronin Films and I had a few discussions thinking about what effect does this whole apology idea of acknowledging and recognising Indigenous people, in the way it has been of bringing us to the fore, what effect will it have on the way we see Emily or the way we see Indigenous art in Australia in any event. I was trying to think about the idea that Aboriginal people have always been seen, historically, as a problem to be solved or dysfunctional or needing more resources than anyone else. Our contribution has rarely been acknowledged - the Cathy Freemans, the Emilys and a whole lot of others - and if it is (not in Emily’s case) it is because of the white in us or because we have had special treatment. Basically the whole idea is that after the apology and Emily and a few other things, you can’t see Aboriginal people as not capable in the primitivist mode - it is impossible to see Aboriginal art in the primitivist paradigm. We haven’t got to the end of how all this works but we were actually thinking about, why should it be so miraculous, that Emily could do fantastic work like that? Why should it be any more miraculous than Fred Williams or Jackson Pollock doing miraculous work? Why? Because she’s black?
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: It is interesting. When I read that - and we know that she had no formal training, she came to painting extremely late in life, she was unaware of these artistic movements - and to me, in a sense, the cultural parallel is not exact but a reasonably untutored and uneducated Jane Austen at a very young age picked up her pen and wrote six of the best novels ever written in the English language and that is considered sheer talent.
MARGO NEALE: Georgia O’Keefe and people like that painted in their 80s. There is a whole history of people who come to things early or late untutored. In fact I daresay you have more chance of being somebody if you are untutored, if you don’t go to art school.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Says someone who works in the institution.
JOHN McDONALD: In one of the reviews I tried to deal with this idea of genius because the ‘genius’ of Emily Kngwarreye is being flourished around like a great banner.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Good word that.
JOHN McDONALD: You can call somebody genius and half your audience go gasp and the other half go ‘oh’. Because there is tremendous skepticism about what a genius is or isn’t. I talked about Wolfgang Hillchimer’s book on Mozart, which is a fascinating book. It’s a biography about biographies. He says, ‘Why is it that we understand Mozart to be a genius?’ He says, ‘Look, Mozart would go off with his mates and be playing billiards and having a few drinks. While he is playing billiards, waiting his turn holding his cue, he is tapping on the window sill, he goes home and writes down piano concerto 21 note perfect. That’s a genius. Whereas Hillchimer talks about all the other people who are would-be geniuses, who have a very strong sense of themselves as genius perhaps waiting to be discovered or knowing they will be discovered posthumously, which gives them some comfort. But the self-conscious genius does everything the way a genius should. They do everything in a very genius-like way. They make sure everybody notices that they are being geniuses.
So much art founders on the would-be genius aspect when people sit down to make great art, ‘I am going to make great art today’. Emily was totally un-self-conscious. She is an artist who is as un-self-conscious as any Zen Buddhist. She would not have to sit cross-legged on a mat for days until she could make the first mark - she just hops straight in. It’s a remarkable thing. It is something we have to see as talent. If you can’t call that talent, what can you call it? Perhaps it is talent which is nurtured and shaped by the circumstances of her life where she is in the desert. She is in this pure kind of bare place without all the distractions and all the other things. She is in a place where she is heir to a long oral culture. She has strong relationship to the land that the rest of us don’t have, 99.9 per cent of us don’t have. Those things are the shaping factors but you can’t really account for the fact that Emily sits down and paints this remarkable body of work, whereas all of the other Indigenous artists out there they do good or bad stuff but nobody quite hits the mark to the degree she hits the mark. You have to call that talent and perhaps you have to call it genius.
MARGO NEALE: That is exactly where the word ‘genius’ came from in the title. As you can imagine, we had to come up with a title that suited me and the Japanese and we thrashed this around for some time. I was a bit adverse to the use of the term ‘genius’, it being such a Euro-centric title. They explained to me that in Japanese that means talent. They have come up with this in Japanese, a much longer kind of thing, but it basically means talent from the Australian desert which got translated into genius in the English language for the purposes of this. What is the Latin - Genius loci?
JOHN McDONALD: Genius loci means the spirit of place.
MARGO NEALE: In that context, so appropriate. So when I used the word genius, I could justify its use to myself in an Australian context was this reference to place, because that was the source of all the spirituality and the power through these ancestral connections with Alhalkere, which every single painting in there is about, one subject, Alhalkere. I found comfort in using it in that context.
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Date published: 1 December 2008