During a whirlwind painting career that lasted just eight years, octogenarian Emily Kame Kngwarreye became Aboriginal Australia’s most successful living artist and carved an enduring presence in the history of Australian art. By the time she passed away on September the 2nd 1996 her fame had achieved mythic status. The Sydney Morning Herald obituary reported the ‘Passing of a Home Grown Monet’. By this time comparisons with a number of great international artists including Pollock, Kandinsky, Monet and Matisse, had become commonplace. Emily was an artistic superstar, the highest paid woman in the country, who created one of the most significant artistic legacies of our time.
As a painter Emily was a bold, unselfconscious force unleashing colour and movement on to canvases that at their best could be sublime. Her finest paintings are entirely intuitive works, painted during furious sessions in which she never stepped back to look. Her forceful independent personality coupled with the strength she developed while working with camels and labouring during her earlier life was clearly evident as she painted. She worked as if possessed, drawing long meandering lines and bashing out fields of dots with her exceptionally strong hands and arms, displaying her ability to use the most unlikely overlays of colours to create deeply luminous works. Like Pollock she painted on the ground but, unlike him, she crouched over the canvas until done. She was renowned for walking away from a canvas without even surveying the finished product, such was her assuredness about its content and meaning.
Those who knew her well describe her as having a strong personality, ready to have a good time and certainly not a frail old woman being manipulated, as some would have it, by dealers and art advisers. Deep down, her principle self-identity was as a contemporary artist with a deep commitment to looking after her country. She was uninterested in other artist’s work, except those depicting her own country, and when asked about other paintings would change the subject. Like her Anmatyerre clanswomen, Emily participated in ceremony (Awelye) to make herself happy. In doing so, she was 'promoting the health and well being of her community and demonstrating her ties with the land' (Green 1981). She loved getting her hands into the paint as much as the brush when attacking the canvas. Paintings produced in summer were usually more colourful and highly charged with energy than those done in the dry season due to the keyed up expectation of rain, the excitement of its arrival and the explosive flowering of the desert. According to Margo Neale, curator of her 1998 retrospective exhibition, 'few artists have painted the country like she has, with an ability to penetrate its very soul'.
Born circa 1910 at Soakage Bore (Alhalkere) on the north west boundary of Utopia, Emily first met white people as a young girl aged about nine. The adopted daughter of Jacob Jones, an important law man in the Alyawarre community, she spent her younger days as a camel driver and stock hand on pastoral properties at a time when most girls worked as domestics. Married twice, Emily lived with her family at Alalgura and later with her husband at Woodgreen Station. Having failed to conceive, she left her husband and moved to Soakage bore, one of 14 small encampments spread over Utopia’s 1800 square kilometres.
While Emily’s first experiences of serious painting were the making of boldly fluid marks on the greased black skin of her countrywomen, her first attempts at making art outside of this ceremonial transaction between generations was the result of her participation in making batiks as early as 1977. In 1980 the first exhibition of Utopia batiks was held in Alice Springs. At this time Don Holt, whose family owned Delmore Station, purchased some of Emily’s earliest batik silks and encountered early craft coordinators, Jenny Green and Julia Murray.
It was not until 1987 that Emily painted her first canvas for Rodney Gooch of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). A chance encounter between Christopher Hodges and a CAAMA representative in Sydney resulted in his opening Utopia Art Sydney at the beginning of 1989 and this was the start of his on-going relationship with the artists of the region. CAAMA’s ‘Summer Project 1988/9’ resulted in 81 completed works by Emily and others, which were catalogued and shown at the SH Ervin Gallery in Sydney. The success of these principally female artists snowballed from that time with CAAMA handling over $1 million in sales for Utopia artists during the following year. Emily found that painting with acrylic on canvas was more suited to her style than the laborious process of making batik. Don Holt’s wife Janet, formerly art coordinator and manager for Papunya Tula Artists between 1975 and 1997, responded to request from some of the Utopia women for art materials, and shortly thereafter Emily painted her first work for the Holts.
Her early style featured visible linear tracings following the tracks of the Kame (Yam) and animal prints, as in Emu Dreamings, with fields of fine dots partially obscuring symbolic elements and playing across the canvas's surface. These were shown in two highly successful shows in Sydney during 1990, as well as the Abstraction show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In that same year she participated in the CAAMA/Utopia artists-in-residence program at the ICA in Perth, and her work was exhibited for the first time with Gabrielle Pizzi, in Melbourne.
It is almost impossible to imagine the galvanising effect of Emily’s prodigious output at this early stage in her career. It gave rise to two vitally important phenomena in the history of Aboriginal art. The first was the emergence of women’s art in the Eastern and Central deserts, which would eventually come to transcend men’s art, the dominant force at that time. The second was the arrival of a new entrepreneurial sector in the Aboriginal arts industry, which enabled many galleries to source high quality art from outside of the art centre system. There were already a large number of individuals commissioning and sourcing works directly from her. Paul Walsh sourced paintings for Melbourne dealer Hank Ebes and his partner, at that time, Michael Hollows. Later, after moving to Alice Springs and opening his own gallery in Todd Mall, Hollows commissioned works directly. Tim Jennings built his Mbantua Gallery principally specialising in the work of the emerging Utopia artists and Emily’s paintings were always featured. Perhaps the most successful of all of the dealers who became involved in commissioning and marketing Emily’s work from 1990s onwards was Fred Torres, the son of her niece Barbara Weir. Torres, who went on to assist a number of female relatives to market their art successfully, took ‘auntie’ Emily and other family members to Adelaide in 1990 and sold their work to galleries in a number of capital cities. Another important source for Emily’s paintings was Alan Glaetser who ran the Utopia store and later worked for the Central Land Council. While these were the main players they were by no means all, as once she had achieved notoriety there was an unending stream of buyers with blank canvases, keen to get a piece of the action. Emily could paint a number of paintings in a single day if everything was laid out, ready and waiting for her arrival.
By 1992 her fine dotting and symbolic underpainting gave way to works in which symbols and tracks were increasingly concealed beneath a sea of dots until eventually they were no longer evident at all. She began using larger brushes to create lines of dots that ran across vibrantly coloured, haptic surfaces. These works became progressively visually abstracted and ethereal.
In 1992, Emily was one of 12 Australian artists to be awarded a two-year Creative Fellowship from the Australia Council, worth $55,000 per year. Subsequently she announced that she had ‘finished painting’ and would produce no more pictures. Already, at this relatively early point of her eight year career as a painter, it was noted that 'she needed a break to escape the pressures placed on her by her own people (sic) and white people wanting to buy her paintings' (Stephens 1992). Rodney Gooch commented at the time that 'to be a great artist in Aboriginal society is to be a great provider’ and noted that about 20 members of her immediate ‘family’ would benefit directly from her award and about 100 others indirectly.
Already appreciation of her art came from international quarters with major paintings included in important exhibitions which toured to Russia (1991), Japan (1992), Germany, the United Kingdom and Denmark (1993) while others adorned chic apartments from Paris to Rome, and Madrid. Despite relatively few solo exhibitions in Australia, other than with Gabrielle Pizzi and Utopia Art Sydney, important Australian artists and collectors increasingly acclaimed her work. Amongst the most important galleries to show her work in Sydney at the time were the Hogarth Galleries, Coo-ee Aboriginal Art, and Barry Stern. While in Melbourne her paintings were shown by Flinders Lane Gallery, Alcaston House, Lauraine Diggins Fine Art and Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings. It would be far from an exaggeration to say that almost single-handedly Emily Kngwarreye enabled a large number of Aboriginal art galleries to weather the high interest rate driven recession of the early 1990s and ride it out in far better condition than their contemporary gallery counterparts. Her paintings, along with those of the far less prolific Rover Thomas, commanded prices unmatched by any others and unheard of prior to this time. Her success in the market during this economic period, gave the initial impetus to contemporary galleries, which had previously eschewed Aboriginal art, to compete with the specialist Aboriginal galleries for Emily, and other artists, and to exploit what they portrayed as an ethical vacuum.
By the mid 1990s Emily had developed a style of painting euphemistically referred to as ‘dump dump’ works, which she created by employing larger and larger brushes. A convenient supposition would be that she fell into this style due to the economic imperative of keeping up with market demand. This, however, discounts the artist’s genius. With prodigious energy Emily now created wildly colourful canvases by double dipping brushes into pots of layered paint thereby creating floral impressions with alternately coloured variegated outlines. Despite her age, Emily’s physicality was evident as she painted. Often with a brush in each hand she simultaneously pounded them down on to the canvas spreading the bristles and leaving the coagulating paint around the neck of the brush to create depth and form. The runnels of dotted colour across the surfaces of her more abstracted works began to be more formally arranged in parallel lines and, although she created ‘line’ paintings as early as 1993 she began working in this style more intensely during the last two years of her life. Solid lines of colour, stark and unadorned, often painted on multiple panels, represented the body markings that were created during the ceremonial origins of her artistic practice. Formal compositions comprising these parallel lines eventually gave way to the meandering paths traced by the roots of the pencil yam as they forged their way through the desert sands. Arguably the most important of these works is the monumental Big Yam Dreaming 1995 (8 x 3m) donated by Don and Janet Holt to the National Gallery of Victoria. Painted entirely in white on a black ground, it has been described as the ‘perfect bridge between Aboriginal art and contemporary international art’ (Yaman 1995).
During 1996, the last year of her life, as a result of Allan Glaester’s ideologically motivated efforts to influence Central and Eastern desert painters back to using natural earth pigments as a medium, Emily produced a body of work in ochres in which she depicted Pencil Yams (Arlatyey) and their flowers. An exhibition of these was held at Lauraine Diggins Fine Art in Melbourne in the same year.
Despite Emily's international acclaim and the vast fortune that she earned and dispensed to her clans people, it is still possible to visualise her sitting by the Arlparra Store, under the large bloodwood Eucalypts, at the centre of the community. There she would camp and paint on red sandy earth under a bough shelter, dipping her brush into kerosene tin paint pots. Emily slept under the stars and lived in a most frugal manner. When money came in it was quickly spent or given away. She was completely indifferent to the trappings of wealth and fame, and was largely oblivious to the art of international modernist masters with whom her work was constantly compared. In her final series, created during the weeks preceding her death, Emily created a number of simple, stark colour-field paintings working with large flat brushes. They mark a most extraordinary end to a remarkable career and parallel the last works of Henri Matisse, yet another artist with whom she was compared and about whom she knew nothing.
During a brief eight years, Emily produced a staggering 4000-5000 works. While she was always happy to go back and produce a work from an earlier stylistic period, a chronological walk through these paintings reveals a line of development that connects them all. Almost from the moment she began painting, her phenomenal success gave rise to the difficulties and complexities of becoming a major economic provider. She was constantly under siege from within her clan and family and beyond it, with dealers and collectors from around the world offering her cash to sit and paint.
Confronted by the Emily phenomenon, journalists and art writers seemed inadequate to the task of dealing with the ‘unexplored terrain between traditional Aboriginal art practice and the contemporary art scene.' Margo Neale, the curator of her two retrospectives noted in 1994 that ‘new skills and definitions and new conceptual phrasing would be required to enable such a critical discourse.’ Galleries promoted Emily as one of Australia’s greatest colourists, conveniently overlooking the directorial role played by dealers in providing a palette of colours for her to choose from. She was a prolific painter whose output was vast and uneven. If one believes that the intensity and spontaneity of her best works are a result of her unpremeditated approach, then it must also follow that she produced many failures. Yet the feeding frenzy around her ensured that all of her works, regardless of their unevenness, found their way onto the market, hungry for anything by a ‘name’ artist. This would not have happened to a non-Indigenous artist and should not cloud our judgement of her truly remarkable legacy. 'Her works were copied and competed for like those of no other Australian artist' (McCulloch 1988). A great number of fraudulent look-alikes were passed off as her own, as were collaborative paintings sold under her name, and ‘School of Emily’ paintings created by other members of her clan were common. Culling Emily’s works would, of necessity, have to wait until after her death and be left to curators and secondary market dealers. Only in hindsight could the bad paintings and fakes be discarded and their financial value discounted.
During the year following her death Emily Kngwarreye was one of Australia’s three representatives at the Venice Biennale, and the subject of a touring retrospective exhibition mounted by Margo Neale for the Queensland Art Gallery. Outstanding in a show packed with memorable images was a selection from the works painted in the weeks just prior to her death. With broadly brushed areas of luminous, almost fluorescent colours, these paintings looked like nothing ever painted previously by an Aboriginal painter. It is tempting to see one of these works as a premonition of her death, with its surface of milky white paint. The mists are closing in; the dots, lines and other devices have been jettisoned. The image was later used to illustrate the cover of the Japanese catalogue for her second major retrospective held in Osaka, Tokyo and Canberra during 2008.
If any single artist could be said to be the standard bearer for contemporary Indigenous painting, Emily must surely be the one. It is impossible to dispute the fact that, at their best, the paintings of Emily Kame Kngwarreye place her in the highest league of international artists of her time.