My Emily Problem

Emily Kame Kngwarreye has (almost) always been with me on my journeys into Aboriginal art. In 1990, the year I first traveled to Australia and bought my first painting, Emily had her first solo exhibition, at Chris Hodges’ aptly named Utopia Gallery in Sydney. She also had three other solo exhibitions that year. I’m tempted to wonder if any other artist–let alone an Aboriginal artist–went from participating only in group shows to having four solo exhibitions in a single year. But doing so lands me squarely in the midst of my Emily problem, right here in my first paragraph. Somehow, talking about Emily without careening straight into hyperbole seems to be nearly impossible.

Did you know that two large (and thus undoubtedly important) canvases by Emily were lost in the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001? That was one of the first stories I heard a few months after the fires stopped burning and the first waves of shock over the incident receded. Amidst all the other stories of pain and loss, amidst all the questioning, soul-searching, second-guessing, this is the only story I have heard about that day that has a sort of high-culture sheen to it. And who else would star in the greatest of contemporary American tragedies but the greatest of modern Australian painters? It’s almost too good to be true, this gift of universality to the mythos.

The 9/11 story also serves to locate Emily, again, in the era of the modern and the American. It’s almost as if it is one more way in which her proper sphere of influence or operations is in the grand, operatic, American theater. In still another way, she’s linked to the culture that produced Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Brice Marden, and all the other titans of Abstract Expressionism whose names crop up like dandelions in the field of art criticism every time Emily’s achievements, stature, or reputation are broached. Somehow, we are required to come to terms with Emily’s kinship with these artists and with the whole movement of abstraction in painting; at the same time we are constantly reminded that she lived outside of and indifferent to the rest of the art world. It is said that on her infrequent metropolitan visits, when taken to museums, she displayed no interest in any works other than her own. Although what we are to make of this lack of interest is less clear: is it Olympian detachment or sheer provincialism?

And of course, long before issues of carpetbagging and the exploitation of Indigenous artists became the stuff of editorializing articles in The Australian or the subject of Senate Inquiries and Codes of Conduct, there was Emily. And here again, the Olympian/provincial binary came into play. Was Emily the ultimate modernist Aborigine, driven by a brilliant, individualist sense of her power as an artist, or an elderly lady, manipulated by self-interested, fortune-seeking merchants and trapped in a machine not of her own making? Was she magnificently prolific, or were many of her canvases tossed off by talented forger-dealers in the back rooms of Alice Springs galleries?

A great deal of my Emily problem stems from the fact that by the time I first directly encountered her paintings, six years after that first trip to Australia, she had already died, and the legend had overtaken the woman; the myths had outstripped the paintings in their monumentality and diffusion. I have always had a hard time shutting out the noise and seeing the paintings. Another five years passed before I visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales (in 2001, ironically, about the time I heard the stories about the paintings that had been destroyed in the New York conflagrations) and saw an aisle full of large, relatively early (1991-92) canvases on display there in the Yiribana Gallery. 

As I remember those paintings, they were what I think of as transitional works. They still contained the undergirding of linear, yam-like structures, lines painted across the canvas, but barely visible beneath meters of densely painted dots. The colors were subdued, autumnal, browns and golds, dusky pinks, muted whites. I was struck, for the first time, by nothing so much as their sheer beauty.

All of these memories, these conflicting stories and conflicted judgements, have been brought back to mind by my recent encounter with the catalog for Margo Neale’s magisterial exhibition, Utopia: the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye (National Museum of Australia Press, 2008), which opened early in 2008 at the National Museum of Art in Osaka, and then traveled to the National Art Center in Tokyo, before returning to the NMA in August of that year. (As usual, the NMA’s website documenting the exhibition is superb, if no substitute for either the show itself or the beautifully produced catalog.)

The NMA exhibition was developed with the Japanese venues and audiences in mind, and perhaps for that reason the catalog essays tend to focus too much for my taste on placing Emily in the modernist tradition. Doing so probably provides a context through which Japanese aficionados of twentieth century Western aesthetics traditions can approach the works. This strategy undoubtedly underlies the repeated comparisons to the work of Japanese painter Yayoi Kusama, whose hallucinogenic compositions share with Emily’s an occasional trompe-l’oeil three-dimensionality achieved through elaborate dotting, but whose work is otherwise as far removed from Emily’s aesthetic as it is possible to imagine. In the end, the need to compare and contextualize forces the essayists to stumble, for they must consistently return to the fact of Emily’s otherness, her Aboriginality, her ignorance of those Western and Japanese modernist traditions, however much the paintings seem to belong to them. 

This “recontextualizing” of Emily’s paintings emerges in my mind as a consistent theme in the critique and evaluation of her work, and in the end, I find it leads down paths that are ultimately not helpful, indeed, downright distracting. The compulsion to explain Emily’s success (and the even more annoying compulsion to replicate it by nominating an endless series of little old ladies to take her place at the vanguard of Aboriginal art) seems to be quite beside the point. In the end, I don’t want to know why Emily’s career is important. I want to be able to look at the work for myself.

Fortunately, Margo Neale’s catalog does an excellent job of clearing the air by presenting an extraordinary and generous selection of the paintings. Arranged thematically, in a scheme derived equally from aesthetics and content (“Fields of Dots,” Colourism,” “Body Lines,” etc.), Neale’s presentation of Emily’s career lays out the changes in style with great clarity. Given that Emily made dramatic shifts in styles in the course of her career, and that she rarely looked back once she took up a new theme, the organization of the paintings by these themes is also quite nearly chronological. As I turned the pages, I could see how body marks became submerged in a kind of floral landscape, how subsequently that engagement with fields of color took over her imagination. And then how suddenly she stripped away the profusion of strokes, dots, and color in favor of line and monochrome composition, and how that change may have reflected equally the pressure to produce more work, the increasing frailty of an octogenarian, and maybe even a compulsion to create as she aged.

Neale ends the catalog with an essay of her own that returns Emily to the country she lived in. Neale cuts through much of the chatter in a photo-essay that convincingly pairs photographs of cracked earth, yam seeds and yam blossoms, blooming desert meadows, and women’s bodies moving in fields of sand with more reproductions of Emily’s paintings. If ever it were true that a picture is worth a thousand words, it is so here in Neale’s inspired assemblages.

But my Emily problem remains with me. Why was Emily’s work embraced with such critical fervor? Why the rush, even when she was still alive, to emplace realm her in the empyrean realms of modernism, midway between Monet and Marden? Of course I have my theory. Doesn’t everyone?

One piece of my theory has to do with museums and markets. As Neale points out, Emily arrived on the scene at the moment when the state galleries were beginning to collect Aboriginal art in earnest. Nearly two decades of striving by the artists of Papunya Tula had generated momentum, and the desert painting movement had spread to Yuendumu and to Balgo as well as to Utopia in the latter half of the 80’s. At the same time, however, federal subsidies for the production of Aboriginal art and the support of art centres were declining. Government operations like the Centre for Aboriginal Arts and Craftsmen in Alice Springs were closing down, to be replaced by commercial galleries specializing in fine art of the Aboriginal kind, like Hodges’ Utopia Gallery, or Gallery Gondwana in Alice, owned by Roz Premont, who had formerly managed the government gallery. (See “After the Fall: In the Arts Industry,” Chapter 7 (pp. 209-229) of Fred Myers’ history Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art , Duke University Press, 2002, for a full treatment of this transition.) The moment was ripe for a new dynamic in the marketplace.

The paintings that had been coming out of Kintore, Papunya, Yuendumu, and Balgo were all of a piece, despite stylistic differences. They were recognizably Indigenous, trading in desert iconography (see Nancy Munn’s Walbiri Iconography: graphic representation and cultural symbolism in a central Australian society, Cornell University Press, 1973). The traditional palette of Papunya Tula had been enhanced and vivified at Warlukurlangu; Warlayirti artists would soon redefine the regular dotting style of the Pintupi artists, but all these works shared what could be identified as a consistent Indigenous aesthetic.

At Utopia these stylistic changes coalesced and were transformed in the vibrant colors and looser constructions of Emily Kngwarreye’s paintings. In many ways they looked nothing like their Central and Western Desert counterparts. They combined the decorative, craftsmanlike compositions of batik with the overall effect of Western abstraction and were neither representational nor iconographic. They created a niche in the market where north met south. For all these reasons, they formed the thin edge of Aboriginal painting into the contemporary art sphere, and their sales indicated the enthusiastic acceptance of a format that was both familiar and other–surely a hallmark of modernism as defined by the cultural canons of the twentieth century. Critical response followed upon commercial success, and more commercial success followed critical response.

(I wonder now if a similar dynamic played a role in the success of paintings by Rover Thomas, an artist whose name is often linked to Emily’s, and whose performance in the secondary market is the only one to really match hers over the years, but who otherwise shares little with her. Again, a style that was quite different from the norms of “Aboriginal painting” in the late 80’s, and which bore superficial resemblances to modern master–famously, in Rover’s comparison, to Mark Rothko–led to rapid assimilation into the Euro-American art markets.)

Margo Neale cannily called this exhibition Utopia: the genius of Emily Kngwarreye. The first element in the title is a place name. The second element, genius, is originally “the tutelary or attendant spirit … allotted to every person at birth, or to a place” (per The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). Despite all the homage to modernism and to modernist critical theory, Neale returns the emphasis to place; she lets Emily be Emily.

Emily and her paintings were and are an inextricable part of the network of meaning that constitute Alhalkere, the ancestor, the pierced rock, the Country and the associated Dreamings that emanate from it. She was neither superior nor central to it. When you appreciate Emily’s oneness with her world, you gain a better idea of the lived reality of her experience. When I discuss her paintings … I do not refer to Alhalkere as a body of knowledge possessed by the artists; instead I describe these images as her lived experience and expression of being part of Alhalkere. In other words, her paintings are not about Alhalkere–they are Alhalkere (p. 224).

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One Response to My Emily Problem

  1. Hi there,
    I’m hoping you could give me some more details about the Emilys that were in the Twin Towers. Our gallery is interested in donating an Emily for the anniversary this year and would love to know more about the best people to contact to make this happen. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

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